Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Championship Sunday has arrived and the NOTEBOOK is here, as promised with our stat previews for the two big games. We’ll also run the key boxscore stats from last weekend’s action in this report as well so you can see what really happened on the field last week. It’s easy to fall prey to TV storylines during the playoffs. Make sure the stats back everything up!
We’ll take the games in schedule order.
BALTIMORE AT NEW ENGLAND (3:00 p.m. ET on CBS)
Vegas Line: New England by 7, total of 50
The line suggests the Patriots would be -4 on a neutral field over Baltimore, and -1 on the road. If you take the full season at face value, it’s tough to make that case. These were both bye teams. Baltimore swept Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh clearly outplayed New England in a head-to-head meeting. Interestingly enough, these teams each faced one of the NFC championship participants. Baltimore completely shut down San Francisco in a Thanksgiving Night game you probably watched on TV. New England lost at home to the NY Giants.
Why is New England favored by this much?! Let’s see if we can figure it out.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
New England: 28th
Nothing special of note here, other than the fact that they BOTH played weak schedules. That cancels out head-to-head. It might matter in the Super Bowl, because whoever represents the AFC will not be quite as good as their record and stats have been suggesting.
DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED
Baltimore: 13.0 on offense, 8.3 on defense (+4.7 differential)
New England: 22.6 on offense, 17.4 on defense (+5.2 differential)
Only an edge of a half a point here for the Patriots. That would suggest a playoff pointspread of New England -3.5 rather than -7…so this isn’t where the inflation is coming from. Note that New England has a fantastic offensive mark, but a very poor defensive mark...while Baltimore is stellar on defense. Historically, it’s the defense that has ruled these kinds of matchups rather than the offense. That’s not always the case of course. But, you’ll note that the Patriots stopped winning Super Bowls when they stopped playing quality defense. And, the high powered NFC Drive Point offenses from last week both went home when Green Bay and New Orleans lost as favorites.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST
Baltimore: 42% on offense, 32% on defense (+10 differential)
New England: 46% on offense, 43% on defense (+3 differential)
Big edge for the Ravens, who continue to look like a smart defensive dog play in the data. If anything, the Vegas line looks crazier with each passing indicator stat!
New England: +17 (34 takeaways, 17 giveaways)
Baltimore: +2 (26 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
Okay, here’s where New England gets something back. Brady does a very good job of avoiding miscues, and this defense does force mistakes when teams are playing from behind. We said that about Green Bay last week…and it got the Packers nowhere. But, we also said it about San Francisco, and they forced five turnovers from the Saints. This stat provides at least part of the reason that New England is getting so much respect in the line. Games are more likely to blow up in their favor because opponents self-destruct trying to keep up with Brady.
The rest can be explained, we believe, by national perceptions from last week’s boxscores…
NEW ENGLAND 45, DENVER 10
Total Yardage: Denver 252, New England 509
Rushing Yardage: Denver 144, New England 146
Passing Stats: Denver 9-26-0-108, New England 26-34-1-363
Drive Points: Denver 0, New England 17
Turnovers: Denver 1, New England 2
Third Downs: Denver 38%, New England 50%
Yards-Per Play: Denver 3.5, New England 8.0
Vegas Line: New England by 14, total of 50
New England was utterly dominant…which continued a late season surge of dominance. There’s clearly a perception that the Patriots are playing their best football off the season right now. That would naturally cause the markets to adjust in their direction. New England won a Saturday Night blowout. Here’s what football viewers saw in the early Sunday game…
BALTIMORE 20, HOUSTON 13
Total Yardage: Houston 315, Baltimore 227
Rushing Yardage: Houston 131, Baltimore 87
Passing Stats: Houston 17-35-3-184, Baltimore 14-27-0-140
Drive Points: Houston 7, Baltimore 0
Turnovers: Houston 4, Baltimore 0
Third Downs: Houston 33%, Baltimore 25%
Yards-Per Play: Houston 5.0, Baltimore 3.6
Vegas Line: Baltimore by 7.5, total of 37
Ugly stuff from the Ravens. They won this game because of 4-0 turnover advantage, not because they outplayed Houston. In fact, they lost total yardage, rushing yardage, Drive Points, Third Downs, and Yards-per-Play. All the big indicator stats we’ve been emphasizing to you for a few years now went in favor of the road team struggling with a third-string quarterback rather than a home team that’s been around the block a few times.
ADDING IT ALL UP: New England is a 7-point favorite because the market is basically moving its price toward LAST WEEK’S Patriots versus LAST WEEK’S Ravens. A full season number would have been near a field goal…maybe -4 or -5 because the Patriots traditionally get line respect. But, the Ravens did beat the Patriots on THIS FIELD two seasons ago in the playoffs…so it’s not like Baltimore will be overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Your handicapping challenge is to determine whether the “full season” version of the teams show up, which creates a coin flip game or even a replay of last year’s Jets-Patriots playoff shocker…whether last week’s extremes show up in full force and a shaky Baltimore side gets blown out by the hot Patriots…or whether Vegas has the porridge just right…and you should focus on the total instead.
NY GIANTS AT SAN FRANCISCO (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
Vegas Line: San Francisco by 2.5, total of 42
Home field advantage is usually worth three points in the NFL. A line sitting at the home team -2.5 tells you that the markets believe the road team is the better of the two sides. And, the fact that the line didn’t move to three with early betting makes that a compelling case. Oddsmakers and professional bettors are more impressed with what the Giants bring to the table than what the Niners bring. New York would be a small favorite on a neutral field.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NY Giants: 6th
San Francisco: 30th
It turns out this was a prescient category for us. We were sure if it would be at first since so many playoff teams played crappy schedules this year. New York was battle tested, and has certainly played that way in impressive victories over Atlanta and Green Bay. San Francisco is on the list of bye teams who had easy trips, but they did impress last week vs. New Orleans. As we run through the remaining stats, we need to make some mental adjustments because the Giants accumulated those stats vs. much tougher competition.
DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED (ranked by differential)
NY Giants: 17.3 on offense, 14.8 on defense (+2.5 differential)
San Francisco: 8.4 on offense, 9.0 on defense (-0.6 differential)
Big edge to the Giants here, who are +3.1 even before you make any schedule adjustments. This would suggest a line of pick-em on the road, and -6 were the game being played in New York. Though, let’s also point out that the 49ers grade out better on defense even after you adjust for the schedule…and defense has a way of imposing its will in big playoff games. The big question for us is whether or not New York’s playoff caliber defense is here to stay. They’ve played SIGNIFICANTLY better on defense these last two weeks than they had before. If that’s their new form…their current edge is even bigger than those numbers suggest.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST
NY Giants: 37% on offense, 38% on defense (-1 differential)
San Francisco: 29% on offense, 35% on defense (-6 differential)
Big edge again to the Giants. Eli Manning wasn’t exactly a god in this stat this season. But remember that the league centered around 36%, which meant he was better than average. Alex Smith was abysmal, though the team was very conservative on third downs because they’d rather punt than turn the ball over. He did show promise last week when the game was on the line in terms of clutch accomplishments. Still, an edge of +5 in this stat followed by a big edge in strength of schedule would give a clear nod to the Giants.
San Francisco: +28 (38 takeaways, 10 giveaways)
NY Giants: +7 (31 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
San Francisco made a killing in this stat all season, and was able to keep that going vs. New Orleans. It’s very tough to live off turnovers EVERY WEEK through the postseason though. We will be aware of their potential for disrupting Manning’s passing plans, and for making the most of any miscues they force. But, history doesn’t smile on teams generally who are THIS reliant on turnovers for their victories.
Here’s a reminder of how reliant they were last week on turnovers…
SAN FRANCISCO 36, NEW ORLEANS 32
Total Yardage: New Orleans 472, San Francisco 407
Rushing Yardage: New Orleans 37, San Francisco 143
Passing Stats: New Orleans 40-63-2-435, San Francisco 24-42-0-264
Drive Points: New Orleans 29, San Francisco 13
Turnovers: New Orleans 5, San Francisco 1
Third Downs: New Orleans 35%, San Francisco 26%
Yards-Per Play: New Orleans 5.9, San Francisco 6.0
Vegas Line: New Orleans by 3.5, total of 46.5
It’s not like the 49ers would have been slaughtered without the 1-5 turnover edge. They did win rushing yardage 143-37, and yards-per-play was a wash near six against a potent opponent. But, the Niners were badly outplayed in the areas of Drive Points and Third Downs, which is a bad sign moving forward. They’re a team that mind grind their way to a league title…but not one that can go out and win one on command. They probably should have lost last week, and almost DID lose last week even with that monster turnover advantage.
NY GIANTS 37, GREEN BAY 20
Total Yardage: NY Giants 420, Green Bay 388
Rushing Yardage: NY Giants 95, Green Bay 147
Passing Stats: NY Giants 21-33-1-325, Green Bay 26-46-1-241
Drive Points: NY Giants 17, Green Bay 14
Turnovers: NY Giants 1, Green Bay 4
Third Downs: NY Giants 50%, Green Bay 50%
Yards-Per Play: NY Giants 6.9, Green Bay 5.3
Vegas Line: Green Bay by 8, total of 54
Let’s not forget that the Giants had a nice turnover edge of their own that helped pad the victory margin. That being said, Eli and Company still won total yardage, Drive Points, and Yards-Per-Play. And, they converted 50% of their third downs in a big road game in cold weather. Take away the turnovers, and the Giants are still in position to win the game straight up. You can’t say that about San Francisco.
ADDING IT ALL UP: Both the full season numbers, and recent numbers suggest the Giants are the better team…and probably by more than just half a point. Handicappers must determine if fatigue is going to be an issue that trumps all that. The Giants aren’t just playing their third playoff game in three weeks (compared to two in two weeks for the hosts), but they had a dramatic final month to their season where EVERY game seemed like a playoff game. Is this the week the Giants run out of gas? If so, the stats don’t matter, and the line’s too low. If not, then the surging Giants defense could wreak havoc with Alex Smith, and New York could be soon planning a return trip to the Super Bowl.
JIM HURLEY has been working closely with his on-site sources all week. His scouts have outlined the gameplans. His statheads have crunched all the numbers. His computer programmers have been running simulations since the championship matchups were determined last week. You can purchase NETWORK’S CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS right here at the website with your credit card before kickoff. Or, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. (Be sure to ask about basketball when you call!)
When championships are on the line, YOU NEED WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY