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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 7:01 PM

Two down, two to go as the NFL Divisional Round continues Sunday with Houston at Baltimore, and the NY Giants at Green Bay. The general consensus among TV pundits is that Houston has no chance on the road with a rookie quarterback and a head coach appearing in his first playoff road game…but that the Giants have a fantastic chance to spring an upset on the defending champion Packers. Do our indicator stats line up with those themes? Let’s take a look.

 

HOUSTON AT BALTIMORE (1 p.m. ET on CBS)

Vegas Line: Baltimore by 7.5, total of 36.5

Any time an NFL team is favored by 7.5 points, that’s a very strong endorsement for a straight up win. There wasn’t enough betting sentiment to bring the line down to the critical number of seven. Since seven is already a tall number…Baltimore is going to win! That’s the theory anyway. That number suggests Baltimore would be -4.5 at a neutral site, and -1.5 on the road. The pundits we’ve been monitoring might think even those numbers are too low with a veteran like Joe Flacco facing a rookie like T.J. Yates.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Houston: 32nd

Baltimore: 27th

The general theme from Jeff Sagarin’s numbers at USA Today continues here. A lot of playoff teams had really crappy schedules! Houston had the easiest slate of anyone in the NFL according to Sagarin, managing to win a bad division with their third string quarterback on the field down the stretch. Baltimore had it pretty easy themselves…and laid way too many eggs in our view for a schedule that soft. Of course, most of those eggs came on the road…and today’s matchup is at home.

DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED

Houston: 12.8 on offense, 8.9 on defense (+3.9 differential)

Baltimore: 13.0 on offense, 8.3 on defense (+4.7 differential)

You regulars know this is our favorite indicator stat in all of sports because it’s so directly connected to success on the field. This category makes it difficult to “love” the Ravens. They’re less than a point better in differential over the whole season. And, even if you only take the games that Yates played….it’s still just a field goal better on a neutral field. Does Baltimore deserve that much consideration for the bye and home field? We have two great defenses here…two offenses that are similar in raw volume if not style. Houston is a true grinder this year because their best threats are running backs. Baltimore has opened up its game to play long ball when possible. It all comes out the same in the wash.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST

Houston: 42% on offense, 36% on defense (+6 differential)

Baltimore: 42% on offense, 32% on defense (+10 differential)

Good stuff here, though you have to remember they played horrible schedules. Yates wasn’t a disaster on third downs, as rookie quarterbacks often are. Flacco has done a good job of moving the chains this year. Remember that the league centered at 36% in 2011…so 42% is a big number in that context. Smart percentage coaches on both sidelines. We will give the edge to Flacco because of playoff experience and the extra preparation time the team enjoyed with the bye.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

Houston: +7 (27 takeaways, 20 giveaways)

Baltimore: +2 (26 takeaways, 24 giveaways)

We’ve mentioned in the past that one of the big surprises amongst the playoff teams this year was Baltimore’s inability to impress in this category. Typically the most physical teams take the ball away a lot. If they run an intelligent offense, they put the risk/reward element in their favor. Yet, during a crappy schedule, Baltimore was only +2 for the whole season. Given that they’re facing a rookie quarterback today, you have to assume the Ravens have the best shot to win this category. Given the equality elsewhere on the field, they may NEED to win the category to cover the spread. There’s just not that much difference between these teams if the Ravens aren’t cashing in cheap points.

ADDING IT ALL UP: To us, it comes down to just a few factors. Can Houston’s strong defense force field goals when Baltimore is stringing together third down conversions? Can Yates put points on the board on the road against a top notch defense? Houston can win this game outright if they can answer those questions in the positive. On the other hand, they’re looking at a squash of two touchdowns or more if Yates self-destructs and Baltimore hits one or two big plays. We’re working very closely with our sources to properly gauge Yates’s mindset. And, it could turn out that a total play here ends up grading out stronger than a team side play. Given a playoff atmosphere and two strong Drive Point defenses, that could mean an Under for us (you’ll have to sign up for service to find out!)

 

NY GIANTS AT GREEN BAY (4:30 p.m. ET on FOX)

Vegas Line: Green Bay by 7.5, total of 52.5

Same spread here…with the fresh home team laying more than a touchdown. But, we have the exact opposite in terms of media sentiment. The Giants have become a very popular upset choice for many reasons:

*Recent Playoff Pedigree

*Green Bay’s Soft Defense

*Eli Manning’s Ability to Abuse Soft Defenses

*New York’s Recent Coin Flip Game vs. the Packers

*Green Bay Reminds Everyone of New England, and New England Lost to a NY Team Last Year

It’s really easy to talk yourself into an upset if you only focus on those factors. We’re not going to pretend they don’t exist. Let’s see what our indicator stats say before anyone does anything rash.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

NY Giants: 6th

Green Bay: 25th

Well, this actually favors the Giants hype! New York played a much tougher schedule. In fact, the Giants are one of the few playoff teams this year to face consistent regular season challenges. That sure served them well last week vs. Atlanta. New York was battle tested and battle ready. Atlanta looked like they never got their wake-up call. Green Bay’s not as good as their numbers make it look because they’ve played a soft schedule. New York is better than their raw numbers make it look.

DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED

NY Giants: 17.3 on offense, 14.8 on defense (+2.5 differential)

Green Bay: 20.8 on offense, 16.4 on defense (+4.4 differential)

Well, this is getting interesting. Even though Green Bay had a fantastic offense this year, the defense was so vulnerable that the total Drive Point differential was just +4.4 as a team, and +1.9 when compared to the Giants. Both of these teams played very similar styles. Each was in a lot of shootouts. Green Bay was generally getting the best of those for reasons that will be more clear in a moment. New York, not so much. But, you have to be impressed with how the Giants defense played last week vs. Atlanta. They didn’t at all look like a 14.8 defense as they threw a shutout where a safety put the only Falcons points on the board. So far, the Giants upset storyline is making some sense!

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST

NY Giants: 37% on offense, 38% on defense (-1 differential)

Green Bay: 48% on offense, 43% on defense (+5 differential)

Now we get to see some distance between the teams. An edge of +6 is meaningful in a playoff meeting, particularly when the superior side is playing at home and has a bye. And, that 48% mark on offense is HUGE in a year where the league centered at 36%. Green Bay knows how to move the chains and get points on the board. New York is much more likely to hope for a big play. When their receivers are making long runs and dancing in the end zone, the team looks pretty potent. But, when you HAVE to drive the field for points with everything on the line, the Packers are much better suited to get the job done based on the third down data.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

NY Giants: +7 (31 takeaways, 24 giveaways)

Green Bay: +24 (38 takeaways, 14 giveaways)

This is why Green Bay didn’t have to sweat many games this year. The defense was playing soft in terms of allowing yards, points, and garbage time points with big leads. But, they took the ball away 38 times…which turned shootouts into blowouts. Aaron Rodgers just doesn’t screw up very much! When the Packers force a turnover, they really make opponents pay. Given Eli Manning’s tendency to throw 1-2 really dumb passes every game…and to have 3-4 more bounce off receivers’ hands up into the air…this isn’t a trivial stat. Green Bay is likely to win the turnover category…and it’s very tough to win on the road when you’re losing the turnover category.

ADDING IT ALL UP: We can at least say that it’s good that the Giants are finally getting some good press. They were better than many realized this year, but a brutal schedule helped hide that. To score the big upset a lot of pundits are expecting, they’ll need to avoid turnovers on offense…and use their pass rush to create some zero possessions for Rodgers with forced punts or takeaways. It is possible, and their strategy can work. But, it’s also possible that Green Bay is up 24 points in the third quarter because they got a cheap score or two off of Manning mistakes. We do have a big play planned in this one. We’re checking the weather closely because it will have a bearing on what we decided in terms of a side or a total.

Today’s football from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK is available for credit card purchase here at the website. Also check out our Sunday basketball too. We’re looking very closely at Indiana-Ohio State in the early tipoff on CBS for serious play, and our sources from the Missouri Valley, Horizon, and Pac 12 have checked in on a busy day in those conferences. If you have any questions about our service, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

A quick reminder that Monday is MLK Day, which means AFTERNOON ACTION in pro and college basketball. Be sure you take care of business EARLY on Monday because much of the NBA slate is in the afternoon, as well as Louisville-Marquette and Texas A&M-Missouri in the colleges.

Enjoy your holiday weekend. LET’S GO MAKE SOME MONEY

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