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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 11:40 AM

Back as promised with a look at our key indicators stats in Saturday's Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. We'll crunch the numbers in New Orleans-San Francisco and Denver-New England for you in this report...then we'll be back again bright and early Sunday morning to do the same thing for Day Two of this weekend's action featuring Houston-Baltimore and NY Giants-Green Bay.

There's a lot to talk about, so let's jump right in...

NEW ORLEANS AT SAN FRANCISCO (4:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
Vegas Line: New Orleans by 4, total of 47

It's rare to see a road favorite of this size in the Divisional Round. Heck, it's rare to see any road favorites in the Divisional Round! The bye teams usually get a lot of respect because of historic results. And, home field counts for something. This Vegas line is telling you that New Orleans would be -7 on a neutral field over San Francisco even the week after a bye for the Niners. New Orleans would be at least -10 at home. Obviously the Saints have been in great form of late. Do they deserve THAT much respect?

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
New Orleans: 31st
San Francisco: 30th

We're using Jeff Sagarin's regular season ratings once again this year for strength of schedule assessments. It's important to note that BOTH of these teams played crap schedules. Neither was as good as their won-lost record would have suggested. If you give them 16th rated schedules, they'd fall down to solid, but not spectacular. Of course, in today's head-to-head matchup the schedules cancel out. Maybe they'll be more meaningful next week in the NFC Championship game...or in the Super Bowl if either of these teams makes it that far.

DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED (ranked by differential)
New Orleans: 22.1 on offense, 14.3 on defense (+7.8 differential)
San Francisco: 8.4 on offense, 9.0 on defense (-0.6 differential)

How about that, the Drive Point per-game averages line up very closely with the market. New Orleans shows up as +8.4 points better per game on a neutral field. That would be a favorite of -5.5 points on the road. There's a humongous difference between these offenses...with the Saints grading out as one of the best we've seen in decades, while San Francisco's offense is dismal for a playoff team. Sure, the Niners get some of that back on defense...but the difference isn't nearly that big.

You've probably heard that New Orleans isn't as great on the road as they are at home...because that fast break attack slows down outside the dome. Let's look at the home/road splits during the regular season for offensive Drive Points for the Saints.

New Orleans at home: 26.5 Drive Points per game
New Orleans on the road: 17.7 Drive Points per game

So, yes, there is a big difference. But, 17.7 is still a HUGE number in the NFL right now...and it's still much bigger than what the Niners are likely to put up unless Alex Smith has a huge day. Note that the Niners only had one game higher than 14 all season.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST
New Orleans: 57% on offense, 33% on defense (+24 differential)
San Francisco: 29% on offense, 35% on defense (-6 differential)

We talked about this last week with the Saints...and the edge is even more dramatic this time around. Drew Brees knows how to move the chains. Alex Smith has literally NO IDEA how to move the chains. This is one of the biggest edges you could possibly see in a playoff game...or really any matchup of any type because so few NFL teams struggle in this stat the way San Francisco does.

Now, this doesn't mean New Orleans is a lock. San Francisco has a great record this year (vs. a very soft schedule), because they do many other things well. They may have to play perfect in those other areas to make up for their losses here. Or, they're must play way over their heads in this key stats.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
New Orleans: -3 (16 takeaways, 19 giveaways)
San Francisco: +28 (38 takeaways, 10 giveaways)

This is the area that has helped San Francisco more than any other. They've simply abused a weak schedule in the turnover department. Historically, that kind of combo (bit turnover edge vs. patsies) has been a red flag warning for playoff pretenders. You don't run into patsies in the playoffs. You're not going to keep dominating a stat like this when you step up in class. The market is aware of this, which is part of the reason San Francisco is getting so little respect. If you live by the turnover during the regular season to an extreme degree, you're going to be in trouble when that edge disappears.

ADDING IT ALL UP: This is a statistical rout for New Orleans in our key indicator numbers. But, the market may have taken away much of the value by installing the Saints as such a big road favorite. The bye week is worth SOMETHING, as is home field advantage. For the 49ers to win, they must do a better job of moving the chains on offense...and they must get some key stops of Brees and the Saints. Maybe the turnover gods will keep smiling on them. Maybe the Saints will lose some confidence on the road if the first half doesn't go well. New Orleans can be had on the road. Our indicator numbers suggest New Orleans is a true Super Bowl contender, while San Francisco is a distant also-ran that's benefitted from an extreme in turnover diferential.

 

DENVER AT NEW ENGLAND (8 p.m. ET on CBS)
Vegas Line: New England by 13.5, total of 50.5

These teams just played in Denver on December 18th. New England was a 7-point road favorite. That's in line with the number we're seeing today. New England would be -10 on a neutral field, -13 at home, and a touch higher if you give them some credit for the bye week. The total in that first meeting was only 47.5. We've seen a jump of three points here because that game ended 41-23 for New England. Denver's defense had a lot of trouble stopping Tom Brady and company from the second quarter on.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Denver: 8th
New England: 28th

It turned out that Denver's strength of schedule edge did prove prescient last week. The battle-tested Broncos sure weren't afraid of the banged up Steelers. We'll give them some respect this week as a result. But, we are aware that it's much easier to play with confidence at home against an injured team than it is on the road against a group that just spanked you by 18 points.

DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED
Denver: 11.1 on offense, 12.9 on defense (-1.8 differential)
New England: 22.6 on offense, 17.4 on defense (+5.2 differential)

New England only grades out to have a +7.0 differential advantage over Denver. That would mean a home line of -10 instead of -13. Maybe that's meaningful. But, since it didn't matter in the first meeting, we can't place too much weight on it. The most important number in these stats to us is that 17.4 on defense for the Patriots. That will give a big opposing dog garbage time cover potential much of the time. If Denver's down by 18 midway through the fourth quarter, they still have a shot at covering the spread.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST
Denver: 31% on offense, 34% on defense (-3 differential)
New England: 46% on offense, 43% on defense (+3 differential)

Meaningful edges for the Patriots in terms of a straight up win, but nothing here that would justify a spread of two touchdowns. That 43% mark on defense is particularly bad this year because the NFL was centered around 36%. New England managed to overcome this weakness in the first meeting and win big anyway. Maybe they're destined to do that again. But, playoff football tends to frown on defenses who are soft on third downs. It's odd to see a top seed grade out so poorly in this key stat.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Denver: -12 (18 takeaways, 30 giveaways)
New England: +17 (34 takeaways, 17 giveaways)

Whoa....minus 12 for the Broncos! That's a disaster waiting to happen on the road in a playoff game. Tim Tebow isn't technically a rookie quarterback...but he might as well be in terms of game experience. Things could get very ugly if Tebow is FORCED to pass from behind. We will note that New England is up on the "possible pretender" range as a team that got rich off turnovers against a weak schedule. It's amazing how may top teams played poor schedules this year! That combination is likely to be a bigger problem against Baltimore or Houston next week...or against the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. The Pats aren't as good as their won-lost record would have you believe. You can't count on turnover versus quality. Does Denver represent quality?

ADDING IT ALL UP: You have to assume New England is going to score their usual allotment of points unless there's a weather development or an injury. That means the thrill potential for this game, and the cover potential for this game is going to come down to Tebow's execution. If he can move the chains and put points on the board...things could get interesting. If he can avoid second half interceptions when playing from behind, he could certainly engineer a pointspread cover if not a win. But, if Tebow self destructs in desperation mode, this could be a 45-10 laugher. Even worse given Coach Bill Belichick's penchant for running up the score.

You can purchase JIM HURLEY'S official game day releases in these matchups right here at the website with your credit card. If you prefer talking to a live human, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about basketball when you call. Saturday's schedule is HUGE...and two-sport bettors are poised to have a MONSTER WEEKEND with the big plays we have on tap.

Back with you Sunday morning to run these same category stats in Houston-Baltimore and NYG-Green Bay. See you then!

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