NFL Picks - 1/20/2013

Last Updated: 1/28/2013 1:57 PM ET

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January 20: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
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Paul's Pick: San Francisco -4 @ Atlanta (Covers 56.4%)

While it may not have looked that way for the first three quarters of the game, Seattle should have won over Atlanta on Sunday. The Seahawks turned three promising first half drives deep into Atlanta territory into zero first half points due to a Marshawn Lynch fumble, an ill-prepared fourth down attempt (spread the field, get under center, quick count, sneak the ball - every time - but if not that, Lynch should probably get the ball) and a bizarre end to the half. A furious second half comeback ultimately gave the Seahawks a lead with 31 seconds remaining. More importantly, it provided a glimpse into what should be expected in Atlanta this week. 

All told, Seattle out-gained Atlanta overall (491 yards to 417 yards) and on a per-play basis (7.4 to 6.8) by significant margins and the teams were equal in turnovers. Atlanta's dominance on the ground against a very good Seahawks' defense was certainly surprising. Removing one 45-yard run by Jacquizz Rodgers that was totally uncharacteristic of what we have seen from either Rodgers or the Seattle run defense, though, gives Atlanta a reasonable, 25 carries for 122 yard day (still better than expected, yet important for context). Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 10.1 yards-per-pass and averaged 8.6 yards-per-rush.

Wilson only attempted to run the ball seven times, but he had his way on those runs and, with Atlanta playing mostly man coverage on pass plays, Wilson had open lanes to run on virtually every play. He also had an exploitable mismatch with his tight end, Zach Miller, lined up against a safety or corner. San Francisco has a better running, young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who just lit up a man coverage team for an all-time quarterback rushing record (181 yards) and who has two very good-to-great tight ends (Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker) of his own. Especially with the later start (noon PT instead of 10 am PT) and without the 49ers having to travel a great distance last week, look for San Francisco to start strong to build an early lead and likely not have to look back.

San Francisco is 12-4-1 straight-up and 10-6-1 against-the-spread versus the fourth toughest NFL schedule to-date. The 49ers are 5-3 SU and ATS on the road with away wins and covers over playoff teams Green Bay and New England - two teams that are better than Atlanta. As four to ten point favorites, San Francisco finished 6-3-1 ATS. Over the course of the entire season, the 49ers rank second in yards-per-play and sixth in fewest turnovers-per-play, third in (fewest) yards-per-play allowed and first (by a large differential) in yards-per-play margin. With Colin Kaepernick taking over at quarterback on November 19, those numbers have actually all improved, with Kaepernick himself accounting for 8.3 yards-per-pass and 6.6 yards-per-rush, while turning the ball over on just 1.7% of his plays. As presently constructed, San Francisco ranks among the top five in the NFL in our strength-of-schedule-adjusted running, passing, run defense and pass defense metrics. With tackle Joe Staley emerging from last week healthy enough to be considered "probable" for this game and defensive lineman Justin Smith playing well (enough) against Green Bay, the 49ers are also very healthy. They may not generate a ton of turnovers or have home field advantage, but, it is very difficult otherwise to find weaknesses with this team.

Atlanta is 14-3 SU and 9-7-1 ATS against the 22nd ranked NFL schedule for 2012-13. Head coach Mike Smith and the Falcons play incredibly disciplined football in that they rarely commit penalties or turn the ball over. Coupled with home field in this game, that is just about all that Atlanta has going for it. The Falcons will have to play something close to a perfect game and hope that San Francisco helps them out in order to win this game. Obviously, this is possible since Atlanta does win straight up 34.6% of the time in our simulations, but it is not likely. The Falcons were out-gained on a per-play basis over the course of the season (including in the playoffs last week, which was their first game against a playoff team since Week 5) despite playing an easy schedule. Teams with young, athletic quarterbacks, like Carolina with Cam Newton (twice), Seattle with Russell Wilson and even Washington with Robert Griffin III (for a half before injury) have moved the ball at will against this defense that has allowed over six yards-per-play (only four teams, including Atlanta, were that bad this season) and 4.8 yards-per-rush (just four teams were worse in 2012). While protecting the football and not committing penalties are important traits not to be ignored, Atlanta does not rank in the top five overall in any of our metrics. In fact, the Falcons are only in the top ten overall in pass efficiency.

Seattle self-destructed early last week and still almost won over Atlanta. San Francisco presents an even tougher challenge to the Falcons and is not likely to hurt itself as badly. According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, San Francisco wins over Atlanta 65.4% of the time and by an average score of 26.7-20.1 As four point favorites who win by almost a touchdown on average, the 49ers cover the spread 56.4% of the time, which would warrant a $42 play from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (49.5) is barely playable. 

Paul's Pick: Baltimore +9.5 @ New England (Covers 54.9%)

So, these two teams already met this season. While Baltimore failed to cover a -3 spread, the Ravens did win at home over New England, 31-30. It certainly can be misleading to put much stock in one Week 3 meeting when evaluating two teams deep in the postseason, but the first game gains relevance considering the two teams have now met five times in the last four seasons. Over that stretch, the Ravens are 2-3 straight-up, yet have never lost by more than six points. In four of those five games, the game was decided in the last minute. In the other, a Wild Card round game from 2009-10 in which Joe Flacco and the Ravens were 3.5 point underdogs, Baltimore won outright, 33-14 in New England. And, as we noted last week with Houston, each of the Patriots' six losses in the postseason since their last Super Bowl has come against a team it played in the regular season. 

Not only do these teams matchup well in general, not nearly as much has changed since the first matchup as may be assumed. Baltimore played without Terrell Suggs in the first game. The Ravens then lost Ray Lewis and LarDarius Webb for significant time, while Haloti Ngata clearly played hurt and the offense began to struggle. Now, Lewis is back, Suggs and Ngata are playing their best football of the season right now and, an offensive coordinator shift from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell, has the Ravens moving the ball well again. Weeks 7-17 may be mostly forgettable for the Ravens, but this current team looks similar enough to what we saw in Week 3 to expect Baltimore to be able to keep this competitive. 

Meanwhile, New England made a deft roster move by picking up cornerback Aqib Talib, but in a situation that more than cancels out Talib's added value, tight end Rob Gronkowski reinjured his forearm and will miss this game. On the year, New England averages 0.6 fewer yards-per-play without Gronkowski on the field (as compared to with him on the field). He may not have seemed to be as integral to the team this season as he was last year, but that is a very significant and important difference. Six yards-per-play, what New England averaged in 2012-13 with Gronkowski on the field, would rank fourth in the NFL this season. Without him out there, New England averaged 5.4 yards-per-play, which would rank just 16th overall (the Patriots counter that with tempo, so I am not saying that they are an "average" offense without Rob Gronkowski, but they are much closer to average without him than with him). The perception is that New England played very well down the stretch after losing to Baltimore, yet with the re-injury to a focal point of the offense and the fact that the Patriots are still only 6-6 ATS over the last 12 weeks, the Patriots are not that much better (or worse for that matter) than they were in Baltimore.

By the numbers, Baltimore is 13-5 SU and 9-8-1 ATS against the league's 17th toughest schedule for 2012-13. The Ravens out-gained their opponents by almost a half a yard-per-play (+0.49) and, while not necessarily elite in anything, they are above average in all of our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency metrics. Teams with glaring weaknesses are more likely to be blown out than solid teams that may be inferior in the matchup yet are not as easily exploited. 

On the season, New England is 13-4 SU and 10-7 ATS against the 26th ranked NFL schedule. The Patriots have been greater than touchdown favorites eight times this season and have covered in just three of those games (including in Week 17 against a Miami team that had nothing to play for). The Patriots averaged the highest number of plays and points-per-game this season. However, they only out-gained opponents by 0.11 yards-per-play on the year (including the games with Gronkowski). New England's defense has been an issue even with Talib on the field. The Patriots rank sixth worst in the league in yards-per-pass allowed and only generated a sack on 6% of all opponents' drop-backs (below average - tenth worst in the league). And, while Baltimore clearly struggled against elite return man Trindon Holliday last week, the Patriots ranked as the fourth worst kickoff return team and as an NFL average punt return team. New England has the better team and is playing at home, so it should win, but recent history and improved play by the Ravens suggest 9.5 (or more) points is too many (this line opened anywhere from 7.5 to 10 and will probably close at either 8.5 or 9 - obviously, the tone of this write-up would be very different at 7.5 as we would be picking New England, but the value is just too great in Baltimore now). 

In 50,000 games played of Ravens @ Patriots, New England wins 68.3% of the time and by an average score of 32.1-24.4. As 9.5 point underdogs, Baltimore covers the spread 54.9% of the time, which would justify a $26 play from a normal $50 player. With almost 57 points scored on average, the OVER (51) is actually our strongest opinion of the weekend. The OVER is now 12-4-1 in Patriots games this season (10-8 for Baltimore). In the four UNDER games for New England, the Patriots played on Miami (twice), Jacksonville and Arizona - three teams that all finished in the bottom ten of our NFL offensive team rankings. At 57.9% to cover, we are confident enough in the OVER to recommend a $58 play from a normal $50 player.


Super Bowl Odds

The Predictalator uses current rosters and strength-of-schedule-adjusted team and player stats to play, one play at a time, the NFL Playoffs bracket 50,000 times before it's actually played. For this analysis, we are tracking how likely a team is to win the Super Bowl. The rest of the NFL Playoffs are played all the way through individually, with the team that wins each game in that instance advancing. The percentages in the table below represent the team's likelihood of winning the Super Bowl.

With a loss to the previous strongest team in the league, the Denver Broncos, the NFC's best, San Francisco 49ers, have jumped up to become the most likely Super Bowl champion by winning it all in 38.2% of 50,000 simulations. Going into last week, the 49ers were 17.5% likely to win the Super Bowl. While obviously looking very good in their own right on the field, San Francisco has benefited greatly from upsets elsewhere that has given the team a clearer path than expected. Getting to face Atlanta instead of Seattle (even on the road) helps the 49ers, as does the loss to the similarly well-rounded Denver Broncos, who, with their experience at quarterback and elite pass rush, would have been favored over the 49ers. Despite a slightly weaker conference championship winning percentage than New England , San Francisco edges the Patriots in the most likely Super Bowl - very important to note since New England would likely be favorites in the sports books in that game - to become our most likely current champion. With 2:1 current Super Bowl futures odds - which would require 33.3%+ confidence to play - San Francisco is a valuable Super Bowl futures wager. 

After the 49ers, the New England Patriots are the second most likely Super Bowl champion. New England wins 37.7% of all simulated Super Bowls. As presently constructed and without any further injuries of note (to any team), New England would be a slight underdog to San Francisco in our projections, yet a full touchdown favorite over Atlanta if the Falcons advance. The Patriots and 49ers combine to win 75.9% of all Super Bowls. New England is currently a prohibitive 6:5 favorite to win the Super Bowl in the sports books. This would require 54.5% confidence to play - a steep price considering that there are three other teams remaining (two of which were also here at this level last year). 

The Patriots are followed by the Atlanta Falcons who have a 12.3% chance to win the Super Bowl, yet would not be favored over either AFC team if they get there. That being said, given that NFC teams win 50.5% of the remaining Super Bowls, the NFC +3 for the Super Bowl as of right now looks appealing . Atlanta at 6:1 odds (requires 14.3% confidence) to win the Super Bowl, is not quite playable.

Baltimore, which has to go on the road and face a very strong team this weekend, is the least likely Super Bowl champion. The Ravens win the Super Bowl 11.9% of the time, which is still about one out of every eight simulations. Some books have Baltimore at 15:2 or 8:1 (or greater), which would each be valuable plays on Super Bowl futures odds for the Ravens. And for those still curious about an All-Harbaugh Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, that occurs 20.3% of the time.  Unfortunately for John and the Ravens, San Francisco over Baltimore is only possible Super Bowl matchup that we project to be won by more than a touchdown. A Harbaugh-led team wins the Super Bowl 50.1% of the time.

Last year, at this time, an All-Harbaugh Super Bowl was 16.9% likely. Also of note from last season, no team at this time was greater than 33% or less than 20% likely to win the Super Bowl. Now, we have two teams with a better than 35% and two teams with a weaker than 15% chance to win the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Odds (based on rest of 2013 NFL Playoffs played 50,000 times)

Team Super Bowl Win
San Francisco 49ers 38.2%
New England Patriots 37.6%
Atlanta Falcons 12.3%
Baltimore Ravens 11.9%

NFL Picks Pages:
January 20: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
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