Playoff seeding and positioning is always a funny, tricky ordeal. Like many areas of life, it changes with a different viewpoint. What looks appealing from one side might be exactly what the other wants, as well. Naturally, one will be wrong.
The entire AFC playoff field was set prior to New Year’s Day’s full schedule of games, but the matchups would not be decided until later in the afternoon. Undoubtedly, the most appealing destination for a Wild Card team that would need to travel by virtue of not winning its division was Houston. Basically, “If we can’t get a home game, we might as well play the ‘easier’ team on the road.” The other option was a visit to Pittsburgh.
While not nearly as lopsided in competition, the NFC reshuffling was eventually confined to either hosting the Giants or traveling to Seattle. By virtue of securing a home game, the former was the clear choice. Playing against the Seahawks in one of the most intimidating stadiums for a visiting team was the icing on the proverbial cake.
Of course, these preconceived notions are hardly a guarantee for an expected outcome.
Any reader of this column can easily cite ‘perception’ as the most powerful influence for the spreads and how we react to the numbers. Staying ahead of how these perceptions move is one piece of the puzzle, but the other is simply recognizing that something other than on-field talent is influencing both the number of points from one team to another and how the football-watching world actually views said team.
On a week where the spreads appear to be perfectly aligned with the small schedule of games – playoff ‘traps’ are a possibility, but are not presenting themselves, this week – we can specifically dig into why each number lies where it does. This does carry the risk of games being too balanced to hold true value, but it also allows us to pick apart the reasoning behind such spreads.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2016 Season: 50-64-3 (Last Week: 2-5)
(2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2016 Season: 118-130-8 (Last Week: 8-8)
(2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Miami Dolphins (+10)* at Pittsburgh Steelers
The 2016 Miami Dolphins proved to be one of the most important teams in the NFL against the spread. A more successful version of the Chicago Bears – in the second-half of the year, specifically – the Dolphins were the perfect fall-then-rise team.
Miami lost in Seattle by only two points – easily beating the large spread – on Opening Day as part of a 1-4 start to the year. Predictably, as quickly as the Dolphins were buried, they ran off six consecutive wins and caught the attention of everyone. Those people would immediately be burned when Miami was thoroughly blasted by Baltimore. The Dolphins would close the year on a 3-1 run.
A roller coaster is an absolutely thrilling ride when one is excited for the drops because of the momentum it causes. But, if the ride stalled at the bottom of every dip and allowed passengers to enter and exit at any time, fewer people would be able to gauge when the next burst of joy would appear. It is easy to see the highs-and-lows and build the anticipation for each but, stepping away from the metaphor and reapplying it to football, randomness removes some of the fun for those who want to predict outcomes.
Keep in mind that nearly every expert and fan expected the Dolphins to begin their season with a freefall – they were hardly considered in the AFC as playoff contenders – and remain down. As soon as these biases were confirmed – via the 1-4 start – questions arose about the team’s new head coach.
The same new head coach that is suddenly being praised universally for commanding a 10-6 team.
The same new head coach that we cited as the reason why the Dolphins would make the playoffs in our AFC preseason predictions.
Calling to attention the success of head coach Adam Gase offers the same benefit for all parties – it validates what Miami was able to accomplish. But doing so after the ride has gained momentum is dangerously reactionary. Might it also be accurate? Yes. But does it hold the same value as a projection with a stable foundation? Of course not.
One of the reasons why Miami burned so many people when losing to Baltimore was because the flood of support developed over a short span of time and was, therefore, unstable. As soon as the Dolphins lost, the bandwagon emptied.
Miami now enters the postseason as a team that most would argue ‘over-achieved’ in 2016, as indicated by the obnoxiously large spread. Lost in the discussion is the sustainability of the Dolphins’ success – namely, the running game with Jay Ajayi – and the 15-point victory Miami enjoyed against the Steelers in Week 6. Even the quarterback position is a relative non-issue, as Matt Moore has led the Dolphins’ offense to an average of 27.3 points-per-game in his three starts, as well as the game-winning drive against the Cardinals in relief of Ryan Tannehill. Moore may not be a long-term option in the NFL, but he is absolutely capable of replacing Tannehill for a handful of games.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, traveling to Pittsburgh in January is not equivalent to hosting the Steelers in October. Pittsburgh is one of the premier franchises in the NFL and is returning to the postseason finally healthy. It will not miss the opportunity to advance past the Wild Card Round, especially with running back Le’Veon Bell going against a Dolphins’ defense allowing the second-most yards-per-rush.
Adam Gase leads Miami to play a competitive game throughout, but the Dolphins eventually fall short. Pittsburgh wins by a field goal, and Miami beats the spread.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
It happened. The Green Bay Packers, once 4-6 and on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture, ran the table and won six consecutive games en route to another division title. They are, after all, a storied franchise that has successfully passed the torch from one superstar quarterback to the next. In an era where ‘superstar quarterbacks’ deliver championships, it is not surprising that Aaron Rodgers arguably has carried his team to this point.
While quarterbacks are often required to win the Super Bowl, there is nearly equal value in putting a product on the field designed to stop said quarterbacks. This was the formula for both of New York’s most recent championships, where the Giants held the high-powered Patriots – anchored by quarterback Tom Brady – to 14 and 17 points. It is also the formula New York will be attempting against Green Bay’s top-eight offense in both yards and points.
By virtue of shutting down the Washington Redskins – who ended the season with the third most offensive yards in the league – the Giants’ scoring defense improved to the second-best in the league. If a team in the NFC appears capable of finally ending Rodgers’ hot streak, wouldn’t it be New York?