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Our Guide To The NFL’s Divisional Round

Now that the NFL’s wild-card weekend is complete, the top seeds in each conference — including Lamar Jackson and our Super Bowl favorites, the Baltimore Ravens — will be in action for the divisional round. Ahead of the games, we’ve broken down each matchup using our Elo ratings — which track each team’s form, with adjustments for each starting quarterback — and also identified the phases of the game in which each team was best (and worst) according to ESPN’s expected points added (EPA)1 during the regular season. Our predictions didn’t see the upsets coming in the opening round of the playoffs, so Elo is looking forward to a better weekend this time around!

Tale of the tape: San Francisco vs. Minnesota

4:35 p.m. ET Saturday

San Francisco Category Minnesota
13-3 Record 11-6
12th Schedule strength 10th
1643 Elo rating 1624
4th League rank 6th
Jimmy Garoppolo Starting QB Kirk Cousins
18th QB Elo rank 12th
2nd QB’s supporting cast 6th
7th Avg. QB Elo defense 11th
Pass defense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Special teams Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
67.4% 538 forecast 32.6%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Vikings engineered the top upset of wild-card weekend, upending the New Orleans Saints in a game we gave them just a 23 percent chance of winning. Now they’ll get a chance to pull off another surprise victory, this time against the top-seeded 49ers. Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins silenced his doubters some against New Orleans, and he will be the higher-ranked quarterback in his matchup versus Jimmy Garoppolo, according to our QB Elo metric. But Jimmy G. has the better supporting cast around him, including the superior defense according to EPA (where San Francisco ranked second, compared with Minnesota at No. 6). The Vikings did beat Garoppolo and the Niners in Week 1 of last season, holding SF to 237 net passing yards and forcing four turnovers; they might need to follow a similar formula to win Saturday. But it’s easier to envision the 49er defense slowing down the Vikings’ run game and forcing Cousins to make plays, with San Francisco ultimately coming out on top. Elo’s spread: San Francisco -5

Tale of the tape: Baltimore vs. Tennessee

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Baltimore Category Tennessee
14-2 Record 10-7
16th Schedule strength 8th
1795 Elo rating 1603
1st League rank 7th
Lamar Jackson Starting QB Ryan Tannehill
1st QB Elo rank 15th
1st QB’s supporting cast 8th
6th Avg. QB Elo defense 19th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Run offense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
86.9% 538 forecast 13.1%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Normally, a team that knocks the Patriots out of the playoffs would get more respect than this. But the New England team that Tennessee beat last Saturday wasn’t exactly a vintage version of the Pats — and the Baltimore team waiting for the Titans looks like the scariest opponent in the league. According to Elo, the Ravens have the best QB in the NFL (Jackson) and the best supporting cast as well, including a pass defense that ranks third in EPA per game and sixth at limiting opposing QBs’ Elo performances. The Titans’ best hope is to use RB Derrick Henry and a bruising rushing attack (No. 6 in EPA) to exploit a Baltimore run D that ranks just 22nd this season. But it’s unclear if the Tennessee defense has any answer for Jackson’s ability to shred teams using both his arm and his legs, with help from the Ravens’ 11 other Pro Bowl players. If Tennessee does manage to win this one, it would be a significantly bigger upset than beating the Patriots was. Elo’s spread: Baltimore -13

Tale of the tape: Kansas City vs. Houston

3:05 p.m. ET Sunday

Kansas City Category Houston
12-4 Record 11-6
2nd Schedule strength 1st
1704 Elo rating 1561
2nd League rank 10th
Patrick Mahomes Starting QB Deshaun Watson
3rd QB Elo rank 5th
3rd QB’s supporting cast 14th
3rd Avg. QB Elo defense 26th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Run offense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Pass defense
82.6% 538 forecast 17.4%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Welcome to what might end up being the most dynamic quarterback matchup of the playoffs. In one corner, you have Deshaun Watson — Elo’s fifth-ranked QB — who overcame a shaky first half to lead Houston past Buffalo in a wild opening-round thriller. In the other corner, you have Patrick Mahomes — No. 3 in QB Elo — who’s still the reigning NFL MVP, in the midst of possibly the best back-to-back passing seasons in NFL history.2 While K.C. has the edge under center, it isn’t by a huge margin. The larger differentiating factor between these teams is in the surrounding talent, where Mahomes’s pals also rank third — including, perhaps surprisingly, the No. 3 QB Elo defense — while Watson’s support ranks just 14th, with the No. 26 QB Elo defense. The Texans did narrowly beat the Chiefs back in Week 6 with a near-perfect game plan: They ran for 192 yards, picked up 35 first downs, spread completions around to seven different receivers and limited Kansas City to just 47 offensive plays (vs. 83 for Houston!) with barely 20 minutes of possession. A similar result is possible for Houston to orchestrate again on Sunday — but it’s not very likely. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -11

Tale of the tape: Green Bay vs. Seattle

6:40 p.m. ET Sunday

Green Bay Category Seattle
13-3 Record 12-5
18th Schedule strength 11th
1625 Elo rating 1560
5th League rank 11th
Aaron Rodgers Starting QB Russell Wilson
14th QB Elo rank 8th
4th QB’s supporting cast 13th
5th Avg. QB Elo defense 16th
Run offense Biggest EPA strength Pass offense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Run defense
74.0% 538 forecast 26.0%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Elo has been down on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in recent weeks, to its own detriment. In the most recent chapter, Seattle defied the model — with a little help from Carson Wentz’s injury — and beat the Eagles in Philly. Now we list the Seahawks as underdogs again heading to Green Bay … so can Seattle pull off yet another upset? The QB matchup certainly tilts in favor of Wilson, who plainly outperformed Aaron Rodgers during the regular season and played very well against the Eagles last week, too. But the Packers built their 13-3 record as much on a superior pass defense (10th in EPA) and running game (seventh) as on Rodgers’s passing (12th). (They also got pretty lucky in close games — which the Seahawks know a thing or two about as well.) If Seattle’s RB corps weren’t so riddled with injuries, it might be able to take advantage of Green Bay’s 29th-ranked run defense. But instead, this game will probably come down to whether Wilson can keep the score close throughout and deliver a winning performance in the clutch, where he had the best Total QBR of any passer in football this season.3 Elo’s spread: Green Bay -7½

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of the Wild Card Round

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 18 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
PHI 69% SEA 56% SEA 17, PHI 9 +47.8
NE 69 NE 64 TEN 20, NE 13 +3.7
NO 77 NO 78 MIN 26, NO 20 -9.5
HOU 65 HOU 56 HOU 22, BUF 19 -22.0

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Let’s be honest: Elo’s overconfident pick of the Eagles against the Seahawks was bad. Real bad. With a net loss of 48 points (!) relative to the average reader, it was the worst pick made by either the algorithm or the human pickers all season long, by some considerable margin. Sure, Elo didn’t know that Wentz would get knocked out in the first quarter of that game, causing Josh McCown (whose QB Elo is 52 points lower than Wentz’s) to play most of the contest. But the readers rightly hammered Elo for perhaps reading too much into Philly’s late-season push (plus Seattle’s late-season lull) and the Seahawks’ weak point differential. The model was lucky to have sided with the Texans over the Bills, but for the weekend, Elo lost to the average reader by a margin of 20.0 points, giving the model its worst week of the season (and just its third overall loss to the field in 18 tries).

Amid a week of upsets, congratulations are in order for Christian Jensen, who leads all readers in the postseason with 200.0 points, and for Griffin Colaizzi, who took the lead in the full-season contest with 989.0 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo in the playoffs, even if you missed Week 18.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Adjusted for strength of schedule by comparing an opponent’s EPA performance against the team in question with how it played against every other team on its schedule.

  2. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt Index stat, only two pairs of consecutive QB seasons with at least 400 attempts each — Peyton Manning’s 2003-04 and 2004-05, and Steve Young’s 1992-93 and 1993-94 — had a higher average index than Mahomes’s 2018 and 2019.

  3. Defining “clutch” as QBR in the fourth quarter (or overtime) of a one-score game. Wilson’s QBR in that split was 82.9, edging out Deshaun Watson’s 82.7 to claim the top spot.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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