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Our Guide To The NFL’s Wild-Card Weekend

The NFL playoffs are finally here, and we’re ready for the games to kick off. Looking ahead to this weekend’s wild-card action, 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 Added1 (EPA) during the regular season. What follows, then, is our guide to the first leg of the Super Bowl journey for these eight hopeful teams.

Tale of the tape: Buffalo at Houston

4:35 p.m. ET Saturday

Houston Category Buffalo
10-6 Record 10-6
1st Schedule strength 25th
1549 Elo rating 1518
11th League rank 15th
Deshaun Watson Starting QB Josh Allen
8th QB Elo rank 21st
15th QB’s supporting cast 14th
26th Avg. QB Elo defense 9th
Run offense Biggest EPA strength Special teams
Pass defense Biggest EPA weakness Pass offense
65.4% 538 forecast 34.6%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

This might be the most fascinating matchup of the first round. With big names like QB Deshaun Watson, WR DeAndre Hopkins and DE J.J. Watt — who plans to return from injury for this game — the Texans have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. But they haven’t really been able to put everything together for any sustained period of time: They never won more than two straight games during the regular season, while Watson was the league’s most inconsistent QB by Elo and their defense remains a huge concern. Yet, as much as Houston took an up-and-down path to its 10-6 record, Buffalo probably overachieved to hit that same mark, at least in terms of talent. QB Josh Allen has huge problems with accuracy and is below average even after accounting for the rushing value he adds, but the Bills have gotten by thanks to solid defense and great special teams. Based on the quarterback mismatch and home-field advantage, Houston should win, but Buffalo plays the kind of game that could potentially engineer an upset. Elo’s spread: Houston -4½

Tale of the tape: Tennessee at New England

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday

New England Category Tennessee
12-4 Record 9-7
32nd Schedule strength 15th
1635 Elo rating 1580
5th League rank 9th
Tom Brady Starting QB Ryan Tannehill
16th QB Elo rank 10th
3rd QB’s supporting cast 10th
1st Avg. QB Elo defense 22nd
Pass defense Biggest EPA strength Run offense
Pass offense Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
68.8% 538 forecast 31.2%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

We’ve learned time and again over the years not to doubt the Patriots in home playoff games, where they are an incredible 12-2 this decade. And Tennessee would seem to be a poor candidate to stop New England’s title defense anyway, given that the Titans barely snuck into the postseason despite a career-best performance from unheralded QB Ryan Tannehill and more than 1,500 yards racked up on the ground by RB Derrick Henry. But by the same token, this is the second-weakest the Patriots’ Elo has been going into the playoffs since 2005,2 and QB Tom Brady hasn’t entered the postseason with a lower QB Elo (relative to average) since 2001, his first year as a starter. The Pats’ defense has been the league’s best this year, which should help short-circuit Tennessee’s offense and take some pressure off of Brady, who goes up against a relatively porous Titans pass D. So most likely, New England’s season won’t end quite yet … but the warning lights are flashing brighter in Foxboro than they have in a long time. Elo’s spread: New England -5½

Tale of the tape: Minnesota at New Orleans

1:05 p.m. ET Sunday

New Orleans Category Minnesota
13-3 Record 10-6
13th Schedule strength 21st
1710 Elo rating 1594
2nd League rank 7th
Drew Brees Starting QB Kirk Cousins
2nd QB Elo rank 9th
7th QB’s supporting cast 8th
12th Avg. QB Elo defense 13th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass defense
Run offense Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
77.1% 538 forecast 22.9%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Aside from New Orleans’ home-field advantage, the gap between these two teams basically comes down to the difference at quarterback: Kirk Cousins of the Vikings (a reliable QB, but one who seldom dominates) versus Drew Brees of the Saints (the greatest QB of the decade, coming off one of his best seasons — and heading into the playoffs in peak form). Minnesota is a very good team, finishing the regular season at No. 7 in our Elo rankings; it even had moments this year — such as an 8-2 run at midseason — when it looked like a genuine Super Bowl contender. Elo actually thinks the Vikings are significantly better than two teams (the Texans and Eagles) that are favored this weekend. But by virtue of finishing with the NFC’s No. 6 seed, Minnesota must instantly face an extremely tough opponent in the Saints, who rank second in Elo, feature the league’s second-best QB and offer few glaring weaknesses to prey on. An upset isn’t impossible — we give Minnesota a 23 percent chance of winning — but the Vikings are the heaviest underdogs of wild-card weekend simply because they had the misfortune of running into a better team right out of the gates. Elo’s spread: New Orleans -8½

Tale of the tape: Seattle at Philadelphia

4:40 p.m. ET Sunday

Philadelphia Category Seattle
9-7 Record 11-5
31st Schedule strength 14th
1575 Elo rating 1522
10th League rank 14th
Carson Wentz Starting QB Russell Wilson
5th QB Elo rank 14th
12th QB’s supporting cast 17th
8th Avg. QB Elo defense 24th
Run defense Biggest EPA strength Special teams
Special teams Biggest EPA weakness Run defense
69.3% 538 forecast 30.7%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Both the Seahawks and the Eagles (who played to a 17-9 grindfest back in November) have plenty of flaws to pick over. Philly’s injury report is among the league’s longest, and the Eagles mustered only a 9-7 record — while playing one of the NFL’s weakest schedules — by beating four straight nonplayoff teams down the stretch of the regular season. In any other division, the Eagles wouldn’t have come remotely close to finishing first. Meanwhile, Seattle sputtered its way to a 1-3 finish and built its seasonlong record via some of the best luck ever in close games. (Only two 11-win teams in the 16-game schedule era had a worse total point differential than the Seahawks’ +7 mark this year.) Led by nominal MVP candidate QB Russell Wilson, the Seahawks had the better passing attack over the entire season, but Wilson cooled off considerably over the final six weeks. That — in combination with Seattle’s weak defense and unimpressive scoring margin, plus a late-season surge by Eagles QB Carson Wentz — has left the Seahawks with the lower Elo rating (and even the lower-rated QB) in this matchup. But let’s be honest: Neither team is great, and this one will probably come down to whichever can mask its weaknesses most effectively, rather than which can show off its strengths. Elo’s spread: Philadelphia -5½

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 Week 17

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 17 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
TB 57% TB 52% ATL 28, TB 22 +3.7
BUF 74 BUF 71 NYJ 13, BUF 6 +1.8
NE 90 NE 89 MIA 27, NE 24 +0.0
NO 83 NO 85 NO 42, CAR 10 -1.0
KC 86 KC 85 KC 31, LAC 21 -1.9
GB 85 GB 85 GB 23, DET 20 -1.9
PHI 70 PHI 71 PHI 34, NYG 17 -2.1
CLE 63 CLE 64 CIN 33, CLE 23 -3.1
DAL 82 DAL 79 DAL 47, WSH 16 -3.3
SF 55 SF 54 SF 26, SEA 21 -3.7
IND 61 IND 63 JAX 38, IND 20 -3.8
LAR 78 LAR 70 LAR 31, ARI 24 -7.2
BAL 71 BAL 63 BAL 28, PIT 10 -9.1
TEN 59 HOU 50 TEN 35, HOU 14 -10.7
DEN 69 DEN 56 DEN 16, OAK 15 -12.5
MIN 55 MIN 67 CHI 21, MIN 19 -17.4

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.

Elo finished off the regular season in style, winning by a season-high average margin of 72.2 points. Teams that rested starters in Week 17 seemed to give the readers trouble; the best win of the week for Elo, for instance, involved downgrading Minnesota with Sean Mannion starting in Cousins’s stead, and the readers also failed to account enough for Houston leaving Watson on the bench against Tennessee. (Then again, perhaps the field overcorrected to Baltimore resting starters against Pittsburgh.) It was Elo’s 15th victorious week of the season in 17 tries — almost as good as the 16-for-17 showing it had during last year’s regular season.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Jeffery Xiong, who led all readers in Week 17 with 178.0 points, and to Aaron DiGenova, who keeps on leading the full-season contest with 1,091.0 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 17.

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. Only the 2015 version — which lost to the Broncos in the AFC title game — rated lower.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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