Analytics predicts winners for NFL playoff Divisional Round games

The start of the NFL playoffs was a little more mild than it was wild with just one game within 13 points and a blowouts. Fans are hoping that the Divisional Round turns out a little more interesting with just one team seeded below four still hanging around in the postseason.

Based on DraftKings Sportsbook odds, three teams were upset on Wild Card weekend: the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns. The two four seeds were both underdogs at home but came away with victories.

The same three who lost despite being betting favorites were also analytics favorites (via DVOA) going into Wild Card weekend. Last year, DVOA was perfect in predicting matchups in Wild Card weekend. This year, the data point was barely above .500 for the opening weekend of the playoffs.

DVOA breaks down the quality of play compared to the league average while adjusting for the strength of the opponents being played. It is one of a couple of catch-all analytics measures that help us understand the beautiful game of football better.

While it is tough to figure out how the Eagles fell apart at the end of the year, the Cowboys and Browns were upset by teams with better offenses according to DVOA. While Dallas and Cleveland were the better overall teams, mostly due to both having top-five defenses, Green Bay and Houston each scored over 40 points last weekend including 27 and 24 in the first halves of their games.

As we dive into the Divisional Round, we will take note of any specific disparities on the offensive side of the ball.

To be clear, DVOA isn’t perfect nor would it claim to predict the winners of certain games. Too many variables that cannot be codified, like weather, injuries, officiating and more, can play a role in a one-game sample. Or, in the case of Philadelphia, a team that is just falling apart.

While DVOA was far from perfect this year, last year’s success in predicting games has us looking into what it could tell us about the Divisional Round.

Baltimore Ravens vs Houston Texans

  • Overall DVOA: Baltimore 1st vs Houston 12th
  • Offensive DVOA: Baltimore 4th vs Houston 14th
  • Defensive DVOA: Baltimore 1st vs Houston 16th

Edge: Ravens – A huge mismatch in all three DVOA metrics above. The 9.5-point spread, tied for the largest this weekend, matches up with the analytics data.

Buffalo Bills vs Kansas City Chiefs

  • Overall DVOA: Buffalo 3rd vs Kansas City 5th
  • Offensive DVOA: Buffalo 3rd vs Kansas City 8th
  • Defensive DVOA: Buffalo 12th vs Kansas City 7th

Edge: Bills – A very close matchup overall with Patrick Mahomes leading the worse of the two offenses. Again, the betting line (2.5) matches up with what we see in the data above with an almost toss-up game between two AFC powerhouses.

Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers

  • Overall DVOA: Green Bay 13th vs San Francisco 2nd
  • Offensive DVOA: Green Bay 6th vs San Francisco 1st
  • Defensive DVOA: Green Bay 27th vs San Francisco 4th

Edge: 49ersThe other game with a 9.5-point spread, San Francisco has a huge gap on the defensive side but is much closer on offensive DVOA. Based on what we saw last weekend, this could be a closer game than expected even if the Niners still pull out the victory.

Tamp Bay Buccaneers vs Detroit Lions

  • Overall DVOA: Tampa Bay 18th vs Detroit 7th
  • Offensive DVOA: Tampa Bay 20th vs Detroit 5th
  • Defensive DVOA: Tampa Bay 14th vs Detroit 13th

Edge: Lions – Unless Detroit spent all their emotional energy beating Matt Stafford last week at home, their hometown crowd should get to celebrate another victory this week and hope for a huge Packers upset so they can host the NFC Championship game. Tied for the largest overall disparity, the 15-place difference on offense is the largest this weekend.

Perfect in last year’s Wild Card round but flawed this year, DVOA has a chance to right the ship in predicting winners with this week’s matchups. While DVOA is not a predictive measure, the data provides another piece of information as you make betting decisions, discuss the playoffs with your coworkers or while making daily fantasy decisions.

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