Eagles – Giants Pregame Thoughts

I went a little overboard with the odds breakdown this week, so I’ll mostly let that speak for itself.  However, I’m going to do a higher level check-in post later this week in an effort to get back into broader strategic analysis.  Not that you care, but I decided to take the bulk of the Wharton core through accelerated classes (I’ve got four finals this week).  That hasn’t left much time for anything else, but it should pay off (i.e. much more time) starting next week.  Until then, though, we’re stuck with previews.

For today’s game, here are some additional thoughts, some of which are elaborated on in the breakdown below:

– Very big game for the Eagles, but not because of the opponent.  I still haven’t seen anything from the Giants to change my ex-ante belief that they’re not a playoff-caliber team.  Given their schedule, it’s still possible they’re just the best team of the bottom third of the league.  Instead, the game is important because the Eagles schedule after the bye week is very difficult.  It looks like it’ll take at least 10 wins to win the NFC East.  So a win tonight and the Eagles only need to go 5-5 the rest of the way to hit the target.  In other words, things are going to get a bit ugly starting in two weeks and the team will likely need all the margin for error it can get.

– Much is being made about the Eagles potential for regression on D/STs, specifically regarding TDs.  That’s absolutely correct.  The Eagles will not keep scoring TDs on D/STs at such a high rate.  However, the Eagles offense is also primed for POSITIVE regression.  Hopefully it starts tonight.

A lot more below.  As I say at the end, I’m actually much more bullish about tonight’s game than my breakdown suggests.  I think the Giants’ statistics are very skewed by an easy schedule (moreso than the Eagles).  Still, I’d be lying if I said I was confident in the Eagles offense right now.  Just because they “should” improve doesn’t mean they will.

My picks record to date:

Line: 2 – 3

O/U: 2 – 3

Reader record:

Line: 2 – 3

O/U: 4 – 1

This week’s lines:

Eagles -3 (-105)

Giants +3 (-115)

Over 51 (-105)

Under 51 (-115)

Reviewing last week:

The Over hit comfortably, so that’s a win for everyone.  Unfortunately, Billy Davis and the DBs decided they didn’t like the idea of a dominating win.  Not only did they let the Ramstake the backdoor cover, they also gave them a chance to win outright.  I said I was very confident in the Eagles -7, but they only won by 6.  Of course, as soon as the lead was 13 I knew how it was going to end.  So it’s a loss for me on the line, but things aren’t all bad.  While I said I liked the Eagles, I also advised you to wait until close to kickoff before making any wagers (confirm Lane Johnson’s condition).  If you did that, you should’ve got the line at just -4.5, giving you a 2-0 week.  I still have no idea why the line dropped so much in just 24 hours (no major injuries), but I hope you took full advantage.

This week:

Huge game for the Eagles.  I’m actually not too worried about the Giants being a true division title contender, so that’s less of a factor for me than for most others.  Instead, I’m looking at the schedule after the bye week:

@Cardinals, @TexansPanthers, @Green Bay

A win this week puts the Eagles at 5-1 heading into that stretch, meaning they could lose 3 out of those 4 and still be 6-4.  After that stretch above, the Eagles play the Titans at home before getting a Dallas, Seattle, Dallas sandwich.  In other words, the Eagles are probably going to lose a bunch of games over the next 8-9 weeks, so they need as many wins now as they can get.

The Breakdown:

First, the DVOA comparison:

Eagles Overall – 5.6% (13th)

Giants Overall – 9.8% (8th)

Eagles Offense – -5.5% (22nd)

Giants Defense – -8.8% (7th)

Eagles Defense – -1.0% (16th)

Giants Offense – 3.2% (14th)

On Special Teams, the Eagles have a very big advantage.  The Birds rank 1st in the league, and along with Atlanta and Buffalo are well ahead of everyone else.  Meanwhile, the Giants are 23rd.

Well that doesn’t look very good, does it?  The Giants have the better offense and the better defense. Naturally, they rank better overall, though not by a huge margin.  Regardless, the DVOA breakdown points towards the Giants, especially because they’re getting 3 points.

Now let’s look at actual results to make our score projection:

Of the teams the Eagles have played this year, the 49ers (8th) rank closest to the Giants (9th) on defense by DVOA.  The Eagles scored 21 points against San Francisco. However, all 3 touchdowns came from Defense and Special Teams.  That makes this a tough benchmark to use, since we really don’t want to be projecting D/ST scoring.  Of course, certain media members (cough…Bill Barnwell…cough) are writing off this factor too easily.  Start Tangent – Yes, the Eagles are unlikely to keep scoring on D/STs.  BUT, in games like this one, where there appears to be a huge STs advantage, the field position effects alone can have a significant effect on the offense.  Additionally, you can’t just write off one area as due for regression without looking for others.  I’m talking specifically about the Eagles offense.

Putting on my Bayesian hat for a moment, we have to remember our ex-ante expectations for the team.  It’s fairly unlikely that the Eagles went from one of the league’s best offenses to one of the league’s worst offenses in one offseason.  There are a few roster changes to account for (D-Jax and the injuries), but that’s it.  The Eagles weren’t particularly lucky last year, so that’s not a factor.  Put simply, the Eagles offense is more likely to improve a bit than it is to get worse or stay the same.  We diminish the weight we place on last season’s results, but we can’t forget them entirely; not without a very compelling and logical reason.  Even with the Mathis/Kelce injuries, the Eagles almost certainly are not as helpless on offense as the have seemed the past couple of games.  End tangent.

So the Eagles are averaging 31.2 ppg, but against the most comparable competition they scored just 21 points (none on offense).  Of course, that was a road game, so there’s some clawback factor there as well.  If we call that 3 points, we get to an expected output of 24.

From the opposite viewpoint, among the Giants opponents thus far, the Eagles rank closest on offense to Arizona (24th) and Detroit (20th).  Against the Lions on the road, the Giants allowed 35 points.  Against the Cardinals at home, the Giants allowed 25 points.  Together, that’s an average of 30 points allowed, which is fairly surprising given the Giants strong overall rank on defense.  Using that number with our Eagles-centric projection, we get a range of 24-30 points.  Taking the midpoints gives us 27 points for the Eagles.  That’s about 4 points beneath the Eagles season average

Quick aside, you’ll notice I’m doing a lot more manipulation of the DVOA numbers than in previous weeks.  As the year goes on, I tend to put more and more weight on these (as the sample increases).

Now, from the opposite side:

Of the Giants opponents to date, the Eagles defense (16th) ranks closest to Houston (15th) and Washington (18th).  Against Houston at home, the Giants scored 30 points.  Against Washington on the road, the Giants scored 45 points.  That’s pretty strong output.  Averaged, that comes to 37.5 points, which is ridiculous.  On the season, the Giants are averaging 26.6 ppg, which is still a very good rate, but a far cry from 37.  So what do we do?  Well we can’t ignore the comparison stats, but I also don’t feel comfortable projecting the Giants to score 10+ points above their season average.  Keeping it simple, let’s split the difference and call it 32 points. Also recall that Demeco Ryans might not play, so 30+ is very reasonable.

Together, that gives us a projection of Giants 32 – Eagles 27.  As is customary by now, we’re taking the over 51. Sticking with out projections, we also get a fairly strong signal towards Giants +3. I hate given that as a recommendation, but it is what it is.

I do want to mention something important though.  As much as the Eagles have benefited from an easy strength of schedule, the Giants have benefited more.  Let’s play a little transitive property game.  We’re going to look at what I will call transitive wins.  Basically, you get credit for the wins of all the opponents you’ve beaten.  It will give us a good look at just how impressive each resume is.

The Giants have wins against 3 teams this year, Houston, Washington, and Atlanta.  Here are the transitive wins, along with each team’s overall DVOA:

Washington – 23rd, (beaten by Houston)

Oakland – 30th, (beaten by Houston)

Buffalo – 15th, (beaten by Houston)

Jacksonville – 32nd, (beaten by Washington)

New Orleans – 25th, (beaten by Atlanta)

Tampa Bay – 31st , (beaten by Atlanta)

15th, 23rd, 25th, 30th, 31st, 32nd.

The Eagles have beaten four teams this year, Jacksonville, Indy, Washington, and St. Louis. Here are the Eagles’ transitive wins:

Jacksonville – 32nd, (beaten by both Indy and Was)

Tennessee – 26th, (Indy)

Baltimore – 4th, (Indy)

Houston – 24th, (Indy)

Tampa Bay – 31st, (St. Louis)

4th, 24th, 26th, 31st, 32nd, 32nd.

Basically, the only thing the Eagles and Giants have proven thus far is that neither of them are among the worst 6-7 teams in the league.  Depending on your preseason NYG outlook, that might be new information.  For the Eagles, though, it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know.  The upshot is that, while I have to make picks for this column, I wouldn’t actually touch the line on this game.  We don’t actually KNOW that much about either team by virtue of how the schedule has shaped up so far.

I always like to end with a hopeful note, so here it is:

The Eagles might be the best team the Giants have faced thus far this season.  I don’t think you can say the same in reverse (both Indy and San Fran are better in my opinion).  Given the Eagles relatively strong performance against those teams, I’m actually more hopeful heading into this game than my breakdown above suggests.

Eagles – Rams: Pregame Thoughts

Breakdown is below, but here are some brief thoughts for today:

– Remember how I said last week didn’t really matter?  Well today’s game is the opposite. It doesn’t feel like an early season game against a non-divisional, mediocre-bad team should be meaningful, but it is.  Home games against teams clearly worse than you need to be converted to wins.  Doing so gives you the margin for error you need heading down the stretch.  Andy Reid’s team often dropped these games, which is why the late-season runs were so stressful.  Take care of business today (and for all of these games) and the end of season divisional stretch becomes much easier.

– I hate to be obvious, but today really is about Nick Foles, Shady, and Lane Johnson.  The Rams have just 1 sack in three games, so the stage is set for an Eagles offensive rebound.   I’ll be paying close attention to Johnson and the interior of the o-line.  If that part of the team performs, Foles will be fine.

– Look for the deep ball.  That was a big part of Foles’ success last season, and he’s struggling with it this year.  Not a surprise given the Eagles lost the best deep threat in the game, but there have still be opportunities for big plays.  Foles has overthrown Maclin and Cooper on a number of occasions.  If he can’t dial it in and adjust to their speed, the Eagles become a much less dangerous team to play against.

– Austin Davis is an unknown.  I screwed up earlier this year by underestimating Kirk Cousins, and this feels like a similar situation….but it’s not.  Where Cousins had Alfred Morries, Pierre Garcon, and D-Jax…Davis has Zach Stacy, Jared Cook, Brian Quick, Kenny Britt, etc… This should be a much easier matchup for the Eagles’ defense.

– The Rams have been lucky so far recovering fumbles.  They’ve put the ball on the ground 7 times in 3 games this year, and they’ve recovered 6 of them.  That doesn’t tell us anything about what will happen today, but it does suggest that the Rams are even worse than their record/point differential suggests.  This is just not a good team.

That’s all for now but see the breakdown below for a bit more.   I’m very confident about this game, but even a 7 point favorite loses about 20% of the time.

My picks record to date:

Line: 2 – 2

O/U: 1 – 3

Reader record:

Line: 2 – 2

O/U: 3 – 1

This week’s lines:

Eagles -7 (-110)

Rams +7 (-110)

Over 47.5 (-110)

Under 47.5 (-110)

Reviewing last week:

That was a tough one.  The Eagles were 2 yards from a probable win, and readers here probably realized they were also 2 yards from covering the spread AND hitting the over.  Close doesn’t count, though, so rather than my first perfect week, I had my first winless one.  The injuries on the O-Line finally affected the offense in a big way.  Lest anyone forget, the Eagles’ offense is heavily dependent on the run game.  They get a lot of big plays through the air, but that’s mostly via play-action and doesn’t work without the rushing threat.  When Chip Kelly won’t even try running the ball from 2 yards out, you can be damn sure the offensive line is having an awful game.  Still, aside from the hit to my record, the loss really doesn’t hurt the Eagles that much.

This week’s game:

The Eagles are big favorites, as they should be.  The Rams rank 29th overall by DVOA, compared to 9th for the Eagles.  Most importantly, the Rams defense ranks 30th.  They’ve only played 3 games (bye last week), but gave up 34 points in two of them (Vikings andCowboys, both at home).  With Lane Johnson back in the lineup, I expect big things from the Eagles offense this week.  I know the Eagles’ offense looked terrible last week, so forecasting a big day might seem foolish.  However, it’s really hard to exaggerate just how bad the O-Line struggled.  The fact that Herremans can slide back to G means the team has potentially made two BIG upgrades.  Along with a bad defense, that’s a recipe for a strong rebound.

The Eagles are averaging 30.5 points per game this season, and given what I said above I see no reason to expect them to perform below average.  30-31 points for is our floor.

On the other side, the Eagles defense is allowing 26 points per game.  However, the team ranks 11th overall in defensive DVOA.  3 of the four offenses the Eagles have faced can be considered mediocre (by DVOA).  The fourth, Jacksonville, is just bad (last in the league).  The Rams currently rank much closer to Jacksonville than they do to WAS, SF, or IND.  If we assume the Rams will be better than Jacksonville, but worse than the Eagles average opposition thus far, we get a range of 17-26 points against. On the season, the Rams are averaging just 18.7 points per game, and have played all three games against defenses currently ranked in the bottom third by DVOA.  Accounting for the competition, we’ve got a much narrower range of 17-19 points against for the Eagles.

There is, of course, one last complication.  The Rams are coming off a bye week, which has to count for something.  At most, I’m willing to credit them 1-2 points.  However, we can give them a full FG for the bye, bring the high end of their range to 22, and still have the Eagles winning by 8.

Thus, take the Eagles -7. Note that this is the first game I’m willing to assign high confidence to.  That’ll probably come back to bite me in the ass, but since I’m picking every Eagles game, regardless of confidence level, I think it’s important to note when I think there’s actually an attractive wagering option.  Maybe I’ll think of some catchy name for it, but for now it’s just “High Confidence Pick”.

On the O/U side, we can add the low ends of the expected output ranges to get 47 points.  If we add the high ends we get 50 points.  Unfortunately, the line is set at 47.5, within our range.  Remember, though, that I said 30-31 points is really the low end of our projection.  So while I can’t assign as high a level of confidence to this pick, we still have a clear signal to take the over 47.5.

I’d probably wait to make sure Lane Johnson is definitely suiting up, but if he is, take a shot.

Eagles – Washington Pregame Thoughts

As promised, below is my odds breakdown from BGN.  Not much opportunity in this line (6.5), I think Vegas is dead-on.  Beyond that, here are a few more pre-game thoughts:

– This is a big game.  That’s pretty obvious.  A win puts the Eagles at 3 – 0 and gives a divisional opponent a loss.  Moreover, it sets the team up for a good chance at 5-1 as the next three games are home against the Rams and Giants and away against the 49ers.  Also, don’t forget that Lane Johnson returns soon, and being 4-0 or 3-1 when he comes back would be a very good result over what could have been a tough stretch given the O-Line injuries/suspensions.

– Marcus Smith might play.  That’s a big deal, at least for me.  As I’ve said numerous times: the Eagles need high-impact players if they’re going to contend, and those players come disproportionately from the 1st round of the draft.  I know Smith is a “project” and thus expectations are lower than usual, but I’d still like to see him get on the field.  With Kendricks’ injury, the table is set for Smith to make a contribution.  I actually think he fits well in that role, even though most have him pegged as an OLB.  He’s athletic and should be able to rush the passer from the ILB position.  Let’s hope he gets a chance.

– Darren Sproles is a very important piece today.  Washington was terrible last year on STs and hasn’t played well this year either.  Specifically, WAS ranks as the 2nd worst punting team this year by Football Outsiders.  Last season, WAS was dead last in punting by a VERY large margin.  That means Sproles has an opportunity to have a big impact in this game, without even considering offensive touches.  Foles has struggled thus far, but great field position goes a long way towards making an offense look good.  The Eagles should have that today, assuming the defense can force punts.

There are other points of emphasis, but those have all been covered well by others.  It would be really nice to see Foles get in a groove.  The O-Line has a tough test against Ryan Kerrigan.  The D-Line needs to play well to take pressure of whoever the ILB ends up being.  We’re all waiting for a “click” game, where the offense hits a lot of the big plays it has left on the field the last two weeks.  Today would be a great time to see it.

——–

My picks record to date:

Line: 1 – 1

O/U: 1 – 1

Poll Record:

Line: 2 – 0

O/U: 2 – 0

This week’s lines:

Eagles -6.5 (-110)

Redskins +6.5 (-110)

Over 50 (-110)

Under 50 (-110)

Note: A few sportsbooks have this line at 7 points, but Bovada is 6.5.  That’s a very important half point.

Reviewing last week:

Another strange game, but the results were very similar to my projections here.  From last week: “I think this game shakes out in the 27-24 range, one way or the other.”  Both teams exceeded expectations by 3 points.  Unfortunately, Parkey’s winning FG pushed the point total above the O/U line, leaving me with another split game.  Meanwhile, you readers are perfect so far.  Of course, I doubt picking the Eagles and the Over in every game will keep working.  However, given how difficult I believe early season betting to be, I’m happy with an even split so far.

This week:

Big game for the Eagles overall. A win puts them at 3 – 0, with home games against theGiants and Rams over the next three games.  So…how do things look?

We know what the Eagles have done over the past two weeks.  Over the same timeframe, Washington has lost to Houston (in Houston) 17 – 6 and destroyed Jacksonville at home, 41 – 10.  Neither resume is very impressive.  Yes, the Eagles are 2 – 0 and scoring a lot of points, but the Colts and Jags are also both 0 – 2.

We’re now in a bit of a no man’s land as far as Football Outsiders’ ratings go.  Last year’s performances mean less and less but we still have a very small sample from this year to work with.  Properly weighting the two sources is the key to making a good projection.  Before putting that together, let’s look at the overall numbers:

Eagles 2014 Overall DVOA: 16.7% (10th)

Eagles 2013 Overall DVOA: 15.2% (8th)

Redkins 2014 Overall DVOA: 40.4% (2nd)

Redskins 2013 Overall DVOA: -26.2% (29th)

As you can see, the Redskins’ performance this year has been a lot more surprising than the Eagles’.  More important, though, is the magnitude of Washington’s performance swing.  It’s extremely unlikely that Washington has gone from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best teams in one season.  Rather, Washington is benefiting from last week’s annihilation of Jacksonville, as well as it’s strong defensive performance thus far.  By FO’s metrics, Washington has had the best defensive performance in the league so far, by a very big margin.

Maybe the team really is that good, but I’m very skeptical.  Instead, I think Washington just hasn’t faced a decent offense yet.  Obviously, that’s about to change.

Despite the small sample of games, we do actually have one that would seem to have decent informational value.  Both the Eagles and Redskins have played the Jaguars.  The Redskins performed much better against them than the Eagles did.  That’s the biggest note of caution heading into this game.   From a handicapping perspective, we also have to deal with two major sources of uncertainty: Kirk Cousins and Mychal Kendricks.

Cousins will start, Kendricks has been ruled out.  Of the two, I’m much more worried about Kendricks’ absence.  With an Eagles hole at ILB, Washington has a clear invitation to put the game in Alfred Morris‘ hands.  That could make things very difficult for the Eagles.  Not only could Morris gash the middle of the defense, but a strong running performance would also keep the Eagles offense off the field.  In the first two games, the Eagles started slowly but figured things out.  Unfortunately, that method requires a lot of possessions.  I’m not that confident they’ll get them tomorrow.

That brings us to what I believe is the biggest question for tomorrow’s game:

Can the Eagles offense click early?

If it can, then I don’t think Jay Gruden will have the discipline to stick with the running game.  Despite what Washington fans want to believe, Kirk Cousins is probably not a great QB, and putting the game in his hands versus Morris’ would be great for the Eagles.

From a personnel perspective, Ryan Kerrigan is the only player that stands out as a potential headache for the Eagles on offense.  He’s had 8.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons and already has 4 this season.  At 26 years old, Kerrigan might be starting a “breakthrough” season, and the Eagles patchwork O-Line probably isn’t going to stand-up too well against him.  This is really up to Chip Kelly.  So far, I don’t think Kelly has done a good job of playing to his personnel.  Many of his play calls appear to be straight from the gameplan as it looked when the O-Line was completely healthy. He’s gotten away with it because neither the Colts nor the Jaguars have any real pass rushers.

So, second question: Do you think Chip will adjust his game plan this week?

Call me an optimist, by I think the answer is yes.  Chip has hopefully been scared straight by the back to back close games and inconsistent offense.  Moreover, it’s a divisional game, meaning “win at all costs” really is the mindset.

Given that assumption, I think the Eagles put up 25-30 points.  For a specific prediction, that gives us 27.5.  I’ll round down to 27 to make things simpler.  I’m counting a lot on the Redskins from last year reappearing on defense and for Kerrigan to be somewhat contained.  If Foles can remember how to complete open passes, mid-high twenties seems like the most likely outcome.  Additionally, Washington’s special teams has not been good this year, ranking 28th by FO.  While I would normally caution against relying on a 2 game sample, we can be more confident here because Washington ranked 32nd in the league last year.  With Sproles’ strong performance as a punt returner so far, the Eagles should be looking at good field position most of th day, meaning it won’t take much to get in scoring range, even if it’s for FGs instead of TDs.

On the other side, it really comes down to whether or not the Eagles LBs can stand up without Kendricks’ athleticism.  In general, though, I’d much rather lose him against a power rushing team than against a passing offense or one with a strong TE threat.  While I’m worried about Morris, I really don’t believe in Cousins. He’s only thrown 236 passes in the NFL, so we can’t be sure of anything with him.  However, a 57.6% completion rate is worrisome.  So is a 10 – 10 TD/INT ratio and a 74.3 Rating.  Those aren’t terrible numbers for a rookie as far as future projection goes, but for a one week projection, they don’t scream “offensive explosion”.

With the Eagles D-Line looking strong, I’m projecting Washington for 21 points.

Putting it together, that means I’ve got a projection of Eagles 27, Redkins 21.  BUT, remember my projection before rounding off was for the Eagles to score 27.5.  Unfortunately, that puts us right on the 6.5 line.  In other words, I think Vegas has this one right.  So my official stance is Redskins +6, but that’s a low confidence bet.  For the over/under, I’m taking the Under 50.  Not too much wiggle-room in this one either, and a backdoor over is clearly in play, but that’s where we’re at.

Lastly, post-merger, teams favored by 6.5 at home have won the game 65% of the time (n=291).

 

Wild Card Weekend: Eagles v. Saints Pre-game Notes

Finally here. I don’t know about you, but it feels like the Dallas game was a LONG time ago. In no particular order, here are some things to think about heading into tonight’s game:

– Brian Burke from AdvancedNFLStats.com has done some research on dome teams playing in cold weather.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s really good news for Eagles fans.

– I tweeted this yesterday, but since 2005, home teams that were 2.5 point favorites have won 50.6% of the time.  Combined with the variance numbers I showed you yesterday in my odds breakdown, that mean tonight really is a “anything can happen” game.  It could be a blow out for either team and it wouldn’t surprise me.

– Jimmy Graham gets a lot of attention, but you should worry more about Darren Sproles.  Graham is going to do damage, there’s almost no way around it.  However, it’s the secondary weapons we have to eliminate.  Sproles tops the list because the Eagles just don’t seem that concerned with RBs out of the backfield.  Also, I feel like I’m the only one harping on Kenny Stills.  He’s a rookie and he didn’t have that many catches this year (32), but he averaged 20 yards per reception and scored 5 TDs.  Anytime Stills is one-on-one with a safety I’ll be holding my breath.

– Lots of comments on my Blitz Theory post, some of them very good, some of them dumb as hell (at BGN, not here).  It needs work, but a lot of people have asked how I would apply it to Drew Brees.  Drew Brees is a great QB, therefore minimizing time becomes vital.  He just won’t miss many windows if he has time to throw, so sitting back in coverage is dangerous.  So don’t be upset if Davis blitzes a fair amount.  HOWEVER, one thing I didn’t discuss was TYPE of blitz.  That’s a whole different analysis.  Against Brees, I’m terrified of the CB and S blitz.  I wouldn’t use them.

The Double-A gap blitz that Davis also likes is very risky, since Brees is smart enough to diagnose it quickly and it leaves a lot of open space for him to hit.  BUT, remember that Brees is pretty short (6’0″…maybe).  That means it’s tougher for him to throw over people. If the blitzers are cognisant of that (get their hands up), the Double-A blitz may not be as bad a call as it seems.  Of course, it should be used sparingly and only when the Eagles NEED a big play.

– Keep an eye on the kickers.  This shapes up to be a close game, and in very cold weather, kicking is more difficult (especially distance).  Alex Henery has been good recently, but I still don’t trust him from beyond 40 yards.  However, the Saints haven’t exactly been consistent in that department either.  They fired their kicker (Garrett Hartley) and signed Shayne Graham in week 16.  Graham doesn’t have a cannon either.   His career long is 53 yards, though he did hit nine 50-51 yard FGs last year for the Texans (his previous season high was 4).

A side effect of both kicking games is that we’re likely to see several 4th down conversion attempts.  I just don’t see either of these guys attempting a 50 yard FG.  As unfortunate as it would be, the game might come down to which team converts (in other words…luck, well mostly).

– I’m going to keep saying it until it happens:  A surprise onside kick would be huge.  With a bad defense (Eagles) going against a very good offense (Saints), field position means relatively little.  In other words, the 25 yards you sacrifice from NOT recovering an onside kick doesn’t mean that much.  I’d gladly trade that for a close to 50/50 chance at stealing a possession.

Note: The Eagles ARE still a bad defense.  A lot of people have been arguing otherwise, but Football Outsiders has them ranked 23rd by DVOA (they finished 26th last year).  The team has been trending significant upwards (ranked 12th after week 9 I believe), but remember all of the key offensive players the Eagles haven’t had to play against due to injury.  Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Demarco Murray, Reggie Bush….

– I’m leaving it there.  You can find all of the normal pre-game analysis elsewhere.  This game has all the ingredients for a true classic, hopefully it lives up to its potential (with an Eagles win of course).

Week 17: Eagles vs. Cowboys Pre-Game Notes

Win or go home; the playoffs start today for the Eagles.  As I wrote in my breakdown, the Eagles are, deservedly, significant favorites and are likely to win.  However, that doesn’t mean they will. Here’s where thinking probabilistically becomes difficult for many fans and commentators.

According to Vegas, if this game was played a very large number of times, we would expect the Eagles to win about 70% of the time.  That’s a LOT.  Moreover, I think the line is too low.  At my line, I’ve got the Eagles between 75-83%.  Very encouraging, but it raises an interesting question:

If the Eagles lose, did they “choke”?

Let’s assume for a moment that the Eagles do lose tonight.  The low-level analysis will involve “choking” and talk about things like cracking under the pressure or Chip Kelly not being ready for such a big game.  Mostly, it will revolve around one supposed fact, that the Eagles SHOULD win this game.   Read that again:

The Eagles SHOULD win this game.

It sounds right, but it’s complete bullshit.  That’s not how the sport (or the probabilities the sport is based on) works.  The correct way to say it is that, ex-ante, we know that the Eagles are LIKELY to win.  The problem with “should” is that it implies a level of control that the team simply doesn’t have, regardless of what generic sportswriters would have you believe.

Let’s use an analogy.  Imagine you’re playing poker (Texas Hold ‘Em).  You’re heads up, looking at the river.  There are no more strategic moves to be made, the outcome of the hand depends entirely on which card comes out.  Of all the cards remaining in the deck, 75% of them will result in a Win, 25% a loss.

If a Loss card comes out, did you “choke”?  Similarly, before the card is drawn, “should” you win?

Of course not, that’s ridiculous.  The fact is, the entire strategy of Poker (and many games/sports in general) is to shift the odds in your favor as much as possible (and maximize the expected payout when you do).  Unfortunately, that’s all you’re doing, shifting the odds.  As anyone who truly understands what that means knows, even after you’ve shifted the odds, there is still a chance for a loss.  In Poker, it’s sometimes called a Bad Beat.

Circling back to the game tonight, if the Eagles lose, it may just be a Bad Beat.  The Eagles are the better team, but if they played tonight’s game a large number of times, they’d STILL LOSE a decent percentage of the time (30% according to the spread).  Just as the Eagles MUST win a large majority of the games if it played a large series, they also MUST lose as well.  Unfortunately (when you’re a favorite), you don’t get a series, you get one game.

The ball takes lucky/unlucky bounces.  The refs don’t see everything correctly.  Players will have bad games, coaches will have bad games.  They are not robots, their performance varies.  If those bad games coincidentally happen to occur when the stakes are high, the knee-jerk reaction is to say the player/coach “choked”.  Or to somehow imply that the stakes themselves forced them into a sub-optimal performance.  I’m not ruling this out.  It’s possible, and it may even be probable (at the extreme margins).  However, it’s much more likely that they simply caught a Bad Beat.

As anyone who plays poker knows, when that happens, the “right” thing to do is to shake your head and check your calculations.  If they were correct, you don’t do anything different the next time (unless you really did screw up), even though the results this time were bad.  Process, not outcome.

Now, a few actual notes:

– The Eagles are 7 point favorites. E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C.  That means, at least to start, they should be playing a relatively low-variance game.  Over any stretch of time, we expect the Eagles to outplay the Cowboys.  That puts the onus on Dallas to change the conditions.  Note though, that at 7 points, all that would take is an early TD from Dallas.

– Don’t let Dez Bryant beat you.  He’s the only elite weapon the Cowboys have.  Demarco Murray is having a good year, but if the Eagles offense performs anywhere close to expectations, Murray isn’t going to be able to keep the Cowboys in the game.

– Don’t get blitz-happy.  A frequent reaction to a back-up QB is to blitz him.  Yes, getting pressure on Orton is important, but when you blitz, you actually make it EASIER for receivers to get open, you just (hopefully) diminish the time the QB has to make that decision.  If I were calling the game, I’d want to see if Orton can move the ball against the base defense before dialing up an blitzes.  Remember, blitzing is a high-variance move.  If you’re a big favorite, you should blitz sparingly.

– Don’t get sloppy.  Penalties and turnovers can equalize a skill-advantage pretty quickly.  There’s no reason to believe either will be a problem, but that doesn’t mean the players shouldn’t be reminded to play under control (Cary Williams especially).  The Eagles have averaged 53.4 penalty yards per game this season, Dallas averages 57.5.    Similarly, both teams have averaged +0.7 turnovers per game, which is 4th best in the league (7-way tie).

– Watch out for “David” strategies.  We’ve looked at these from the underdog’s perspective, but since Dallas is in that position tonight, it’s a good chance to view things from the other perspective.  So, watch out for surprise-onside kicks or fake punts.  Expect a few 4th down plays.  Prepare to be blitzed.  I don’t think Garrett has the balls (or brains) to fully deploy these strategies, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see one or two instances. They’re high-risk/high-reward; the Eagles really want to focus on that high-risk part.

– Enjoy.  This has been a lot of fun, and regardless of what happens, Eagles fans should be pretty excited about the Chip Kelly era.  The team has already met my expectations (surpassed them in some respects), so it’d be silly to consider the season anything less than a great success, no matter what the outcome of tonight’s game is.

That said, it’s Dallas, the Eagles are the better team, and it’s for a playoff spot.  I think the Eagles roll.

Eagles v. Lions: Pre-Game Notes

A few thoughts on today’s game, after which the Eagles could be in sole position of 1st place (I think Chicago’s got a good shot to knock of Dallas).

– Depending on the weather, this is a game where the general strategy should be more “aggressive” than usual.  We’ve got a great offense against a mediocre defense (Eagles v. Detroit) and a mediocre offense against a bad defense.  In both cases, we expect the offense to have a significant advantage, that’s why most people are projecting a shootout. That means field position has less relative value than normal.  For example, giving Detroit the ball at the 20 yard line isn’t worth that much more than giving them the ball at the 40 yard line (their’s).

In other words, the bar for going for it on 4th down should be lower, and TDs should be prized more heavily than usual over field goals.  Also, it’s a great game for a surprise onside kick.

If the weather is awful, it changes things a bit, but that depends on what type of bad weather there is.  If the offenses are unimpaired, then the “right” play is to be aggressive, because you have to assume Detroit is going to move the ball well against the defense.

– Tough test for the O-Line.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but the Lions have perhaps the best DT combo in the league (Suh and Fairley), with rookie Ziggy Ansah at DE (remember him? he was the #1 prospect on my TPR rankings).   Together, those three have 16 sacks, with 9 coming from the DTs.  They’re going to get pressure today, the key is how difficult it is for them.  If they can consistently give Foles problems with just 4 d-linemen, the Eagles are in trouble.

The plus side is that the Lions d-line is very aggressive (wide-9 anyone?), meaning it can be pulled out of position with misdirection, which just happens to be the Eagles’ specialty. I’m expecting a lot of PA, back-side screens, and maybe an end-around.  Ansah and Suh are going to get upfield regardless, might as well take advantage of it.

– Can the Eagles get pressure?  Perhaps the most surprising Lions stat of all is Matt Stafford’s sack percentage this year.  He leads the league at just 2.9%.  Foles, by comparison, is at 8%.  He also throws the ball more than anyone else in the league.  Today is the toughest test for the Eagles defense since it played Denver..and we all know how that turned out.  By DVOA, Dallas ranks higher than Detroit, but based on the match ups, I think Detroit poses more problems for the Eagles.  Patrick Chung needs to have a much better game than last week, and the LBs have to be very alert for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as receivers out of the backfield (they have a combined 79 receptions).

I expect the Lions to score a lot.  The key for the Eagles is to create a turnover or two so the offense has extra possessions to keep up/go ahead.  Any drive that ends in a Lions field goal is a success.

– The Eagles play the Vikings next week….That means a win today likely gets them to 9-5 going into that last two games of the year (Chicago and Dallas).  Basically, a win today up the expected win total to 10 wins, and 10 wins probably gets you the division title.  See what I’m saying?  If Aaron Rodgers come back next week to play the Cowboys, a win today might make the final game of the year a moot point.  So yeah, it’s pretty important.

I’ll leave it there for now.  I think the Eagles are SLIGHTLY more likely to win (if you saw my odds column on BGN, I had the Eagles -2 in my projection), but it’s close enough that a single turnover or STs return could make the difference (or onside kick!).  Good luck to anyone at the game…it’s days like this I’m happy I don’t have tickets.

Eagles vs. Raiders: Pre-Game Notes

We’re entering the second half of the Eagles schedule, and I think it’s safe to say that while some questions have been answered (Chip’s offense works, Barkley fell for a reason,    Cole/Graham are not the answer at OLB, etc…) many more persist.  Unfortunately, the Eagles look like they’re too good to secure a top draft pick and too bad to really threaten anyone in the playoffs.  still plenty of time for that to change, but for now, it’s best to focus on the questions we CAN answer, or should be able to.  For today, mine look like this:

– What’s Nick Foles’ ceiling?  Let’s start with the obvious one.  He’s either a starting caliber QB with good accuracy and the ability to consistently pilot the team on scoring drives, a solid backup who can step in for short stretches and avoid turnovers, or completely overmatched (see Dallas game).  We’re not going to answer that definitively today, but every start Foles gets is another piece of evidence with which to judge his potential.  I don’t think he’s Chip Kelly’s “guy”, but if he plays well he may have some trade value or at least provide a viable enough option that Chip can take his time to find “his guy” instead of reaching for one in next year’s draft.

– What’s Bennie Logan’s deal?  I didn’t like this pick when the Eagles made it, but that was more value-based than commentary on Logan’s potential.  With Sopoaga gone, Logan knows the job is his if he can handle it.  He’s still a bit undersized, so he might deserve some leeway until he fully adjusts; but make no mistake, the clock’s ticking.  I don’t know how Davis or Kelly feel about the NT position, but in my opinion, it’s an area where you can’t settle for just adequate.  So keep an eye on Logan and see how often he “flashes” above-average potential.

– Is the defensive improvement an aberration, or has Davis figured a few things out?  A lot of people are claiming the Eagles have turned a corner of defense…I’m not so sure.  They’ve benefited from facing some very bad offenses recently (Giants twice, Bucs). Of course, you can only beat who you play, so we can’t write the performances off entirely, but it’s something to keep an mind.  Unfortunately (for an answer, not for the Eagles), Oakland isn’t a very good offense either.  They’ve looked a bit more dangerous with Pryor under center, but they still rank 28th overall in DVOA (Football Outsiders).  In particular, the Raiders’ passing game has struggled (30th by DVOA).  So, if the Eagles really have improved on defense, they should have another strong game today.  However, even if they do, we should probably still be skeptical.

– What is Chip Kelly’s strategic philosophy?  I thought he’d be more “aggressive”, making higher-risk calls when the associated return warranted it (think optimizing expected points).  I also thought he’d be more aggressive on 4th downs.  That hasn’t really panned out, but we don’t know exactly why.  My guess is that if he had “his guy” at QB, we’d see a lot more of that stuff.  This team’s got a lot of weaknesses, and it’s possible Chip just doesn’t trust it enough to execute.  Or, I and many others just misread Kelly and he’ll be much more conventional when it comes to strategic decisions than I’d hoped.  This question, in particular, will not be answerable for quite some time. However, it’s arguably the most important one I’ve posed here, so we’ve got to look for hints of an answer every game.

I’ll leave it there for now.  As far as the game goes, I think it’s simple, if Foles can split the difference between his performances against the Bucs and Cowboys, the Eagles win.  If he’s worse, they lose, barring a corresponding bad game from Pryor.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys play the Vikings, so a loss today for the Eagles will probably leave them 2 games out of the division race.