Confidence is an NFL gambling preview, using advanced statistics, matchup analysis and other metrics to create predictions readers can use at their discretion.
Since you clicked here you must have at least a scintilla of interest in looking at the game from the shark tank, so to speak.
Introductions are so 20th century. Just call me ‘Confidence’. I’ll be your guide to the art of looking at the game from the numbers perspective. Specifically, we are going to be talking about gambling, but only in imaginary units. These units are not tied to any sort of monetary value – consider them as the currency of Confidence. So, what do I specialize in? Taking available advanced stats, observing movements in the lines, and adding my own secret sauce of additional correlations that help to correctly predict a game.
Advanced Stats & Methodology
There are plenty of web sites out there but ProFootballFocus.com and FootballOutsiders.com are my primary resources. FO and PFF both do excellent work in different ways and the subscription cost has paid for itself in Confidence.
Football Outsiders uses a stat called defense-adjusted value over average, or DVOA:
DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.
The negatives? DVOA is a hybrid statistic that is both predictive and descriptive. The problem is that descriptive events are not always predictive going forward. Look at how they value fumbles:
A fumble is worth anywhere from -1.7 to -4.0 points depending on how often a fumble in that situation is lost to the defense — no matter who actually recovers the fumble.
But are fumbles predictive, especially those scored in such a precise way? That’s a small but significant part of their model. There are other examples, like how they value penalties and offensive or defensive success differently by significantly weighting red-zone performance, which might not be appropriate on a predictive basis. That makes DVOA an excellent starting point, but not definitive. DVOA can’t sufficiently adjust for scheme and scouting matchups, but Football Outsiders does incorporate stats for offensive and defensive lines, sack rates, and run blocking, along with metrics for the secondary including performance against WR1, RB, and TE.
Pro Football Focus uses a +/- grading system:
The goal of our detailed grading process is to gauge how players execute their roles over the course of a game by looking at the performance of each individual on each play. We look beyond the stat sheet at game footage to try to gain an understanding of how well a lineman is blocking on a given play, how much space and help a runner is being given on a play, how effectively a pass rusher brings pressure or how well a defender covers a receiver.
We collect lots of extra statistics such as yards after catch, yards after contact, missed tackles, dropped passes etc., but our real focus is on grading individual performance on each play. Did an offensive lineman seal his block to spring the runner through a hole? Did a defensive lineman beat his block to force a runner to change the play direction in the backfield? Was the crucial third-down completion due to the quarterback beating the coverage or a breakdown in coverage?
We examine not just the statistical result of a play, but the context of that statistic. The defensive tackle may have made a tackle on a play, but if it was 3rd-and-5 and he got blown 4 yards off of the ball to make the tackle after a 6-yard gain, that’s not a good play. This allows us to present a unique set of statistics for individual player performance in each game. We present base statistics alongside more advanced statistics together with a grade for every player. The marks are presented as overall composite grades but are also broken down in a number of key areas:.
• Passing and receiving
• Pass protection
• Run blocking
• Screen blocking
• Run defense
• Pass rushing
• Pass coverage
Sounds pretty good, right? The problems: There is no adjusting for quality of opposition. Take this hypothetical: If I have an average offensive line, but play all 16 games against well-below-average defenses, my line is going to appear Hall of Fame-caliber through the +/- system. Unlike DVOA, the stat is also subject to human error, with positional success defined through visual observation. However, PFF’s individual player stats, while subject to the same limitations as their team stats, can illustrate how good a veteran player is now by assessing his last 2-3 years. As for rookies and emerging players, take PFF with a grain of salt but it is a decent barometer.
This is kind of like a wrap. I have my hearty tortilla that holds everything together (team stats, DVOA, and FO.com.) I also have the seasoned vegan patties (the individual players,+/- and other signature PFF stats.) But the package needs something more than a slice of grilled eggplant, which brings us to the final ingredient…
The secret sauce, which examines six factors:
1. Offensive lines vs defensive lines.
2. Secondary vs. receivers.
3. Schemes, coaching, and other relevant matchups. For example, what if a team excels at stopping a WR1 but struggles against TEs? When they face an opponent with a dynamic TE you want to consider that.
4. Injuries, performance, and anything in the day-to-day grind that could have an impact.
5. History, travel, game time, etc. It is surprising how useful this can be.
6. Variance ratings. This might be the most important factor. It’s a FO stat that measures how consistent a team is from week to week. I try to stay away from games featuring a team with high variance. Why? Well, if a team has a DVOA overall rating of 5.3% but have a high variance, that means they have played games far above 5.3% but also far below that figure. You want to bet on something consistent unless there’s no good explanation for it (for instance, Aaron Rodgers was hurt for half of 2013).
Week 1 General Disclaimer
It’s hard for a mathematically-inclined gambler to go full force into a season with a sample size of zero. I don’t put a ton of stock into the prior year or the pre-season. There are injuries, personnel turnover, coaching changes, schematic changes, and players taking on different roles and responsibilities.
This is a problem for most sports stats and odds-making web sites. One such site (which we respect and admire so much they shall remain nameless) went 3-12-1 last year. Their top 9 picks, in order of confidence, went 0-8-1. Ouch. So be careful in Week 1. I tread exceedingly lightly and pick my spots even more selectively than usual.
Monday Night Preview:
Game 1: DETROIT LIONS -5.5 vs. NEW YORK GIANTS
DETROIT: Detroit’s defense features a great front seven and a pass rush starring Ndamukong Suh. Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah add to the pass rush, but Kyle Van Noy (their 2nd round pick this year) is on the short-term IR. The secondary is somewhat suspect, with Rashean Mathis as their CB1, Glover Quin at FS, and ex-Patriot James Ihedigbo at SS. On offense they have average tackles, a strong interior offensive line, a great pair of RBs, and Matthew Stafford with all his glorious inconsistency at QB. Receivers include Megatron (aka Calvin Johnson) at WR1 and Golden Tate at WR2 plus a possible trio of pass-catching tight ends in 2014 first round pick Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. Yeah, they’re going to be pretty good on offense.
PFF and FO disagree on the Lions, with PFF grading both the offensive and defensive units higher. I side with PFF on this one. Detroit projects as an inconsistent and underachieving 9-7 team with the potential for a 12-4 or 11-5 season, but let’s see what the new coaching staff does. DVOA has Detroit 27th overall at -7.3%. Their Defense is 25th at 3.0% and the offense is 18th at -2.2%. While I don’t know how much the Lions’ front seven will compensate for a mediocre secondary or how disciplined they will be, I think 25th is a bit low on defense. I have them in the middle of the pack. On offense I can’t see Detroit lower than 13th.
NEW YORK: Let’s start with their offensive line. Chris Snee retired and Geoff Schwartz, their best lineman, is on the short-term IR. Will Beatty is about average for LT, but he was better in 2012 than he was last year. Justin Pugh is also adequate for an RT. Their interior has rookie Weston Richburg at one G, J.D. Walton at C, and Charles Brown at the other G. That projects as a pretty bad line this week. At WR they have Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, and Mario Manningham. With rookie Odell Beckham Jr. not expected to see action, that’s not an inspiring trio. The Giants’ situation at RB is also less than ideal. Eli Manning is going to have another year looking at the ceiling from his backside.
PFF and FO disagree over the Giants’ defense. PFF evaluates their front seven as having only one above-average player (DE Jason Pierre-Paul). I am more bullish, especially on DE Robert Ayers, DT Cullen Jenkins, LB Jacquian Williams and DT Johnathan Hankins. However, because some of those guys need more seasoning the defense should improve over the course of the season. Their secondary is a strength led by Prince Amukamara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Antrel Rolle.
DVOA rates the Giants 22nd overall at -5.8%, with the Defense 3rd at -5.6% and the offense 31st at -11.1%. I think their offense will be in the bottom third but I see their defense more as a top 12-15 group than a top-5 unit.
When Detroit Has the Ball:
The Lions’ O-Line and Giants’ D-Line are roughly equal and I can buy arguments on both sides as to who has the advantage. Expect New York to get some pressure. The Lions’ abundance of elite skill players is going to test and stretch the Giants talented secondary. Commit two defenders to Megatron and all of a sudden one of their other 1A options is open or in single coverage. As long as the offensive line holds up, Stafford is going to have his choice of targets. Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are both solidly above-average RBs and will make the most of a good line-versus-line battle.
Advantage in Running Game: Detroit Offense (slight edge)
Advantage in Passing Game: Detroit Offense
When New York the Ball:
Detroit’s D-Line is going to eat the Giants’ O-Line alive. Manning is going to be sacked at least 5 times and will be under pressure all day. His checkdown options are limited, too. Quickly exploiting the Lions’ secondary is their only chance, but I don’t see that in the cards. The Giants are short on skilled position players as well.
Advantage in Running Game: Detroit Defense
Advantage in Passing Game: Detroit Defense (slight edge thanks to pass rush)
The Spread: DET -5.5
The Call: Nice line. I’d stay the heck away from this matchup but I like the Lions here. The more I think about this game, the more confidence I have on DET -5.5 but oddly enough I don’t think I’d tease them. Again, I’d stay away.
Game 2: ARIZONA -3.5/-3 vs. SAN DIEGO
SAN DIEGO: I like the Chargers as the AFC’s #2 wild card winner and have them slotted to play 11-5 ball. Why? The Bolts played significantly better on defense during the second half of last season. Their offense is very solid. The Chargers are average to above average at every position except RG on the offensive line. Philip Rivers can be a top 5-10 QB, their RB’s are versatile and skilled, and they have very good receiving options in Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd, and Keenan Allen, plus Danny Woodhead in the slot. On defense they have a below-average front seven but a good secondary that could be even better if Richard Marshall bounces back and Jason Verrett has a strong rookie year. And unless San Diego can squeeze some life into their pass rush, their secondary will have to be good in order to pick up the slack.
DVOA ranks San Diego 6th overall at 10.4%, with the defense 30th at 5.7% and the offense 3rd at 16.2%. PFF and FO both see the Chargers the same way. I’m slightly more bullish on their defense because I think their secondary is going to be better than last year. I really like Verrett too.
ARIZONA: I liked the Cardinals last year, but I’m not optimistic about 2014. They play in a strong division which is going to give them a rough go of it early in the season. I have them around 7-9 this year. Why? The Cards once again have an average offensive line. I like Jared Veldheer as an above-average LT, but the rest of their line? U-G-L-Y! For receivers, they have three good branded wideouts but unless Troy Niklas surprises me they lack a pass-catching TE. Andre Ellington looks good as a RB but with such a bad line it is unlikely he finds much running room. On defense they are banged up and experienced a lot of turnover from last year in their front 7. Darnell Dockett is out for the year. Daryl Washington is suspended for the season. They lost Karlos Dansby to free agency. Tyrann Mathieu will play, but with an injured knee. The problem is the Cardinals only have three average-to-elite players in their front 7. Calais Campbell is a beast. John Abraham can still rush the passer and Dan Williams is an average-to-good NT, but the rest of that front seven is utter garbage. Their secondary is terrific.
DVOA rates Arizona 20th overall at -4.4%, with the defense 14th at -0.8% and the offense 21st at -4.6%.
When San Diego Has the Ball:
The Chargers’ offensive line projects to be better than Arizona’s defensive line. Yes, it will be strength-on-strength with San Diego’s receivers against the Cardinals’ secondary, but if Rivers has time that’s not a battle Arizona can win in the long run. The Chargers should be able to run the ball as well, which will force the Cardinals to commit more to the run and open up the passing game.
Advantage in Running Game: San Diego Offense
Advantage in Passing Game: San Diego Offense
When Arizona Has the Ball:
Luckily for the Cardinals, San Diego has a terrible front seven. But when garbage goes against garbage neither side really controls things. WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd will be countered by Verrett and CB Brandon Flowers with FS Eric Weddle also in coverage. That’s not an ideal matchup for the Cards. I’m not sure how successful Arizona will be running the ball. As the lines cancel themselves out, it puts a lot of pressure on Ellington. Even though San Diego has a bad defense they actually match up decently with the Cardinals.
Advantage in Running Game: Arizona Offense (slight edge)
Advantage in Passing Game: Arizona Offense (slight edge)
The Spread: SD +3.5
The Call: I like the Chargers to win the game outright I’ll gladly take the points. I’d also tease them. I can see Arizona scoring on San Diego with Campbell and Williams controlling the line enough for the Chargers to lose and not cover, but that seems an unlikely outcome.
Until next time, this has been CONFIDENCE. Good luck out there.