Sunday Wild Card Stat Previews

SUNDAY WILDCARD STAT PREVIEWS

Day Two of the NFL Playoffs brings the most anticipated postseason matchups. The early game matching the Falcons and Giants will launch a legitimate championship darkhorse into the divisional round next week. The nightcap between Pittsburgh and Denver will write the next chapter of the Tim Tebow story...and possibly the Ben Roethlisberger story as well.

Today in the NOTEBOOK we'll be crunching our standard indicator stats in the NFL. Don't forget that Monday's report will do the same for the long awaited (and we mean...LONG awaited) Alabama-LSU game in the BCS Championship.

Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you never miss the important stat keys!

We start with the early kick at the new Meadowlands stadium. Eli Manning will be carrying the full burden of New York hopes on his shoulders since the Jets couldn't even reach the postseason...

ATLANTA AT NY GIANTS (1 p.m. ET on FOX)
Vegas Line: NY Giants by 3, total of 47.5

As we mentioned yesterday with Cincy/Houston...a playoff spread showing the home team by three points suggests true equality in the teams. This game would probably be pick-em on a neutral field. It's worth noting though that the money is shading toward the Falcons at +3, which is causing some outlets to charge extra juice on Atlanta +3, or extra juice on the NYG -2.5. The total of 47.5 is high for a playoff game in this city. The Giants and Jets have recent histories that emphasize defense and the running game. This year's Giants squad is more like recent New England squads...a lot of big pass plays but an inconsistent defense. We have a high total as a result.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Atlanta: 21st
NY Giants: 6th

We always try to remember to mention up front that our strength of schedule ratings in pro and college football come from Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA Today. Credit where it's due! We may occasionally disagree...but his numbers are usually very solid in this area. Big edge for the Giants. And, unlike Detroit heading into yesterday's game, recent form isn't suggesting fatigue from the brutal schedule. New York beat Dallas easily last week, and took care of business against the cross-town Jets not long before that. As we run through the remaining numbers, we need to give a boost to the Giants because their achievements came against a tougher slate.

DRIVE POINTS
Atlanta: 14.1 on offense, 13.5 on defense (+0.6 differential)
NY Giants: 17.3 on offense, 14.8 on defense (+2.5 differential)

That's about two points per game better for the hosts in differential. That would suggest a spread of FIVE rather than just three, before you even made any consideration for home field advantage! Perhaps this is a sign up front that the Giants are going to offer value. You'll have to determine whether the potential fatigue from a tough month hits them this week. We'll say this...we don't think there's a general recognition that the Giants have played this well against a killer schedule. Back in August and September, everyone was talking about their killer schedule...and how it was probably going to keep them out of the playoffs (this is when the Eagles were a "sure thing" to win the NFC). Now that it's January, let's not forget the killer schedule...and the fact that Eli Manning led his team to a shade over 17 Drive Points per game against that slate.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Atlanta: 44% on offense, 44% on defense (0 differential)
NY Giants: 37% on offense, 38% on defense (-1 differential)

Nothing too impressive here. But we are talking about a Wildcard team and a divisional winner with a borderline won-lost record. We scoot the edge over to the Giants though thanks to strength of schedule. If the Falcons have the slightest edges unadjusted, then the Giants must be the better squad in this area. We have to say though that we're not impressed with Eli Manning in this regard. It's typically veteran quarterbacks who thrive in this stat. Eli didn't thrive. But, the Giants defense has such a big edge over the Atlanta defense that we will still give a category edge to NYG. Defense wins playoff games, particularly when it's the home team with the better defense.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Atlanta: +8 (29 takeaways, 21 giveaways)
NY Giants: +7 (31 takeaways, 24 giveaways)

Basically a wash. Both defenses did a good job of forcing mistakes this year. Eli did a worse job of avoiding them. So, it's certainly possible that Eli interceptions or fumbles will counteract the edges NYG have established in the earlier categories. Most of the bad games the Giants suffered through this year hinged on miscues from the younger Manning.

ADDING IT ALL UP: Typical Giants game in the sense that a sharp Eli Manning would probably engineer a victory, and a mistake-prone Eli Manning would self destruct in defeat. Does Atlanta matter at all? They obviously do. But, they seem to be the more consistent side. Matt Ryan is a known quantity, while Eli Manning fluctuates wildly from week to week. Successful handicapping in this instance could largely rely on anticipating how well Manning plays. We're working very closely with our New York sources to pin down best expectations.

PITTSBURGH AT DENVER (4:30 p.m. ET on CBS)
Vegas Line: Pittsburgh by 9, total of 34

This is a huge line for a road favorite in the first weekend of playoff action. Pittsburgh is laying nine on the ROAD, which means they'd be -12 at a neutral site, and -15 at home. Is Pittsburgh really that good with Ben Roethlisberger limping around so badly? Is Denver really that bad given how competitive they were during that initial surge with Tim Tebow running the show? A very low total of 34, suggesting a defensive battle. You don't often see high favorites with low totals. But, this combo isn't as extreme at it seems. The projected "final score" is 21.5 to 12.5. There's room for a Favorite and Under combo with a 21-10 finish. Or, 20-7, something like that. Note that, if Denver makes it to 13 points though, Favorite and Under becomes impossible at those numbers.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Pittsburgh: 26th
Denver: 8th

Denver's schedule strength is an odd story. Tim Tebow's miracle run largely came as a result of nailbiter wins over non-playoff teams. The schedule was tough early, when Kyle Orton was still the quarterback. That's a bit of a monkey wrench for dealing with today's stats. Denver's probably better than their stats...but we've all seen with our own eyes that Tebow really struggles vs. good defenses.

DRIVE POINTS
Pittsburgh: 12.8 on offense, 8.1 on defense (+4.7 differential)
Denver: 11.1 on offense, 12.9 on defense (-1.8 differential)

And...Tebow's very likely to struggle against a great defense like Pittsburgh's! The Steelers are allowing only 8.1 points per game all year on long drives. Tebow doesn't engineer long drives vs. quality. Before we get carried away with what seems to be Denver's helplessness, let's remember that Pittsburgh may have some troubles of their own scoring enough to cover. If you've been watching all the big TV games...you've seen A LOT of Pittsburgh grinding out low scoring wins vs. non-playoff teams. That 12.8 average has come in fits and starts...and some of the fits came with a limping Roethlisberger. Denver's defense is capable of keeping Pittsburgh out of the end zone for long stretches of time...and that gives the Broncos a chance to cover this high number.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Pittsburgh: 46% on offense, 39% on defense (+7 differential)
Denver: 31% on offense, 34% on defense (-3 differential)

Possibly the key to the straight up win if Pittsburgh grinds things out as expected. Big Ben knows how to move the chains. Tebow occasionally breaks nice runs that move the chains...but he can't really accomplish this on demand vs. quality defenses. Pittsburgh is such a big favorite because this stat gives them such a good chance to control the flow of the game.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Pittsburgh: -9 (15 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
Denver: -12 (18 takeaways, 30 giveaways)

We've mentioned a few times that one of the biggest surprises in all of the NFL this year is Pittsburgh's horrible turnover differential. This is supposed to be a defense that scares opponents to death because the force turnovers and force punts. This year, it's just punts against the worst offenses, and their full season third down number is below average for the league as a whole. If you go to a much larger sample size, and list Tebow as a "rookie" and Roethlisberger as a "proven veteran," then Pittsburgh should own this category. You just can't make that case with this year's numbers.

ADDING IT ALL UP
It would be fun if a bunch of surprise plays break this game wide open. And, who knows...maybe the football gods aren't ready to close the book on Tebow's season just yet. But, the evidence very clearly points to a grinder game which Pittsburgh controls and eventually wins. We've seen a lot of those already. Denver fits right into that wheelhouse. You'll have to sign up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK to see if we have any surprises of our own planned for this game!

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Back with you Monday for the BCS Championship Game. JIM HURLEY'S FOOTBALL FRENZY IS STILL GOING STRONG!

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