Thursday, January 9, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: Saints vs Seahawks

New Orleans Saints vs Seattle Seahawks: NO +8 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When these teams squared off in prime-time in Week 13, the line went from Seahawks -4 all the way to -6.5 by kickoff.  I took Seattle at -5 in that game because the line should have been -6.5 or -7 from the start.

This time around the line opened up at -8. It has ping-ponged around during the week, but it doesn't want to go too far in either direction. The question is whether or not this is an accurate point spread.

Most teams are granted three points for home field advantage, but Seattle is always an exception to that rule. During the season they are usually given four, if not five extra points on the line when they play at home. How much does that increase in the playoffs with a week of rest under their belts?

There is also the weather factor. The current forecast is calling for rain and wind. If these are the conditions on Saturday, it's going to be another advantage in Seattle's favor.

So far, 62 percent of the bets are on the Saints.

Keep an eye on

There are three primary areas that are going to decide this game, but before we get to that let's first talk about the context surrounding this matchup.

When these teams met in Week 13, the Seahawks blew the Saints off the field. Yet, a closer look reveals some fortunate bounces for Seattle. They recovered two fumbles in the first half of that game, which were converted into 10 points. Fumble recoveries are often the result of luck, so let's just assume that the Saints won't suffer the same fate again.

On the injury front, it seems like Percy Harvin is going to play in this game, but I'm not putting too much importance on that. It's hard to believe that he'll be at his normal level of effectiveness.

Also, the Saints have got the road monkey off their collective backs. With that out of the way, the focus for this game will primarily be on the X's and O's.

Like most games, the line of scrimmage is going to be of paramount importance. The Saints aren't going to stop Wilson and Lynch, but they do have the ability to contain them. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are double-digit sack artists this year, and that's one area where Seattle is vulnerable.

The Seahawks offensive line dealt with injuries for much of the season, but even when they got guys healthy the pass protection didn't improve as much as it should have. If the Saints don't win this battle, Wilson will be able to torch any kind of pass coverage scheme deployed by Rob Ryan.

On the flip side, the Seahawks have one of the most fearsome defensive lines in all of football. Avril, Bennett, Clemons, and Irvin are scary enough on their own, but when you add in the crowd noise, pass protection can be overwhelming.

The good news for New Orleans is the production of their own offensive line. They are one of the better pass protection teams in the league, and Seattle's sack production actually slipped from 5th to 12th down the stretch. The one question mark for New Orleans will be at left tackle, where rookie Terron Armstead is tasked with protecting the blindside. In three games, he has a holding call and two false starts.

When the Saints do have the ball, it really helps that K.J. Wright is out of this game because he would've been matched up with Jimmy Graham. Now that he's out, they'll have a better chance at utilizing their star pass-catcher.  Where they'll need him most will be inside the Seattle 20.

The red zone on both ends of the field will be a huge factor on Saturday. No one in the NFL is better at forcing field goals than the Seahawks, and this is the one area where the Saints offense stumbles.  They rank 18th in red zone efficiency, which is uncharacteristic of a Sean Payton-Drew Brees team.

The Seahawks also have a red zone advantage when they have the ball.  They have the option of power running Lynch on the ground, as well as the read-option ability of Wilson's legs. You're never quite sure what you're going to see when the ball is snapped, so the Saints defense will need to exercise discipline in their rush lanes and not be too over-aggressive up field.

Having said all that, the Saints did do a great job against one of the best rushing/read-option teams last week in Philadelphia, and the Seahawks had some struggles with their red zone offense in December.

Finally, the last key factor comes in the form of peripheral stats. Seattle have one of the best turnover differentials in the league. Their defense forces a turnover once every five possessions. No other defense even comes close to that rate. Conversely, the Saints are one of the best teams at avoiding giveaways.

If the Saints want to win that battle, they'll be wise to employ the balanced attack we saw last week in Philly. The majority of Seattle takeaways come from interceptions. It would also chew up clock and limit opportunities for Wilson.

Bottom Line

It's unlikely that the Saints win this game straight up, but they should be able to keep it closer than it was the last time they met. The task certainly won't be easy though. New Orleans need to limit their giveaways, convert a couple chances in the red zone, and continue their strong play in the trenches. With Sean Payton and Drew Brees leading the way, the potential is there.

At the same time, it's usually a bad decision to bet against Seattle at home, no matter what the point spread is. But in the end I can't overlook the fact that this line is over-inflated. By my numbers, this game should be -7 at the most, so I'll go ahead and take the value on the underdog. At the worst, I expect an opportunity for a backdoor cover.

NFL Pick: NO +8.