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Sunday's Best

Wild Card Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: January 15, 2022, 10:45 am ET

The first sign a defense isn’t who they pretend to be is when they’ve played a cake schedule of opposing offenses.

The Bills have played the #2 easiest schedule of defenses while the Patriots have played the #4 easiest schedule of defenses.

You won’t see another playoff game feature more untested defense than in this game.  

Let’s start with the Bills defense.  Only 12 of their 17 games this year came against offenses that ranked 20th or worse.  One of the games was played in a hurricane (vs NE).  The other 4 games, they went 2-2 and allowed:

an average of 29 ppg
early down passes to gain -0.07 EPA/att, 5.3 YPA and 50% success
early down runs to gain +0.05 EPA/att, 5.5 YPC and 58% success with a 14% explosive run rate

two of these games featured rain (Colts and Chiefs).

That they allowed this level of rushing production should be concerning given the strategy the Patriots offense will bring to this game.

For the Patriots, they played only 6 offenses that ranked top-15.  They went 1-3 in regular weather conditions and 1-1 in either downpours (vs TB) or hurricanes (vs BUF).  In those 4 games, they allowed:

an average of 30 ppg
early down passes to gain +0.19 EPA/att, 7.5 YPA and 55% success
early down runs to gain +0.06 EPA/att, 5.9 YPC and 49% success

That they allowed this level of passing production should be concerning given the strategy the Bills offense will bring to this game.

I’ll come right out and share that I like the over in this game.  And there are a lot of reasons why.  But first, let’s start with questions:

What about teams meeting for the 3rd time in a year?  Is there a trend toward the under?  

No – in fact, teams meeting for the 3rd time in the same year, which is always a playoff game, have gone over the total 8 of 14 times since 2010, including 8 of 12 times (67%) if the total was set below 50.  

And the Patriots have played in two such games in the Belichick era – both came vs the Jets (one in the 2006 season and one in the 2010 season).  Both games went over with ease (28-21 on a 44 point total and 37-16 on a 39.5 point total).

And in fact, both games were the highest scoring games of the season series (2006 saw 31 & 41 in-season, then 53 in the playoffs;  2010 saw 42 & 48 in-season, then 49 in the playoffs).

What about Bill Belichick – isn’t he a defensive mastermind who will “solve” the Bills offense because he’s seen them before?

Let’s just look at current-form Patriots – the last 3 years, when Belichick plays a team for the second time in the season, the games are 7-2 to the over.

In these 9 games, he’s allowed 22 ppg.  

In the first meeting of the year?  Those games went 3-7 to the under and his defense allowed only 15 ppg.

So he’s allowing a full TD more and seeing the games flip from 3-7 to the under to 7-2 to the over.

Vs the Bills specifically the last 3 years, the first meeting of the season went 2-2 to the under and he gave up 19 ppg.  The games ended with an average score of 19-18.

In the second meeting, the games went 3-0 to the over and ended with an average score of 29-18.

As such, the answer is no, he isn’t solving opponents and dominating in the rematches.  They go over the total at a much higher rate.

So before we dig deeper into the Xs and Os and the matchups, let’s answer the biggest question you may be asking: 

Shouldn’t this game go under because of the cold weather?

For that, we did the research and can safely say:  NO

The current temperature is 6 degrees on Saturday night in Orchard Park.

We studied the last 40 games played in sub-20 degree temperatures.  That took the sample back to 2009.  It’s important to note that you don’t want to take such studies too far into the past for a variety of reasons. You will likely hear many people quote data that includes games played in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The game of football was fundamentally different then. Scoring has increased dramatically and that’s a function of three primary factors. Rules changes, more passing and more aggressiveness on 4th downs. 

Before the 2010 season, the NFL issued major rules changes to improve the safety of QBs in the pocket and receivers on routes.  Going back to the 90s and even early 2000s is less relevant now. As a result of those rules changes, pass rates for teams exploded since passing became significantly easier and more efficient. 

Finally, teams are more aggressive now. A 4th & 2 at midfield in 1990 meant a punt. A 4th & 2 at midfield in the playoffs in 2021 means a go-for-it situation. And whether the team converts or does not convert, it still will result in more points scored on average than a punt would have.

As a result, it’s more of a priority to look at more recent games rather than looking historically at the coldest games.

The over/under results in cold weather are surprising and indicate that bettors and sportsbooks are over adjusting totals based on cold weather alone.

Since 2009, 40 games have been played in weather colder than 20 degrees: 

Surprising most bettors, the Over has hit in 58% of the games.  Additionally, games that are even colder, at sub-15 degree temperatures, have gone over the total in 10 of 17 games (59% over).  This may be stunning to some, because you’ve heard the mainstream narrative: cold games go under.

They will tell you that players are frozen solid in these extreme cold temperatures and they cannot throw the ball, catch a pass or kick a field goal because the ball is too hard and they are too cold.

The ball may be hard and they may be cold, but the overs are still hitting.

The bigger factor is wind, not purely the cold.  And on Saturday night, there is no projection for wind of any kind (sustained wind is only 5 mph currently forecast).

This game can still go under, like any other, but it’s unlikely that it’s solely because of the brutal cold.

So let’s dive back into edges for the offenses.  And we’ll start with the most offense-driven unit here, the team that put up 33 points when they met just 3 weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills offense.

And we’ll start with the X-factor:  Josh Allen’s legs.  The Bills have the great fortune of having a dual-threat QB and the Patriots do not.  And the Patriots can be had on the ground by a running QB, but it’s imperative he does so at the right time.

On early down QB runs due when he scrambles into an open run lane, Allen is averaging 10.9 YPC this year. Against the Patriots this year, Allen is averaging 8.0 YPC when he sees an open run lane and takes it, with a 100% success rate.  This season, the Patriots are allowing 8.0 YPC and an 83% success rate to scrambles into open run lanes.  Compare to QB-designed runs, where the Patriots are allowing only 4.0 YPC, 46% success and -0.08 EPA/att.  This is the reason you turn down a pass attempt.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a pass or a run, 10 yards per play is 10 yards per play, and if he can get that on the ground, Allen needs to take it.

QB designed runs are important to, but only on first down.  The Patriots run defense vs QB-designed runs on 2nd and 3rd down are really good:

•    First down QB designed runs:        +0.55 EPA/att, 7.7 YPC, 100% success
•    Second down QB designed runs:    -0.44 EPA/att, 2.3 YPC, 33% success
•    Third down QB designed runs:        -0.77 EPA/att, 2.3 YPC, 0% success

On 3rd/4th down, the Bills should again look to encourage Allen QB runs, considering how strong the Patriots pass defense is on these 3rd/4th down situations (-0.39 EPA/att, 45% conversion rate).

Buffalo should have success on RB-passes and RB-runs in short yardage situations to keep the sticks moving.  If they stay aggressive, pass on first down and emphasize avoiding third downs, Buffalo should have a great opportunity to build a lead in this game.  

And that will force the Patriots to do what they don’t want to do, which is have Mac Jones throw the ball.

This season, when leading at halftime, the Patriots are 8-2 SU and 9-1 ATS.  If tied or trailing, they are 2-5 SU and 1-6 ATS.  

The only two wins were vs the Texans and against the Chargers (where they were only down at halftime by 1 point).

Their last 5 games where they trailed at halftime (which dates back to Week 5 of the season), they went over in 4 of the 5 games.  The average total was 44 points and the games went over by a full touchdown on average.

If the Patriots keep the Bills offense in check, and if this is a game where the coaches don’t manage their game plan well enough in the weather, it is possible for the Patriots to be leading or close at halftime in a lower scoring game.  In which case, I’d give the edge to win the game to the Patriots and the total to go under.

But if the Bills jump out to a lead here, using their superior offense against a relativity untested Patriots defense, this will force the Patriots to chase.  I would envision at least one or two mistakes to lead to short fields (bobbled snaps, fumbles, etc) and I’m counting on that giving us points as well.  If we don’t see those mistakes leading to points, it could also be a problem for the over.  But there is a better than average chance we get that to go our way.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.