Friday, January 22, 2016

Championship Thoughts: Are We Underestimating the Broncos?

First and foremost, to those of you in the path of Jonas, stay safe and warm. Travel only as necessary and take care of your neighbor. If you’re stuck in an airport, I’ve been there and I feel for you. Just remember to be kind to those around you, especially the employees.

Back to football…

Welcome to the Final Four of the 2015 NFL season! We’re blessed to have the number one seed facing the number two seed in both conferences this coming Sunday. That hasn’t happened since the 2004 season. Only nine times in NFL history has the number one seed from each conference faced each other in the Super Bowl, suggesting that fate is against both the Panthers and the Broncos winning.

I’ve broken down both games through the lens of tournament plays here. I also want to add some additional thoughts, particularly from a contrarian perspective, i.e., a Broncos’ perspective.
The more narrative that surrounds Peyton Manning and Co., the more I’m starting to think the Broncos offense provides a bounty of fantasy points, and everyone is fading them. Everything from the game temperature falling few degrees below Manning’s apparent threshold as a quarterback:

 to the line moving a half point more in favor of the Patriots:

has folks are blindly ignoring the Broncos skill position players and loading up on Patriots and Panthers. But something about the crowd all piling up on the same game script leads me to think the sharp move is to build rosters around Manning and a few his receivers. Let’s, in fact, inject more narratives to this game:

This could be Manning’s last game. Win or lose, I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to come back next season. And the last thing he or the Broncos want, obviously, is to end his career with another loss in the playoffs, especially at home, and especially against Tom Brady. Talk about motivation.

He has a financial incentive to win. Hey, it’s a narrative, so we’re going to bring it up. I’m fairly confident Manning’s bank account is in good shape. I mean, his 21 Papa John’s seem to be flourishing. Regardless, an AFC Championship win awards him an extra $2 million, as long as he plays 70 percent of offensive snaps.

The game script favors Broncos receivers. Getting back to a more logical approach to DFS, one that ignores narratives, it makes sense to expect Manning’s receivers to catch lots of passes. If you’re buying into the Vegas lines and jumping onto the bandwagon, then you’re expecting the Broncos to be playing from behind, which would lead us to believe they’ll abandon the run. It also suggests more passing. Both of those beliefs filter to the weakest part of the Patriots’ defense: their secondary. During the regular season, only the Steelers allowed more yards to wide receivers than the Patriots. And while they were stingy in the end zone, their 12 interceptions were below the league average.

Now, for all you Patriots fans, I’m not saying their defense is bad. I’m saying it’s more exploitable via the pass than the run, and the game script might force it that direction anyway. But given what we saw last week from the Broncos offense, it’s likely the Patriots defense will press receivers and attempt to shut down all those short throws Manning makes. Here is a great write up of his pass attempts against the Steelers from Adam Bogdan. I think it’s logical to expect a similar approach this Sunday given Manning’s inability to throw deep. Or…

We should ignore last week’s game completely. The Broncos offense, frankly, looked like shit. They dropped seven passes and struggled to move the ball against a terrible secondary. If not for a forced fumble late in the game, we’re writing about the Steelers here instead. But with a little thought, it’s not hard to explain why the Broncos’ offense was so bad.

First of all, it was Manning’s first full game since Week 9. That’s two months of missed time. Naturally there is going to be some rust. And if his receivers play a little better, he might be a lot more popular this week. I expect things to look and flow a little smoother this Sunday.

Manning’s health, another concern, isn’t an issue. He has practiced in full all week and looked fine last week. He’s not going to be rolling out on bootlegs and scrambling when the protection breaks down, but his ability to read the defense and execute the offense is not something to worry about. He made some great throws in tight windows last week. If the Patriots are going to play man coverage, without fear of a deep ball, one little mistake will lead to ton of yards-after-the-catch. And I would expect a decent amount of bubble screens—something both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas can turn into huge plays.

Putting this altogether, the crowd is off Manning and Co. because Manning is old and not playing well. But if you zoom out and consider all of the matchups for the weekend, the Broncos offense has the best one on the board. The Cardinals, Panthers and Broncos defenses are all elite. The Patriots defense, though above average, is soft compared to the other three. Then, when you consider the home team, a huge advantage for the playoffs, especially in Denver, is a 3.5-point underdog (and growing), stacking up on a pass-friendly game script seems logical.

It’s especially advantageous in big tournaments when everyone else is loading their rosters sans Broncos. So we get a twofold contrarian play: the Broncos offense, and the Patriots/Broncos game. Manning is the cheapest quarterback on the board, which gives us the flexibility of stacking him with one of his receivers and still plugging in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. On the other side, we can plug in the Panthers defense and Graham Gano, essentially doubling down on our expected game script, and fading the crowd entirely.


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