Analytics predicts winners for NFL playoff Wild Card games

As the NFL playoffs kick off this weekend, the schedule seems ripe to live up to the name “Super Wild.” While few believe the NFL is scripted, the opening playoff matchups have created almost a perfect weekend for the league.

Big-name players like Matthew Stafford, Tyreek Hill and Jared Goff are playing their former teams this weekend. Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is going up against his former team, the one that he led to a Super Bowl victory, when he faces the Green Bay Packers. Joe Flacco has risen off the couch to lead a downtrodden franchise, and his former division rival, to the playoffs and the top Wild Card seed.

And those are only a few of the storylines going into this weekend’s matchups.

Now it is time to spin everything forward from the regular season. While we are a month or so away from finding out who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year, each round of the playoffs promises to be exciting. Attempting to predict the results of these games, when the best are playing the best, is difficult. Bettors on DraftKings, and DraftKings themselves, are looking for every morsel of information to help make their predictions.

Last year, DVOA was perfect in predicting matchups in Wild Card weekend. DVOA breaks down the quality of play compared to the league average while adjusting for the strength of the opponents being played. It is one of a couple of catch-all analytics measures that help us understand the beautiful game of football better.

The top two teams in Total DVOA in 2023 also happen to be the top seeds in each conference. The Baltimore Ravens have a 45.5% Total DVOA while the San Francisco 49ers sit second at 39.4%. There is a big drop to the third-place team, the Buffalo Bills, at 24.1%. (The higher the number, the “better” the team.)

The top nine Total DVOA teams made the playoffs and all 14 postseason teams fell within the top 18 in that measure.

To be clear, DVOA isn’t perfect nor would it claim to predict the winners of certain games. Too many variables that cannot be codified, like weather, injuries, officiating and more, can play a role in a one-game sample.

Since DVOA was perfect in predicting last year’s Wild Card games, we can’t help but take a look at this year’s Wild Card matchups and what their analytics tell us will happen.

Cleveland Browns vs Houston Texans

  • Overall DVOA: Cleveland 8th vs Houston 12th
  • Offensive DVOA: Cleveland 28th vs Houston 14th
  • Defensive DVOA: Cleveland 2nd vs Houston 16th

Edge: BrownsAn interesting matchup between a team that is good, not great, on both sides of the ball versus one that is great on defense and was, on average, a bad offense during the regular season. Cleveland has been better with Flacco at the helm but can a great defense really be the difference maker in the NFL in 2024?

Miami Dolphins vs Kansas City Chiefs

  • Overall DVOA: Miami 6th vs Kansas City 5th
  • Offensive DVOA: Miami 2nd vs Kansas City 8th
  • Defensive DVOA: Miami 19th vs Kansas City 7th

Edge: Chiefs – Kansas City has a slight edge overall but is a well-balanced team despite the narrative about the offense’s struggles. The Dolphins defense has struggled and recent injury issues have really hurt that side of the ball more. Another game where one team has a great unit (Miami’s offense) while the other team is more balanced.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills

  • Overall DVOA: Pittsburgh 9th vs Buffalo 3rd
  • Offensive DVOA: Pittsburgh 15th vs Buffalo 3rd
  • Defensive DVOA: Pittsburgh 6th vs Buffalo 12th

Edge: Bills – The Steelers were able to eek their way into the playoffs thanks to the skill of head coach Mike Tomlin and a solid defense. The offense has been better since the firing of Matt Canada and, somehow, the insertion of QB Mason Rudolph, but knocking off Buffalo would be a tall task.

Green Bay Packers vs Dallas Cowboys

  • Overall DVOA: Green Bay 13th vs Dallas 4th
  • Offensive DVOA: Green Bay 6th vs Dallas 9th
  • Defensive DVOA: Green Bay 27th vs Dallas 5th

Edge: Cowboys – The huge disparity on the defensive side of the ball and the inexperienced roster for the Packers seem likely to doom them against their former coach.

Los Angeles Rams vs Detroit Lions

  • Overall DVOA: Los Angeles 17th vs Detroit 7th
  • Offensive DVOA: Los Angeles 7th vs Detroit 5th
  • Defensive DVOA: Los Angeles 22nd vs Detroit 13th

Edge: Lions – Another game where the defensive disparity is so big that it offsets similar offensive production. Despite the presence of DT Aaron Donald, the Rams defensive data creates a lot of concerns against Ben Johnson’s Detroit offense.

Philadelphia Eagles vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Overall DVOA: Philadelphia 14th vs Tampa Bay 18th
  • Offensive DVOA: Philadelphia 10th vs Tampa Bay 20th
  • Defensive DVOA: Philadelphia 28th vs Tampa Bay 14th

Edge: Eagles – For a national audience, Philadelphia having one of the worst defenses in the league has to be a shock. Barely being a top-10 offense is also surprising for a very talented Eagles group. The winner of the worst division in football, it is not surprising that Tampa Bay is the lowest-ranked overall team in the playoffs.

That DVOA correctly predicted all six games in last year’s Wild Card round gives credence to its use this year. While it couldn’t predict things like Brock Purdy’s injury last year, the Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and Eagles were two teams ranked within the top four in 2023.

The data also provides another piece of information as you make betting decisions, discuss the playoffs with your coworkers or while making daily fantasy decisions.

We are excited to see the games played on the field and see whether or not DVOA was able to once again perfectly predict the Wild Card round.

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