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Analytics predicts winners for this weekend’s NFL playoff games

NFL divisional round: We already know who wins because DVOA says so

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Wild games. Wild finishes. Wild storylines.

Wild Card weekend lived up to the name for the NFL but the league now turns the page to the divisional round. Not only does this round have fewer puns available, but it could also struggle to match the excitement of last weekend.

While the Wild Card games were full of a lot of fun, there weren’t a lot of upsets. We warned you that the Minnesota Vikings were a fraud, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled all season, and many downplayed that the Los Angeles Chargers often figure out how to “Charger” things up.

The AFC rolls into the divisional round with their top four seeds intact while the NFC lost its third and fourth seeds due to upsets.

Were they really upsets?

Tom Brady and the Bucs getting the fourth seed after winning their division didn’t mean they earned that seeding based on their quality of play. Dallas had a better season and a significantly better record.

Beyond that, the Cowboys and New York Giants victories weren’t upsets when you take into account the DVOA rankings of the teams. DVOA breaks down the quality of play compared to the league average while adjusting for the strength of the opponents being played.

This year, Dallas was ranked 6th in overall DVOA while Tampa Bay was down at 17th. New York was ranked 21st while Minnesota was down at 27.

In fact, the team with the higher overall DVOA won all six games on Wild Card weekend:

  • San Francisco (2nd) beat Seattle (10th)
  • Buffalo (1st) beat Miami (8th)
  • Cincinnati (5th) beat Baltimore (7th)
  • Jacksonville (13th) beat Los Angeles (18th)

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.

However, given the accuracy of DVOA during Wild Card weekend, we can’t help but take a look at what it would teach us about the divisional round coming up.

Philadelphia Eagles vs New York Giants

  • Overall DVOA: Philadelphia 3rd vs New York 21st
  • Offensive DVOA: Philadelphia 3rd vs New York 10th
  • Defensive DVOA: Philadelphia 6th vs New York 29th

Edge: Eagles - Unsurprisingly

San Francisco 49ers vs Dallas Cowboys

  • Overall DVOA: San Francisco 2nd vs Dallas 6th
  • Offensive DVOA: San Francisco 6th vs Dallas 15th
  • Defensive DVOA: San Francisco 1st vs Dallas 2nd

Edge: 49ers - Closer than expected and may have been even closer if Dak Prescott hadn’t been injured for multiple games this season

Kansas City Chiefs vs Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Overall DVOA: Kansas City 4th vs Jacksonville 13th
  • Offensive DVOA: Kansas City 1st vs Jacksonville 9th
  • Defensive DVOA: Kansas City 17th vs Jacksonville 26th

Edge: Chiefs - Not surprising but it is interesting to note that both teams have a top-10 offense but not great defenses. The third straight game where one team is better in all three portions of DVOA

Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals

  • Overall DVOA: Buffalo 1st vs Cincinnati 5th
  • Offensive DVOA: Buffalo 2nd vs Cincinnati 4th
  • Defensive DVOA: Buffalo 4th vs Cincinnati 11th

Edge: Bills - Close, in terms of ranking, overall but Buffalo has almost double the DVOA (35% to 18.1%) of Cincinnati whereas the difference between the Niners (2nd) and Cowboys (6th) is just 9.2%

If what happened during Wild Card weekend continues this week, we will see a matchup of the two top seeds in each conference championship games. Not only does the DVOA data match up with the seeding but also with the current betting lines. Kansas City and Philadelphia have the largest spreads this weekend while Dallas versus San Francisco has the smallest.

While DVOA was predictive last weekend, a quick look back at last year provides a counterpoint for its predictive nature. The Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams were the fifth-rated team while the Bengals were all the way down at 17. The four highest-rated teams didn’t even make it to the championship games last season.

This weekend, seeding, the betting market and DVOA are all leaning in the same direction. Will they all prove to be right in all four games or will teams knock off the favorites like Los Angles and Cincinnati did last year?