Why sharps take a deep look at third-down conversion stats

Third-down conversions proved to be an important indicator stat in last weekend’s Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.

Given the relative evenness of the four remaining Super Bowl contenders, it could be again in Sunday’s conference championship games.

A quick recap of last weekend’s “final scores” in this category in terms of third-down percentage:

  • Chiefs 29 percent, Colts 0
  • Rams 45, Cowboys 10
  • Patriots 50, Chargers 38
  • Saints 53, Eagles 29

The Colts were so shaken by playing in cold, slick conditions that they were 0 of 9 against the eighth-worst third-down defense during the regular season. That Patriots-Chargers mark is misleadingly close because the Chargers didn’t sustain any drives until they were way behind. Third-down differences were the driving force behind the Saints’ second-half shutout of the Eagles.

  • Composite third-down percentage: Winners 44, Losers 21.
  • Total punts: Winners 11, Losers 22.

Sharps who emphasize statistics do place meaningful weight on third-down performance. Modern offenses focus very intently on “staying ahead of the chains” while not turning the ball over. Successful bettors focus on skill sets that matter most.

Sunday’s NFC Championship showdown pairing the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints (Fox, 3:05 p.m.) is a same-site rematch from the regular season. Drew Brees led the Saints to a 45-35 victory as a two-point underdog on Nov. 4.

It could be argued third-down conversions were a tie-breaker then. Though total yardage finished near even at 487-483, New Orleans moved the chains much more consistently … with a huge 58 percent to 38 percent edge on third-down tries. That extended to fourth-down attempts as well … with the Saints going 2 of 2, the Rams 0 of 2. Fourth-down failures are virtual turnovers because possession changes hands.

You would think that an experienced Super Bowl champion such as Brees would have an advantage over the less-experienced Jared Goff in a high-pressure spot. But it should be noted the Saints had the ninth-worst third-down defense in the regular season. Rams coach Sean McVay has had a week to come up with wrinkles that could neutralize this area.

Betting markets are giving the nod to New Orleans to win straight up. The Saints are -180 on the money line (risk $180 to win $100, or anything in that ratio). The Rams are +160 to score the upset (risk $100 to win $160, etc…) A no-vigorish line of -170 would suggest the Saints savor victory 63 percent of the time.

The point spread has hopped back and forth from Saints -3 to Saints -3 ¹/₂ through the week. That could happen until kickoff. Public bettors in particular love getting a potent home favorite at a cheap price. Longtime sharps will point out that a move from Rams -2 at this site in the regular season to Saints -3 or -3¹/₂ is a huge in-season adjustment that might be an overreaction. Note that New Orleans is 1-5 against the spread its past six games, and it would be 1-6 ATS its past seven if Atlanta hadn’t imploded with turnovers Thanksgiving night.

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