Expect defense to play pivotal role in NFL playoffs

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If the Wild Card round of the playoffs is a forerunner of what is in store for the remaining seven post season games, the 2013 NFL season will come to an extremely entertaining and competitive climax.

Two of the four games this past weekend ended on made field goals as time expired. Another game featured a team overcoming a 28 point second half deficit to advance. And the fourth game saw the weekend’s largest underdog pull the upset and win by the greatest margin.

Three of the four games were won by the road team with New Orleans getting a last second field goal to win, 26-24, at Philadelphia and San Francisco breaking a 20-20 tie with the game winning field goal at Green Bay.

San Diego was the third road team to win and, after trailing 10-7 at the half, the Chargers held the Bengals scoreless in the second half and dealt the hosts their only home loss of the season. Heading into the game, Cincinnati had been a perfect 8-0 both SU and ATS and, at-6.5 or -7, was the largest favorite of the Wild Card round.

The lone home team to advance was Indianapolis in a game that will long be remembered for Kansas City being unable to protect a 38-10 lead they held early in the third quarter. Colts QB Andrew Luck was intercepted three times but then led the second half rally in a wild 45-44 win.

What was especially noteworthy about this game was the extreme movement in the point spread. Indianapolis had opened and remained 2.5 point home favorites for much of the week. On Friday money started showing for the Chiefs, who ended up going off as 2 point favorites at kickoff.

Indy’s 1 point win made many bettors happy who had played for the middle, betting on the Chiefs as underdogs during the week and on the Colts as underdogs on game day, a result that likely had many bookmakers less than thrilled by the Colts’ comeback even though the comeback did make losers out of many of the late bettors who laid the points with the Chiefs.

With the late money that caused the Colts to go off as underdogs, all four game winners also covered the closing point spread. That makes six straight seasons in which the Wild Card winner covered the point spread.

The matchups for the Divisional round of the playoffs are now set and Carolina, Denver, New England and Seattle will see their first action after enjoying byes this past weekend.

This round of the playoffs has been marked by high scoring games in recent seasons. Over the past three years, 11 of the 12 games played in the Divisional round have gone OVER the total with just one staying UNDER.

Only two of these past 12 Divisional games have had closing Totals below 42.5, one of which was the lone UNDER. The four totals this season range from a low of 43 (San Francisco at Carolina) to a high of 55 (San Diego at Denver).

Interestingly, 3 of the 4 games this past weekend stayed UNDER after all four Wild Card games last season also stayed UNDER the Total.

As was the case last week, three of this week’s four games involve rematches of games played during the regular season, including a third meeting between Division rivals as Denver hosts San Diego.

It will be hard to top the excitement of the Wild Card round but the potential is certainly there with four very intriguing matchups.

Saturday

New Orleans +8½ at Seattle (48): When these teams met in Seattle on Dec. 2 it was thought the winner would wind up as the top seed in the NFC and the loser would be seeded second. The first part of this turned out correctly as Seattle blasted the Saints, 34-7, and indeed is the NFC’s top seed. But the Saints continued to stumble, losing 2 of their next 4 games, to end up seeded sixth and needing a last second FG at Philadelphia to advance from the Wild Card round and earn this rematch.

In only one game did the Seahawks have a negative turnover differential. In contrast, the Saints had a minus turnover differential in 9 of their last 13 games with one other game even. That is a cause for concern for the Saints who, despite their win at Philadelphia, have been a much weaker team on the road this season than at home where they were unbeaten. In the earlier loss at this venue the Saints were outgained 429 to 188 despite just a minus 1 turnover margin. The running game, without Mark Ingram, was held to 44 yards and their passing yards of 144 was the lowest such yardage all season, more than 80 yards lower than their second poorest output.

To be fair, 3 of the Saints’ 5 road losses were by 6 points or less so it’s not like they’ve been routinely blown out on the road. But Seattle may have the strongest current home field in the NFL. In that regular season meeting Seattle was favored by just 6.5 points – and the line was in the neighborhood of 4.5 for most of the week. Saints QB Drew Brees is an accomplished veteran, as is head coach Sean Payton. They’re both experienced enough to have made adjustments and anticipate how Seattle will counter them. And having finally gotten past the “can’t win on the road” burden, an outright victory would really not be much of a shock. NEW ORLEANS/OVER.

Indy +7½ at New England (53): These teams have a long and storied history over the past decade or so but meet in the Playoffs for the first time since Peyton Manning no longer is QB of the Colts. Despite losing most of his receiving corps from last season, Patriots QB Tom Brady needed extra time to gain familiarity and develop rhythm with his new pass catchers, and the Pats ended up winning 12 games and finished second in the league in averaging nearly 28 points per game.

The Colts had some impressive wins early this season, including a 27-7 road win at San Francisco. But late in the season the Colts had some ugly road losses to some very good teams, losing by 29 at Arizona and by 14 at Cincinnati before a win at Kansas City in a game the Chiefs showed very little, knowing they were likely to meet again two weeks later, as indeed they did last week. New England was a perfect 8-0 at home in the regular season (6-2 ATS).

The Patriots have a much better running game this season, which enabled them to have one of their better balanced offences in the Brady/Belichick era. As a rookie last season Luck had a rough game on this field as the Patriots routed Indianapolis, 59-24, in mid-season, tossing 3 interceptions. This matchup should not be as one-sided but the result should not leave any doubt the Patriots remain the better team. NEW ENGLAND/UNDER.

Sunday

SF -1½ at Carolina (43): San Francisco got a tough but well earned win at Green Bay on Sunday as Phil Dawson kicked a nearly-blocked, game winning FG as time expired. For much of the season the 49ers and Division rival Seattle were considered the teams to beat in the NFC. Carolina started 1-3 but then reeled off eight straight wins – including a 10-9 win at San Francisco – to become a player in the conversation. After losing at New Orleans to end the streak, the Panthers won their final three games to close the season, including gaining revenge over the Saints that ultimately resulted in Carolina, rather than New Orleans, winning the NFC South and earning last week’s bye.

Both teams’ defenses are as outstanding as they showed in their regular season meeting. Carolina’s defense is statistically slightly better. San Francisco has the slightly better offensive stats. In many respects these teams mirror one another. San Francisco does have an edge in Playoff experience with a third straight trip to the Playoffs. Carolina last made the Playoffs in 2008. The Panthers won seven straight home games following a very competitive week one 12-7 loss to Seattle.

San Francisco’s two road losses were a 29-3 rout at Seattle and a 3 point loss to New Orleans. Prior to last week’s win at Green Bay those were the only two road games San Francisco played against Playoff teams. And for those who point to the Panthers’ win at San Francisco and argue it’s tough to beat a team twice in the same season – that’s exactly what the 49ers accomplished last week at Green Bay in the Ice Bowl. CAROLINA/UNDER.

San Diego +10 at Denver (55): At first glance this line seems a bit high considering the two regular season meetings between the Chargers and Broncos. Denver won the first meeting at San Diego, 28-20, covering as 7 point favorites. Just over a month later San Diego got revenge, pulling a stunning upset with a 27-20 win at Denver as 10 point underdogs. It was Denver’s only home loss of the season and it followed seven home wins, all by double digits.

All the pressure is on Denver in this game. San Diego has been in playoff mode for more than a month, needing to win their final four regular season games just to need help elsewhere just to make the Playoffs. San Diego’s overall effort last week in Cincinnati was most impressive. And QB Philip Rivers is having arguably his best effort as a pro. Their running game has been outstanding down the stretch, averaging 170 rushing yards per game over their last five games, gaining at least 144 yards in each. San Diego rushed for 131 yards in the loss to Denver and for 177 in the win.

That success keeps Manning and the Broncos offense off the field and lessens the number of total possessions. In the last seven matchups of a number 1 seed vs. a number 6 seed, all since 2005, the number 6 seed is 5-2, indicative of the overall parity that has existed in the NFL for years. And Manning’s playoff struggles are well documented. Denver is out to atone for last season’s early elimination from the Playoffs that occurred on this field. The Broncos have been the AFC team to beat all season, but taking the points with a familiar foe that is playing loose and with confidence is a very attractive option. SAN DIEGO/UNDER.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]

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About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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