The most unusual of NFL regular seasons that began following a lengthy owners lockout but which produced tremendous excitement over the past few weeks has come to an end.
There are 20 of 32 teams already making plans for the 2012 season. Four others are getting a well earned week of rest before beginning the playoff journeys while eight ready themselves for the first set of playoff games — the Wild Card round — that takes place this Saturday and Sunday.
As has been the case for most of the past 20 seasons, the face of this season’s playoffs is considerably different from last season. Of the dozen teams that made the playoffs in 2010, only six have repeated — Atlanta, Baltimore, Green Bay, New England, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
Joining that six pack after a season or more absent from the playoffs are Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, the New York Giants and San Francisco.
New England earned the top seed in the AFC with Baltimore seeded second. In the NFC defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay is seeded first while surprising San Francisco sits second.
Unlike last season when a pair of 10 win teams failed to make the playoffs (Tampa Bay and the Giants) no 10 win team misses out this season. In fact, only one 9-7 team, Tennessee, failed to make the playoffs, losing out on tied breakers to the other 9-7 AFC team, Cincinnati.
Denver was one of three 8-8 teams in the AFC West, earning the Division Title over Oakland and San Diego due to tie breakers.
At 9-7 the Giants also made the playoffs with fewer than 10 wins. Of the dozen teams in this season’s playoffs nine had double digit wins.
Since the format was expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1990 the Wild Card round has seen the point spread matter the least of any playoff round. The straight up winner of Wild Card games has covered nearly 88 percent of the times. In other words, the line comes into play in about one Wild Card game every two seasons.
The Wild Card round also has produced the greatest percentage of UNDERS in the playoffs. In the 84 Wild Card games since the 1990 season more than half have stayed UNDER. The present count is 46-37-1 to the UNDER.
In each of the other three rounds of the playoffs (Divisionals, Conference Championships and Super Bowl) there have been more OVERS than UNDERS over the past 21 seasons. Only in the Conference Championship games has the difference been meaningful where OVER is 26-15-1.
At the handful of books that had posted revised Super Bowl Odds at the start of the week Green Bay was pretty much a 3-2 favorite to win it all with New England the second choice at roughly 2-1. Baltimore was priced at nearly 4-1and New Orleans at about 5-1.
Pittsburgh (7-1) and San Francisco (8-1) were also listed at single digit odds. The remainder of the field ranges from 25-1 (New York Giants) to 60-1 (Denver).
Back in early September on these pages the forecast called for New England to defeat Atlanta and win Super Bowl XLVI. Both teams are in the playoffs with the Patriots holding the top seed in the AFC and Atlanta seeded fifth in the NFC.
Last season Green Bay won the Super Bowl from its Wild Card spot, winning at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago along the way. If they defeat the Giants the Falcons would likely have to play at Green Bay (unless sixth seeded Detroit upsets New Orleans).
At 30-1, the Falcons are still an attractive play although no team right now looks better than New Orleans.
The AFC remains pretty open and although the New England defense ranked last in yards allowed they were right in the middle of the pack in points allowed.
Despite some reservations about Atlanta’s ability to step up in class against better teams this season they still have the makings of a team that can win on the road (4-4 including 4 of its last 6 this season). If there is to be a “surprise” team to make it to the Super Bowl, why not the Falcons?
An overall review of performance would suggest Baltimore is the best team in the AFC and both New Orleans and Green Bay are tops in the NFC based upon how these teams fared against the top NFL teams.
Against teams that finished the season 10-6 or better Baltimore was a perfect 4-0 both straight up and ATS (New England faced just one such team, losing at Pittsburgh — every other New England foe finished the season at 9-7 or worse).
Green Bay was also 4-0 both SU and ATS against the elite teams, including an opening day home win over New Orleans, the only blemish on the Saints’ resume against the strong teams. New Orleans was 4-1 both SU and ATS.
It promises to be a most interesting playoff season. Can’t wait for it to begin! Here’s a look at all four Wild Card games.
Bengals +3 at Texans (38½): Houston makes its first playoff appearance in the 10 season history of the franchise but does so riding a 3 game losing streak with all 3 losses against teams that did not make the playoffs. Only one, Tennessee, had a .500 record. Houston’s last win came at Cincinnati in Week 14, 20-19, as the Texans outgained the Bengals 512-285.
The Texans are plagued by QB issues that have them likely to rely on third string QB T J Yates, a rookie, who was banged up last week but is listed as probable. Jake Delhomme is in reserve. Cincinnati does not have a wealth of playoff experience on its recent resume, though they did win the AFC North just two seasons ago but lost as a small home favorite to the Jets in the Wild Card round.
The Bengals have not fared well this season when facing top teams. They were 0-6 straight up and 0-5-1 ATS when facing teams that were 10-6 or better this season, losing by an average of more than 9 points per game. Included in that was the earlier home loss to the Texans. Overall the Texans had the better offense and the better defense. They had the stronger rushing offense, gaining an average of 153 ypg, second best in the league.
Cincinnati also relies on a rookie QB, Andy Dalton, but Dalton has been the starter since Week 1. He did slump down the stretch as defenses were better able to spot his tendencies. Houston’s late season slump is a concern but the Texans did have some solid wins during the season and wrapped up the AFC South title early.
The Texans gave the Saints their toughest home test of the season, losing by just 7. Houston also has home wins over a pair of playoff teams, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Cincinnati did not defeat a team all season that finished above .500. TEXANS.
Lions +10½ at Saints (59): Detroit returns to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 while the Saints are in the postseason for a third straight season. After winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago the Saints were eliminated in the Wild Card round last season, losing in Seattle 41-36 despite being 10 point favorites.
That left a bitter taste within the Saints organization that has this team highly motivated and arguably playing the best football of any team entering the playoffs. New Orleans has won 8 straight, including a 31-17 home win over Detroit in week 13, although the Lions did outgain the Saints 466-438. The Saints were a perfect 8-0 at home this season and outscored the opposition by an average score of 41-18, with 7 of the 8 wins by more than 10 points!
In recent seasons double digit home playoff favorites have not fared well and, in fact, have lost outright twice in the last four such instances. Over the past decade double digit home favorites are just 7-4 SU and 4-7 ATS. But the Saints have the profile of a team capable of winning by a margin. They have that huge edge in experience and a record setting QB, Drew Brees.
The offense is very well balanced and the defense is better than the statistics show — statistics which, by the way, show the Lions and Saints allowing the same average yards per game. New Orleans may be the most well rounded team in the playoffs, even more so than the Packers, and given their performance at home all season and the intense motivation to atone for last season’s embarrassing first round exit the intangibles add further support.
It’s been a great season for the Lions and they seemingly have a bright future. But Detroit was 0-5 both SU and ATS when facing playoff teams this season, including three home losses. Consider this a “learning experience” for the Lions. SAINTS.
Falcons +3 at Giants (49): After not having back to back winning season for the first 40+ seasons of franchise history, Atlanta has posted a winning record for a fourth straight season, making the playoffs for the third time in this period and for the first time ever in back to back seasons.
By defeating Dallas last Sunday night the Giants return to the playoffs after a 2 season absence which followed 4 straight seasons of postseason play. These teams last met in 2009 with the Giants prevailing at home, 34-31, but failed to cover as 7 point chalk. The Giants played a pair of solid games to make the Playoffs but it must be noted that the teams they defeated, Dallas and the Jets, did not make the playoffs.
The Giants finished 9-7 and were outscored on the season. Their best win came in mid season at New England. But they only faced four teams that made the playoffs, losing to San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans. Atlanta also lost at home to Green Bay and twice to New Orleans and their best win was at Detroit.
The Falcons do have the better rushing stats on both sides of the football led by Michael Turner. The Giants have the better passing game and both pass defenses are below average. Despite the statistics the Giants have an effective pass rush. The Giants’ last postseason win was their upset of New England in Super Bowl XLII. The Falcons’ last came in the 2004 playoffs
Both teams struggled when facing the league’s elite teams this season. The price is fair and suggests that these teams are fairly even and the game would be pick’em on a neutral field. Road teams have fared well in the Wild Card round in recent season, winning 3 of 4 last season and 9 of 16 since 2007 and the vast majority of these games have been priced at a FG or less. FALCONS.
Steelers -8 at Broncos (35): After gaining momentum from a 6 game winning streak, Denver lost its final 3 games of the regular season but won the AFC West via tie breakers when Oakland lost to San Diego. Denver has one of the weakest statistical profiles for a playoff team, being outscored by 5.1 points per game and outgained by 41 yards per game.
Contrast that to the Steelers – defending AFC Champions – who outgained their opponents by an average of 100 ypg and led the league in both allowing just 272 ypg and 14.2 ppg. Denver is in the playoffs for the first time in 6 seasons whereas the Steelers are seeking their third trip to the Super Bowl in the past 5 seasons and are in the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 seasons.
This is just the third time in more than 20 years that a road team is favored by a touchdown or more in a playoff game. Interestingly, New Orleans was involved in both games. The Saints upset the Rams in the 2000 Playoffs, 31-28, as 7 point home underdogs. Last season New Orleans lost 41-36 at Seattle as 10 point road favorites.
Seattle made the playoffs with a 7-9 record which was good enough to win the weak NFC West. Those Seahawks were every bit as ugly as these Broncos. It’s easy to make a case for the experienced Steelers to totally frustrate the anemic passing attack of QB Tim Tebow and his Broncos. But Denver’s defense has fared well for much of the season and Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger is less than 100 percent healthy.
In last week’s win at Cleveland RB Rashard Mendenhall was injured and lost for the season. The Broncos figure to use a very heavy dose of the running game to keep this a game of as few possessions as possible and limit risk taking by the offense. As such the points loom large and may well come into play as Pittsburgh could struggle for a narrow win.
The playoffs are a whole new season and home teams enjoy an edge, even when they are not the better of the two teams. Let’s pay some homage to history. BRONCOS.