The NFL Playoffs overture that is Wild Card weekend is behind us and the Playoff field has been trimmed to 8 as Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh have departed.
Many longtime observers of the NFL consider the Divisional round of the Playoffs to be the best weekend of the entire season as the top two teams in each conference host the Wild Card round survivors.
Last weekend, 3 of the 4 Wild Card games were won by home favorites with Baltimore as the lone road favorite to pull an upset with a win at Pittsburgh.
The most exciting game of the four was Dallas rallying from down 14-0 and 20-7 to defeat Detroit 24-20, with the key play the controversial picking up of the flag on a potential pass interference call that resulted in the stalling of a Detroit drive.
The only “public parlay” that cashed, combining the favorite with the OVER, was the first game played as Carolina defeated Arizona 27-16.
Indianapolis was the only other favorite to win and cover but their 26-10 win vs. Cincinnati stayed UNDER the Total. In addition to Baltimore covering in its 30-17 win at Pittsburgh, Detroit was the other underdog that cashed in its loss at Dallas.
Two of the games stayed UNDER the Total and one clearly went OVER. The game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh pushed the closing total of 47 with the final 2 points resulting from a blocked Baltimore punt late in the fourth quarter that went out of the end zone.
Although it would seem logical to believe playoff games are more often than not closely contested, competitive games, the reality is the opposite.
Since the NFL expanded the playoff field from 10 to 12 teams back in 1990 there had been a total of 264 playoff games through last season. More than half (135) have been decided by more than 10 points. In fact, more than a third of those games have been decided by more than 14 points.
These results are fairly consistent through each round of the playoffs, from the Wild Card round through the Super Bowl. In this past weekend’s Wild Card games 3 of the 4 were decided by 11 points or more.
If recent history is a guide, one of the four teams that won this past weekend will play in the Super Bowl. In 7 of the last 9 Super Bowls a team seeded 3, 4, 5 or 6 has won a conference championship.
Only twice in the past nine seasons – last season and in 2009 – did both Super Bowl teams have byes in the opening round of the playoffs. Both of those Super Bowls involved matchups of top seeds, with Seattle defeating Denver last season and New Orleans defeating Indianapolis 4 seasons earlier.
In 3 of the last 9 seasons a “true” Wild Card (a team that was not a Division winner) won the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh, the New York Giants and Green Bay each winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy as either a 5 or 6 seed.
Dating back to the expansion of the playoffs field from 10 to 12 teams there have been 96 Divisional round games. The home team has won 70 of those 96 games (72.9 percent), the largest degree of home team success in any of the three Playoff rounds leading to the Super Bowl.
The results are much more even in terms of the point spread as home teams are just 49-45-2 ATS over those 24 seasons. Favorites are 67-28 SU (70.5 percent) in this round (one game was a pick ‘em) but have a losing ATS mark of 46-47-2.
This round has produced 50 OVERS, 45 UNDERS and 1 push with an average victory margin of 13.9 points and total of 45.1.
The four hosts this week – Denver, Green Bay, New England and Seattle – have had an extra week to prepare and nurse nagging injuries.
As just noted, history suggests there is an excellent chance that at least one of those four will lose.
Here’s a look at each of the four Divisional round games, two of which are rematches of games played earlier this season.
Ravens +7 at Patriots (48.5): The Ravens have had great success against the Patriots in the Playoffs, winning two of their three games vs. New England, all played in Foxboro, in the current Ravens era that began in 2008 with the arrival of coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco.
Their win in Pittsburgh was Baltimore’s tenth in 14 Playoff games in the Harbaugh/Flacco era with 7 of the wins on the road, and that does not include their win in Super Bowl 47. 5 of the 7 road wins have been as underdogs including both at New England. Since being embarrassed 41-17 at Kansas City in week 4 the Patriots have been outstanding, winning 10 of 12.
Baltimore has the edge in the rushing game on both sides of the football. New England has similar edges in the passing game. New England usually has edges at both coach and QB but those edges, if any at all, are small as Harbaugh and Flacco are right up there with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
TE Rob Gronkowski is a difference maker that favors the Patriots but Baltimore is not intimidated playing playoff games on the road, in general, and at New England in particular. Four of the Ravens’ six losses were by 7 points or less. New England deserves to be favored but Baltimore’s past Playoff performances, with the same leadership as will be taking the field here, suggests this will be a competitive game between a pair of very evenly matched teams. RAVENS.
Panthers +11.5 at Seahawks (40.5): Carolina continued its fine late season play with a solid win over Arizona, holding the Cardinals to an all-time playoffs low of just 78 total yards in a 27-16 win. It was the fifth-straight game in which the Panthers allowed 17 points or less. The task becomes much more difficult this week as Carolina makes the long road trip to Seattle to face the defending Super Bowl champions who are even hotter.
The Seahawks ended the season winning 6 straight and 9 of 10, holding 5 of those last 6 foes to 7 points or less with each win by double digits, covering the spread in each. This will be the third meeting between these teams in the past two seasons. Seattle opened last season with a tight 12-7 win at Carolina and won a similarly tight, low scoring game in week 8 this season, 13-9, also on the road.
Historically double digit playoff favorites have won 32 of 44 Playoff games SU since 1990 (72.7 percent) but are just 22-20-2 ATS, exactly break even on a net unit basis (52.39 percent). Over the past 10 playoff seasons double digit favorites are 6-7 ATS.
Carolina’s ability contain Seattle’s offense in the red zone in two recent meetings cannot be overlooked. Considering that the Total for this game is more than two touchdowns higher than the total points these teams have scored in their last two meetings may be a better way to back Seattle given how well their defense has played of late. UNDER.
Cowboys +6.5 at Packers (52.5): Dallas was a perfect 8-0 away from home this season. The Packers were a perfect 8-0 at home. This is Dallas’ first playoff game in Green Bay since the infamous “Ice Bowl” nearly four decades ago. Both offenses are led by top tier quarterbacks. Both defenses are suspect.
Green Bay has lost two of its last three home playoff games including 23-20 last season to San Francisco. Dallas is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and, unlike recent Cowboys teams, played their best football down the stretch with oft-criticized QB Tony Romo playing some of the best football of his career.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers is nursing a banged up hamstring and commented last week that it is an issue although he will be much closer to full strength with the extra week of rest. Using the yards per play metric Green Bay has a slight edge on offense but a more significant edge on defense. The “pressure” to win is greatly on Green Bay. DALLAS.
Colts +7 at Broncos (54): The 2014 season will end for one of these teams this week on the field where the season began back in September. On the first Sunday night game this season Denver, favored by 8.5 points, defeated the Colts 31-24. The Colts outgained the Broncos 406-361 as the Colts were unable to overcome a pair of interceptions thrown by QB Andrew Luck.
Denver is intent upon making it back to the Super Bowl after last season’s embarrassing loss to Seattle. Towards that end the Broncos have developed a strong running game on offense and have remade their defense into one of the league’s top units, ranking second in defensive yards per play and third in total yards allowed.
These developments have taken the pressure off of QB Peyton Manning to carry the team on his aging shoulders. His passing was not as sharp over the second half of the season and critics are pointing to his age being the culprit rather than considering the sharpness may be due to decreased activity, both in practice and during games. No such questions surround Colts’ QB Luck who continues to emerge as the next great NFL signal caller in his third season.
Indy’s lack of a running game and a defense that was statistically average (and better than generally perceived) are major concerns. That and their inability to step up in class during the regular season, losing by 17 at Pittsburgh, by 22 at home to New England and by 35 at Dallas (although pretty much a meaningless game for the Colts) suggest this could be a one sided contest.
Despite the continued improvement in Luck’s game the Broncos are the much better team and will be well rested and well prepared for this game. DENVER.
Last week: 4-0
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]