Will underdogsrise this week?

January 08, 2008 6:48 AM
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LAST WK SEASON PCT
3-0 125-128-5 49.4

With the departure this past weekend of Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and Washington a full three quarters of the NFL’s team can focus on preparing for the 2008 season.

For the other 8, the focus will be on this weekend’s Divisional round playoff games that will determine the four teams that will meet a week from Sunday in the NFC and AFC Championship games. The winners will meet in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3 in Glendale, Az.

 The Wild Card round saw the four teams with the better record win and advance. Two of those winners were the home teams, Seattle and San Diego. The two road teams with better records than their hosts also won as Jacksonville triumphed at Pittsburgh and the New York Giants were victorious at Tampa Bay.

Both the Jaguars and Giants had better records than the Steelers and Buccaneers but played on the road because they qualified for the playoffs as Wild Cards rather than division winners.

Both winning home teams, San Diego and Seattle, won and covered the line. The lone favorite to win and not cover was Jacksonville, failing to cover the 3-point line in their 31-29 win in Pittsburgh. (However, in some books the game pushed at -2).

The only underdog to win outright was the Giants, 24-14 winners in Tampa Bay as 3-point underdogs.

Thus we have the teams with the eight best records during the regular season playing this weekend. Each had at least 10 regular season wins. This elite group was a combined 97-31 straight up and an equally impressive 81-45-2 ATS.

A conference breakdown shows the four AFC teams with a SU record of 51-13 and 41-23 ATS. The NFC quartet was a combined 46-18 SU and 40-22-2 ATS.

New England was a perfect 16-0 in the regular season, while the Colts, Cowboys and Packers were each 13-3. None of the four teams that won in the Wild Card round were better than 11-5, suggesting a significant gap between the top four teams and the rest of the field.

As might be expected home teams in this round perform better SU and ATS than in the other two pre-Super Bowl rounds of the playoffs. Since 1990 home teams have won nearly 78 percent of divisional round games, covering just over 56 percent of the time.

The average margin of victory in this round is slightly more than 14 points. More than half of the 68 divisional round games over the past 17 seasons have been decided by more than 10 points. The favored team has won 75 percent of the time so history would suggest that one of this week’s four underdogs will pull the upset and advance to the Conference Championship round.

Last season saw all four road underdogs cover in the divisional round for the second time in four seasons. As was also the case in 2003, two of the four road teams won outright as New England won at San Diego and ultimate Super Bowl champion Indianapolis won at Baltimore.

Will we see similar upsets this season? Let’s take a look at each of the four games.

Saturday, Jan. 12

Seahawks +8½ at Packers (40½): These teams met in the Wild Card round of the 2003 Playoffs with Green Bay needing an overtime INT return for a TD by Al Harris to advance to the divisional round where they lost in Philadelphia, ironically also in overtime. Seattle has been to the playoffs each season since, making it to the Super Bowl two seasons later where they lost to Pittsburgh. After losing in the Wild Card round the following season the Packers missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Green Bay did serve notice at the end of last season that were on the rebound by winning their final four games to finish 8-8. Thus Green Bay enters this game as winners of 17 of their last 20. QB Brett Favre has been the constant for more than a decade in Green Bay. Former Favre backup Matt Hasselbeck leads Seattle into this game along with ex-Packers coach Mike Holmgren.

Both teams played excellent defense all season and that should set the tone for this game. Each has similar statistics in most categories across the board. Seattle benefited from a soft schedule playing in the NFC West where their three division foes were a combined 16-32 (Green Bay’s Division rivals were a combined 22-26).

This has been a magical season for the Packers who found a running game in mid season with Ryan Grant, who averaged 5.1 yards per rush and nearly ran for 1,000 yards despite not being the full time RB till mid-season. Seattle RB Shaun Alexander split time with Maurice Morris and neither was outstanding. Green Bay’s better balance and much improved defense plus the home field make them the call. PACKERS.

Jaguars +13 at Pats (48): Jacksonville represents the first of three steps towards the historic goal of 19-0. The Jaguars blew a 28-10 lead in Pittsburgh last week to rally for a 31-29 win on a last minute FG to advance to this game. QB David Garrard was uncharacteristically sloppy in the fourth quarter after playing nearly flawless football during the regular season. The Jags have a strong dual threat running game with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew each enjoying great seasons. The defense is hard hitting and well coached.

The Patriots have shown they are a team for the ages. The rigors of a long season may have prompted some observers to suggest that their second half of the season paled in comparison to September and October. But the Pats have been all business since Week 1 and the rest period will reinvigorate the record-setting offense.

MVP QB Tom Brady makes excellent decisions and excellent throws and the running game, though often underutilized, is still a weapon. WR Randy Moss had his best season in years in setting the TD reception record while Brady was setting the TD tossing mark. The defense played well and was able to be more aggressive than most because the Pats have an offense that can overcome defensive mistakes.

Jacksonville might hang around for a half, although the no-nonsense approach of New England could lift the Patriots to an early two touchdown lead. In most other seasons and against most other foes the Jags would be a legitimate candidate to pull a shocking upset. But not here. Not against "le machine." PATRIOTS.

Sunday, Jan. 13

Chargers (+8) at Colts (47): It took a half for them to get rolling but the Chargers outscored Tennessee 17-0 in the second half last week to win their first playoff game in more than a decade. As expected, the Titans held All Pro RB LaDainian Tomlinson in check, forcing the Chargers’ passing game to beat them. And QB Philip Rivers did just that by hooking up several times with WRs Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers, a task made more difficult when TE Antonio Gates was lost to injury. Gates’ status for this game was uncertain early in the week.

With all the talk surrounding New England’s quest for perfection, let’s not forget that Indianapolis is the defending Super Bowl champ and they finished with a better record this season than last. The defense, which struggled through the 2006 regular season, showed this season that their much improved play in last season’s playoffs was no fluke. The Colts’ defense ranked No. 3 in the NFL this season and statistically appears to be much better than San Diego’s No. 14 ranked stop unit.

These teams met in midseason in Week 10, the week after Indy nearly defeated New England. San Diego raced to a 23-0 halftime lead largely due to a pair of big special teams play, a kickoff and punt return by speedster Darren Sproles. But Indy rallied and nearly pulled off the comeback, but for a missed Adam Vinateiri FG in the 23-21 loss. The Colts outgained the Chargers 386-177, but the two kick returns took away two possessions from San Diego as the Colts had a 36-24 time of possession edge.

But the big story was the San Diego defense intercepting Indy QB Peyton Manning six times! The Chargers’ rather ordinary stats are offset by their +24 turnover margin in the regular season and total of 48 takeaways — an average of three per game. That’s nearly 10 more takeaways than the next highest team which, coincidentally, is Indianapolis (37).

The Chargers are an immensely talented team that seeks to make amends for last season’s playoff failures when they had the best regular season record in the NFL, 14-2, but lost in their opening game. The Colts are still formidable as defending champs, but they are banged up and missing key members of their defense. The offense will be aware of the tenacious Chargers’ defense after what happened in midseason. This game goes down to the wire with an upset a real possibility. CHARGERS.

Giants +7½ at Cowboys (47): These long time rivals meet for the first time in the playoffs. Dallas won both meetings this season, opening the season with a 45-35 home win and winning the rematch in the Meadowlands in midseason, 31-20. That opening game loss was the only road setback of the season for the G-men, who have now won eight straight away from home after last week’s 24-14 Wild Card win in Tampa Bay.

In that first meeting there was over 900 total yards of offense, almost evenly divided. The Giants led early before Dallas took control, but the Giants did not back down and continues to match Dallas almost score for score before Dallas got the cover with the game’s final TD to extend a 38-35 lead. The rematch was also back and forth and was tied at 17 at the half before Dallas sealed the win with a 50 yard TD pass from Tony Romo to Terrell Owens early in the fourth quarter.

Yardage was down from the first meeting but again fairly evenly divided. Much of the Giants success this season came from an extraordinary pass rush that led the NFL in sacks. But Romo was sacked only three times combined in the two games against the Giants. Romo and Owens nursed injuries late in the season, but both are expected to be fully healed for this game. The Giants are without TE Jeremy Shockey who was a key part of the New York offense and one of QB Eli Manning’s most reliable targets.

The Cowboys were not sharp down the stretch, but the week off should enable them to regain the edge that led them to the NFC’s top seed. The Giants’ secondary was vulnerable this season and the ”˜Boys should be able to again get some big plays. Surprisingly, the Giants had the better running game despite the presence of two solid backs on Dallas (Julius Jones and Marion Barber).

The Giants averaged 134 rushing yards per game, the Cowboys just 109. The first two games featured 80 and 51 total points and this game should be similarly high scoring. Dallas has more playmakers and should get the win with the TD just about right. OVER.