The NFL Playoffs’ overture that is Wild Card weekend is behind us and the field has been trimmed to 8. Atlanta, Indianapolis, Miami and Minnesota have been eliminated.
For the four survivors (Arizona, San Diego, Baltimore and Philly) the road, literally and figuratively, gets tougher. All four travel to face rested teams, who have just enjoyed a bye week following the 16-game regular season schedule.
Interestingly, all four divisional contests are rematches of games played during this past regular season. Most notably, this including a third meeting between NFC East rivals Philadelphia and the New York Giants.
It’s natural to think of playoff games as being highly competitive, down-to-the-wire nail biters. However, history shows that NFL postseason games are often one sided.
Since the NFL adopted its present 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been 198 postseason games played. The average margin of victory has been (13.3) just under two touchdowns.
That margin is pretty consistent over all rounds of the playoffs with the lowest average being 12.5 points in Wild Card games and the high being 14.1 points in the divisional round of games.
Last weekend was right in line with history as the four games produced a pair of double-digit wins and a pair of 6-point wins, resulting in an average margin of 10.5 points.
As expected, each of the four teams that had byes last week is favored at home. The most competitively priced game is Tennessee as a 3-point favorite over Baltimore. The largest line has Carolina at -10 over Arizona.
Home teams and favorites have had their greatest success in the divisional round of the playoffs. Since 1990 home teams are 55-17 straight up (76.4%), while favorites are 52-19 (73.2%).
Favorites of more than a FG have fared especially well, winning 47 of 59 games, barely below 80 percent winners. Point spread results, however, are mixed. Favorites of 3½-6½ points are just 7-11 ATS (38.9%) while favorites of a TD or more are a solid 25-15-1 ATS (62.5%).
Enough of the minutiae. On to the analysis. Here’s a look at each of the four Divisional round games that will determine the teams that will meet next week with a trip to Super Bowl XLIII at stake:
Saturday, Jan. 10
Ravens +3 at Titans (35): As expected, Baltimore rode its outstanding defense to a win at Miami. All five of Baltimore’s losses were to playoff teams, including 13-10 to Tennessee in early October. Baltimore actually outgained Tennessee 285-210 and limited the Titans to just 47 rushing yards. Tennessee overcame a 10-3 deficit with 10 fourth quarter points to earn the victory. Neither Tennessee QB Kerry Collins nor Baltimore rookie QB Joe Flacco was sacked although each did toss two interceptions.
There is little to suggest that this game will be much different and the spread suggests these two teams are just about even. Tennessee did play a very soft schedule this season as its foes were a combined 117-138-1. Baltimore’s opponents were 132-121-3. Both teams did have a dozen point spread covers during the regular season. Baltimore has an excellent chance to win, possessing the better rushing offense and rushing defense. The price of a field goal is very fair. RAVENS / UNDER.
Cards +10 at Panthers (48): Arizona’s effort in going 0-5 in the Eastern time zone was a 27-23 loss at Carolina in late October. The Cards actually held leads of 10-0 and 23-17 before Carolina scored the game’s final 10 points. Arizona QB Kurt Warner had 381 yards passing as the Cards outgained the Panthers 425-351. You can be sure that effort will have Carolina’s attention in preparing to contain Warner and the passing game and force Arizona to run the football. The ground game is Arizona’s weakness.
The Cards averaged a putrid 54 rushing yards per game in games 9-16. Even in their win over Atlanta the Cards ran for just 86 yards on 28 carries. Carolina has barely average defensive stats, but plays an aggressive style and Warner has been prone to mistakes when facing such pressure. Carolina has an outstanding rushing attack, averaging 152 rushing yards per game, second best in the league. The Panthers were a perfect 8-0 at home with five by more than two TD’s. CAROLINA / OVER.
Sunday, Jan. 11
Eagles +4 at Giants (40): These longtime Division rivals meet for a third time this season after each won on the opponent’s home field during the regular season. When the Giants won in Philly, they outgained the Eagles 401-300. When Philly got their revenge at the Meadowlands, the Giants were outgained 331-211. The Eagles are playing their best football of the season, having held each of their last four foes to 14 points or less. In the six meetings prior to this season, two went to overtime and another two were decided by a FG. The two this season were decided by 5 and 6 points.
The Giants did not play well down the stretch, losing 3 of 4 to close the season. New York is 7-1 at home with the lone loss to Philly in Week 14. The Giants do have a solid edge in running the football, but both teams are stout in stopping the run. The Giants had just 13 turnovers, best in the league with Miami. The Giants will have benefited from the bye week. They are well prepared to defend their title. GIANTS / OVER.
Chargers +6 at Steelers (38): These teams met earlier this season in the infamous 11-10 Pittsburgh win that was marked by the denial of a last-second Steelers TD by an erroneous ruling by the replay official. The Steelers did not cover as a 5-point favorite, but outgained the Chargers 410-210 and held a time of possession edge of 13 minutes.
Ben Roethlisberger is expected to start this game but likely will still not be 100 percent healthy. That could be significant. The Chargers running game is off their two best performances of the season – 289 yards vs. Denver and 167 on Indianapolis. Pittsburgh’s defense has been outstanding all season, holding 15 of 16 foes to under 300 total yards. But the Steelers allowed their four highest rushing totals over their final five games. Expect the Chargers to be in it all the way. The points are likely to matter. CHARGERS / UNDER.