The intensity level of the NFL playoffs should pick up this week with the debut of the top four seeds.
New England, Kansas City, Philadelphia and St Louis begin their charge toward the Super Bowl after enjoying well earned bye weeks while their foes faced ”˜win or be eliminated’ situations.
Tennessee was the only team that won on the road last week as the Titans got by Baltimore. All three other games were won by the home teams but now Green Bay, Carolina and Indianapolis must play their remaining games away from their "friendly confines."
In looking at the history of the divisional round since the NFL expanded the postseason field to 12, there have been more instances of the pointspread coming into play than in any of the other three playoff rounds. The straight up winner in divisional games has covered 82 percent of the time or better than four of five games.
Straight-up winners in the Wild Card round, conference championships and the Super Bowl have a higher rate of pointspread success. Interestingly, however, from a straight up success perspective, better than 82 percent of home teams, and over 78 percent of favored teams come through.
In most instances these are one as the same as it is extremely rare for a road team to be favored in this round.
Over the past 12 seasons this round has also produced the most lopsided results with the average victory margin of slightly more than 16 points. So we have a very interesting set of dynamics at work in this round.
Here’s a look at each of this weekend’s four Divisional Playoff games.
Panthers (+7Â½) at Rams (45): Carolina deserves loads of credit for its outstanding performance in taking apart a solid Dallas defense last week. Both teams entered the game with no recent playoff experience but the Panthers played with poise and confidence in routing the Cowboys. They gained 380 yards against the league’s top ranked defense and limited Dallas to virtually nothing on offense.
St. Louis had the second highest scoring offense in the NFL and a slightly above average defense. The Rams have won 14 straight home games dating back to last season and nine of those wins, including six of the last seven, have been by at least 10 points. The artificial surface is a huge advantage for their superior aerial game.
Carolina should have difficulty if falling behind since the running game is highly relied upon. The Panthers have been sensational in close games, winning seven times by a FG or less, but have not produced offensively on the road all season. Only in their regular season finale against the disinterested Giants did the Panthers score more than 23 points away from home.
The St. Louis rushing game improved significantly over the second half of the season as RB Marshall Faulk returned to health. Conversely the Panthers rushing output dropped by an average of 64 yards over the second half of the season. St. Louis can afford to be aggressive with the confidence of its lengthy winning streak and the knowledge that Carolina’s passing attack is not suited for coming from behind.
The expectation is that St. Louis gets the solid win and advances to the NFC championship game next week. It should be a fast paced game. ST. LOUIS, OVER.
Titans (+6) at Patriots (37): Tennessee overcame a separated shoulder during the game to RB Eddie George and a less than fully healthy QB Steve McNair in eliminating Baltimore. The Titans won five road games during the regular season but one of their three losses was a 38-30 loss in New England in early October. In that game the Titans outgained the Patriots by nearly 100 yards but committed the only turnover of the game.
Tennessee had the league’s top ranked rush defense but the worst game of the season came against New England, yielding 161 yards. That was nearly 6.0 yards per carry but Tennessee’s defense improved greatly the rest of the way.
New England QB Tom Brady does not get the recognition he deserves yet he’s already won a Super Bowl and continually makes plays when needed. Brady has demonstrated leadership and his teammates believe in him. The same is true of Tennessee’s McNair. Both are winners. Both teams have been adept at forcing turnovers on defense while avoiding them on offense.
New England has an edge in the kicking game with longer FG range capability. Neither team is flashy but both have the ability to score. New England’s defense has been dominant at home, holding 7 of 8 foes to 16 points or less and posting three shutouts. Tennessee showed it can move the ball against the Pats in that first meeting and defeated New England late last season at home. Both teams are playing with confidence and Tennessee matches up well here.
Cold weather would not be a huge edge for the Pats as it often is against many Southern teams. New England has won 12 in a row, which explains the inflated pointspread. When these teams met earlier the Patriots were favored by just a single point. This one should not be as high scoring as the first meeting but both teams should be able to reach 20 points. TENNESSEE, OVER.
Colts (+3) at Chiefs (49): Indianapolis played nearly a perfect game in its decisive 41-10 win over Denver. Facing the pressure of failing to come up big in the playoffs both QB Peyton Manning and coach Tony Dungy were at their best. Dungy was uncharacteristically aggressive when, late in the first half and up 21-3, he allowed Manning to throw deep and it resulted in an 87 yard TD.
Kansas City was the hottest team in the league over the first half of the season, winning their first nine games. Since then, the Chiefs are 4-3. They were impressive in the season ending win over Chicago and did win all eight home games this season, six of which were by at least 13 points. The Colts won seven of eight road games but only one came against a fellow playoff team.
These teams have two of the top three offenses in the league. Indianapolis does own a huge edge on defense. Part of the Chiefs’ poor defensive numbers can be attributed to their quick strike offense and the scoring contributions made by special teams. In terms of yards per play allowed defensively, there is not much of a gap at all.
KC has the better rushing offense with Priest Holmes setting an NFL record for touchdowns scored. The Chiefs did have the weaker rushing defense but the pass defense actually favors KC slightly once you look beneath the raw numbers. It’s hard to imagine the Colts playing any better than they did last week and the win likely took a significant emotional drain. The weather elements can only favor the Chiefs who are used to cold weather and wind.
The Colts have played outdoors only once in the last month and that was in Houston. Despite their well publicized defensive deficiencies, the Chiefs actually were right at the league average in points allowed and were slightly better than the Colts. Often fireworks fail to materialize. Such may be the case here.
Both offenses were the best in avoiding turnovers while both defenses were above average in forcing them. The Chiefs had a +19 turnover margin. Look for the well-rested Chiefs to advance to the AFC title game. KC, UNDER.
Packers (+5Â½) at Eagles (42): Green Bay had a much more difficult time advancing last week with Seattle presenting a great challenge and forcing overtime. As we remarked last week the regular season game was much more competitive than the final score showed. It could be expected that the same would be true last week and it was.
A similar comparison can be made here as well. In mid November the Eagles came from behind to win at Green Bay 17-14 in a Monday night contest. Green Bay actually outgained Philly by nearly 30 yards but committed the game’s only three turnovers. Philadelphia turned its season around after losing the first two games.
The Eagles went on to post nine straight victories before being upset in the penultimate week of the season by San Francisco ”” again at home. The Eagles managed to win a dozen games despite a very weak defense against the run. Philly allowed an average of nearly 160 rushing yards per game over the final 11 games.
In the season ending win over Washington the Eagles allowed less than 100 rushing yards for the first time since Week 5. In the earlier meeting, the Packers ran for 241 yards ”” a season worst for the Eagles. Interestingly, the Packers reached 200 rushing yards five times in 17 games.
Green Bay had all that success running the ball while QB Brett Favre was nursing a broken thumb most of the season. Now Favre is healthy and we have seen him at his best in recent games. Philly QB Donovan McNabb overcame some early season rust and criticism to fashion an MVP type season. He continues to make big plays but also can be erratic.
The Packers had the better defensive stats for the season but over the second half of the campaign the improvement and the differences were dramatic. After allowing an average of 358 yards over the first eight games, the Packers allowed just 280 in their final eight. Philly’s numbers worsened from 317 to 346.
Are the Packers a team of destiny? Philadelphia has even more injuries to contend with for this game, most notably all purpose back Brian Westbrook. That defense remains a concern and Philly’s recent playoff history is spotty at best. An upset in this game will not be a surprise. GREEN BAY, OVER.
Last week: 3-3