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There are a host of trends to take note of as eight teams brace to kick off the divisional round.
Perhaps the most powerful is with regard to playoff teams that are underdogs of eight points or more, which means the Ravens and Texans are worth a look. Dating to the 2007 divisional round, teams in this scenario not only are 9-1 ATS but an incredible 7-3 straight up, including the Giants’ 37-20 victory in Green Bay last year as a nine-point underdog.
For OVER/UNDER aficionados, last week’s 4-0 mark UNDER the number was the first time that happened in the wild-card round since 1999 and extended the overall UNDER playoff streak to seven straight since last year’s conference title games. But in the 33 postseason games before that, the OVER had a 23-10 success record.
Also, last week’s wild-card round had another rare occurrence with the favorite covering all four games for the first time since 1999. Even rarer yet would be for the favorites – all home teams – to beat the line again this week. There hasn’t been such a divisional-round sweep in 22 years. In fact, over the past nine postseasons, these home teams coming off a bye are only 21-15 SU (14-22 ATS), after going 48-12 (38-20-2) from 1988-2002.
Now on for a closer look at this weekend’s divisional-round tussles:
PRO FOOTBALL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS SATURDAY, JAN. 12
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
Time: 1:30 p.m. PST
Line: Broncos -9½ (46)
Weather: High teens, light snow possible, minimal wind
Facts: For the fourth time in five seasons, the Ravens are playing on short rest in the divisional round vs. a home team coming off its customary bye. Since 1978, visitors in this scenario are 7-19 SU, but 13-13 ATS.
• In Week 15, Denver raced to a 31-3 lead at Baltimore en route to a 34-17 win. It was the Ravens’ worst home loss since Peyton Manning’s Colts won 44-20 in 2007, one of nine straight wins for Manning vs. Baltimore (8-1 ATS).
• Last week in a 24-9 WC victory against Indy, the Ravens became the first team since 2007 to outgain a foe (439-419) despite running at least 30 fewer plays (87-56).
Analysis: The Ravens not only have to travel across two-thirds of the country, but on short rest and after their elderly defenders were on the field for the most plays against them the past five years – and having to rush the passer 57 times. How’s that going to affect their legs while Manning runs the no-huddle?
Baltimore’s two short-rest weeks this season were a 24-23 loser in Philadelphia as a three-point pick and 23-16 winner against Cleveland as a 12½-point choice. Denver, meanwhile, is on an 11-game winning streak (9-2 ATS) and averaging 107.1 yards more than its foes, the best mark for anyone the past two seasons.
Forecast: Broncos 35, Ravens 16
Green Bay Packers (12-5) at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
Time: 5 p.m. PST
Line: 49ers -3 (45)
Weather: High 40s, little or no wind
Facts: In SF’s 30-22 Week 1 win in Green Bay, the Packers were held to their worst rushing total of the season (45 yards). The 49ers, meanwhile, had 186, the most by any team vs. GB other than Adrian Peterson’s Vikings.
• Both teams were KO’d in last year’s playoffs by NYG. This season, both were trounced again by the Giants – 38-10 for GB, 26-3 for SF.
• The Packers will face a QB making his first playoff start a second straight game. Last week it was Minnesota’s Joe Webb in a 24-10 win. This time it’s Colin Kaepernick. In Aaron Rodgers’ playoff debut for GB in 2009, he threw for 422 yards in a 51-45 OT loss in Arizona.
Analysis: The only times the 49ers, with an overall plus-9 turnover differential, have lost were when they had a negative margin, so mistake-free football will be their mantra. And sure, Rodgers has been sensational of late, but in his past six games he’s played five times vs. teams with a defensive passer rating of 24th or worse. SF’s is rated sixth.
What makes this game a crapshoot is FG kicking. The teams have cornered the market on unreliable PKs. GB’s Mason Crosby has missed 12 tries this season and David Akers 13 for SF. And for good measure, the 49ers signed Billy Cundiff this week (7-for-12). His 58.3 success rate is the worst of them all.
Forecast: 49ers 28, Packers 21
PRO FOOTBALL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS SUNDAY, JAN. 13
Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Time: 10 a.m. PST
Line: Falcons -2½ (46)
Facts: This is the Seahawks’ sixth trip East this season and second in a row. They’ve gone 3-2 SU and ATS, but were 0-2 (ATS) in the early “jet lag” time slot.
• Atlanta held four of the league’s top 14 QBs to their worst passer-rating day of the season, including both Mannings. Seattle’s Russell Wilson ranks fourth.
• Wilson was sacked six times in Week 17 and another five times in a 24-14 wild-card win at Washington. Before that, he never went down five times in a game.
• Seattle’s comeback from a 14-0 deficit last week was the best for a road team since Minnesota overcame a 16-point deficit in a 23-22 win vs. NYG 15 years ago.
Analysis: Many things are working against the Seahawks. For instance, their best QB sacker, DE Chris Clemons (11.5), is on IR (knee). Plus workhorse RB Marshawn Lynch has been babying a foot injury (probable) and missed most midweek drills. Also, the five times previously a West Coast team played on back-to-back weekends in the East, only the 1989 Rams pulled a sweep, beating Philly and NYG as three-point underdogs.
The Seahawks are 0-3 in domes compared with 12-2 outdoors. Atlanta, meanwhile was unbeaten at home until allowing Tampa Bay to win a meaningless finale.
Forecast: Falcons 24, Seahawks 13
Houston Texans (13-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Time: 1:30 p.m. PST
Line: Patriots -9½ (48)
Weather: Low 50s, light winds
Facts: When the host Patriots beat Houston 42-14 in Week 14, it matched the Texans’ biggest loss since falling 40-7 in NE in 2006,
• Houston RB Arian Foster had a career-high 40 touches in last week’s WC win vs. Cincinnati. In 2010, he had 39 touches only four days before he had 24 more and 109 yards at Philly.
• NE routed Denver 45-10 at home in this round last year, but otherwise is 1-7-1 ATS after a postseason week off under Bill Belichick.
• Houston held the Bengals to 0-for-9 on third-down conversion tries. In Week 2, Jacksonville also was 0-for-9 vs. the Texans. There were only three other third-down shutouts in the league all season.
Analysis: Belichick and QB Tom Brady bring more savvy to the postseason than any team in the past decade, totaling three world titles. But they just don’t seem to put the hammer down as a big favorite – sometimes not winning at all. For example, they are 0-4 ATS as a double-digit pick this season, including an inexplicable home loss to Arizona and a too-close-for-comfort 23-16 win at Jacksonville three weeks ago.
Houston probably won’t win, but since the weather will be relatively muggy and New England is far from invincible at home (also losing to SF), the left-for-dead Texans should be properly motivated to throw a scare.
Forecast: Patriots 27, Texans 24
Last week: 2-2 ATS; 2-2 SU
Season ATS: 128-121-6 (.514)
Season SU: 151-108-1 (.583)
(Games that were “off” at midday Friday each week not included in any ATS totals)
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].