Last week, I started my annual NFL playoff series on recent trends in the wild-card round. I revealed a number of road, underdog and Under-the-total systems that had been very successful recently. A key part of that pattern continued last weekend, when visiting teams won four of the six games. So, like the league itself, I will move on to the divisional round this week.
The six winners last weekend join No. 1 seeds Green Bay and Kansas City in looking to take a big step toward the Super Bowl. The top seeds bring superior talent into their games, including arguably the two best quarterbacks in the business, and seemingly, each is capable of making it to Tampa next month for the Super Bowl.
Last year, three of the four home teams advanced out of the divisional round. Home sweeps are rare, and if this season is like other recent ones, not all the top teams will move on, though it’s a good bet that at least three will. In fact, looking back at the last nine playoff seasons, the hosts swept this round twice — in 2016 and 2019. They split in 2017. In the other six years, they went 3-1 for a cumulative record of 28-8, or 78 percent, in that span. If the pattern holds, expect one host to be eliminated this weekend. On paper, that team would figure to be Buffalo, which is the smallest favorite of the four host teams.
Recent years have produced some wild action in this round. Last year’s most exciting game was Kansas City’s rally from a 24-0 deficit to beat Houston, 51-31, and the Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl. Surely, you remember Jacksonville’s 45-42 win at Pittsburgh in 2018 or the Minnesota Miracle that same season. But rather than looking back at specific games, we will instead look back at some general trends in the hope of finding nuggets from which we can profit in this year’s contests.
One trend to get us started: The divisional playoffs have produced a lot of points recently, with 26 of the 40 games (65 percent) over the past 10 years having surpassed the posted total.
Here are some others:
- The outright winner owns a 26-9-1 ATS mark in the past 36 divisional playoff games. The two most recent win/no-cover games involved New Orleans, which has been on both ends of those results in the last two years. Last week’s wild-card report showed that outright winners were on a much stronger 44-5-1 ATS run, and they went 5-1 last weekend.
- Since the road teams last held an edge, going 3-1 in 2009, home teams are on a convincing run of 33-11 SU and 23-20-1 ATS. Hosts are 12-7-1 ATS in the last five years, emphasizing the importance not only of home-field advantage, but also of the extra week of rest and health that comes with securing a bye in the wild-card round. Of course, for 2021, only the two No. 1 seeds enjoyed the luxury of having resting last weekend.
- Point spreads have proved to be a strong giveaway as to which team should win divisional playoff games. Home favorites of 5.5 points or fewer (or underdogs) are just 13-9 SU and 9-13 ATS since 2006, while those laying six points or more are 26-11 SU and 17-19-1 ATS in that span. That’s a difference of a little over 11 percent outright.
- Double-digit home favorites in the divisional round are on a 6-1 SU and ATS surge. Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore last year is the only conflicting result in that group. The Chiefs are currently the only team to match this trend this weekend.
- Road teams have proven worthy bets in the divisional round when underdogs in the +3.5 to +9.5 range, going 21-13-1 ATS in the last 35 tries (11-24 SU). However, both teams lost in this scenario a year ago. The Rams are the only underdogs that figure to qualify this time around.
- In intradivisional games in this playoff round, road teams are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. Tampa Bay will try to build on that trend when it takes on New Orleans for the third time this season.
- Here are the divisional-round records since 2002 for the teams playing this weekend: Rams 1-0 SU and ATS; Packers 5-5 SU and 6-4 ATS; Ravens 3-6 SU and 4-5 ATS; Bills first appearance since 1995; Browns first appearance since 1994; Chiefs: 2-3 SU and ATS; Buccaneers 1-0 SU and ATS; Saints 3-3 SU and ATS.
- On Saturdays, home teams have gone 19-3 SU and 16-6 ATS over the last 11 seasons. Over the total is also 15-7 in those games. On Sundays, road teams have performed much better, going 14-16 SU and 21-8-1 ATS since 2006. However, they were 0-2 SU and ATS in 2020.
- AFC home teams are 16-7 SU and 12-10-1 ATS in the last 23, while NFC hosts are 22-8 SU and 14-16 ATS since 2006 in this playoff round but are riding a six-game SU winning streak.
- In terms of wild-card teams’ potential success in the divisional round, 11 of the last 12 wild cards to cover the spread in divisional games played well defensively in the previous game, allowing 20 or fewer points. The Rams and Ravens are hoping to continue that trend in 2021.