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Preparing for the NFL Playoffs

   by Scott Spreitzer - 12/23/2008

Fans and handicappers typically believe they've got a good grip on how the playoffs are going to work themselves out heading into the final week of the regular season.

And many times, they are wrong.

Think back to last season. Heading into the final Sunday on the schedule, the New England Patriots seemed like a virtual lock to go the distance. They hadn't lost a single game straight up (and would finish the regular season undefeated). They were going to be prohibitive favorites every time they took the field.

New England didn't cover a single playoff game, though they did keep winning up until the Super Bowl. An injury to Tom Brady limited the team's explosiveness. That explosiveness is what set them apart in the first place.

The NY Giants weren't on anybody's radar. Nobody thinks the Wildcard teams have a chance to run the table. Dallas was the prohibitive favorite to win the NFC. Green Bay was getting consideration because Brett Favre was thought to have a little magic remaining in his arm.

Dallas didn't win a game (meaning the prohibitive favorites didn't cover a single spread in the postseason). The Giants won on the road at Tampa Bay, then at Dallas, then at Green Bay.

And you know what happened in the Super Bowl. A double digit underdog that returned more than 3-1 on the moneyline won straight up.

It's very important for handicappers to remember that the playoffs are the start of a NEW season rather than the continuation of the old one.

*Injuries happen, and that can throw a monkey wrench into anyone's plans.

*Teams can peak late, meaning that their "current form" in January is much better than what they had showed early in the season.

*Teams can peak early, meaning that their "current form" in January is much worse than what they had showed during the regular season. This was certainly the case for New England last year, particularly on defense. The Pats peaked in October and had to really battle in the playoffs to keep advancing.

*Turnovers are fickle, but play a huge role in determining who wins or loses close games. Teams who focus on the fundamentals are more likely to see fate smile on them. History says you should be wary of high risk/high reward teams, even when they succeeded much more often than not in the regular season. "Style" matters in this "new season."

*Strength of schedule immediately becomes tough for everyone!

With all of that in mind, I'd suggest thinking about the following as you watch the final week of regular season action this weekend.

*Which teams are playing the best RIGHT NOW? Throw out September and October. Give November partial weight. Who's playing the best on both sides of the ball heading into January?

*Which playoff contenders are below their early form right now? Who started hot but has been relatively indifferent the last few weeks? It's hard to turn it on and off at this level. Teams who aren't in synch will likely be overpriced in January because the market is looking at the full season record.

*Which teams are healthy? It's very tough to roll through January if you're shorthanded. New England was actually healthy heading into the playoffs before Brady got hurt in the posteason. So, even being healthy right now isn't enough! You should at least know who's dealing with injuries and who's healthy right now. Then adjust as news develops.

*Which quarterbacks are moving the chains and avoiding turnovers? I can't emphasize this enough. Those two factors are why the NY Giants ran the table last year. Eli Manning stayed in control and focused on the fundamentals. New England was historically dominant because they did the same thing until Brady was hobbled. Don't be fooled by high volume passing numbers or the occasional big run. Look at consistency in the areas of third downs and avoiding turnovers.

*Be wary of teams who posted strong won-lost records against weak schedules. The Giants played a killer schedule last year, and that was a great hidden indicator for postseason success. Teams who got rich against weaklings are usually exposed as pretenders. It's vital that you know what everyone had to deal with in their first 16 games. Don't make the mistake of loading up on a pretender with limited "big game" experience.

You may have noticed that many football lines move quickly as soon as the openers go up. Why is that? Professional wagerers have done their work ahead of time, and know what numbers they want to pound. They don't wait to see what happens with the line, or wait until game day to think about what to do. Professional wagerers plan ahead. You should be doing THAT this week so you're ready for the playoffs the moment the brackets are set!

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