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Ness Notes: NFL's Divisional Round

   by Larry Ness - 01/14/2010

The Cards, Cowboys, Jets and Ravens advanced last week and all four will play on the road this week against rested teams which were able to have last weekend off after a grueling 17-week (16-game) regular season. As I've mentioned in previous columns, the NFL has featured a 12-team playoff field since 1990. Since that time, the teams with the best records in each conference have had a bye during wildcard weekend and the No. 1 seeds from each conference get to host games on Saturday, which sometimes give them the added advantage of playing teams off short rest. That applies this year with both the Cards (who play the Saints) and the Ravens (who play the Colts) both played last Sunday.

However, three of this year's four top seeds have 'limped' into the postseason. The Colts own the NFL's best overall record at 14-2 but as everyone remembers, Indy opened the year 14-0 while breaking the NFL's all-time record for regular season wins (Colts won 23 straight, including their final nine games of the 2008 regular season), before "throwing in the towel" in the third quarter of their Week 16 with the Jets. The Jets would score the game's final 19 points in a 29-15 win and then the Colts lost 30-7 at Buffalo in Week 17.

It should also be noted that even while winning, the Colts have hardly been dominant in 2009. Seven of the team's 14 wins have come by four points or less and the Colts have been outgained in seven of their last nine games. The Saints are the NFC's No. 1 seed and by losing their final three games, become the first-ever No. 1 seed to enter the playoffs on a three-game winning streak. New Orleans opened the year 6-0 SU and ATS (averaging 39.7 PPG) but were just 2-8 ATS over their final 10 games, including 0-5 in their last five (Saints were outgained in their final four games!)

Minnesota, is the NFC's No. 2 seed and the Vikes are in only slightly better current form. Minnesota lost three of its final five games (ATS), although all three losses came on the road and Minnesota is at home on Sunday where it is 8-0 SU, but then again, so were the Pats!. San Diego is the lone 'hot' team among the top-four seeds, having won 11 in a row (7-3-1 ATS). With that in mind, one wonders if the bye week was a good thing for Chargers, who may have wanted to be on the field this past weekend, as to not lose any of their momentum (we'll see).

Home teams have gone 56-20 SU and 39-35-2 ATS (52.7 percent) in this round since 1990. Favorites are 53-22 SU and 36-37-2 ATS (49.3 percent) with the the Indy/New England game in 2004 closing at 'pick.' There have been 37 overs, 38 unders and one 'push,' as the 76 games have averaged 43.2 PPG with the average margin of victory being 14.0 PPG. Forty of the 76 previous games have been decided by more than 10 points and 30 (39.5 percent) by 14 points or more. All four games went over the total last week (had been 32 overs, 43 unders and one push since 1990) and of course the average of 57.3 PPG was skewered by the GB/Ari game (other three games averaged 44.3 PPG which was consistent with the previous 76 wild card games which averaged 43.0 ). However, the average margin of victory last week was 13.8 PPG, just slightly higher than the 19-year average of 12.4 PPG for the wildcard round.

Favorites have had their greatest success in the divisional round of the playoffs but recently, underdogs (synonymous with road teams during this span) have been the "way to go." In each of the previous three seasons, the home team was favored in every divisional round game, yet the road team was able to win seven of the 12 games SU while going 10-2 ATS. For the fourth consecutive year, all four home teams are favored again and as of Friday at 12 noon ET, the lines and totals of this weekend's games are the following. The Saints are minus-7 (57), the Colts minus-6 1/2 (44), the Vikings minus-2 1/2 (45 1/2) and the Chargers minus-7 1/2 (42).

Will the team which gets the better effort from their respective QBs be the one which will come out on top? Here's a few thoughts on the four QB matchups. Two games features excellent QB duels and two others seem like mismatches. Saturday's first game features Kurt Warner vs Drew Brees and Sunday's first game matches Tony Romo against Brett Favre. The late games on the two days will match Joe Flacco vs Peyton Manning and Mark Sanchez vs Philip Rivers.

It doesn't get much better than Warner vs Brees. Warner's a two-time MVP (1999 and 2001) and has led three teams to a Super Bowl, the Rams in in '99 and '01 plus the Cards last year. Warner threw five TD passes and completed 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards in last Sunday's 51-45 victory over the Packers. He became one of the very few QBs in NFL history to throw more touchdowns (5) than incompletions (4) in a playoff game. Warner finished the game with the second highest quarterback rating in NFL playoff history (154.1) and became the second quarterback to throw for five TD passes in a playoff game twice (first to do so since the merger). Warner is now 9-3 as a playoff starter, including 7-0 at home (that won't help Saturday with the game in New Orleans.

Brees has topped 4.000 yards passing in all four of his seasons with the Saints (5,069 in 2008) , owns a 122-57 TD-to-INT ratio in that span and in 2009 set a single-season record by completing 70.62 percent of his passes (Ken Anderson completed 70.55 back in 1982). However, while the Saints have had the NFL's No. 1 total offense in three of the four seasons since the arrival of Brees and coach Sean Payton, they have just one playoff win. Brees is 1-1 as playoff starter with the Saints and 0-1 in his once chance (2004) with the Chargers.

Tony Romo came into the 2009 postseason with an 0-2 record but was outstanding against Philly, completing 23-of-35 passes for 2444 yards with two TDs and zero INTs (104.9 QB rating). Romo's completing 67.5 percent of his passes over Dallas' last seven games, averaging 300.4 YPG with a TD-to-INT ratio of 13-2. Can he outplay Favre? Favre completed 68.1 percent of his passes this year (career high), threw for 4,202 yards (3rd-best total of his career) and topped 30 TD passes (33) for the ninth time. He had just seven INTs (fewest of any of his season) and had a career-best QB rating of 107.2 (career mark is 86.6).

Favre's 12-10 as a playoff starter and his 10 losses is tied with Marino for the most all-time. He's thrown 39 TDs but also 28 INTs, which is tied with Jim Kelly for the most in playoff history. Note that after winning the Super Bowl after the 1996 season and then losing to the Broncos in the Super Bowl after the 1997 season, Favre is just 3-6 as a playoff starter. His teams have missed the playoffs in five of his 12 seasons since Super Bowl XXXII and one wonders if his seventh postseason since that Super Bowl loss will be a "lucky 7."

Mark Sanchez became just the fourth rookie QB in NFL history to win his postseason debut last weekend, joining Shaun King (’99 Bucs), Ben Roethlisberger (’04 Steelers) and Joe Flacco (’08 Ravens). Sanchez went 12 of 15 for 182 yards (one TD / 0 INTs) and had a passer rating of 139.4. He's now gone three games without an interception (just 50 attempts) but also has passed for a modest 351 yards. Will he be good enough to keep San Diego's offense 'honest?' Will the Jets D stand up to Philip Rivers?

Rivers took over for Brees four years ago and has completed 63.2 percent of his passes while averaging right at 3,700 yards per season through the air, going over 4,000 yards in each of the last two. He's thrown 105 TDs with just 44 INTs in that span and takes a 3-3 record as a playoff starter into Sunday's game. Note that the Chargers averaged 28.4 PPG in 2009 (4th-best) and San Diego has now averaged more than 25 points per game for the sixth consecutive year. Think that's easy to do? The only other NFL team to average that many points per game over that many seasons was Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns from 1950 to 1955!

In the weekend's only rematch from a regular season game, the Ravens at the Colts, the QB 'battle' seems like a total mismatch with Joe Flacco taking on Peyton Manning. Peyton just won his 4th MVP award (most of all-time) and his accomplishments are too lengthy to mention. However, with all his success, he's got just one Super Bowl ring and if one were to take away his team's 4-0 playoff run in 2006, Manning's record as a playoff starter is just 3-8, including 0-3 (in '99, '05 and '07) when the Colts' first playoff game came at home after getting a bye in the wildcard round (sound familiar?).

Now here's the catch. What are we to make of Flacco? He's 3-1 as a playoff starter with all four games coming on the road (this will be another road playoff start). How hard is it to win three playoff road games in a career, no less in under two full seasons? Let's take a look. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana both own four Super Bowl rings but neither owns three road wins as a playoff starter. Bradshaw went just 2-3 in five career playoff road games and Montana was even worse, going 2-5 (1-3 with SF and 1-2 with KC). Hard to believe isn't it?

Flacco was a horrendous 4-of-10 for 34 yards with one INT (0 TDs) in Baltimore's 33-14 win at New England last Sunday, posting a QB rating of 10.0 (that's not a typo!). The win tied him for the most playoff road wins of any active QB with Tom Brady (3-2 ) and Donovan McNabb (3-4). However, let me list Flacco's passing stats in his other three playoff starts (two wins and a loss). He was 9-of-23 for 135 yards with no TDs or INTs (59.1 rating) in a 27-9 wild card win last year at Miami. He the went 11-of-22 for 161 yards with one TD (0 INTs) with a rating of 89.4 in a 13-10 win at Tennessee in last year's divisional round.

In last year's AFC championship game at Pittsburgh, Flacco was 13-of-30 for 141 yards without a TD and threw three INTs, posting an 18.2 rating. He may be 3-1 as a playoff starter but it seems quite a stretch to give him too much credit for that record. Then again, if he moves to 4-1 with a win over the Colts on Saturday, how do we explain it?

For you Cowboy fans, let me note that Roger Staubach was a perfect 5-0 in his only five playoff road starts. Not bad!

I'll be back on Monday with a recap of the weekend's games.

Good luck, Larry

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