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Ness Notes

   by Larry Ness - 01/08/2010

The NFC's playoff field of six was set heading into last Sunday. The winner of the Philly/Dallas game would clinch the NFC East title and those two teams plus the Cards and Vikes all had some chance of earning the No. 2 seed (Saints had clinched the No. 1 seed in Week 16). As for the AFC, the four division winners were set with the Bengals and Pats 'fighting' over the No. 3 seed plus seven teams were still 'alive' (some just barely) for the AFC's two wild card spots. However, both the Jets and Ravens controlled their own destines (win and get in), and each team did just that.


The NFL expanded its playoff field to include 12 teams beginning in the 1990 season. Heading into this season, there have been 110 teams from 1991 through 2008 to follow a playoff appearance with another one the very next season. That’s an average of 6.1 per season. Back in 1995, eight of 12 teams returned to the postseason from 1994, the most-ever from one year to the next. The fewest “repeaters” in any one season has been four, which happened just once (in 2003).


The 2009 playoff field includes six teams from last year and six teams that sat out last year's postseason (nothing surprising about that). Interestingly, the top-three seeds from last year's AFC field all failed to qualify for this year's postseason (Titans, Steelers and Dolphins), while neither of the NFC's top-two seeds from last year are playing this January, either (Giants and Panthers). Returning teams from last year are the Cards, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Ravens and Vikings. New this year are the Bengals, Cowboys, Jets, Packers, Patriots and Saints.


The 2008 Pats (at 11-5) became just the fifth team to win double digits in a single year and not qualify for the playoffs since the NFL expanded its playoff format to include 12 teams. They became the first to win 11 games and not do so. The 1985 Broncos also failed to qualify for that year's postseason despite an 11-5 record, but the playoff field that year consisted of 10, not 12 teams. No team with double digit wins failed to make the 2009 playoff field while two 9-7 teams got in (Jets and Ravens) and three were left out (Falcons, Steelers and Texans).


The Bengals went from 4-11-1 last year to 10-6 and winners of the AFC North in '09, the Packers from 6-10 to 11-5 (No. 5 seed) and the Saints from 8-8 to the winners of the NFC South (13-3), as well as claiming the conference's No. 1 seed. However, the Saints are the first No. 1 seed to ever enter the postseason on a three-game losing streak. The Chargers, who got into last year's postseason with a win in Week 17 and an 8-8 record, will take an 11-game winning streak into their game on January 17.


This year's playoff field went a combined 133-59 (.692) which pretty much mirrors the last few seasons, as last year's playoff teams were 130-61-1 (.680), the 2007 playoff field was 135-57 (.703) and the 2006 playoff field 129-63 (.672). This year's 12 playoff teams were 106-82-4 ATS (56.4 percent) with 87 'overs', 102 'unders' and three 'pushes' (54.0 percent to the under). The Bengals are the lone playoff team with a losing ATS mark (7-9), while the Packers' 11-4-1 ATS mark represents the best mark of any NFL team in 2009.


The NFL merger came back in 1970 and the term "wild card" was first introduced. The AFC and NFC each featured three divisions and beginning in that 1970 season the non-division winner with the best record from each conference were coined "wild card" entrants and completed an eight-team playoff field. For the record, the first wild card teams were the 10-4 Lions from the NFC and the 10-4 Dolphins from the AFC. The Lions lost at Dallas in 1970 by the infamous final of 5-0, while the Dolphins lost at Oakland (the West champs with just an 8-4-2 record), 21-14.


When the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games in 1978, a second wild card team was added in each conference, expanding the playoff field from eight to 10. It remained that way until 1990 when a third wildcard team was added to each conference, upping the total number of postseason 'players' to 12. This change expanded the opening weekend of the postseason ("wildcard weekend") from two to four games, as only the top-two division winners from each conference would get a "bye" in the first round, while the division winner with the worst record joined the three wildcard teams.


The NFL would expand to 32 teams in 2002 and reconfigure its division, going from six to eight. However, the wildcard round wasn't fundamentally changed. The NFL cut the number of wildcard teams from three in each conference to two but with four divisions winners in each conference instead of three, the size of the playoff field remained at 12. Therefore, we have a fairly decent 'history' to work with, as the 12-team playoff field is entering its 20th postseason.


The Colts and Chargers are the AFC's top-two seeds and the Saints and Vikings hold that distinction in the NFC. The four have earned the right to watch this weekend's games and await the outcome of this weekend's wild card games. After all the 'dust' had settled this past Sunday, we were left with a "one-of-kind" situation. Three of this weekend's games feature "instant rematches" of Week 17 games.The 1993 and 2001 postseasons featured two rematches of regular season finales but this marks the first time a wildcard round has had three.


Adding even more intrigue to the situation is that all three of this weekend's rematches were Week 17 blowouts! The Jets beat the Bengals 37-0 in the Meadowlands, the Cowboys shut out the Eagles 24-0 in Dallas and the Packers won 33-7 in Arizona over the Cards. While the venues haven't changed for the Philly/Dallas or Green Bay/Arizona contests, the Bengals will get a chance to avenge last Sunday's loss to the Jets back home in Cincinnati.


The playoff 'history book' reveals that there have been nine previous wild card games involving teams that had just met a week earlier to end the regular season, since 1990 (12-team field). The home team has gone 8-1 SU in those games but let's note of those eight "home winners," four had won the regular season finale while four others got 'revenge' by winning the wild card games after having lost the previous week. As for the lone "road winner," it had lost on the road the previous week, as well.


Let's not forget the fourth wild card matchup, as the Ravens visit Foxboro to take on the Patriots. While these teams did not play in Week 17, they did meet (at New England) in Week 4 with the Pats winning 27-21. All four home teams opened as favorites. The Bengals opened as 3 1/2-point favorites and as of Friday morning stood at minus-2 1/2 (total is 33 1/2). The Cowboys opened as a 1 1/2-point choice and are now minus-4 (total is 45). The Pats opened as four-point favorites and are now favored by three points (total is 43). The Cards opened as a 2 1/2-point choice and are now favored by just one-point (total is 47).


At least one favorite has lost SU in the wild card round in all but two seasons (2003 and 2006), since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990 (19 years, including 76 games). A quick five-year recap shows that in 2004, three of four road underdogs won SU and in 2005, three road teams won SU again, although the Steelers were a small road favorite at Cincinnati. The 2006 season saw a change, as all four home favorites won (2-2 ATS). Home teams went 2-2 SU in 2007 and then last year, Baltimore and Philly won outright as road dogs. The Chargers won outright as a home dog and Arizona was left as the lone home favorite to win SU (also covered).


Home teams are 51-25 SU in the 76 wild card games since 1990, going 40-33-3 ATS (that's 54.8 percent). There have been 32 overs and 43 unders (one push), meaning under bettors have cashed at a rate of 57.3 percent. The average score has been 27.7-15.3, a margin of 12.4 PPG. Note that 40 of the 76 games have been decided by more than 10 points (52.6 percent), including 29 (38.2 percent) by more than two TDs.


Good luck, Larry

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