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Divisional Playoffs

   by Larry Ness - 01/14/2005

Prior to 1976, the NFL (like MLB did until just recently) predetermined its playoff home games in a divisional rotation, as opposed to the better won-loss record. When the league instituted wild card entries into the playoff-mix in 1978, just ONE of the two home teams in each conference had a bye-week prior to this round. Since 1990 and the 12-team playoff format, all Division Round home teams have had that first-week bye!...

Not surprisingly, this format has produced excellent results for the home teams. In fact, from 1990 through 2002, home teams produced SIX four-game sweeps in the this round, while taking THREE of the four games the other seven years. The overall record for home teams in this 13-year span was 45-7 SU with an impressive 34-16-2 ATS mark. Then came the 2003 season!...

All FOUR of the visiting teams 'covered' in last year's Divisional Round, with the Colts (at Kansas City) and the Panthers (at St Louis) winning OUTRIGHT! Considering last week's results in the Wild Card Round, where for the first time-ever THREE of the four games were won by the road teams, can we expect more of the same this weekend?...

NFC GAMES....

It's been a strange year for the NFC in 2004 and it could get STRANGER this weekend. NFC teams were DOMINATED this season by their AFC counterparts, as the AFC went 44-20 SU and 41-21-2 ATS in the 64 interconference meetings. The NFC's one STAND-OUT team in 2004 was Philadelphia. However, in the team's 13th game, Terrell Owens went down with an injury and the team has used back-ups to play in most of its final two games....

As for the NFC's second-best team in the regular season, the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons came very close to becoming the first 11-win team in NFL history (since the league went to a 16-game schedule) to allow more points than they scored. This is NOT insignificant! Including the Falcons this year, 62 teams have won exactly 11 games and ONLY the Falcons (they scored 340 points and allowed 337 in 2004) have come this close to NOT outscoring their opponents over an entire year. Atlanta is not a TYPICAL 11-win team!...

The NFC has already seen Minnesota and St Louis became the first 8-8 teams to ever win a postseason game, as the Rams won in Seattle (27-20) and the Vikings won in Green Bay (31-17) in last weekend's wild card games. Could we really get an NFC Championship Game on January 23 featuring two 8-8 teams?...

History says NO but then again, no 8-8 team had ever made it out of the first round before last week. Since the 1970 merger, just five 9-7 teams and one 8-7 team (Minnesota in the strike-shortened 1987 season) have made it to a conference title game. The only one of those teams to advance to the Super Bowl, was the 1979 LA Rams. That season, the Rams beat the 10-6 Tampa Bay Bucs 9-0, advancing to Super Bowl XIV where they lost 31-19 to the Steelers....

However, history also tells us that just two teams have ever advanced to the Super Bowl (the 1967 GB Packers and the 1972 Wash Redskins) after having lost their last two regular season games (as BOTH the Eagles and Falcons have this year)....

The Eagles beat the Vikings in Week 2 (a Monday Night game), 27-16. That game was much closer than the final score and it's interesting to note that Philly was a three-point favorite in that game but is an 8 1/2-to-9-point favorite in this game (without T.O.!). As for the Falcons, they beat the Rams 34-17 in Atlanta (also in Week 2) as two-point favorites. Again, the point spread is higher this time around, with the Falcons a solid seven-point choice on Saturday....

AFC GAMES....

While the NFC could get stuck with that dreaded Minnesota at St Louis match-up in its title game, there are no such fears in the AFC. I'm sure the conference would prefer not to see a third-go-'round between the Jets and Pats in its title game but ANY of the other three possibilities would be just fine....

I'm sure 14-2 New England, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls, at 15-1 Pittsburgh, just the fourth NFL team to finish a regular season at 15-1, would be the AFC's first choice. There would be nothing wrong with Indianapolis and Peyton Manning at Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger, either. While the Jets at the Colts would likely be the third choice, it's hard to see those two teams mentioned in the same sentence and NOT think of Super Bowl III....

Just like in the NFC (and for that matter all four of last weekend's wild card games), both of the AFC's Divsional Round games feature opponents that met during the regular season. The Steelers beat the Jets 17-6 at Pittsburgh in Week 14 as a five-point favorite. The Colts and Pats opened the 2004 season with a Thursday night game in New England, with the Patriots winning 27-24 as a three-point choice....

Saturday's game in Pittsburgh sees the Steelers as an 8 1/2 or 9-point choice over the Jets, following the lead of the two NFC games, in which the regular season winner comes in as a much higher favorite this time around. However, that is NOT the case in the Indy-New England game....

Despite the fact that the Patriots have won TWO of the last three Super Bowls, an AMAZING 19 consecutive home games (going 15-2-2 ATS) including the postseason and that a Peyton Manning-led Colts team is 0-6 SU (1-4-1 ATS) in Foxboro, New England opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite and has been bet down to (as of Friday morning) 1 1/2 or 2-point favorites!...

I'll be back on Monday with a playoff recap and an early look at the two conference title games. Good luck....










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