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NFL Notes: Divisional Round
by Larry Ness - 01/13/2011
Only seven of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season were back for this year’s ‘party.’ Those teams were Baltimore, Green Bay, Indianapolis (with an NFL record-tying ninth straight postseason appearance), New England, New Orleans, the New York Jets and Philadelphia are repeating their appearance of a season ago. This year’s “newbies” included Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Of last year’s seven “repeaters,” Indy, New Orleans (the defending champs) and Philadelphia didn’t survive the wild card weekend nor did Kansas City (one of the newbies), which set an NFL record with its seventh consecutive playoff loss.
The notion that playoff games are thrilling, highly-competitive, down to the wire nail biters between the league’s elite teams, has just not been the case. The NFL adopted its present 12-team playoff format in 1990, and entering this season, there had been 220 playoff games. The average margin of victory in these games has been just under two touchdowns with that margin being amazingly consistent over each round of the postseason. The wild card round featured the lowest average margin of victory at 12.4 PPG, with the division round’s average margin of victory being the highest at 14.3 PPG. Championship games have been decided on average by 13.1 PPG since 1990 and Super Bowls by 12.5 PPG.
The NFL expanded its playoff field to 12 teams in 1990 and visiting teams have never won all four wild card games since that expansion. However, three road teams won and advanced this past weekend, marking just the third time since 1990 that three visiting teams walked away as winners (the other times came in 2004 and 2005). Surprisingly, the lone home team to win this past wild card weekend was the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, who upset the defending Super Bowl champs, the New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks (plus-10) won 41-36 late Saturday afternoon but then the Jets (plus-2) won 17-16 at the Colts Saturday night. Come Sunday, the Ravens (minus-three) won 30-7 at the Chiefs while the Packers (plus-two) won 21-16 at the Eagles.
Last weekend’s wild card games didn’t follow form in that, except for Baltimore’s 23-point win, the other three games were decided by five, one and five points. That’s an average margin of victory of just 8.5 PPG (even with Baltimore's big win), down from the 12.4-point margin of the previous 80 wild card games since 1990. However, what did follow form was that as usual, SU winners typically ‘equaled’ ATS winners. All four SU winners covered the pointspread last weekend and now SU wild card winners are 71-10-3 ATS (87.7 percent) since 1990. Getting back to Seattle’s win over New Orleans (Saints are now 0-4 all-time in road playoff games), maybe it shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise. Yes, the 7-9 Seahawks were the first team to qualify for the NFL postseason with a losing record and the team’s minus-93 point differential marked the worst of any postseason qualifier in NFL history. However, Seattle had some history on its side, entering Saturday’s game.
Seattle was the fifth team since 1978 to enter the playoffs with a point differential of minus-50 or worse. Incredibly, all five have won. The 1978 Atlanta Falcons (9-7) were minus-50 points but defeated the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles (plus-20), 14-13. The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) were minus-61 points but defeated the 9-7 Houston Oilers (minus -47), 26-23 (OT). The 1998 Phoenix Cardinals (9-7) were minus-53 points but defeated the 10-6 Dallas Cowboys (plus-106), 20-7. The 2004 St Louis Rams (8-8) were minus-73 points but defeated the 9-7 Seattle Seahawks (minus-2), 27-20. We can now add the 7-9 Seahawks (minus-93 points) to that group, after their 41-36 win over the the 11-5 saints (plus-77). Go figure!
The Colts’ loss drops Peyton Manning to 9-10 all-time in postseason games, a terrible mark for a QB who will likely own every major NFL passing record before he is through. Manning owns just two Super Bowl appearances in his 11 postseasons, winning once (2006). His other Super Bowl appearance came last year and if one were to subtract his 6-1 record in the 2006 and 2009 postseasons, you’d get a woeful 3-9 record in his remaining nine postseason appearances. Note that Manning owns just two career postseason road wins while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco just earned his FOURTH road playoff win (in just his third year in the league) when the Ravens won 30-7 last Sunday in Kansas City. Speaking of winning on the playoff road, the Ravens (founded in 1996 when Art Modell moved the Browns from Cleveland) now own the NFL’s best playoff winning percentage of all-time, at 7-3 (.700).
As for the Chiefs, they have now lost an NFL-record seven straight playoff games, a streak which began when they lost the 1993 AFC championship game 30-13 to the Bills in Buffalo. KC’s last playoff win came the week before in the divisional round, when Joe Montana led them to a thrilling 28-20 comeback win in Houston over the Buddy Ryan-coached Houston Oilers. The Chiefs are now 3-12 (.200) in the postseason since the 1970 merger, the worst record of any franchise not named the Detroit Lions, who are are 1-9 (.100). The Packers won 21-16 at Philly in the weekend’s final game, the team’s first road playoff win since its 23-10 victory at San Francisco in the 1997 NFC championship game. Aaron Rodgers threw three TD passes and added to the four he threw last year in 51-45 overtime loss to Arizona, gives him seven in his first two playoff games, the most of any QB in NFL history.
This weekend’s divisional round games feature two division rivals playing for a third time this year (Ravens at Steelers and Jets at Pats) plus two games featuring regular season rematches of non-division opponents (Packers at Falcons and Seahawks at Bears). The Ravens and Steelers have become one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries this past decade and have met 17 previous times since 2003 with Pittsburgh holding a 9-8 edge but with each team scoring exactly 302 points. While the Baltimore/Pittsburgh rivalry stems from the play on the field, the Jets/Patriots rivalry has been fueled by the team’s respective head coaches. Bill Parcells coached New England from 1993-96 before leaving for the Jets, from 1997-99. That started things with Pete Carroll playing his New England counterpart from 1997-99. Bill Belichick has been at New England since 2000 but the bitterness wasn’t renewed until Belichick assistant Eric Mangini took over as the Jets head coach from 2006-08. Rex Ryan took over the Jets in 2009 and in just two years, his big mouth has taken this rivalry to another level.
Each of the four home teams this weekend are off byes and not surprisingly, all four are favored. However, while the two Saturday games are competitively-priced (Baltimore at Pittsburgh and Green Bay at Atlanta), the two Sunday games saw the Bears open as 9 1/2-point favorites over the Seahawks and the Patriots as nine-point choices over the Jets. Home teams and favorites (typically one in the same in this round) have had their greatest success in this divisional round of the playoffs since 1990. Home teams are 59-21 (.738) SU over the last 80 games in this round with favorites checking in at 56-23 SU (70.9 %). Note that in 2004, the the Pats were charted as a pick'em in their 20-3 win over the Colts. However, let’s also note that the “great equalizer” (commonly referred to as the pointspread), leaves home teams a more modest 42-36-2 (53.8%) ATS with favorites going 39-38-2 (50.6 %) ATS.
I mentioned earlier that SU winners has often meant ATS winners in the wild card round since 1990 with SU winners going 71-10-3 ATS (87.7 percent) in the 84 games played since 1990 (including last weekend). That ratio is not quite as strong in the divisional round but it’s hardly insignificant, as SU winners have gone 63-15-2 ATS (81. 8 percent) the last 20 years. Remember, margin of victory is the highest in this round at 14.3 PPG with 54 of the 80 games (67.5 percent) being decided by more than seven points. Note that 33 of the 80 games have been decided by more than 14 points, for a whopping 41.3 percent! In referring to Seattle’s upset win over the Saints last week, I noted Seattle dismal minus-93 point differential. Let me add here that the team with the greater net points-differential during the regular season has covered 62% of the games in the divisional round since 1990. A one-minute handicap gives you the four home teams (and favorites), Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago and New England (do you dare?).
As of 5:00 ET on Thursday, the Steelers are favored by three points (37), the Falcons by 2 1/2-points (43 1/2), the Bears by 10 points (41) and the Patriots by 8 1/2-points (44).