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And Then There Were Eight -- NFL Playoffs!

   by Larry Ness - 01/05/2015

NFL Playoffs 2014 (Eight left standing)

As I’ve noted often over the years in numerous columns, we typically see about half of the playoff field from one season not repeat making the playoffs in the following season. SEVEN of the 12 teams which made the 2013 playoff-field were back in 2014, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England and Seattle returned, in alphabetical order. Joining that group, after a season or more of missing the postseason, were Arizona, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. The five teams which did not return to the playoffs after participating last season were Kansas City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.

Eleven of this season’s playoff teams won at least 10 regular season games, joined by NFC South Division winner Carolina, which made the field at 7-8-1. Only one team that won 10 games did not make the playoffs and that was Philadelphia, which finished 10-6. This year’s ‘dirty dozen’ owned a combined a combined 131-59-2 SU record (.688), going 107-82-3 ATS (56.6%). The group combined to play 96 overs, 94 unders with two pushes.

In 1990 the NFL changed its playoff format to include three, rather than two, wild card teams from each conference back in 1990. That increased from 10 to 12 the number of teams to make the playoffs while also increasing the number of postseason games from nine to 11. When the Texans joined the NFL in 2002 (giving the league 32 teams), a four-division format was instituted. With four division winners in both the AFC and NFC (not three each), the wild card teams were cut back to two for each conference, although the playoff field remained at 12.

So heading into this weekend’s wild card games, there had been 264 postseason games played under this format of a 12-team playoff-field, including 96 wild card games. What stands out is how rare it is for the ‘almighty’ pointspread to come into play.
SU winners had gone 82-10-4 ATS since 1990, prior to this weekend. That’s an 89.1% ATS win rate. The average wild card game had averaged 44.1 PPG and the average margin of victory was 12.1 PPG. The 2014 wild card weekend is now in the books and SU winners went 3-1 ATS (exception was Dallas’ non-cover against Detroit), with the four games averaging 42.5 PPG (three of the four went under) and the average margin of victory checking in at 11.0 PPG.

That’s pretty much what we should have expected, off past years’ results. In fact, we now have seen exactly 100 wild card games played since 1990, with SU winners going 85-11-4 ATS (88.5%) with those games averaging 44.0 points and the average margin of victory checking in at 12.1 PPG. We head to the divisional round this coming weekend and like the wild card round, there have been 96 games played in this round since the playoff field was expanded to 12 teams back in 1990 (prior to 2014). The numbers look similar, as SU winners have gone 75-19-2 ATS or 79.8%. The last 96 divisional round games have averaged 45.1 PPG, with a an average margin of victory of 13.9 points.

At first blush, it’s hard not to notice that with just eight teams left ‘standing’ (presumable the NFL’s eight-best), we don’t have a single competitive pointspread. New England and Denver opened as seven-point favorites in the AFC, over Baltimore and Indianapolis, respectively. Over in the NFC, Seattle opened as a whopping 11 1/2-point choice over Carolina with Green Bay opening as the ‘smallest’ of the four divisional round favorites, at 6 1/2-points over Dallas. That said, excellent storylines abound in all four games.

Here’s just a few early thoughts...

AFC: The Ravens visit the Pats on Saturday and the Colts are at the Broncos on Sunday. You may have read this already but it’s worth repeating. With their victory over the Steelers, the Ravens have tied the Packers for most road wins in playoff history (10), even though this is just Baltimore’s 19th year of existence (Green Bay’s in its 94th year!). The Ravens are the first team under the current playoff format (since 1990) to win three wild card games as a No. 6 seed, having gone a perfect 3-0 in those games. Let me also add that the Ravens have played 13 playoff games since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco arrived in 2008, FOUR more than any other team in the NFL (Packers and Past have each played nine).

Yes, Brady has more postseason wins than any QB in NFL history (18-8) but isn’t it fair to point out that after a 10-0 start to his postseason career, he’s 8-8 the his last 16? Flacco owns the most road wins of any QB in NFL history with seven, two more than any other QB. These two teams (and QBs) have met THREE times in the playoffs since 2009 (all in New England), with Flacco and the Ravens winning TWO of the three and covering all THREE. Maybe Brady and the Pats are due? As for the Colts and Broncos matchup, can it really get any better than a Luck/Peyton matchup? However, let’s NOT forget, Peyton is a woeful 11-12 in the postseason in his career, losing his first playoff game an amazing (and pathetic) EIGHT times!

NFC: The defending champs (Seahawks) host the Panthers on Saturday. No NFL team has repeated as NFL champs since the Pats did it in 2003 and ‘04. The Seahawks looked ‘dead in the water’ after a 6-4 start, as the Cards were 9-1 at a similar stage. However, Seattle enters on a 6-0 SU run (6-0 or 5-0-1 ATS) to face a team which finished the season 7-8-1 BUT ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak. The Panthers then beat the Cards 27-16 this past Saturday, as teams with non-winning records in wild card games are now 6-1 SU (7-0 ATS) since 2000 (includes five, 8-8 teams, TY’s Panthers and the 2010 Seahawks, who were 7-9). Is it defense which wins championships? Seattle's allowed the fewest points and fewest yards for the SECOND consecutive regular season but Carolina's defense has undergone a remarkable turnaround this season, going from 27th in the league in Week 7 to 10th entering the playoffs. The Panthers’ D then held the Cards to 78 yards on Saturday, the fewest yards for any team in NFL playoff history!

The Cowboys wiped out an early two-TD deficit to ‘escape’ at home vs the Lions yesterday, 24-20 (a little late help from the refs, was a bonus). Sunday's wild card game against the Lions marked Tony Romo's eighth career "win-or-go-home" game, including playoff games and Week 17 games that the Cowboys had to win in order to make the postseason. Had had been 1-6 in his previous seven but maybe this is Dallas’ year after all? As fate would have it, the Cowboys’ win earned them a trip to Green Bay, their first postseason visit there since that heartbreaking loss to the Packers in the 1967 “Ice Bowl.”

The Packers went 8-0 SU (6-1-1 ATS) at home in 2014, outscoring opponents on average, 39.8-to-20.4 PPG. Rodgers has been irrepressible here at home in 2014 with a 133.2 rating (25 TDs and zero INTs!), which is the top single-season home QB rating in NFL history. FYI...the previous record belonged to Rodgers (128.5 in 2011) and his 126.4 in 2013 when he amassed the requisite number of attempts in his four home games, ranks as the third-best mark. Rodgers has thrown 418 straight passes and 36 TDs without an interception at home (both league records). This just in...Aaron’s pretty good..

However, just a word to the wise. Yes, SU winners are 75-19-2 ATS or 79.8%. in this wild card round but that DOESN’T mean favorites are “all of that.” In fact, favorites are just 46-47-2 (49.5%) ATS in this round with the Colts/Pats game of 2004 closing at pick’em. Choose wisely this coming weekend.

Good luck...Larry

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