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NFL Playoff Time!

   by Jim Feist - 01/08/2016

As the playoffs begin, those who earned the top two seeds in each conference have a key edge, as they get a bye the first week while watching the others duke it out. Sitting at home this past weekend were the Patriots, Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals. Why is that significant? A year ago the 4 bye teams were the Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers, going 3-1 SU, 1-3 ATS. Green Bay missed covering by one-point while the Pats + Seahawks (31-17) rolled. Incidentally, Seattle beat Carolina as -13-point chalk.
Two years ago the top teams were the Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks and Panthers. The top AFC teams met in the title game, while the Seahawks went on to win the Super Bowl.
Gaining the bye is an advantage for teams to not only rest injured players, but to have two weeks to put together a game plan. Since 1990, 38 first and second round seeds have filled 50 Super Bowl slots and the No. 1 and 2 seeds, rested after the bye, have gone 66-22 straight up in their first games in the divisional round.
The last four years the rested teams have gone 12-4 SU, though just 6-10 ATS. Last year Denver lost at home to the Colts, while the Patriots had a scare against Baltimore, 35-31 as -7 chalk.
The No. 1 seeded team in six of the last 11 years in the NFC (Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Saints, Seahawks twice) wound up in the Super Bowl. In the AFC it's been a different story. New England and Denver have made it in each of the last two years, but then ended a bit of a drought, with the only No. 1 seeds to make it were the 2003, '07, '11 Patriots, the '09 Colts. Here's a look at the four teams that come into this weekend's playoff games rested with home field.

Patriots: Here they are again! Defending champion New England overcame numerous offensive injuries to cop the No. 2 seed, but stumbled down the stretch losing 4 of 6. QB Tom Brady has top target TE Rob Gronkowski, but the offense, unlike a year ago, has not been balanced, a pass-heavy attack with a weak offensive line and backup running backs forced to step in.
The defense has been the big story, letting their top two cornerbacks depart from their title team, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, but Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler have been very good. This is also the best defensive front Bill Belichick has had in ten years, with rookie NT Malcolm Brown and newcomer Jaball Sheard joining a cast of talented, athletic linebackers who have been sack masters. For totals players, the Pats are 37-18 over against the AFC.

Broncos: Changing of the guard? Aging QB Peyton Manning fell off the map with injuries and poor play, so Denver turned to 25-year old Brock Osweiler with mixed results. The kid has been decent overall, but awful in the red zone. A terrible running game has been one reason, though new coach Gary Kubiak continues to force the run.
There are less concerns with this defense, however, dominant in the AFC from start to finish. It's a veteran unit that can shut down the run and the pass, plus is great at getting after the quarterback. Denver is 34-14 over the total against a team with a winning record. Was it just two years ago Manning had 51 TDs and only 10 picks? Seems more like a hundred years ago.

Panthers: Where did these guys come from? Carolina has had a losing record in three of the last four years, including winning a division title in 2014 despite ending with an 8-9-1 record. On the other hand, they've won three straight NFC South titles, going 12-5 in 2013, so it's not like they've been bad.
But 2015 has been quite a ride, with a dominant defense, minimal injuries, a hot young quarterback and an ability to win in the clutch. They were an underdog once at +7, rallying late to win at Seattle, 27-23, and had close calls with the Colts, Giants and Saints (twice). Despite have a great defense, the Panthers have been outstanding on offense on an impressive run over the total. Carolina is also 18-7-1 ATS after a spread loss. They will be happy to play the no respect card all the way to Super Bowl, where they may even be a dog with a better record than any AFC team.

Cardinals: Arizona overachieved last season despite having to use four quarterbacks. They've been even better this season, as QB Carson Palmer has been outstanding and healthy, with an All-Star cast of WRs in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Mike Floyd. The passing attack will be fun to watch in January, while the defense has been rock solid all year against the run and the pass. Arizona is 20-8 ATS against the NFC and 74-36-1o over the total after getting 350+ yards the previous game. This is a well coached team that has a shot to return to the Super Bowl after their near-miss in 2009-10.

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