The NFL's Final 4 (Championship Sunday)

by Larry Ness

The just completed Divisional Round has been hailed as "the greatest weekend in NFL playoff history" and one would be hard-pressed to find its equal. However, before I move on to Championship Sunday (or the NFL's version of college basketball's Final 4), let me look back at the NFL's first-ever 17-game schedule, competed over 18 weeks. It all began back on Sep 9th, when the defending champions Bucs eked out a 31-29 win over a Dallas Cowboys team coming off a 6-10 season. It concluded on Sunday, January 9th (nice symmetry there, huh?) and it was hardly just 'Another Pleasant Valley Sunday!'

The NFL had already set a record with 32 walk-off wins, entering that final Sunday of the 2021 season. However, Jan 9th of 2022 not only added THREE more walk-off wins, all three were decided in overtime AND clinched playoff spots for the winning teams. Just as a reminder, here's a 'two-minute recap.' Pittsburgh converted on a walk-off FG (for a 16-13 win), giving Big Ben one more shot at a playoff run thanks to the Colts' choke job at Jacksonville and Chargers-Raiders  avoiding a tie. The 49ers then won for the SEVENTH time in their last nine regular season games, by coming back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Rams 27-24 in OT (for a SIXTH straight time!), capped by a walk-off interception, after they had kicked a FG in the OT period. That "W" beat out the Saints for the NFC's last unclaimed spot. Then, on SNF in one of the craziest games ever, the Raiders led the Chargers 29-14 with under FIVE minutes to go, but saw the Chargers send the game to OT with a pair of TDs and a two-point conversion. After flirting with a chaotic tie that would have seen both teams make the playoffs, Raiders won on a walk-off FG, eliminating the Chargers and as noted above, allowing Big Ben one last playoff appearance.

Since it's 100 percent likely that anyone reading this article is betting on NFL games, let me start with recapping the final 'numbers' of 2021's regular season. Home teams went 132-123-1 SU in 2019), the worst record since the advent of the 16-game schedule. However, in 2020, home teams had a losing record for the FIRST time in history, going 127-128-1 SU!  One could argue that empty and partially empty stadiums played a role in that. However, that situation no longer applied in 2021, yet home teams continued to struggle.

With just two weeks to go in the regular season, home teams were just 119-118-1 SU but they had a terrific Week 17, by going 11-5 SU, including a blistering 13-2-1 ATS. Home teams were just 8-8 (9-7 ATS) in Week 18 and here's how the final numbers played out. Home teams finished just 138-131-1 (.517) SU and 128-140-2 ATS (47.8%). Home dogs used to be considered 'money in the bank' but home 'puppies' were only 34-69 (.330) SU, although they were a more respectable 49-54 (47.6%) ATS. For those O/U bettors, I hope you've been playing 'the under,' as the tally is 146 unders, 123 overs and three pushes (that's 54.3% favoring the under). The best ATS teams were Dallas (13-4) and Green Bay (12-5), followed by Detroit (3-13-1 SU) 11-6 (FIVE teams went 10-7). The worst ATS records belonged to 3-14 Jacksonville (5-12 ATS) and 5-12 Carolina (5-12 ATS). The 6-11 Bears, plus the 4-13 Giants and the 4-13 Jets all finished 6-11 ATS. The Vikings were the best 'Over' team (11-6) with the Chargers, Chiefs, Eagles and Jets going 10-7. The best 'Under' team was the Broncos (12 unders-to-5 overs), followed by the Giants (11-5-1) and the Steelers (11-6).

The NFL changed its playoff structure in 2020 and kept it the same for 2021 (I guess it's permanent?), meaning SIX games (instead of four), with the lone byes going to only the No. 1 seeds in each conference. Road teams had won 10  of 14 wild card games heading into this year's Super Wildcard Weekend (over the previous three seasons) but the home teams dominated this time around, going 5-1 SU and ATS. The Cowboys were the lone home team to lose, in a postseason matchup between two franchises with 5-plus Super Bowl titles). The average margin of victory checked in at 17.2 points per game. The six games averaged 50.5 PPG but SIX of the eight games stayed under the total.

After a largely forgettable wild-card round, for the first time in NFL history, all four Divisional Round games ended in walk-off fashion. Road teams won and covered the first three games, before KC salvaged some home team pride with a 42-36 OT win over Buffalo, in what many (most?) are calling the most exciting game in NFL playoff history. Both No. 1 seeds lost in the Divisional Round for the first time since 2010, when the top-seeded Patriots lost to the Jets and the top-seeded Falcons lost to the Packers. The No. 1 seed Titans were upset by the Bengals in Saturday's first game and then the Packers were upset by the 46ers in the nightcap. Before the Buff/KC game became an 'Instant Classic' on Sunday night, the Rams blew a 27-3 lead in the fourth quarter to the Tampa Bay Bradys, before winning 30-27 on yet another walk-off FG.  A playoff loss by Brady is always news, as the possible H-O-F candidate fell to 35-12 in all postseason games, including 21-5 in home games. 

The postseason numbers to-date read like this; Home teams are 6-4 SU and ATS (all home teams have been favored). The two Saturday games of the Division Round averaged just 29.0 PPG but the two Sunday games averaged 67.5 PPG. Under bettors have done well so far, ca$hing EIGHT of 12 bets. Now it's on to Championship Sunday, or the NFL's version of a Final 4.

The Bengals at the Chiefs are up first, at 3:05 ET. Joe Burrow has won more playoff games this month (two) than the Bengals had in the previous 32 years (one). He is also the first QB taken No. 1 overall to play in a conference title game within his first two seasons. However, he's up against Patrick Mahomes, who is 8-2 in his postseason career, losing only to 'A Man Named Brady,' once in the 2019 AFC championship game (New England) and then in last season's Super Bowl (Tampa Bay). Before Mahomes became their starter in 2018, the Chiefs had made just ONE trip to the AFC title game (1993) since the 1970 merger. However, they will play in their FOURTH straight on Sunday, with a chance to go to a THIRD consecutive Super Bowl. On the sidelines, KC's Andy Reid has the fifth-most regular-season wins (233) and fourth-most playoff wins (17) in NFL history. Meanwhile, Cincy's Zac Taylor has coached just 51 total games, playoffs included.

The 49ers and Rams meet in LA at 6:40 ET and all know the recent history. The 49ers have beaten the Rams SIX consecutive times from 2019-201 and now meet for the THIRD time this season. Sean McVay of the Rams, and Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers were both hired within a month of each other in 2017 and now, the winner of this game will be making his second Super Bowl appearance in a five-year span. Jimmy G led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in the 2019 season (lost to Mahomes and the Chiefs) but is one win away from a second SB appearance in a three-year span, despite passing for only 303 yards without a TD and two INTs (QB rating of 63.0) the last two weekends. Matthew Stafford's 'story' is well-known, having suffered for 12 years in Detroit, after being the first overall pick of the 2009 draft. He entered this postseason 0-3 in his playoff career but has completed 74.5% of his passes for 568 yards with four TDs and zero INTs in 44 attempts (131.5 QB rating).

One HAS to believe the NFL is 'rooting' for an LA/KC Super Bowl. A SF/KC matchup (replay of SB 54) is likely the second choice, although a Cin/SF game would amount to a third Super Bowl matchup between the Bengals and 49ers. Joe Montana bested Ken Anderson in SB 16 and then bested Boomer Esiason in SB 23. Maybe I'm wrong (nah!) but a Cincy/LA seems like the least attractive of the matchups, although it would be something that after the Bucs became the first team to host a Super Bowl last season in their home stadium (Raymond James), the Rams could make it 'deja vu all over again' Feb 13th in SoFi Stadium. In the end, it comes down to Chris Berman's famous, "That's why they play the games,' line. 

Good luck...Larry 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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