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Beware of the Bye Week

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/01/2008

The regular season of the NFL is behind us, which means the surviving teams are battling for the Super Bowl. There has been a lot of jostling regarding playoff positioning over the last few weeks. And now that it’s finally resolved, here’s something to keep in mind as the first round playoff games kick off: Teams that get the bye week have a big edge.

I’m not just talking about home field, either. Football is a game of pounding physical violence and strategy. The team that secures the all-important bye week gets to rest from all that physical pounding, and the coaching staff gets an extra week of preparation.

History says so, as do the bye weeks in the regular season. I recall a few years ago the San Diego Chargers had a terrible start, winless heading into their regular season bye week. I gave out a top play on San Diego the week after their bye week, when the Chargers headed to Cleveland. The Chargers were a big underdog at Cleveland, yet won the game straight up.

The fact that San Diego was coming off a bye week factored into my thinking. Giving a coach like Marty Schottenheimer two weeks to prepare means he often will have his team ready to play. It’s not just my opinion: History says so, and good handicappers are always on the lookout for edges and soft lines. The same principal can apply to the second round of the playoffs when four teams will have had two weeks to prepare, while their opponents have one week to prepare after doing battle in the first round.

Since 1994, the team with the extra week of rest is 25-16-1 against the spread in the NFL playoffs. Part of the factor is home field, of course – which the rested teams have – but another key is that one team has two weeks to prepare. This gives coaches so much extra time to watch game films of their opponents and identify weakness that can be exploited. The rested team’s coaching staff also has twice as much time to put in trick plays and new wrinkles. All of these things combined give the team with the bye week several advantages, which from a betting standpoint, simply can’t be ignored.

Last year, the rested home team went 0-2 SU/ATS in the second round of the playoffs. The Colts went to No. 2 seeded Baltimore and won 15-6, while the No. 4 seeded Patriots went to top-seeded San Diego and pulled a 24-21 upset. This was also very unusual. Normally, those rested home teams have several key edges. It happens during the regular season, too, with well coached teams. When the Patriots came off their bye week, they played at Buffalo and rolled 56-10. The Colts played at Jacksonville after their bye in a key divisional game: The Colts won 29-7. Give good coaches extra time to prepare, and they can win and cover often.

A good example in the postseason was the 2003 playoffs. The rested bye teams went 4-0 straight up and 3-1 against the spread. Three of the games were blowouts, with the Bucs rolling over the 49ers (31-6), the Eagles shutting down Michael Vick and Atlanta (20-6) and the Raiders topping the Jets (30-10). The only non-cover was the Titans, who as a 4-point favorite, squeaked by the Steelers, 34-31.

The final scores don’t tell the whole story, either. Two of those teams that played without the extra week of rest were off exciting, emotionally draining victories. The Falcons had traveled to Green Bay the week before and won straight up as a dog, while the 49ers needed a comeback for the ages in nipping the Giants, 39-38. The Giants missed a late field goal as San Fran climbed out of a 38-14 second half deficit before rallying. The emotional toll a team takes can mean they have nothing left in the tank before they make it to the next round against a rested home team.

You may have watched those first round playoff games that I just mentioned, and I can guarantee you who else watched those games – the coaching staffs of the teams with the bye! Coaches aren’t goofing off during the bye weekend – most are watching the games on TV and making notes on the team they are about to play. Again, that extra week of preparation works to the team’s advantage. This is why it is so difficult for first-round playoff teams to advance to the Super Bowl, which rarely happens.

A similar thing happened in 2002: The bye teams went 3-1 straight up and against the number. Rested St. Louis routed Green Bay 45-17, Pittsburgh flattened Baltimore 27-10 (leading 20-3 at the half as a 10-point favorite), and the Patriots won in the snow 16-13 over Oakland (a win or a push depending on the number). The only rested team that laid an egg was the Bears, losing 33-19 as a home favorite to the Eagles.

The year before that three of the four rested teams won and covered the spread easily: The Vikings routed the Saints 34-16, the Giants beat Philadelphia 20-10 and the Raiders shut out the Dolphins 27-0. The only upset was Baltimore beating rested Tennessee, 24-10.

Home teams have gone 31-11 straight up in the conference playoffs since 1994, which is why sometimes you have to lay big numbers. Remember when the rested Rams were a 10-point favorite over Brett Favre and the 13-4 Packers? A big number, yet the Rams rolled, 45-17 as Green Bay had nine turnovers. That same playoff weekend, the Steelers were a 10-point favorite over the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, yet won and covered, 27-10.

You may see the rested home teams as bigger favorites that you might have at first expected, but there are a lot of reasons why. Yes, the early bird catches the worm, and in the NFL playoffs, the rested home teams have a lot of the cards stacked in their favor.

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