Championship Sunday: Sifting recent trends

For as different as this NFL season has been due to the impact of COVID-19, the first two weeks of the playoffs have generally followed the trends of recent years. Over the last two weeks, I have compiled trends from the wild-card and divisional rounds of recent NFL playoffs. In the wild-card round, it was obvious going in that road teams had held an edge recently. They did so again in 2021. In the divisional round, I explained that hosts typically won three of the four games. That’s exactly what happened last weekend.

Up next are the conference championships, and the most noticeable factor when analyzing recent conference title games is that besides the road sweep two years ago, home teams have won every game outright since 2013. They also own an ATS edge of 10-4 during that seven-year stretch. Last year’s games were decided by double digits, re-establishing the trend that was thwarted in 2019, when the previous 10-game run by the hosts produced average scores of 33.3-16.

Will we see a return to competitiveness this weekend, or are we looking again at two relatively easy home wins? The matchups are very interesting, and both point spreads have been set at three points in favor of the top-seeded hosts. Coincidentally, both the 2019 road upset wins had 3-point spreads as well. This might be the most anticipated Championship Sunday ever because of the star power at quarterback. Three of the four starting QBs are Super Bowl champions. The exception is Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who is among the front-runners for this year’s MVP award. 

Using similar methodologies to that of the last two weeks, here are some of the notable trends and systems from recent conference championship games. When applicable, I will apply the key information to this year’s matchups, Tampa Bay-Green Bay and Buffalo-Kansas City.

General Conference Championship Playoff ATS Trends

— The outright winner has covered the point spread in all but five of the last 38 conference championship games. The most recent team to fail to do that was New England three years ago, when it held off Jacksonville 24-20 as a 7.5-point favorite.

— Hosts are on a 12-2 SU and 10-4 ATS run, though the Rams and Patriots won outright and ATS on the road two years ago. It’s evident that home-field advantage has proven important in recent years.

— Ten road teams have been favored in the last 24 years, and those teams are 6-4 SU and 5-4-1 ATS. Most recently, Minnesota lost to Philadelphia 38-7 as a 3-point favorite in 2018. Neither of this year’s games will feature a road favorite.

— Beware of laying points with large home favorites, as those closing as 7-point favorites or more are 12-5 SU but just 6-11 ATS since 1999. Both of last year’s home favorites, Kansas City and San Francisco, qualified and won.

— Conversely, hosts favored by fewer than seven points are 13-4 SU and 12-5 ATS in their last 17 tries. Those games have also gone Over the total at an 11-5-1 rate. These line-range trends figure to be the most applicable to this week’s games.

— The last 17 times a home team has won and covered the point spread, that game has also gone Over the total at a 13-4 rate.

— Teams that won by seven or fewer points in the divisional round are just 2-15 SU and 6-11 ATS in their last 17 road conference title game appearances. This trend applied to Green Bay last season, but both road teams in 2021 won their games by double digits.

— In intradivisional conference championship games, favorites are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. Neither of this year’s games features divisional opponents.

— Home teams are 12-2 SU and 9-5 ATS in the last 14 AFC clashes and 12-4 SU and 9-7 ATS in their last 16 NFC tilts.

— Of this year’s participants, Buffalo is making its first appearance since 1994, when it beat Kansas City 30-13 to advance to its fourth straight Super Bowl. Kansas City is in for a third straight year as host and looking for its second straight Super Bowl title. In the NFC, Tampa Bay has not reached this level since winning the Lombardi Trophy in 2003, while Green Bay is in the conference title game for the sixth time in the last 15 seasons, having gone 1-4 SU and 2-3 ATS in the previous five.

— Since the 2004 season, playoff experience has meant a great deal to championship hosts. In fact, home teams that were in the playoffs the previous year are on a 19-5 SU and 15-9 ATS run, including 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS versus teams that weren’t in the playoffs the year before. The latter trend will apply to the Buccaneers-Packers game. 

Conference Championship Trends by Seed Number

— No. 1 seeds have been the host teams in 41 of the last 56 conference championship games and have gone 28-13 SU and 21-20 ATS in those games. Green Bay and Kansas City are the No. 1 seeds for 2021.

— Only two teams that were not Nos. 1 or 2 seeds have hosted conference championship games in the last 20 years, and both won outright and ATS. Indianapolis did so in the AFC in 2007, and Arizona followed two years later in the NFC.

— No. 2 seeds hosting conference championship games are just 4-6 SU and 4-5-1 ATS since 1997. However, Kansas City did win last year over Tennessee.

— Wild-card teams, or those seeded fifth or sixth, have gone just 3-9 SU and 4-8 ATS dating back to ‘96, including just 1-6 SU and ATS the last 10 seasons. There is actually a misconception of how successful these teams have been of late. Only Green Bay in 2011 advanced past this round to the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay will attempt to end that slide Sunday.

— Matchups pitting a No. 1 seed versus a No. 2 seed have trended Over the total at a 12-4-1 rate since 2002. The AFC game fits this bill.

Conference Championship Trends Regarding Totals

— Overall, since 1993, Over the total is 33-22-1 in conference championship playoff games. However, a stark difference exists between conferences, as the last nine AFC games are 6-3 Under while NFC contests are on a 13-5-1 Over surge. Both games last year surged over their posted totals by more than a TD.

— Breaking down the totals for this weekend’s games based on ranges, seven of the last nine conference title tilts with totals more than 42 but less than 48 have gone Over. Totals less than 41.5 are rare nowadays, but we did have one in 2018, and since 2000, Over the total is 10-4-1 in these games. The last eight games with totals in the 50s have seen three Overs and five Unders. Barring changing weather, both games Sunday figure to be in that latter category.

— Home point-spread wins typically mean Overs (13-4 in the last 17), while road point-spread wins trend Under (6-3 in the last nine).

Following the Line/Total Moves

Each of the last two weeks, I have pointed out that bettors have been “sharp” in postseason games. For the conference championship round, that pattern continues. Following the line moves through the week heading up to the big games would have netted you a record of 16-6 ATS since 2005. Last year bettors won the NFC game, backing the 49ers, but lost the AFC contest when the Titans failed to cover the point spread after going + 7.5 to + 7. Be sure to follow the moves the rest of the week until kickoff, as lines moves were not definitive as of Tuesday.

Bettors have also done fairly well with totals recently, going 12-6 when moving the totals in the last 18 conference championship games. Early action finds bettors looking for Unders in both of this week’s games.

Stats Generated in Conference Championship Games

— In each successive round so far, it has taken more and more points by the home team to somewhat ensure victory, both outright and ATS. That pattern continues for the conference championship round, as the benchmark for success increases to 30 points. Kansas City became the first home team in recent memory to lose with this in 2019. But still, hosts that score 30 or more are on a 14-1 SU and 13-2 ATS surge. Those that don’t reach 30 are 12-11 SU and 7-16 ATS since ’02.

— The magic point total for road teams is even more definitive, however, and that benchmark has proven to be 20 points. Visitors scoring 20 or more are 15-11 SU and 19-6-1 ATS since ‘98. When scoring fewer than 20 points, the record of the road teams has dropped dramatically to 2-22 SU and 5-19 ATS since ‘95. But both road teams hit the 20-point mark last year and still lost.

— Teams that gained more first downs in the conference championship games are 14-5 SU and 12-7 ATS over the last 11 years. There have been three first-down ties, including the 2019 NFC game.

— Teams that controlled time of possession are on a 24-10 SU and 27-7 ATS run since ‘03. This is obviously a critical factor, but you’ll need to consider that both teams lost on this in 2020.

— Conference championship teams that gained more yards rushing in those games are 26-8 SU and 27-7 ATS over the last 17 seasons. Strangely, at the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a conference championship game are just 17-17 SU and 18-16 ATS in that span.

— Putting up big passing numbers in conference championship games has also proven a key ingredient to success, as those teams are 24-12 SU and 25-11 ATS since ’02. Very similarly, teams that gained more yards per pass attempt in a conference title game are 26-10 SU and 25-11 ATS during that stretch.

— Going back to ’03, teams that turn the ball over fewer times in a conference championship are on an impressive 28-3 ATS run.

Teams’ Regular-Season Won-Lost Record Trends

— Unlike the last two weeks, there has proven to be only minimal differences in the success rates of conference championship teams based on their regular-season records, or the comparison between their records and their opponents’.  For instance, here are the records of home teams broken up by regular-season wins: Home teams that won 14 or more games were 6-1 SU and 4-3 ATS, home teams with 12 or 13 regular-season wins were 17-10 SU and 13-14 ATS, and hosts that won 11 or fewer games were 3-1 SU and ATS. The regular-season win totals for this year are 14 for the Chiefs and 13 for the Packers.

— Road teams that won 12 or more games in the regular season are 3-11 SU and 6-8 ATS in their last 14 conference title games, road teams with 11 regular-season wins were slightly better at 5-9 SU and 7-7 ATS in that span and, oddly, visitors that won 10 or fewer have the best outright mark at 4-6 SU and 5-5 ATS. The Buccaneers won 11 games and the Bills 13.

— Home teams that won at least two more games during the regular season than their conference championship playoff opponents are only 10-5 SU and 7-8 ATS since ’02. This trend applies to Sunday’s NFC tilt.

— When just one regular-season win separated two conference championship opponents or the records were equal, home teams are 13-4 SU and 11-6 ATS over the last 12 seasons. The AFC game fits this bill.

Teams’ Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that scored more points per game in the regular season are on a 19-7 SU and 16-10 ATS run over the last 13 conference championship seasons.  The Packers and Bills hold these edges in 2021. This was also a critical stat in the divisional round, and those teams went 4-0 SU and 3-1 ATS in 2021.

— The ability to run the football has been much overrated in conference championship success. Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 16-22 SU and 17-21 ATS since ’02. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush are just 9-15 SU and 11-13 ATS over the last 12 seasons. This year’s regular-season edge holders in both categories were Green Bay and Kansas City.

— Passing yardage has meant much more than rushing yardage in terms of conference championship success, with teams owning an edge in that category going 24-12 SU and 21-15 ATS over the last 18 seasons in this round. Teams with more efficient passing yards per attempt were a tad worse at 22-14 SU and 19-17 ATS. Kansas City and Tampa Bay hold the total-yardage edges in 2021, but Buffalo and Green Bay were the more efficient passing offenses.

— Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively in the regular season own a slight edge regarding conference championship success, going 22-12 SU and 19-15 ATS over the last 17 seasons. The Packers and Chiefs will try to extend this trend in 2021.

— Offensive yards per play have also proven important, as teams with an edge in that category are 22-10 SU and 19-13 ATS over the last 16 years on Championship Sunday. Count the Packers and Chiefs again as the beneficiaries of this statistical trend.

— Like the divisional round but unlike the wild-card round, offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective statistical indicator, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 17-13 SU and 14-16 ATS in the conference championships since ’05.

— The offensive turnovers statistic provides the handicapper zero edge, since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season are only 16-15 SU and 14-17 ATS since ’04 in conference championship games.

— Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a surge of 14-10 SU and ATS in the last 24 conference championship games. Green Bay was the league’s best in this category in 2020-21, while Buffalo was second to Baltimore in the AFC.

Teams’ Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that allowed fewer points per game in the regular season are 13-8 SU and 14-7 ATS dating to ‘10 in conference championship games, providing a nice edge to handicappers. Kansas City holds an edge of 0.8 points per game on Buffalo, while Tampa Bay (22.2) and Green Bay (23.1) were also separated by less than 1.0 ppg.

— Defensive rushing yards has been somewhat significant in conference championships as has yards-per-rush defense, as teams with an edge in that stat are 18-18 SU and 21-15 ATS since ’03. For 2021, Tampa Bay had the league’s top rushing defense, while Buffalo was a bit better than Kansas City in total yardage but worse per attempt.

— Conference championship teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are 22-14 SU and 23-13 ATS over the last 18 seasons. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are also 22-14 SU and 23-13 ATS. These edges are split in the NFC, with Green Bay allowing fewer yards but the Buccaneers fewer yards per attempt. In the AFC, the Bills hold the edge in both categories.

— Teams that allowed less yardage defensively are 21-15 SU and 22-14 ATS in the title games since ‘03, while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play are a game better at 22-14 SU and 23-13 ATS. Advantages: Tampa Bay and Buffalo.

— Defensive yards per point should be given at least some consideration, since teams with an edge are 8-10 SU and 6-12 ATS in the last nine seasons of this round and 8-16 ATS over the last 24 games. Fading these teams has been a sound strategy, and thus playing against the Chiefs and Buccaneers would come into play here.

— The divisional round trend concerning turnovers forced was very distinctive. Not the same for this weekend, as teams that had more takeaways in the regular season are just 17-18 SU and 18-17 ATS since ’02 in conference championship play.

— Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a mediocre 17-19 SU and 18-18 ATS run in the last 36 conference championship games.

Summary

It takes an ideal set of circumstances, strengths and momentum to reach the conference championship games, and picking the two teams that will win, cover or both is not a perfect science. However, analyzing the entire season’s body of work has gained merit over the last several years, or at least since the recent run of home domination.  

Playing the statistical advantages of teams also has paid off for bettors somewhat. While the edges in this year’s contest seem to go back and forth in the NFC, it can be reasonably argued that Buffalo is the better team in the AFC in that regard. Of course, championship experience and home-field advantage will be a lot to overcome for the Bills.

Sometimes we tend to overcomplicate things at this time of year as we look for that golden nugget. If you’re looking for some questions to ask yourself to start handicapping these games, go with these:

— Does the host have playoff experience?

— Where is the money going?

— Which team has the better quarterback?

— Which team is playing better right now?

— Which team gets after the opposing quarterback better?

If the playoffs so far have demonstrated anything, it’s that the answers to these questions are key. If I were to look into my own crystal ball, I’d say a Green Bay-Kansas City Super Bowl looks probable, but I’d give the Bills the better chance at the upset.

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