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Conference championship trends favor home teams

January 25, 2022 07:25 PM
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Coming off what has been described as perhaps the best and most competitive weekend of playoff football in NFL history, the league moves on to the conference championship round, which will set the matchup for Super Bowl LVI in two weeks. All four divisional-round games were decided on the final play, three in regulation, one in overtime. While we couldn’t possibly ask to see games of that magnitude once again, the stakes are even higher this week.

The last two weeks, I laid out recent trends from the wild-card and divisional rounds. In the wild-card round, road teams had an edge coming in, but they flopped this year, going 1-5. In the divisional round, I explained how home teams typically win three of the four games. The exact opposite happened last weekend as home teams went just 1-3, with the shortest favorite the only one to win.

Up next are the conference title games, and other than a road sweep two years ago, and Tampa Bay’s upset win in Green Bay last season, home teams have won all of the games outright since 2013. They also own an ATS edge of 11-5 during that eight-year stretch. Three of the last four games were decided by double digits, re-establishing the trend that was thwarted in 2019, when the prior 10-game run by the hosts produced an average margin of victory of 33.3-16.

Will we see two competitive games this weekend, or are we looking at two relatively easy home wins as has become somewhat custom? Considering both point spreads are over the 3-point mark, it doesn’t scream competitive. In fact, the last four times the two hosts combined to be favored by 10 points or more, they swept. What happens remains to be seen, but this year’s first two weeks of playoff action have produced highly unexpected results. Perhaps that is the underlying trend of this postseason.

Using similar methodologies as the past two weeks, here are some of the notable trends and systems that have developed in recent conference championships. I will apply this year’s matchups (Cincinnati-Kansas City and San Francisco-Los Angeles Rams) to the key info when applicable.

General conference championship trends

— The outright winner has covered the spread in all but five of the last 40 (87.5%) conference championship games. The most recent team to not do that was New England, four years ago, when it held off Jacksonville 24-20 as a 7.5-point favorite. This is just below the current wild-card rate of 54-7-1 ATS (88.5%) by outright winners.

— Hosts are on a 13-3 SU and 11-5 ATS run in conference championship play. Although the Buccaneers did pull an outright upset in Green Bay last year, it’s evident that home-field advantage has proven important in these games in recent years.

— There have been 10 road favorites in the last 25 years of the conference championship games, and those teams are 6-4 SU and 5-4-1 ATS. Most recently, Minnesota lost in 2018 to Philadelphia, 38-7 as a 3-point favorite. Neither of this year’s games will feature a road favorite.

— Beware of large home favorites in the conference championship round, at least in terms of laying the points, as those closing as 7-point favorites or higher are 12-5 SU but just 6-11 ATS since ’99. 

— Conversely, hosts favored by 7 points or fewer are 14-5 SU and 13-6 ATS in their last 19 tries. Those games have also gone Over the total at a 13-5-1 rate in that span. These line range trends figure to be among the most applicable to this week’s games.

— The last 18 times that a home team has won and covered the spread in a conference title game, that game has also gone Over the total at a 14-4 rate.

— Teams that won by 7 points or fewer in the divisional round are just 2-15 SU and 6-11 ATS in their last 17 road conference title game appearances. This trend applies to both Cincinnati and San Francisco this weekend.

— In intradivisional conference championship games, the favorites are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. This applies in the NFC.

— Home teams are 13-2 SU and 10-5 ATS in the last 15 AFC clashes, and 12-5 SU and 9-8 ATS in their last 17 NFC games.

— Cincinnati is making its first championship game appearance since 1988, when it beat Buffalo 21-10 to advance to its second Super Bowl. Kansas City is in for a fourth straight year as host and looking for a third straight AFC crown. In the NFC, San Francisco is making its fifth conference title game appearance in the last 10 years and owns a 2-2 SU and ATS record in the last four. The Rams won this game in 2019, their first appearance in 17 years. They are looking for their first Super Bowl title since 2000.

— Since the 2004 season, playoff experience has meant a great deal to championship hosts. In fact, home teams that were in the playoffs the prior year are on a 20-6 SU and 16-10 ATS run, including 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS versus teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior season. The latter trend will apply to both games in 2022.

Trends by seed

— No. 1 seeds have appeared in 43 of the last 58 conference championship games, going 29-14 SU and 22-21 ATS. Neither No. 1 seed advanced out of the divisional round this season.

— Only two teams that were not No. 1 or 2 seeds have hosted conference championship games in the last 21 years, and both won outright and ATS. Indianapolis did so in the AFC in 2007 and Arizona followed that two years later in the NFC. The Rams will be looking to make it three in a row.

— No. 2 seeds hosting conference championship games are just 4-6 SU and 4-5-1 ATS since ’97. However, Kansas City did win in 2020 in this role, beating Tennessee, and fills the same role Sunday.

— Wild-card teams, or those seeded No. 5 or 6, have gone just 4-9 SU and 5-8 ATS in conference title games dating to 1996 in the conference title games, including just 2-6 SU and ATS the last 11 seasons. However, Tampa Bay did win in this role last season, perhaps passing the torch to the 49ers to carry this year.

— Matchups pitting a No. 1 seed versus a No. 2 seed in the conference championship games have trended Over the total at a 13-4-1 rate since ’02. The AFC game fits this bill on Sunday.

Trends by total

— Overall, since ’93, Over the total is 35-22-1 in conference championship games, including Overs in the last five. However, there has been a stark difference when you consider conference breakdown lately, as the last nine AFC games are 6-4 Under while NFC games are on a 14-5-1 Over surge. 

— Breaking down the totals for this weekend’s games based on ranges, the seven of the last nine conference title games since ’03 with totals more than 42 but less than 48 have gone Over. The Rams-49ers game figures to fall in this range. Totals less than 41.5 are rare these days, but we did have one in 2018, and since 2000, Over the total is 10-4-1 in these games. The last 10 games with totals in the 50s have seen five Overs, five Unders. Barring changing weather, the AFC game figures to be in the latter category on Sunday.

— Home point spread wins typically mean Overs (14-4 in last 18), while road point spread wins trend Under (6-4 in last 10)

Follow the line moves

The last two weeks, I have pointed out that bettors have been in fact “sharp” when it comes to postseason games. For the conference championship round, that pattern continues. Following the line moves throughout the week leading up to the big games would have netted you a record of 17-6 ATS since ’05. Last year, bettors won the NFC game, backing the Bucs, while the AFC game stayed stable at -2.5 through kickoff. Be sure to follow the moves the rest of the week until kickoff, as lines moves as of Tuesday were only half-point sways and favored Kansas City and San Francisco.

Bettors have also done fairly well with totals recently as well, going 13-7 when moving the totals in the last 20 conference championship games. Early action finds bettors looking for an Over in the AFC game and Under in the NFC West game.

Conference championship stats

— In each successive round so far, it has taken more and more points by the home team to 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 points or more are on a 15-1 SU and 14-2 ATS surge. Those that don’t reach the 30-point are mark are 12-12 SU and 7-17 ATS since ’02.

— The magic point total for road teams in conference championship playoff action is even more definitive, however, and that benchmark has proved to be 20 points. Visitors scoring 20 points or more are 16-12 SU and 20-7-1 ATS when they reach that mark 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. Interestingly, though, we could be undergoing a transformation as the last four road teams hit the 20-point mark and are just 1-3 SU and ATS.

— Teams that gained more first downs in their respective conference championship games are 15-6 SU and 13-8 ATS over the last 12 years in those games. There have been three first-down ties, including the 2019 NFC game.

— Teams that controlled the time of possession are on a 25-11 SU and 28-8 ATS run in the conference championships since ’03. This is obviously a critical factor, but you’ll need to consider that teams that held an edge in this stat category are just 1-3 SU and ATS the last two seasons.

— Conference championship teams that gained more yards rushing in those games are 27-9 SU and 28-8 ATS over the last 18 seasons. Strangely, at the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a conference championship game are just 17-19 SU and 18-18 ATS in that same span.

— Putting up big passing numbers in conference championship games has also been a key ingredient to success, since those teams are 25-13 SU and 26-12 ATS since ’02. Very similarly, teams that gained more yards per pass attempt in a conference championship game are 28-10 SU and 27-11 ATS during that stretch.

— Dating to 2003, teams that turn the ball over fewer times in a conference championship are on an impressive 28-4 ATS run, although the Bucs did survive three Tom Brady interceptions in upsetting Green Bay last year.

Regular-season records

— There have proven to be only minimal differences when it comes to the success rates of conference championship teams based on regular-season records or the comparison between their record and their opponent’s. For instance, here are the records of home teams broken up by regular-season wins: Home teams that won 14 or more games in the regular season were 7-1 SU and 5-3 ATS; home teams with 12 or 13 regular-season wins were 17-11 SU and 13-15 ATS; and hosts that won 11 or fewer games were 3-1 SU and ATS. The regular-season win totals for this season were 12 each for the Chiefs and Rams.

— Road teams that won 12 or more games in the regular season are 3-12 SU and 6-9 ATS in their last 15 conference title games, road teams with 11 regular-season wins were slightly better at 6-9 SU and 8-7 ATS in that same span, and ironically, those visitors that won the fewest games, 10 or fewer, share the best outright winning percentage at 4-6 SU and 5-5 ATS. The Bengals and 49ers each won 10 games in the regular season. 

— Home teams that won at least two more games during the regular season than their conference championship playoff opponent are only 10-6 SU and 7-9 ATS since ’02. This trend applies to both of Sunday’s games.

— When just one regular-season win separated two conference championship playoff opponents, or the records were equal, the home teams are 14-4 SU and 12-6 ATS over the last 13 seasons. 

Regular-season stat trends, offense

— Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are on a 19-9 SU and 16-12 ATS run over the last 14 conference championship playoff seasons. The Packers and Bills held these edges in 2021 and both lost. For 2022, the edges belong to both hosts.

— The ability to run the football has been much overrated when it comes to conference championship success. Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 17-23 SU and 18-22 ATS since ’02. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush are just 10-16 SU and 12-14 ATS over the last 13 seasons. This year’s regular-season edge holders in both categories were Kansas City and San Francisco.

— Passing yardage has meant much more than rushing yardage in terms of conference championship success, with teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage going 26-12 SU and 23-15 ATS over the last 19 seasons. More efficient passing yards per attempt teams were worse at 22-16 SU and 19-19 ATS. Kansas City and the Rams hold the total yardage edges in 2021, but Cincinnati and San Francisco are playing as the more efficient passing offenses. In fact, the Bengals (No. 1), 49ers (No. 2) and Rams (No. 3) led the league in the latter category.

— Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively in the regular season own a slight edge when it comes to conference championship success, going 23-13 SU and 20-16 ATS over the last 18 seasons. The Packers and Chiefs will try to extend this trend in 2021.

— The offensive yards-per-play statistic has 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. The Chiefs and 49ers are the beneficiaries of this trend. 

— Like the divisional round and unlike the wild-card round, offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective indicator, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 17-15 SU and 14-18 ATS in conference championships since ’05.

— Offensive turnovers provides the handicapper zero edge, since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are only 17-16 SU and 15-18 ATS since ’04 in conference title games.

— Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are 14-12 SU and ATS in the last 26 conference championship games, although both lost last season.

Regular-season stat trends, defense

— Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 15-8 SU and 16-7 ATS dating to ’10 in conference championship games, providing a nice edge to handicappers. Kansas City and San Francisco hold slight edges over their counterparts in this key area, each by less than 0.8 PPG.

— Defensive rushing yards has been relatively significant when it comes to handicapping conference championship action, as has yards per rush defense, as teams with an edge in that stat are 19-19 SU and 22-16 ATS since ’03. Cincinnati and the Rams hold these edges.

— Conference championship teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponent are 22-16 SU and  23-15 ATS over the last 19 seasons. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are also 23-15 SU and 24-14 ATS. Cincinnati and San Francisco hold the edges in both categories for 2022.

— Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively are 22-16 SU and 23-15 ATS in the AFC and NFC title games since ‘03 while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play are a game better at 23-15 SU and 24-14 ATS. Advantages again: Cincinnati and San Francisco.

— Defensive yards per point should be given at least some consideration since teams with an edge there are 10-10 SU and 8-12 ATS in this round in the last 10 seasons and 10-16 ATS over the last 26 games. Fading these teams has been a sound strategy, although both the Bucs and Chiefs won last season. If curious, Kansas City and the Rams are the better teams in defensive yards per point in each conference.

— If you recall, the divisional-round trend concerning teams forcing turnovers was very distinctive. Not the same for this weekend, as teams that had more takeaways in the regular season than their opponent are just 18-19 SU and 19-18 ATS since ’02 in conference championships.

— Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a mediocre 17-21 SU and 18-20 ATS run in the last 38 conference championship games.

Summary

The first two weekends of the NFL playoffs threw recent trends to the wind, so I can understand if you’re uncomfortable using anything specifically trend-related this week. These games put teams on the ultimate stage, and there is a lot of pressure that comes with that. That aspect and team experience need to be considered. Obviously, Kansas City boasts a wealth of AFC title game experience, while the core teams for San Francisco and the Rams have been in this game once in the last two years.

Playing the statistical advantages of teams also has paid off for bettors somewhat, and while the edges in this year’s game seem to go back and forth, for the most part, passing offense and overall defense have been key. In both areas, again, there isn’t a definitive edge.

Sometimes we tend to overcomplicate things at this time of year as we look for the golden nugget. If you’re looking for some questions to ask yourself to start handicapping these games, go with these: Is the home team playoff experienced? Where is the money going? Which team has the better quarterback? Which team is playing better right now? And 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 Cincinnati’s inexperience and inability to protect QB Joe Burrow are worrisome, while for the NFC, which Jimmy Garoppolo will we see for the 49ers? How he plays figures to have a big impact on whether or not the 49ers can challenge the Rams. 

Whatever method you use to decide your plays for this weekend, good luck and we’ll see you back in a couple of weeks as we uncover all of the key betting angles on Super Bowl LVI.

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