Key playoff trends for divisional round

Last week I started my annual NFL playoff series on recent trends with the wild-card round. I revealed a number of road, underdog and Under-the-total systems that had been very successful recently. A key part of that pattern continued last weekend when visiting teams won four of the six games. So, like the league itself, I will move on to the divisional round this week. The six winners last weekend join No. 1 seeds Green Bay and Kansas City in looking to take a big step toward the Super Bowl. The top seeds bring superior talent into their games, including arguably the two best quarterbacks in the business, and seemingly each is capable of making it to Tampa next month for the Super Bowl.

Quarterbacks will almost certainly take center stage this weekend. In the AFC, youth is the name of the game. The Browns’ Baker Mayfield, a 25-year-old third-year pro, is the senior statesman. In the NFC, it’s age before beauty — or perhaps age and beauty. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are veterans with Super Bowl titles on their resumes but an average age of over 40. The Rams’ Jared Goff is the only outsider, but at 26 he would be the most veteran of the QBs left in the AFC.

Last year three of the four home teams advanced out of the divisional round. Home sweeps are rare, and if this season is like other recent ones, not all the top teams will move on, though it’s a good bet that at least three will. In fact, looking back at the last nine playoff seasons, the hosts swept this round twice — in 2016 and ’19. They split in 2017. In the other six years they went 3-1, meaning a cumulative record of 28-8 in that span, or 78%. So if the pattern holds, expect one host to be eliminated this weekend. On paper, that team would figure to be Buffalo, which is the smallest favorite of the four host teams. 

One important point regarding lines for these games: This playoff round typically has the largest favorites, and 2017 marked the only time since ’09 that fewer than two teams were favored by at least a touchdown. I speculated at that time that perhaps it signaled a couple of upsets coming. Pittsburgh and Green Bay pulled those upsets. For 2021, two teams are favored by at least seven points.

Recent years have produced some wild action in this round. Last year’s most exciting game was Kansas City’s rally from a 24-0 deficit to beat Houston 51-31, and the Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl. Surely you remember Jacksonville’s 45-42 win at Pittsburgh in 2018 or the Minnesota Miracle that same season. But rather than looking back at specific games, we will instead look back at some general trends in hopes of finding nuggets from which we can profit in this year’s contests. 

Here’s one trend to get us started: The divisional playoffs have produced a lot of points recently, with 26 of the 40 games over the last 10 years having surpassed the posted total (65%). The wild-card games trended heavily Under, although Over was 3-2-1 last weekend.

So let’s check the NFL divisional playoff log of recent seasons to see if we can uncover trends and systems to apply when handicapping this weekend’s games.

General Divisional Playoff ATS Trends

— The outright winner owns a 26-9-1 ATS mark in the last 36 divisional playoff games. The two most recent win/no-cover games involved New Orleans, which has been on both ends of those results in the last two years. Last week’s wild-card report showed that outright winners were on a much stronger 44-5-1 ATS run, and they went 5-1 last weekend.

— Since the road teams last held an edge, going 3-1 in 2009, home teams are on a convincing run of 33-11 SU and 23-20-1 ATS. Hosts are 12-7-1 ATS in the last five years, re-emphasizing the importance not only of home-field advantage but of the extra week of rest and health that comes with securing a bye in the wild-card round. Of course, for 2021, only the two No. 1 seeds enjoyed the luxury of resting last weekend.

— Only four road teams have been favored in the last 24 years of the divisional playoffs, and San Francisco is the only one to win in that scenario, beating Carolina 23-10 in 2014. The other three lost outright and ATS, including Atlanta, which came up short 15-10 as a field-goal favorite at No. 1-seeded Philadelphia in 2018. Unless we see a heavy late swing in the Buffalo-Baltimore game, this trend will go untested in 2021.

— Point spreads have proven to be a strong giveaway as to which team should win divisional playoff games. Home favorites of 5.5 points or fewer (or underdogs) are just 13-9 SU and 9-13 ATS since ’06, while those laying six points or more are 26-11 SU and 17-19-1 ATS in that span. That’s a difference of a little over 11% outright.

— Double-digit home favorites in the divisional round are on a 6-1 SU and ATS surge. Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore last year is the only conflicting result in that group.

— Road teams have proven worthy bets in the divisional round when underdogs in the + 3.5 to + 9.5 range, going 21-13-1 ATS in the last 35 tries (11-24 SU). However, both teams lost in this scenario a year ago. The Rams (+ 7) are the only underdogs that figure to qualify.

— In intradivisional games in this playoff round, road teams are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. Tampa Bay will try to build on that trend when it takes on New Orleans for the third time this season.

— Here are the divisional-round records since ’02 for the teams playing this weekend:

Los Angeles Rams: 1-0 SU and ATS

Green Bay: 5-5 SU and 6-4 ATS

Baltimore: 3-6 SU and 4-5 ATS

Buffalo: First appearance since 1995

Cleveland: First appearance since 1994

Kansas City: 2-3 SU and ATS

Tampa Bay: 1-0 SU and ATS

New Orleans: 3-3 SU and ATS

— A significant performance difference has developed in home-road dichotomy based on the day of the weekend the divisional game has been played. On Saturdays, home teams have gone 19-3 SU and 16-6 ATS over the last 11 seasons. Over the total is also 15-7 in those games. On Sundays, road teams have performed much better, going 14-16 SU and 21-8-1 ATS since ’06. However, they were 0-2 SU and ATS in 2020.

— In terms of AFC-NFC breakdown, AFC home teams are 16-7 SU and 12-10-1 ATS in the last 23, while NFC hosts are 22-8 SU and 14-16 ATS since ’06 in this playoff round but are riding a six-game SU winning streak.

— In terms of wild-card teams’ potential success in the divisional round, 11 of the last 12 wild cards to cover the spread in divisional games played well defensively in the previous game, allowing 20 or fewer points. The Rams and Ravens are hoping to continue that trend in 2021.

Divisional Trends by New and Returning Playoff Team

— When neither team in a divisional playoff matchup was in the playoffs last season, as was the case in the Minnesota-San Francisco game last year, home teams are 4-1 SU and 2-3 ATS since ’05, having gone Over the total all but once. For 2021, there are no such matchups.

— Returning playoff teams from the previous season and playing as hosts in the divisional round to teams that weren’t in the playoffs the previous year are 11-6 SU but 5-12 ATS in their last 17 when playing as single-digit favorites. Green Bay and New Orleans will test this trend this weekend.

— In divisional playoff games when both teams were in the playoffs the previous season, hosts are 19-6 SU and 14-10-1 ATS when favored by 5.5 points or more. This applied to the Houston-Kansas City matchup last year but will go untested in 2021.

— No such cases exist in 2021, but last year Green Bay played as a non-returning playoff team hosting a returning playoff team in the divisional round. Those teams are now on a 9-4 SU and 8-5 ATS run since ’08. All four of this year’s hosts played in the postseason last winter.

Divisional Trends by Seed Number

— Teams fight all season for home-field advantage throughout their conference playoffs. But that advantage has not lasted long as No. 1 seeds are 23-11 SU but just 12-21-1 ATS dating to 2004. The Ravens were a No. 1 last year in their outright loss to the Titans.

— Making matters worse for the No. 1 seeds is their record against No. 6s. In that matchup the home teams are just 9-6 SU and 4-10-1 ATS since ’06. This was the Ravens’ scenario in 2019, and Green Bay and Kansas City will host No. 6 seeds in 2021.

— No. 1 seeds playing as small home favorites of seven points or fewer are on an ugly 4-10-1 ATS slide, though they have won two straight outright and ATS.

— No. 2 seeds have been arguably more effective than No. 1s in protecting home-field advantage, going 23-9 SU and 18-14 ATS over the last 16 playoff seasons. They have also swept the last two seasons at 4-0 SU and ATS.

— NFC No. 1 seeds are just 5-9 ATS in their last 14 games. NFC No. 2s are on a six-game winning streak while going 3-3 ATS.

— Of the last 28 teams that pulled off road wins in the wild-card round to advance to this weekend, 17 have covered the point spread (62.9% with one push) and 10 have won a second straight road game outright. The Rams, Ravens, Browns and Buccaneers will be seeking second straight road wins this weekend. This is only the second time since ’02 that all four road teams are wild cards. The other time was in 2016, and hosts wound up going 4-0 SU and 2-1-1 ATS that weekend.

Divisional Trends Regarding Totals

— In the last 25 matchups between a No. 1 seed and a wild-card team or a road winner from the previous weekend, Under the total is 17-7-1, with the home team scoring just 22.4 points.

— No. 1 seeds are on a 12-8 Over-the-total run, but No. 2 seeds are a bit higher scoring at 14-6 Over in the last 10 years.

— Home teams that have covered the point spread in divisional-round games are also on a 17-3 Over-the-total surge. Alternatively, road team covers have seen 16 Unders and nine Overs since ’08. In other words, home teams win with offense, and road teams compete with defense. 

Following the Line/Total Moves

— Last week I showed that sharp bettors were right at a 25-15-1 ATS rate in wild-card games heading into last weekend. This was determined to be when the line moves off its opening position toward either team. This same group has been sharp in the divisional round, too, going 19-9 ATS since ’09. Only six of the last 49 divisional-round games moved more than a point off the opening number, and those came in the last seven years. Oddsmakers have been quite sharp in that regard. For 2021, the only consensus early move seemed to be on Baltimore. Again, though, the key moves often come late in the hours before kickoff.

— Bettors have picked successfully on early totals as well, going 26-14 in the last 40 divisional playoff games in which the total moved off the opening number, including 4-0 last season. Early bettors were favoring Over in all the games except the Packers-Rams contest.

Stats Generated in Divisional Playoff Games

— It has taken more points to win in the divisional round than in the wild-card round. Last week I explained that only two home teams that topped 20 points had lost in the last 19 years of wild-card action. The benchmark for the divisional round is a touch higher at 27 points, as home teams that reach that total are 37-4 SU and 30-11 ATS since ’02, including 3-0 SU and ATS a year ago.

— Failing to reach the 27-point mark has left home teams with a 16-19 SU and 5-28-2 ATS record since ’02 in divisional games. This year’s top four teams scored at least 29.6 ppg in the regular season, with Green Bay leading the league at 31.8.

— The magic point total for road teams in divisional action has proven to be 21 points, as they are 19-19 SU and 26-12 ATS since ’02 when they reach that mark. When scoring 14 points or fewer, the chance of a road team winning in this round drops dramatically to 1-19 SU and 4-15-1 ATS. The Rams are easily the lowest-scoring road team in this year’s lot, averaging 23.3 ppg.

— Since ’02, the offensive potency of the road team typically controls the total result. When road teams in the divisional round score 24 points or more, Over is 26-4. When road teams fail to reach 17 points, Under is 20-5.

— Teams that gain more first downs are 27-19-1 ATS in the last 12 divisional playoff seasons.

— Teams that control time of possession are just 23-24-1 ATS in the divisional playoffs since ’09.

— Teams that gain more yards rushing in their divisional playoff games are 32-15-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a divisional playoff game are 20-19-1 ATS since 2010. Running the football also proved very important in the wild-card success recipe, even more than this.

— Putting up big passing numbers in divisional playoff games has been a key to success, since teams with an edge in that stat are 26-21-1 ATS since ’09. However they were 0-4 ATS last year.

— Teams that make the most of their passing opportunities or hit big plays have been quite successful. In fact, teams gaining more yards per pass attempt are on a 31-11-1 ATS run. Consider which teams are more apt to put up big passing plays in the matchups.

— Turnovers have also been a big factor in winning or losing divisional playoff games of late. Teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponents have gone 27-9-1 ATS since ’08. Unsurprisingly, this is the most important in-game statistical factor.

Teams’ Regular-Season Won-Lost Record Trends

— Home teams that won 13 or more games in the regular season are only 20-14 SU and 12-22 ATS in the divisional playoffs since ’06. When matched against a team that won 11 or more games in the regular season, that mark drops to just 7-6 SU and 3-10 ATS during that span. Both AFC home teams for 2021 won at least 13 games, as did Green Bay in the NFC, while New Orleans won 12.

— A noticeable difference in success levels is apparent for road teams in the divisional playoff round that won 10 or fewer games in the regular season as opposed to those that were 11-5 or better. The lesser group is just 10-29 SU and 17-21-1 ATS since ’02, while the more elite group was 13-16 SU but 20-9 ATS. The only road team this weekend that was not at least 11-5 was the Rams, who were 10-6.

— Home teams that won at least four more games during the regular season than their divisional playoff opponent are 14-3 SU and 9-8 ATS since ’05. Baltimore lost on this trend in 2020.

Teams’ Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are 33-15 SU and 28-19-1 ATS over the last 12 divisional playoff seasons, including 15-4-1 ATS over the last five. All home teams except New Orleans own the edges in this category for 2021.

— Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 32-28 SU and 37-22-1 ATS since ’06, including 21-10-1 ATS the last eight years. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush were 28-32 SU and 36-23-1 ATS. Cleveland, Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans own these categories in 2020.

— Passing yardage has meant very little in divisional playoff success. Teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage have gone just 35-25 SU and 30-29-1 ATS over the last 15 seasons in this round. Teams that are more efficient in passing yards per attempt share a similar 34-26 SU and 29-30-1 ATS mark.

— Teams that generated more yardage overall in the regular season own a decent edge in divisional playoff success, going 39-21 SU and 33-26-1 ATS over the last 15 seasons. However, the yards-per-play statistic doesn’t reflect that level of outright success at all, as teams with an edge in that offensive category are just 25-23 SU and 25-22-1 ATS over the last 12 years.

— Unlike the wild-card round, offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective long-term statistical indicator. Teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 35-21 SU and 27-28-1 ATS in the divisional round since ’07. However, we could be seeing a turn in this trend in the last five years (14-5-1 ATS). Green Bay, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Kansas City hold the edges for 2021.

— Completely disregard the offensive turnovers statistic since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are only 23-27 SU and 21-28-1 ATS since ’08 in divisional games.

— Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 34-26 SU but 23-36-1 ATS in the last 60 divisional games.

 

Teams’ Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 22-18 SU and 20-19-1 ATS in the divisional round over the last 10 years. Defensive scoring edges were more advantageous in the wild-card round.

— Teams that allowed fewer rushing yards per game have slipped to 24-24 SU and 20-27-1 ATS in the divisional playoff round since ’08, including 0-8 ATS in the last two years. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush have been better for a more extended period at 39-19 SU and 32-25-1 ATS.

— Divisional playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are 34-22 SU and 27-28-1 ATS over the last 14 seasons. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are on a nice run of 31-17 SU and 27-20-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons. The teams enjoying the edge in that latter category for 2021 are the Rams, Baltimore, Kansas City and New Orleans.

— Teams that allowed less yardage defensively own a record of 26-22 SU and 22-25-1 ATS since ’09, while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were a bit better outright at 27-20 SU and 21-25-1 ATS. Teams with edges in both categories went 3-1 ATS last year after going 0-4 ATS in the previous season. Clearly this is not a reliable indicator.

— When analyzing divisional playoff statistical matchups, defensive yards per point is not a valuable handicapping nugget, as teams with an edge there are just 29-29 SU and 30-27-1 ATS in the last 58 games of this round.

— Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season are 29-17 SU and 31-14-1 ATS since ’09 in divisional games. This sure figures to be worth considering as it is easily our best defensive statistical indicator. However, the teams that held the edge last year were 0-3 SU and ATS. The Saints, Bills and Browns ranked in the NFL’s top 5 in this category, while the Rams ranked No. 9 but still hold the edge over Green Bay.

— Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a 30-19 SU and 31-17-1 ATS run in the last 49 divisional playoff games. This is another good angle you’ll want to remember, with the Rams, Baltimore, New Orleans and Kansas City holding the edges for 2021.

Summary

Just like the wild-card round, it seems that strength up front, good quarterbacking, a strong defense and the backing of sharp bettors is a good recipe to start with as you handicap this week’s games. However, unlike the wild-card round, if you throw handicapping to the side and simply guess, lean on the side of the hosts.

Considering what we’ve analyzed with regard to divisional playoff performance and statistics, only certain statistics are really worthy of consideration in handicapping. The key stat angles that have shown betting success recently are the ability to generate big plays in the passing game and not having to work hard for points. In other words, a lot falls on the quarterbacks.

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