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NFL conference championship playoff trends

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly) 

January 18, 2020 05:14 PM
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Patrick Mahomes
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Over the last two weeks, I have compiled trends from the wild-card and divisional rounds of the NFL playoffs. The conference title games are next. Notably, road teams won both games a year ago, snapping a streak of 10 wins by hosts. Home teams own an ATS edge of 8-4 during that six-year stretch. The games last year were fantastic (and controversial), a welcome change after that 10-game run by the hosts produced average scores of  33.3-16.
 
So far in the playoffs, the information I have presented that has stuck the best for 2020 were the trends regarding the totals, and those centered around how much the home teams have scored. We’ll see what recent conference championship results have to say about that a little later.
 
The AFC matchup this weekend presents a major clash of styles, and the NFC game is a rematch from the regular season that produced an unexpected rout. The league’s best regular-season team is home watching, as are the Patriots. So if nothing else, the Super Bowl LIV matchup will be unexpected. The only starting quarterback of the four who boasts a Super Bowl title as a starter is Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. 
 
Using similar methodologies to those of the last two weeks, here are notable trends and systems from recent conference championship games. I will apply this year’s matchups — Tennessee vs. Kansas City and Green Bay vs. San Francisco — when applicable.
 
 General conference championship ATS trends
The outright winner has covered the point spread in all but five of the last 36 conference championship games. The most recent team to fail to do that was New England two years ago, when it held off Jacksonville 24-20 as a 7.5-point favorite.
Hosts are on a 10-2 SU and 8-4 ATS run in conference championships, although the Rams and Patriots won outright and ATS on the road a year ago. Los Angeles won on a highly controversial play on which pass interference was not called, while New England emerged in overtime, so it’s clear that home-field advantage has proven important in recent years.
Road teams have been favored 10 times in the last 23 years of the conference championships, 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.
Beware of large home favorites in this round, at least in terms of laying the points, as those closing as 7-point favorites or more are 10-5 SU but just 4-11 ATS since 1999. This year’s home favorites, Kansas City and San Francisco, were listed as 7.5-point choices as of Tuesday. 
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 a 11-5-1 rate. It could prove important to watch this week’s lines right up to kickoff.
The last 15 times a home team has won and covered the point spread in a conference title game, that game has gone Over the total at a 11-4 rate.
Teams that won by seven or fewer points in the divisional round are just 2-14 SU and 6-10 ATS in their last 16 road conference title game appearances. This trend would apply to Green Bay.
In intradivisional conference championship games, the favorites are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. Neither of this year’s games features divisional opponents.
Home teams are 11-2 SU and 8-5 ATS in the last 13 AFC clashes and 11-4 SU and 8-7 ATS in the last 15 NFC tilts.
Tennessee is making its first appearance since losing at Oakland in 2003 and has never won a Super Bowl. Kansas City is in for a second straight year but looking for a first appearance in the Super Bowl since winning it in 1970. In the NFC, Green Bay is in the conference title game for the fifth time in the last 14 seasons, having gone 1-3 SU and 2-2 ATS in the prior four. San Francisco was in the game in three straight seasons from 2012-14, going 1-2 SU and ATS.
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 17-5 SU and 13-9 ATS run, including 6-0 SU and 5-1 ATS versus teams that weren’t in the playoffs the year before. This trend will apply to the Chiefs-Titans game. In the NFC, three times in the last 18 seasons, teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior year matched up for the conference title. The home teams in those games were 2-1 SU and ATS, including most recently Philadelphia’s 38-7 win over Minnesota in 2018. The only loser was San Francisco in a 20-17 decision to the Giants in 2012.
Conference championship trends by seed number
No. 1 seeds have been the host teams in 40 of the last 54 conference championship games and have gone 27-13 SU and 20-20 ATS. San Francisco is the No. 1 NFC seed.
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 did the same two years later in the NFC. 
No. 2 seeds hosting conference championship games are just 3-6 SU and 3-5-1 ATS since ’97, though Atlanta did beat Green Bay in 2017. Kansas City is the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
Wild-card teams, or those seeded Nos. 5 and 6, have gone just 3-8 SU and 4-7 ATS dating to ’96 in conference title games, including just 1-5 SU and ATS in the last nine seasons. Tennessee will attempt to end that slide Sunday.
No. 4 seeds are on a run of 6-3 SU and 5-3-1 ATS in conference title games since ’98. But most recently, Green Bay was whipped by Atlanta 44-21 in 2017.
Matchups pitting a No. 1 seed versus a No. 2 seed in the conference championship games have trended Over the total at an 11-4-1 rate since ’02. The NFC game fits this bill.
Conference championship trends regarding totals
Overall, since ’93, Over the total is 31-22-1 in the conference championship games. However, the last eight AFC games are 6-2 Under while NFC contests are on a 12-5-1 Over surge. The results were opposite of that last year, though.
Breaking down the totals for this weekend’s games based on ranges, seven of the last nine conference title tilts since ’03 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 seven games with totals in the 50s have featured two Overs and five Unders. Barring changing weather, the AFC game figures to be in that latter category.
Home point-spread wins typically mean Overs (11-4 in the last 15), while road point-spread wins trend Under (6-3 in the last nine).
 
Following the line/total moves
For the last two weeks, we have shown that bettors have been “sharp” when it comes to postseason games. For the conference championship round, that pattern continues. Following the line moves throughout the week heading up to the big games would have netted you a record of 15-5 ATS since ’05. Last year bettors won the NFC game, backing the Rams, while the AFC game opened and closed at -3. Be sure to follow the moves until kickoff, as bettors were favoring San Francisco (-7 to -7.5) as of press time.
 
Bettors have also done fairly well with totals recently, going 11-5 when moving the totals in the last 16 conference championship games. Early action finds bettors looking for Overs in both of this week’s games.
 
Stats generated in conference championship games
In each successive round, the home team has needed more and more points to somewhat ensure victory, outright and ATS. That pattern continues for the conference championships, as the benchmark for success increases to 30 points. Kansas City became the first home team in recent memory to lose with this last year, but still, hosts that score 30 or more are on a 12-1 SU and 11-2 ATS surge. Those that don’t reach 30 points are 12-11 SU and 7-16 ATS since ’02.
The magic point total for road teams in conference championships is even more definitive, and that benchmark has proven to be 20 points. Visitors scoring 20 or more are 15-9 SU and 19-4-1 ATS since ‘98. When scoring fewer than 20 points, the road teams’ record has dropped dramatically to 2-22 SU and 5-19 ATS since ‘95. 
Teams that gained more first downs in conference championship games are 13-4 SU and 11-6 ATS over the last 10 years. There have been three first-down ties, including last year’s NFC game.
Teams that controlled time of possession are on a 24-8 SU and 27-5 ATS run in the conference championships since ‘03. This is obviously a critical factor.
Conference championship teams that gained more yards rushing in those games are 24-8 SU and 25-7 ATS over the last 16 seasons. Strangely, at the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a conference championship game are just 15-17 SU and 16-16 ATS in that span.
Putting up big passing numbers in conference championship games has also proven a key ingredient to success, since those teams are 23-11 SU and 24-10 ATS since ’02. Very similarly, teams that gained more yards per pass attempt are 24-10 SU and 23-11 ATS during that stretch.
Going back to ’03, teams that turn the ball over fewer times in a conference championship game are on an impressive 27-3 ATS run. However, the Chiefs lost last year despite a 2-0 turnover edge.
 
Teams’ regular-season won-lost record trends
Unlike the last two weeks, only minimal differences emerge 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 in the regular season were 6-1 SU and 4-3 ATS, home teams with 12 or 13 regular-season wins were 15-10 SU and 11-14 ATS and hosts that won 11 or fewer games were 3-1 SU and ATS. The Chiefs (12) and 49ers (13) qualify for the middle group.
Road teams that won 12 or more games in the regular season are 3-10 SU and 6-7 ATS in their last 13 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 ironically, visitors that won the fewest games, 10 or fewer, have the best outright mark at 4-5 SU and 5-4 ATS. The Titans won nine games and Green Bay 13. 
Home teams that won at least two more games in the regular season than their conference championship opponents are only 9-5 SU and 6-8 ATS since ’02. This trend applies to Sunday’s AFC tilt.
When just one regular-season win separated the conference championship opponents or the records were equal, home teams are 12-4 SU and 10-6 ATS over the last 11 seasons. The NFC game fits this scenario. But both games a year ago were in this category, and road teams won.
Teams’ regular-season offensive statistics trends
Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are on a 17-7 SU and 14-10 ATS run over the last 12 conference championship seasons. The 49ers and Chiefs hold these edges in 2020.
The ability to run the football has been overrated in conference championship success. Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 15-21 SU and 16-20 ATS since ’02. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush are just 8-14 SU and 10-12 ATS over the last 11 seasons. This year’s regular-season edge holders were easily Tennessee 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 22-12 SU and 19-15 ATS over the last 17 seasons in this round. More efficient passing yards per attempt teams were a bit worse at 21-13 SU and 18-16 ATS.  San Francisco holds both edges over Green Bay, while Kansas City passed for more yards but fewer yards per attempt than Tennessee.
Teams that generated more yardage offensively in the regular season own a slight edge in the conference championships, going 20-12 SU and 17-15 ATS over the last 16 seasons. The 49ers and Chiefs will try to extend this trend in 2019.
The offensive yards per play statistic has also proven important, as teams with an edge in that category are 21-9 SU and 18-12 ATS over the last 15 years on Championship Sunday. Count the Titans and 49ers as 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. Teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 15-13 SU and 12-16 ATS in the conference championship playoff round since ’05.
The offensive turnover statistic provides the handicapper zero edge, since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are only 15-14 SU and 13-16 ATS since ’04 in conference championship games.
Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a surge of 12-10 SU and ATS in the last 22 conference championship games.
 
Teams’ regular-season defensive statistics trends
Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 11-8 SU and 12-7 ATS dating back to ‘10 in conference championship games, providing a nice edge to handicappers. Kansas City holds a 1.5 PPG edge on Tennessee, while San Francisco (19.4) and Green Bay (19.6) were separated by just 0.2 PPG.
Defensive rushing yards has been somewhat significant in handicapping conference championship action, as has yards per rush defense, as teams with an edge in that stat are 17-17 SU and 20-14 ATS since ’03. For 2020, Tennessee and San Francisco hold the edges in both categories.
Conference championship teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponents are 20-14 SU and 21-13 ATS over the last 17 seasons in this round. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are also 20-14 SU and 21-13 ATS. The 49ers and Chiefs hold the edge in pass defense numbers this weekend, with the 49ers being the NFL’s top-ranked team in both categories. 
Teams that allowed less yardage defensively are 19-15 SU and 20-14 ATS in title games since ‘03, while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play are a game better at 20-14 SU and 21-13 ATS. Advantages: Kansas City and San Francisco.
Defensive yards per point should be given at least some consideration Sunday, since teams with an edge there are 7-9 SU and 5-11 ATS in the last eight seasons of this round and 7-15 ATS over the last 22 games. Fading these teams has been a sound strategy, so fading the Chiefs and Packers would come into play here.
The divisional round trend concerning teams forcing turnovers was very distinctive. Not the same this weekend, as teams that had more takeaways in the regular season than their opponents are just 16-18 SU and 17-17 ATS since ’02 in conference championships.
Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a mediocre 16-18 SU and 17-17 ATS run in the last 34 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 or cover is certainly not a perfect science. However, analyzing the teams’ entire body of work has gained merit recently, at least since the recent run of home domination began.  
 
Playing the statistical advantages of teams also has paid off for bettors somewhat, and lately it seems as if offense and the ability to throw the football mean more than defense. For this year’s games, it would seem that the better statistical matchup would be the AFC contest, as San Francisco was better than Green Bay in almost every category analyzed. 
 
Sometimes we tend to overcomplicate things as we look for that golden nugget to deliver big profits. 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. 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 take on Super Bowl LIV!
 
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