NFL divisional round playoff trends

By Steve Makinen  () 

Last week I went in depth in looking at key trends for the NFL wild-card games. So, like the league itself, this week I will move on to the divisional round. With only one of the four wild-card hosts having won, Houston, Tennessee, Minnesota and Seattle will join the top two seeds in each conference, and we have just eight teams in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. 

Starting Saturday, you’ll finally get to see the league’s so-called best teams in action again. That is, if you consider the teams that earned byes last weekend the best by virtue of their won-lost marks. Those clubs, of course, are Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC and San Francisco and Green Bay in the NFC. The Packers are probably the least respected team among NFL pundits, but playing at Lambeau Field in January is always difficult. Each top seed brings a unique set of talents to the game, and seemingly each is capable of making it to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.

Last year the two top seeds in each conference advanced out of the divisional round and went on to match up in two memorable conference championship tilts. However, if this season is like most others recently, not all four will move on, though it’s a good bet that three will. In fact, in looking at the last eight playoff seasons, the hosts swept this round in 2016 and ‘19 and split in ‘17. In the other five years they went 3-1, meaning a cumulative record of 25-7 in that span, or 78%. Thus, if the pattern holds, expect one host to be eliminated this weekend. On paper, that team would figure to be Green Bay, as the Packers are the smallest favorite. 

One important point regarding lines for these games: This round typically sees the largest favorites of any playoff round, 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 2020, two teams are favored by at least seven points, a return to normalcy.

Recent years have produced some wild action in this round. In last year’s most exciting game, New Orleans rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat Philadelphia 20-14 when a late pass deep in Saints territory was dropped. Surely you remember Jacksonville’s 45-42 win at Pittsburgh in 2018 and the Minnesota Miracle that same season. There are plenty more great games like that in previous divisional rounds, but rather than looking back at specific games, we’re going to look back at some general trends in hopes of finding nuggets to profit from this year. 

Here’s one trend to get us started: The divisional playoffs have produced a lot of points recently, with 24 of the 36 games over the last nine years having surpassed the posted total (66.7%). If you recall from last week, wild-card games trended heavily Under, so it was no surprise to see all four games go Under last weekend.

So let’s start digging through the NFL divisional playoff log of recent seasons to uncover trends and systems we can apply this weekend.

INSERT DIVISIONAL GAME LOG HERE

General Divisional Playoff ATS Trends

The outright winner owns a 22-9-1 ATS mark in the last 32 divisional playoff games. The two most recent no-cover wins involved New Orleans, which has been on both ends of those results in the last two years. In the wild-card round, outright winners were on a much stronger 40-5-1 ATS run.

Since the road teams last held an edge (3-1) in 2009, home teams are on a convincing run of 30-10 SU and 20-19-1 ATS in the divisional round. Hosts are 9-6-1 ATS in the last four 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.

Only four road teams have been favorites in the last 24 years of the divisional playoffs, and San Francisco was the first 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.

Point spreads have proven to be a strong giveaway as to which team should win divisional playoff games. Home favorites of 5.5 or fewer points (or underdogs) are just 12-9 SU and 8-13 ATS since ’06, while those laying six or more points are 24-10 SU and 15-18-1 ATS in that span. 

Double-digit home favorites in the divisional round are 6-3 SU and ATS since 2006 and have won five in a row.

Road teams have proven worthy bets in the divisional round when underdogs in the +3.5 to +9.5 range, going 21-11-1 ATS in the last 33 tries (11-22 SU). All four road teams are priced in that range for this weekend’s games as of now.

In intradivisional games of this playoff round, road teams are on a 3-1 SU and ATS surge. But no games this weekend are between divisional foes.

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

Minnesota: 2-1 SU and 1-2 ATS

San Francisco: 3-1 SU and ATS

Tennessee: 1-3 SU and ATS

Baltimore: 3-5 SU and 4-4 ATS

Houston: 0-3 SU and 1-2 ATS

Kansas City: 1-3 SU and ATS

Seattle: 3-6 SU and 4-5 ATS, 7-2 Over (0-6 SU and 2-4 ATS, 6-0 Over on road)

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

A significant performance difference in home-road dichotomy is evident based on the day the game has been played. On Saturdays, home teams have gone 18-2 SU and 15-5 ATS over the last 10 seasons. Over the total is also 15-5 in those games. On Sundays, road teams hold the edge, going 14-14 SU and 21-6-1 ATS since ’06.

In terms of AFC-NFC breakdown, AFC home teams are 15-6 SU and 11-9-1 ATS in the last 21, while NFC hosts are 20-8 SU and 12-16 ATS since ’06 in this playoff round.

In terms of wild-card teams’ potential success in the divisional round, 10 of the last 11 wild-card teams to cover the spread in divisional games played well defensively in the previous game, allowing 20 or fewer points.

Divisional Trends by New/Returning Playoff Team

When neither team in a divisional playoff matchup was in the playoffs the previous season, as is the case with Minnesota-San Francisco, home teams are 3-1 SU and 1-3 ATS since ’05, having gone Over the total all four games.

Returning playoff teams playing as hosts in the divisional round to teams that weren’t in the playoffs the year before are 11-5 SU but 5-11 ATS in their last 16 when they are single-digit favorites. Baltimore will test that trend this weekend.

In divisional playoff games when both teams were in the playoffs the previous season, hosts are 18-6 SU and 13-10-1 ATS when favored by 5.5 points or more. This applies to the Houston-Kansas City matchup.

In the case of Green Bay for 2020, where the Packers are a new playoff team hosting a returning playoff team in the divisional round, those teams are on an 8-4 SU and 7-5 ATS run since ’08.

Divisional Trends by Seed Number

Teams fight all season to gain home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, but  that edge has not lasted long. No. 1 seeds are on a skid of just 22-10 SU and 11-20-1 ATS dating to 2004. The Saints were a No. 1 last year in their ATS loss to the Eagles.

Making matters worse for No. 1 seeds is their record vs. No. 6s. In that matchup the home teams are just 8-5 SU and 3-9-1 ATS since ’06. This was the Saints’ scenario in 2019.

No. 1 seeds playing as small home favorites of seven or fewer points are on an ugly 3-10-1 ATS slide in the divisional round, though Kansas City did win handily a year ago.

No. 2 seeds have been arguably more effective than No. 1s in protecting home-field advantage in the divisional round, going 21-9 SU and 16-14 ATS over the last 15 seasons. 

NFC No. 1 seeds are just 4-9 ATS in their last 13 games.

Of the last 25 teams that pulled off road wins in the wild-card round, 16 have covered the point spread (64% with one push) and nine have won a second straight road game outright in the divisional round. Minnesota, Tennessee and Seattle will be seeking second straight road wins this weekend.

Divisional Trends Regarding Totals

In the last 23 matchups between No. 1 seeds and wild-card teams, or a road winner from the previous weekend, Under the total is 15-7-1, with the home team scoring just 22.6 PPG.

Amazingly, Nos. 1 and 2 seeds have trended identically Over, going 12-6 in the last 18. Additionally, AFC No. 1s, AFC No. 2s, NFC No. 1s and NFC No. 2s are all 6-3 Over in that span.

Home teams that have covered the point spread in divisional round games are also on a 15-2 Over the total surge. Alternatively, road team covers have included 15 Unders and nine Overs since ’08. In other words, home teams win with offense, road teams compete with defense. 

Following the Line/Total Moves

Last week I showed you how sharp bettors were right at a 24-12-1 ATS rate in wild-card games heading into last weekend’s action. 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, going 17-8 ATS since ’09. Only six of the last 45 divisional round games moved more than a point off the opening number, and those came in the last six years. Oddsmakers have been quite sharp in that regard. For 2020, early moves were favoring Minnesota, Baltimore, Kansas City and Green Bay, but often the key moves come in the hours before kickoff.

Bettors have picked successfully on early totals as well, going 22-14 in the last 36 divisional playoff games in which the total moved off the opening number. But they were just 1-2 last season. As of press time, early bettors were favoring Over in the Chiefs-Texans tilt but Under in the other three.

Stats Generated in Divisional Playoff Games

It has taken more points to win in the divisional round than the wild-card round. Last week I explained that only two home teams that topped the 20-point mark lost in the last 18 years of wild-card playoff action, going 37-2 SU and 30-8-1 ATS. The benchmark for the divisional round is 27 points, as home teams that reach that total are 34-4 SU and 27-11 ATS since ’02. But Pittsburgh did lose in 2018 despite scoring 42 points. 

Failing to reach 27 points has left home teams with a 16-18 SU and 5-27-2 ATS record since ’02 in divisional playoff games. Among this year’s top four teams, the Packers scored the fewest points per game in the regular season at 23.5. The other three averaged 28 or more.

The magic point total for road teams in divisional playoff action has proven to be 21 points, as they are 18-17 SU and 25-10 ATS since ’02 when they reach that mark. When scoring 14 or fewer points, the chance of a road team winning in this round drops dramatically to 1-18 SU and 4-14-1 ATS, although Philadelphia did cover last year while losing 20-14. 

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 25-3. When road teams fail to reach 17 points, Under is 19-5. Incidentally, all four home teams allowed less than 20 PPG this season.

Teams that gain more first downs are just 25-17-1 ATS in the last 11 divisional playoff seasons.

Teams that control the time of possession are just 22-21-1 ATS in the divisional playoffs since ’09.

Divisional playoff teams that gain more yards rushing in their playoff games are 29-14-1 ATS over the last 11 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in divisional playoff games are 18-17-1 ATS since 2010. Running the football also proved a very important ingredient in the wild-card success recipe, even more than this.

Putting up big passing numbers in divisional playoff games has also been a key to success. Teams with an edge in that stat are 26-17-1 ATS since ’09.

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 in divisional playoff games are on a 28-10-1 ATS run. 

The turnover has also been a big factor in winning or losing divisional playoff games, as teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponents have gone 26-9-1 ATS since ‘08. Not surprisingly, this is the most important statistical factor.

Teams’ Regular-Season Won-Lost Record Trends

Home teams that won 13 or more games in the regular season are only 18-13 SU and 10-21 ATS in the divisional playoffs since ’06. When matched against a team that won 11 or more games, that mark drops to 6-6 SU and 2-10 ATS. Both NFC home teams for 2020 won 13 games, while Kansas City won 12 and Baltimore won 14. The only road team this weekend that won 11 or more was Seattle.

There is a noticeable difference in success for road teams in the divisional playoff round that won 10 or fewer games in the regular season compared with those that were 11-5 or better. The lesser group is just 9-27 SU and 16-19-1 ATS since ’02, while the better group is 13-15 SU but 20-8 ATS. The Seahawks qualify for 2020 in that latter group, while the other teams had 10 or fewer wins.

Home teams that won at least four more games during the regular season than their divisional playoff opponent are 14-2 SU and 9-7 ATS since ’05. Baltimore will test this trend in 2020.

Teams’ Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are 31-13 SU and 26-17-1 ATS over the last 11 divisional playoff seasons, including 13-2-1 ATS over the last four. Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and Kansas City own the edges in this category for 2020.

Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 31-25 SU and 36-19-1 ATS since ’06, including 20-7-1 ATS the last seven years. Those that averaged more yards per rush were 27-29 SU and 35-20-1 ATS. San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston and Seattle own these categories in 2020.

Passing yardage has meant very little in terms of divisional playoff success, with teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage going just 33-23 SU and 28-27-1 ATS over the last 14 seasons in this playoff round. Teams with more efficient passing yards per attempt share a similar 31-25 SU and 26-29-1 ATS mark.

Teams that generated more yardage in the regular season own an edge in divisional playoff success, going 37-19 SU and 31-24-1 ATS over the last 14 seasons. However, the offensive yards per play statistic doesn’t reflect that level of outright success, as teams with an edge in that category are just 23-21 SU and 23-20-1 ATS over the last 11 years. 

Unlike the wild-card round, offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective statistical indicator. Teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 32-20 SU and 24-27-1 ATS in the divisional playoff round since ’07. However, we could be seeing a turn in this trend in the last four years, 11-4-1 ATS.

Completely throw out the offensive turnovers statistic. Teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are only 21-25 SU and 19-26-1 ATS since ’08 in divisional playoff games.

Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were just 32-24 SU and 21-34-1 ATS in the last 56 divisional playoff games. 

Teams’ Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 20-16 SU and 18-17-1 ATS in the divisional round over the last nine years. Defensive scoring edges were more advantageous in the wild-card round.

Teams that allowed fewer rushing yards per game have slipped to 24-20 SU and 20-23-1 ATS in the divisional playoff round since ’08, including 0-4 ATS last year. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush have been better for a more extended period at 37-17 SU and 30-23-1 ATS. Minnesota, Tennessee, Houston and Green Bay are the teams with edges in the latter category for 2020.

Divisional playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are 31-21 SU and 24-27-1 ATS over the last 13 seasons in this round. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are on a nice run of 28-16 SU and 24-19-1 ATS over the last 11 divisional playoff seasons. The teams enjoying the edge in the latter category for 2020 are San Francisco, Baltimore, Kansas City and Green Bay.

Teams that allowed less yardage defensively own a record of 23-21 SU and 19-24-1 ATS since ’09, while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were a bit better outright at 24-19 SU and 18-24-1 ATS. Teams with edges in both categories went 0-4 ATS last year.

When analyzing divisional playoff statistical matchups, defensive yards per point is not a valuable handicapping nugget. Teams with an edge there are just 26-28 SU and 27-26-1 ATS in the last 54 games of this round.

Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season are 29-14 SU are 31-11-1 ATS since ’09 in divisional playoff games. This one surely figures to be one worth considering as it is easily our best statistical indicator. The Seahawks, Ravens and Vikings hold slight edges in takeaways, as all three were in the NFL’s top eight in this category. The Chiefs ranked a bit lower at No. 12 but still hold the edge over Houston. 

Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a 26-19 SU and 27-17-1 ATS run in divisional playoff games. This is another good angle you’ll want to remember, with San Francisco, Tennessee, Kansas City and Green Bay holding the edges for 2020.

Teams’ Regular-Season Statistics Combined Trends

Teams combining the ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense — those with an edge in yards per rush on both sides of the ball — are on a 24-9 ATS run in the divisional playoff round. However, the Chargers and Saints were qualifiers for 2019, and both lost ATS. Houston is the only qualifying team for 2020.

Teams that rushed for more yards offensively and forced more turnovers defensively are on an impressive 27-9-2 ATS run in the divisional playoffs. Baltimore and Seattle qualify for this trend in 2020.

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 weekend’s games. 

Considering what we’ve analyzed in regard to divisional playoff performance and statistics, only certain stats are really worth considering. Interestingly, though, the key stat angles that have shown betting success recently are favoring the favorites in general. Considering how well the underdogs fared last weekend, that would be a change of pace.

Best of luck, and don’t be shocked to see at least one matchup you might not have expected next weekend when we review the conference championships.

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