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NFL wild-card trends for spread, totals, line moves

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

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Josh Allen will try to turn around the Bills' playoff fortunes.
© Imagn

As with any recurring event, the NFL playoffs have gone through various trend patterns over the years. Some seasons have been dominated by underdogs and upstart teams, and others have been relatively predictable with favorites taking care of business. So it can be difficult for bettors to thrive when using past playoff results as a guide. In the past, predicting the playoffs was usually as easy as looking at a team’s body of work.

 

When you consider that all four road teams won ATS on wild-card weekend for the second straight season last year, perhaps the predictability level is picking up. But if it were that easy, they wouldn’t play the games.

 

My own handicapping methods have changed throughout the years as well. It seems that lately, how a team is playing recently has taken on more importance. That doesn’t mean it’s an end-all factor, but it is one area to which I give prime consideration. That line of thinking would bode well for only New Orleans (6-1 in its last seven games) and Philadelphia (four straight wins).

 

But if any playoff round is truly wild and unpredictable, it is fittingly the wild-card round.

 

In just the last two years, we’ve seen road teams go 8-0 ATS, although hosts won outright in three of those games. In the last six years, the ATS breakdown is Road 15, Home 8, with one push. You will see here that one reason the home teams have struggled lately is that they have been inexperienced playoff teams or on playoff droughts. This year’s hosts are all returning from a year ago. I expect the home teams to do much better against the spread in 2020.

 

Although the last six Super Bowls have matched teams that had byes on wild-card weekend, a truly significant trend had emerged before that: The eventual champion had started its playoffs on wild-card weekend in six of eight years. Is the eventual Super Bowl champion, like Baltimore of 2013, playing this weekend? Only time will tell, but savvy bettors have picked up big winnings by banking on such thoughts. Most experts believe the top seeds are better suited for long playoff runs in 2020, but who is ready to discount New England or New Orleans?

 

With the perception of unpredictability on our mind, I thought I’d go back once again and dig through the database of the recent playoff logs to see if we could uncover any tips to help handicap the wild-card games. I looked at it all — home/road scenarios, dogs/favorites, lines, stats, you name it. I will do the same thing for each round as we move toward Super Bowl LIV.

 

General Wild-Card Playoff ATS Trends

— The outright winner owns a point-spread record of 40-5-1 ATS in the last 46 wild-card playoff games. However, games in four of the last five seasons have produced the only ATS losses in that stretch, including a year ago when Dallas (-3) failed to cover the number in a 24-22 win over Seattle. Those win/no covers are still rare, so regardless of the point spread, if you can’t see the team you’re betting on winning the game, my advice is not to do it.

— Road teams seem to have regained the edge in this round in recent years, going 13-11 SU and 15-8-1 ATS in the last 24 wild-card games, including eight ATS in a row heading into the 2020 games.

— Underdogs are on a run of 8-3-1 ATS in the last 12 NFC wild-card games.

— In each of the last two years, road teams swept the action 4-0 ATS. Although all those teams were underdogs, wild-card road favorites have become increasingly common, with 13 in the last 11 seasons. Those teams are 8-5 SU and 6-6-1 ATS. For 2020, Seattle was a road favorite at press time.

— Home favorites of a TD or more in the wild-card round are 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS since 2005.

— There has been a definitive separation in success levels of the home teams in the Saturday and Sunday games. In the last 24 Saturday games, home teams are 16-10 SU and 15-10-1 ATS. In that same span, home teams are 13-13 SU and 10-15-1 ATS on Sundays.

— Sunday road NFC teams have been terrific, going 10-7 SU and 12-4-1 ATS in the last 17. Under the total is 12-5 in those games. Both NFC games are on Sunday this weekend.

— In the 12 wild-card matchups between divisional opponents since 2003, road teams own a 9-3 ATS edge (6-6 SU). None of the four games for 2020 is a divisional matchup.

Wild-Card Trends by Seed Number

— No. 4 seeds are on a 16-10 SU and 15-9-2 ATS run over the last 13 wild-card seasons.

— Of the 14 No. 3-vs. No. 6 wild-card matchups over the last seven seasons, Under the total is 13-0-1. The 3-6 matchups for 2020 are New England-Tennessee and New Orleans-Minnesota.

— No. 3 seeds that were underdogs or less than 3-point favorites have lost nine straight games outright while going 1-8 ATS, scoring just 12.7 PPG. New England was a 4-point favorite at press time, but the line seems to be dumping fast, so follow it closely.

Wild-Card Trends Regarding Totals

— Under has dominated over the last seven years, 20-7-1 heading into 2020.

— The common pattern in the last nine years has shown that when road teams have won outright, Under the total has a record of 17-3-2. Home teams scored just 14.5 PPG in those games.

— Of the last 22 wild-card games with totals of 44 or higher, Under the total is 16-5-1. Those with totals less than 44 are 7-7 Over in the last 14. Furthermore, five straight games with closing totals below 40 went Over the total.

— Of the last 26 Sunday wild-card games, 19 have gone Under the total. Of the last 24 Saturday games, Over the total is 12-11-1.

— In games expected to be tight, with lines in the 3 to -3 range for home teams, Under the total is on a run of 15-7-1.

 

Follow the Line Moves

Sharp bettors have been right on sides at a rate of 25-12 SU and 24-12-1 in the last 37 wild-card playoff games that moved off their opening number, good for 66.7% ATS. This is determined to be when the line moves off its opening position toward either team. For instance, if the line opens as home team minus-3 and closes at home team minus-2, it is assumed that sharp bettors are favoring the road team. For 2020, early action was favoring Buffalo, Tennessee, Seattle and New Orleans.

 

Nearly equally advantageous, sharp bettors have fared well on totals in wild-card games. Over the last 11 wild-card playoff seasons, bettors are 23-13 (63.9%) when totals move off their opening numbers.

Clearly, it is worthwhile to follow the line moves in the days leading up to kickoff. For 2020, the first three totals climbed upward early, while the Seattle-Philadelphia game hadn’t moved.

 

Stats Generated in Wild-Card Playoff Games

— Only two home teams that have topped the 20-point mark have lost in the last 18 years of wild-card playoff action, going 37-2 SU and 30-8-1 ATS. Incidentally, those teams were 2008 Pittsburgh and 2018 Kansas City.

— Only three home teams that scored 20 points or fewer in a wild-card playoff game have won in the last 16 years, going 3-29 SU and 3-28-1 ATS. Those winners were San Diego, which beat Tennessee 17-6 in ’08; Houston, a 19-13 winner over Cincinnati in 2013; and Jacksonville, which held off Buffalo 10-3 in 2018.

— The magic point total for road teams is 17 points. Teams coming up shy of that in the wild-card round are 2-23 SU and ATS since ’02. Seattle of ’16 and Philadelphia a year ago were the lone outright winners. Road teams reaching that total were 35-10-2 ATS in that same span.

— Teams that gain more first downs are 27-8-1 ATS in the last nine wild-card playoff seasons.

— Teams that win the time-of-possession battle are on a 39-17 SU and 38-16-2 ATS run in the wild-card playoffs.

— Wild-card playoff teams that gain more rushing yards in their playoff games are 34-10 SU and 31-11-2 ATS over the last 11 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a wild-card playoff game are just 26-18 SU and 24-19-1 ATS in that span.

— Putting up big passing numbers in wild-card playoff games has not been as big a part of a recipe for success the last eight wild-card seasons, since those teams are 21-11 SU and 21-10-1 ATS in that time. Teams have tended to put up big passing numbers in catch-up mode.

— Alternatively, teams that make the most of their passing opportunities or hit big plays are far more successful in the long term. In fact, teams gaining more yards per pass attempt in a wild-card playoff game are 44-14-2 ATS since ’04.

— Teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponents haven’t been as successful as you might think in the wild-card playoffs but are 24-10 SU and 23-10-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons. In 14 of the games during that span, the turnover differential was even.

 

Teams’ Regular-Season Won-Lost Record Trend

— If the last 11 wild-card playoff seasons have proven anything, it’s that regular-season records do not matter one iota when it comes to determining who will win. In fact, teams that won more regular-season games are just 17-21 SU and 15-22-1 ATS in that span. In six matchups, the teams shared the same won-lost mark. With divisional winners hosting wild-card teams in this round, it is often road teams sporting the better mark. The Seahawks are the only road team to have a better record than the host team in 2020.

— Home teams that won fewer games during the season than their wild-card opponent are on a 10-6 SU and ATS run. However, Baltimore lost to the Chargers a year ago. Philadelphia owns a worse record than Seattle for 2020.

— Home teams that won nine or fewer games during the regular season are on a 7-3 SU and 7-2-1 ATS run in the wild-card playoffs. Strangely, at the same time, hosts that won 12 or more games have a worse record at 8-4 SU and 7-5 ATS in their last 12 tries. Philadelphia (9-7) and New Orleans (13-3) will test those trends.

— Road wild-card teams that won 11 or more games and are just 8-13 SU and 9-11-1 ATS since ’08. Alternatively, wild-card visitors that won nine or fewer games in the regular season boast a record of 9-9 SU and 12-5-1 ATS since ’02. Seattle (11-5) and Tennessee (9-7) will test those records.

Teams’ Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season have won just 19 wild-card playoff games in the last 10 years, going 19-21 SU and 16-23-1 ATS.

— Rushing statistics have meant little to nothing when it comes to wild-card playoff success lately. Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are just 21-23 SU and 19-24-1 ATS since ’09. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush were just 22-21 SU and 20-22-1 ATS in that span. The Rams and Falcons averaged the exact same yards per rush heading their 2018 wild-card matchup.

— Wild-card teams with an edge in offensive passing yardage are slightly better at 26-18 SU and 23-20-1 ATS over the last 11 seasons in this playoff round. Teams with more efficient passing yards per attempt are 23-21 SU and 22-21-1 ATS in that span but have gotten hot of late, going 22-12 SU and 19-14-1 ATS in the last 34 wild-card games.

— Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively and more yards per play in the regular season own only a slight edge when it comes to wild-card playoff success, going 25-19 SU and 22-21-1 ATS over the last 11 seasons.

— Offensive yards per point has proven to be as effective a statistical indicator as any other category, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point offensively are only 33-21 SU and 32-22 ATS in the wild-card playoffs dating back to ‘06.  The teams with edges in 2020 are Houston, New England, New Orleans and Seattle.

— Teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponents are 22-19 SU and 22-18-1 ATS since ’08 in wild-card playoff games.

— Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are just 20-22 SU and 19-22-1 ATS in the last 10 wild-card playoff seasons.

Teams’ Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

— Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are on a 25-16 SU and 22-18-1 ATS run in wild-card playoff action, but they lost all four games ATS a year ago.

— Rushing defense had also been an effective indicator in winning wild-card playoff games before last year (0-4 ATS). Teams that allow fewer rushing yards per game are 25-19 SU and 23-20-1 ATS since ’08. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush were a bit better at the betting window at 24-19 SU and 25-17-1 ATS.

— Wild-card teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are just 25-19 SU and 21-22-1 ATS over the last 11 seasons in this playoff round. Defensive pass efficiency is a curious statistic in that teams that have held the edge in this category are 23-19 SU and 19-22-1 ATS over the last 11 seasons. Usually this statistic is more important.

— Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively have been quite successful, going 29-15 SU and 27-16-1 ATS in the wild-card round since ‘08. Those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were several games worse at 25-19 SU and 21-22-1 ATS. The teams that gave up fewer yards this season for this weekend are Buffalo, New England, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

— Wild-card teams that made opposing offenses work harder, or those that allowed more offensive yards per point, have won their wild-card playoff games at a 22-22 SU and 22-21-1 ATS rate over the last 11 seasons.

— Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponent are on a 24-16 SU and 22-17-1 ATS run since ’08 in wild-card playoff games.

— Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 24-20 SU and 24-19-1 ATS in the last 44 wild-card playoff games.

 

Playoff Drought Systems

A few different systems are worth considering based on recentness in which teams have been in the playoffs. Take a look.

 

— Teams playing in their first playoff game in at least two seasons against a repeat playoff team are just 5-14 SU and ATS over the last seven seasons and 16-35-1 ATS since ’04. The teams for this year that weren’t in the playoffs last year are Buffalo, Tennessee, Minnesota, Green Bay and San Francisco. Interestingly, the last two are the top seeds in the NFC.

 

— On the road, these “drought” teams are an ugly 2-16 SU and 2-15-1 ATS since ’07, all wild-card games. At home the teams are 13-12 SU and 12-13 ATS. For 2020, the AFC teams are both on the road, as is Minnesota in the wild-card round, while the top two NFC teams are at home next weekend.

 — In the last 14 wild-card games matching teams that weren’t in the playoffs the previous year, home teams are 3-11 SU and 1-13 ATS since '06. Houston and Baltimore lost SU and ATS last year, while Dallas won without covering. This powerful system will not be in play for 2020.

 

 

Summary

It’s obvious that the different trends and systems I have uncovered have been far more definitive in wild-card games than statistical handicapping. In fact, it can be argued that statistics are virtually irrelevant in predicting these games. That said, in my opinion, the amazing run of Unders on totals in certain scenarios would seem more apt to continue than the unprecedented run of success by road teams. In general, the home teams for this weekend have far more playoff experience than those in recent years. That has been an undeniable recipe for success. It should be a fun weekend to bet the games regardless of what happens.

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