Makinen: NFL Conference Championship Playoff Trends

January 23, 2023 06:45 PM
Kittle

Over the last two weeks, I have compiled the trends from both the Wild Card Round and Divisional Rounds of recent NFL playoffs. In the Wild Card Round, home teams enjoyed a second straight advantageous season, winning four of six games after going 5-1 a year ago. In the Divisional Round, I explained how typically the hosts won three of the four games. That’s exactly what happened last weekend, as they went 3-1 SU and 2-2 ATS, with the team that dominated my strength ratings all season, Buffalo, being the only one that failed to advance. It’s now time to detail all of the key historical handicapping information for the Conference Championship Round.

This past weekend’s Divisional Round didn’t live up to the drama or competitive level of a year ago, but after the four games had concluded, there was little reason for anyone to believe that the best four teams didn’t advance. Kansas City won somewhat comfortably against Jacksonville, considering it had an injured QB Patrick Mahomes for much of the game. The Eagles overwhelmed the Giants. The Bengals left little doubt with their road trampling of Buffalo. And San Francisco flexed its muscles in limiting Dallas for 60 minutes. If you recall, last year in the Divisional Round, all four games were decided on the final play—three in regulation, one in overtime. Perhaps with the limited dramatic conflict producing four title-worthy teams, we can only hope that we are now set up for a thrilling Sunday of conference title game action, with trips to Super Bowl LVII on the line.

When analyzing the recent conference title tilts, the most noticeable thing is that after a five-year run of overall dominance by home teams (10-0 SU and 8-2 ATS) from 2014-18, road teams have tipped the scales since, going 4-4 SU and 5-3 ATS, including an ATS sweep in 2022.  It was the first point spread sweep of the visitors since doing so back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. Another anomaly that occurred in the games of last January was both games going UNDER the total. It was the first time that happened since 2014. Of course, with neither #1 seed having played in those games, perhaps we should have been prepared for unusual things to occur. Note that for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons, both #1 seeds will be hosting the weekend’s games again.

Will the return of #1 seeds mean we are looking again at two relatively easy home wins as had become somewhat custom? Considering Philadelphia is laying just 2.5 points, and Kansas City is listed at -1, this year’s games figure to mark the first time since 2007 that neither home team was favored by more than 3 points. What happened that year you might be wondering? Hosts Chicago and Indianapolis both won and covered the point spreads in their respective games.

Using similar methodologies to that of the past two weeks, here are some of the notable trends and systems that have developed in recent Conference Championship game action. I will be applying this year’s matchups (San Francisco-Philadelphia and Cincinnati-Kansas City) to the key info when applicable.

 General Conference Championship Playoff ATS Trends

- The outright winner has covered the point spread in all but six of the last 42 (85.7%) Conference Championship playoff games. The most recent team to not do that was the Rams last year, as they edged San Francisco 20-17 as 3.5-point favorites. If you recall, this is a bit below the current Wild Card rate (88.5%) by outright winners but better than the Divisional Round rate (76.7%).

- Hosts are on a 14-4 SU and 11-7 ATS (61.1%) run in Conference Championship play, although both the Chiefs and Rams failed to cover the point spreads in their games a year ago.

- There have been 10 road favorites in the last 26 years of the Conference Championship playoffs, 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. With the early line movement and the injury impact surrounding Chiefs’ QB Mahomes, it is possible that Cincinnati ends up a road favorite at kickoff.

- 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 more are 12-6 SU but just 6-12 ATS (33.3%) since ‘99.

- Conversely, hosts favored by less than 7 points are 15-5 SU and 13-7 ATS (65%) in their last 20 tries. Those games have also gone OVER the total at a 13-6-1 (68.4%) rate in that span. This line range trend figures to be among the most applicable to this week’s games.

- The last 18 times that a home team has won and covered the point spread in the conference title games, that game has also gone OVER the total at a 14-4 rate. The last 12 times that a road team covered the point spread in conference title action, UNDER the total is 8-4, including 2-0 in 2022.

- Teams that won by 7 points or less in the Divisional Round are just 3-16 SU and 8-11 ATS (42.1%) in their last 19 road conference title game appearances but did go 1-1 SU and 2-0 ATS last year. This trend applies to San Francisco for a second straight year this Sunday.

- In intra-divisional Conference Championship games, the favorites are on a 4-1 SU and 3-2 ATS (60%) surge. This will apply to the NFC contest.

- Home teams are 13-3 SU and 10-6 ATS (62.5%) in the last 16 AFC clashes, and 13-5 SU and 9-9 ATS (50%) in their last 18 NFC tilts.

- Of the teams in the AFC and NFC Championship contests this year, San Francisco is making its sixth conference title game appearance in the last 11 years and owns a 2-3 SU and 3-2 ATS record in the prior five while Philadelphia is 2-4 SU and 3-3 ATS in this round since ’02. Cincinnati is making its second straight appearance and fourth overall, boasting a 3-0 SU and ATS in the prior three. Kansas City is in for a fifth straight year as host and looking for a third AFC crown, having split the games 2-2 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 prior year are on a 21-7 SU and 16-12 ATS (57.1%) run, including 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS (60%) versus teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior season. All four teams in the 2023 games were in the playoffs last year as well.

 

Conference Championship Trends by Seed Number

- #1 seeds have been the host teams in 43 of the last 60 Conference Championship games and have gone 29-14 SU and 22-21 ATS in those games. Both #1 seeds in 2023 advance out of the Divisional Round and will host games this week.

- Only three teams that were not #1 or #2 seeds have hosted Conference Championship games in the last 22 years, and all three won outright while going 2-1 ATS. Indianapolis did so in the AFC in 2007, Arizona followed that up two years later for the NFC, and the Rams won without covering in 2022.

- #2 seeds hosting Conference Championship games are just 4-7 SU and 4-6-1 ATS (40%) since ’97, with Kansas City being the most recent victim, losing outright to the Bengals in 2022.

- Wild Card teams, or those seeded #5-#7, have gone just 4-10 SU and 6-8 ATS (42.9%) dating back to ’96 in the conference title games, including just 2-7 SU and 3-6 ATS the last 12 seasons.

- Matchups pitting a #1 seed versus a #2 seed in the Conference Championship games have trended OVER the total at a 13-4-1 (76.5%) rate since ’02. This week’s NFC matchup will test this trend.

Conference Championship Trends Regarding Totals

- Overall, since ’93, OVER the total is 35-24-1 (59.3%) in the Conference Championship playoff games, including 8-4 OVER in the last 12. However, there has been a stark difference when you consider conference breakdown lately, as the last 11 AFC games are 7-4 UNDER (63.6%) while NFC contests are on a 14-6-1 OVER (70%) surge.

- Breaking down the totals for this weekend’s games based upon ranges, seven of the last 10 conference title tilts since ’03 with totals more than 42 but less than 48 have gone OVER. Both of this week’s games figure to come in this range. Totals less than 41.5 are rare nowadays, but we did have one in 2018, and since ’00, OVER the total is 10-4-1 in these games. The last 11 games with totals in the 50s have seen five OVERS and six UNDERS.

- Similarly, to the divisional round trends regarding correlated parlays, home conference title point spread wins have typically meant OVERS (14-4 in the last 18), while road point spread wins trend UNDER (8-4 in the last 12)

Following the Line/Total Moves

In each of the last two weeks’ articles, 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 heading up to the big games would have netted you a record of 17-7 ATS (70.8%) since ’05. However, last year, bettors lost the AFC game, backing the Chiefs, while the NFC game stayed stable at -3.5 up through kickoff. Be sure to follow the moves throughout the rest of the week up until kickoff, as line moves as of Monday were only half-point sways and favored Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

Bettors have also done fairly well with totals recently as well, going 14-8 (63.6%) when moving the totals in the last 22 conference championship games. Early action finds bettors looking for an UNDER in the AFC tilt and there’s been no movement in the NFC showdown.

Stats Generated in Conference Championship Playoff Games

- In each successive round so far, it has taken more and more points by the home team to somewhat “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 (87.5). Those that don’t reach the 30-point mark are 13-13 SU and 7-19 ATS (26.9%) since ’02.

- The magic point total for road teams in Conference Championship playoff action is even more definitive, however, and that benchmark has proven to be 20 points. Visitors scoring 20 points or more are 17-12 SU and 21-7-1 ATS (75%) when they reach that mark since ‘98.  When scoring less than 20 points, the record of the road teams has dropped dramatically to 2-23 SU and 6-19 ATS (24%) since ‘95.

- Teams that gained more first downs in their respective conference championship games are 16-7 SU and 13-10 ATS (56.5%) over the last 13 years in those games. There have been three first down ties, including the 2019 NFC game. You will see later that big plays prove more important than first down volume.

- Teams that controlled the time of possession are on a 27-11 SU and 29-9 ATS (76.3%) run in the Conference Championship playoffs since ‘03. This is obviously a critical factor.

- Conference Championship playoff teams that gained more yards rushing in those games are 28-10 SU and ATS (73.7%) over the last 19 seasons. Strangely, at the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a Conference Championship playoff game are just 17-21 SU and 19-19 ATS (50%) in that same span.

- Putting up big passing numbers in Conference Championship playoff games has also proven a key ingredient to success, since those teams are 27-13 SU and ATS (67.5%) since ’02. Even better, teams that gained more yards per pass attempt in a Conference Championship playoff game are 29-11 SU and ATS (72.5%) during that same stretch, including ATS wins in the last 6 games.

- Going back to ’03, teams that turn the ball over fewer times in a conference championship are on an impressive 29-4 ATS (87.9%) run, although the Bucs did survive three Tom Brady interception throws in upsetting Green Bay in 2021.

Teams’ Regular Season Won-Lost Record Trends

- There have proven to be only minimal differences when it comes to the success rates of conference championship teams based upon their regular season records or the comparison between their record and their opponent’s.  For instance, here are the records of home teams based 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 18-12 SU and 13-17 ATS (43.3%), and hosts that won 11 or fewer games were 3-1 SU and ATS. The regular season win totals for this year were 14 each for the Eagles and Chiefs.

- Road teams that won 12 or more games in the regular season are 3-12 SU and 6-9 ATS (40%) 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 (53.3%) in that same span, and ironically, those visitors that won the fewest games, 10 or less, own the best outright winning percentage at 5-7 SU and 7-5 ATS (58.3%). The Bengals won 12 games and the 49ers won 13 in the regular season.

- Home teams that won at least two more games during the regular season than their Conference Championship playoff opponents are only 11-7 SU and 7-11 ATS (38.9%) since ’02. This trend applies to the Bengals-Chiefs contest.

- 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 14 seasons. Philadelphia looks to continue this trend in ’23.

Teams’ Regular Season Offensive Statistics Trends

- Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are on a 20-10 SU and 16-14 ATS (53.3%) run over the last 15 Conference Championship playoff seasons. For a second straight season in 2023, the edges belong to both hosts.

- The ability to run the football has been overrated when it comes to Conference Championship success. Teams who averaged more rushing yards per game are 17-25 SU and 19-23 ATS (45.2%) since ’02. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush are just 10-18 SU and 13-15 ATS (46.4%) over the last 14 seasons. This year’s regular season edge holders in both categories were Kansas City and Philadelphia.

- Passing yardage has meant much more than rushing yardage in terms of Conference Championship playoff success, with teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage going 27-13 SU and 23-17 ATS (57.5%) over the last 20 seasons in this playoff round. More efficient passing yards per attempt teams were a bit worse at 23-17 SU and 21-19 ATS (52.5%).  Kansas City and Philadelphia hold both edges in 2023.

- Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively in the regular season own a slight edge when it comes to Conference Championship playoff success, going 24-14 SU and 20-18 ATS (52.6%) over the last 19 seasons. The Eagles and Chiefs will try to extend this trend in 2023.

- The offensive yards per play statistic has also proven somewhat important, as teams with an edge in that offensive category are 23-11 SU and 19-15 ATS (55.9%) over the last 17 years on Championship Sunday. Again, count the Eagles and Chiefs as the beneficiaries should this statistical trend continue.

- Offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective statistical indicator, as teams who have averaged fewer yards per point are just 19-15 SU and 14-20 ATS (41.2%) in the conference championship playoff round since ’05.

- The offensive turnovers statistic provides the handicapper zero edge since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are only 18-17 SU and 17-18 ATS (48.6%) since ’04 in conference championship games.

- Teams that converted third down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are 15-13 SU and 14-14 ATS (50%) in the last 28 conference championship games.

Teams’ Regular Season Defensive Statistics Trends

- Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 15-10 SU and 17-8 ATS (68%) dating back to ‘10 in Conference Championship games, providing a nice edge to handicappers. Cincinnati and San Francisco hold edges over their counterparts in this key statistical area.

- Defensive rushing yards have 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 21-19 SU and 23-17 ATS (57.5%) since ’03. For 2023, the 49ers hold a significant edge over Philadelphia, while Cincinnati’s edge over the Chiefs is very slight.

- Conference Championship playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponent are 23-17 SU and 25-15 ATS (62.5%) over the last 20 seasons in this round. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are also 24-16 SU and 26-14 ATS (65%). Philadelphia and Kansas City hold measurable edges in both categories for 2023, and in fact, the Eagles were the NFL’s top-rated team in both categories.

- Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively are 23-17 SU and 25-15 ATS (62.5%) 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 24-16 SU and 26-14 ATS (65%). Advantages to Kansas City and San Francisco.

- Defensive yards per point should be given at least some consideration for Conference Championship Sunday, since teams with an edge there are 11-11 SU and 8-14 ATS (36.4%) in the last 11 seasons of this round, and 10-18 ATS (35.7%) over the last 28 games. Fading these teams has been a sound strategy. If curious, San Francisco and Cincinnati were the significantly better teams in Defensive YPPT 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 19-20 SU and ATS (48.7%) since ’02 in Conference Championship play.

- Teams that stopped third down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a mediocre 18-22 SU and ATS (45%) run in the last 40 Conference Championship games.

BONUS REMATCH PLAYOFF SYSTEM - Teams that lost the prior same-season game versus an opponent are on a 6-9 SU and 4-11 ATS (26.7%) skid in the playoffs when hosting that same opponent

There is a confidence that seems to come in playoff games after having beaten the opponent in the prior contest. Most of the time, teams playing at home in the playoffs are favored as well. When you add the motivation of being an underdog in a postseason game to a team you beat last time, that’s even better. With the Chiefs having lost to the Bengals in Cincinnati in early December, this angle will be in play for the AFC Championship Game. This happened four times last year and the hosts were just 2-2 SU and 1-3 ATS.

Summary

The first two weekends of the NFL playoffs haven’t exactly followed recent trend patterns, so if you’re skittish about investing in anything specifically trend-related for this week’s two games, I can certainly understand that. Winning these games puts teams on the ultimate football stage, and there is a lot of pressure that comes with that. That aspect and team experience need to be considered. Obviously, Kansas City and San Francisco boast a wealth of recent title game experience, although their opponents are well-respected teams that have each played on the biggest of stages in the last five years.

Playing the statistical advantages of teams also has paid off for bettors, and while the edges in this year’s contests seem to go back and forth, for the most part, the stats that have proven to mean more have been from passing offense, and overall defense. Unfortunately, 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 host playoff experienced? 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. In my mind, for the NFC game, I look back at the article I did at the outset of the playoffs regarding shared championship traits, where the data showed San Francisco as the “perfect team,” meeting all 27 criteria. For the AFC game, is the Mahomes injury clouding people’s judgment of what has been a very strong Chiefs’ team on both sides of the ball, one that is hosting the game in a well-document tough environment? Or are QB Joe Burrow and the Bengals so hot that they can’t be stopped, especially with recent success against Head Coach Andy Reid’s team? We’ll see.

Whatever method you use to eventually 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 LVII!

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