Makinen: NFL Divisional Round Playoff Trends

January 17, 2023 09:05 PM
Hurts

Last week, I started my annual NFL playoff series by looking at the trends of the recent year by digging into the wild card round. I revealed a number of different systems and methodologies that had been very successful in recent years, angles regarding outright winners, playoff droughts, and rematches that continued to thrive. This week, I will be moving on to the divisional round. The six winners of last weekend join #1 seeds Philadelphia and Kansas City in the theoretical Elite 8, looking to take another big step toward the Super Bowl.

As we analyze the remaining teams, I should note that in one of my final NFL Strength Rating Update pieces for the year, I felt that six teams had separated themselves from the pack. Well, all six of those teams are still alive and are supplemented by the Jaguars and Giants. In terms of the conference favorites, each of the top seeds brings a unique set of talents to the game, and their quarterbacks remain in the hunt for the league’s MVP award. That said, will being off last week help or hurt their prospects? A year ago, both top seeds, Green Bay and Tennessee looked rusty in their opening playoff games and were quickly bounced. I’ll look at that scenario and a lot more in this piece.

Last year, for the first time since 2009, road teams took the divisional round by winning three of the four contests. Considering that before last season, home teams had gone 36-12 SU and 25-22-1 ATS, it was quite an unexpected turn of events. It was a continuation of what has been a dramatic shift in playoff results recently. If you recall last week’s Wild Card article, the trend completely flipped in the opposite direction, with home teams ending a period of road dominance, and that pattern continued this past weekend with hosts winning four of six games. What does all of that tell us about the prospects for this weekend’s games? Unfortunately, it details a process of being unable to trust patterns and to focus more closely on specific matchups.

One important point of note regarding the lines for the games. This round typically sees the largest favorites of any playoff round, and six years ago (2017) marked the only time since ’09 when fewer than two teams were favored by at least a TD. That particular season, I speculated at the time that perhaps it signaled a couple of upsets coming. Pittsburgh and Green Bay both pulled those upsets. Last year, again I noted in this particular piece that none of the four teams were favored by more than 5.5 points, and perhaps it signaled a greater potential for upsets. That turned out to be the most prophetic words I shared.

 

 

Recent years have produced some wild action in this round. The 2019 season’s most exciting game saw Kansas City rally from a 24-0 deficit to beat Houston 51-31, and the Chiefs would eventually go on to win a Super Bowl title. Surely, you remember the 45-42 Jacksonville win at Pittsburgh in 2018, or the Minnesota Miracle that same season. Just last January, we witnessed a game dubbed one of the greatest playoff games in history where the Chiefs outlasted Buffalo 42-36 in an epic overtime shootout, a game that eventually ended up forcing postseason overtime rules changes which we are now under. There are plenty more great games like that in the past years of the divisional round, but rather than looking back at specific games, we’re going to instead look back at some general trends in hopes of finding some nuggets that we can profit from in this year’s contests.

So, let’s start digging through the NFL Divisional Playoff log of recent seasons to see if we can’t uncover some trends and systems that we can apply when handicapping this weekend’s games.

General Divisional Playoff ATS Trends

- The outright winner owns a 33-10-1 ATS (76.7%) mark in the last 44 divisional playoff games. This is actually below the 2022-23 regular season standard of 78.5%. If you recall, in last week’s Wild Card article, outright winners were on a much stronger 54-7-1 ATS run and proceeded to go 4-2 ATS last weekend.

- Since the road teams last held an edge (3-1) in 2009, home teams were on a convincing run of 36-12 SU and 25-22-1 ATS in the divisional round prior to 2022. That changed with road teams going 3-1 SU and ATS last year. Thus, hosts are now 15-12-1 ATS in the last seven years, re-emphasizing the importance of not only home-field advantage, but the extra week of rest and health that comes for teams securing a bye in the Wild Card round. Of course, for a third straight season, only the two #1 seeds enjoyed the luxury of having last weekend to rest.

- There have only been four road favorites in the last 26 years of the divisional playoffs, and San Francisco was the first to win in that scenario in 2014, beating Carolina 23-10. The other three lost outright and ATS, including Atlanta, who came up short 15-10 as a field goal favorite at #1 seeded Philadelphia in 2018. Unless we see a huge swing in any game or any late-breaking injury news, this trend will go untested again in 2023.

- Point spreads have proven to be a strong giveaway as to which team should win in divisional playoff games, as home favorites of 5.5-points or less (or underdog) are just 15-13 SU and 11-17 ATS (39.3%) since ’06, while those laying 6 points or more are 28-11 SU and 18-20-1 ATS in that same span. That’s a difference of over 18% outright & 8% against the point spread.

- Double-digit home favorites in the divisional round are on a 6-1 SU and ATS surge. Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore in 2019 is the only conflicting result in that group.

- Road teams have proven to be worthy bets in the divisional round when underdogs in the +3.5 to +9.5 range, going 24-14-1 ATS (63.2%) in the last 39 tries (13-26 SU).

- In intra-divisional games of this playoff round, the road teams are on a 4-1 SU and ATS surge. Tampa Bay won in this scenario in 2021 at New Orleans. The Giants-Eagles contest is the only one in 2023 that pits divisional rivals.

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

Jacksonville: 1-1 SU and 2-0 ATS

Kansas City: 4-3 SU and 3-4 ATS

NY Giants: 2-1 SU and ATS

Philadelphia: 6-2 SU and 7-1 ATS

Cincinnati: 1-0 SU and ATS since 1990

Buffalo: 1-1 SU and ATS

Dallas: 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS

San Francisco: 4-1 SU and ATS

- There has been a significant performance difference in home/road dichotomy based upon the day of the weekend the Divisional Playoff game has been played on. On Saturdays, HOME teams have gone 21-5 SU and 18-8 ATS (69.2%) over the last 13 seasons, however, both teams did lose a year ago. OVER the total is also 16-8 in those games. On Sundays, ROAD teams have performed much better, going 16-18 SU and 23-10-1 ATS (69.7%) since ’06! They were 1-1 SU and ATS in 2022.

- In terms of AFC/NFC breakdown, AFC home teams are 19-8 SU and 14-12-1 ATS (53.8%) in the last 27, while NFC hosts are 23-11 SU and 15-19 ATS (44.1%) since ’06 in this playoff round, and NFC hosts have currently lost three straight.

- In terms of Wild Card teams’ potential success in the divisional round, note that 15 of the last 19 Wild Card teams to cover the spread in divisional games played well defensively in the prior game, allowing 20 points or less. For this weekend, only Cincinnati and Dallas played well enough defensively to qualify for this potential trend.

- With three of this last weekend’s winners topping the 30-point mark, it should be noted that all of the last six teams that scored 31 points or more in their Wild Card wins covered their divisional point spreads. This does not include the Chiefs and Bills from 2022, as they squared off against one another. This will affect the Bills, Jaguars, and Giants in 2023, as the Cowboys and 49ers cancel each other out.

Divisional Trends by New/Returning Playoff Team

- When both teams in a divisional playoff matchup were not in the playoffs last season, as was the case most recently in the 2020 Minnesota-San Francisco matchup, home teams are 4-1 SU and 2-3 ATS since ’05, having gone OVER the total all but one game. For 2023, there are no such matchups.

- Returning playoff teams from the prior season playing as hosts in the divisional round to teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior year are just 12-9 SU but 6-15 ATS (28.6%) in their last 21 games when playing as single-digit favorites, including 0-2 SU and ATS last year. Kansas City and Philadelphia will test this trend this weekend.

- In divisional playoff games when both teams were in the playoffs the prior season, hosts are 19-6 SU and 14-10-1 ATS when favored by 5.5 points or more. This last applied to the Houston-Kansas City matchup in 2020 but will go untested in 2023 unless the Buffalo line reaches -5.5.

- There are no such cases in 2023, but in 2020, 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 long to have home-field advantage throughout their conference playoffs. However, that advantage has not lasted long as #1 seeds are 25-13 SU but just 13-24-1 ATS (35.1%) dating back to 2004.

- Making matters worse for the #1 seeds is their record versus #6’s, as in that matchup, the home teams are just 11-7 SU and 5-12-1 ATS (29.4%) since ’06. Green Bay lost in this scenario to San Francisco last year, and for 2023, Philadelphia is hosting the Giants.

- #1 seeds playing as small home favorites of 7 points or less are on an ugly 4-12-1 ATS (25%) slide in the divisional round. As of press time, both #1’s were favored by 8.5-points on Saturday, and don’t figure to be affected by this trend.

- #2 seeds have been arguably more effective than #1’s when it comes to protecting home-field advantage in the divisional round, going 25-11 SU and 20-16 ATS (55.6%) over the last 18 playoff seasons.

- NFC #1 seeds have been fairly strong in recent years, going 8-2 SU in their last ten. In the last five games, they allowed just 13 PPG.

- Of the last 33 teams that pulled off road wins in the Wild Card round to advance to this weekend, 20 of them have covered the point spread (62.5% with one push) and 12 have won a second straight road game outright. The Giants and Cowboys will be seeking a second straight road win this weekend.

Divisional Trends Regarding Totals

- In the last 28 matchups between a #1 seed and a wild card team, or a road winner from the prior weekend, UNDER the total is 19-8-1 (70.3%) with the home team scoring just 22.2 PPG. This is the case in the Giants-Eagles matchup.

- #2 seeds are a high-scoring surge at 16-8 OVER (66.7%) in the last 12 years, including 2-0 last season. These teams themselves have averaged 30.5 PPG in that span. Buffalo & San Francisco are the #2 seeds for 2023.

- Home teams that have covered the point spread in divisional round games are also on a 19-4 OVER (82.6%) the total surge! Hosts averaged 34.0 PPG in those contests. Alternatively, road team covers have seen 13 UNDERS and 5 OVERS (72.2%) since ’14. The hosts scored 11.5 PPG fewer in those road covers. In other words, home teams cover with offense, road teams cover with defense.

Following the Line/Total Moves

Last week, I showed you how bettors were correct at a 28-22-1 ATS rate in Wild Card playoff games heading into last weekend’s action.  This was determined to be when the line moves off its opening position towards either team. This same group has been even more sharp in the divisional round, going 24-11 ATS (68.6%) since ’09, including 2-1 ATS in ‘22. Interestingly, only eight of the last 55 divisional round games moved more than a point off the opening number, and those all came in the last nine years. Oddsmakers have been quite sharp in that regard. For 2023, the consensus early moves seem to be on Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Dallas. Again though, often the key moves come late in the hours before kickoff.

Bettors have picked successfully on early totals as well, going 27-20 (57.4%) in the last 47 divisional playoff games that have seen the total move off the opening number. However, they are 1-6 the last two seasons following an 11-2 surge. As of press time, early bettors were favoring OVER in all of the games except the Bengals-Bills contest.

Stats Generated in Divisional Playoff Games

- It has taken more points to win in the divisional playoff round as opposed to the Wild Card round. Last week, I explained that only four home teams that topped the 20-point mark lost in the last 21 years of wild card playoff action. The benchmark for the divisional round is a touchdown higher at 27 points, as home teams that reach that point total are 39-5 SU and 32-12 ATS (72.7%) since ’02. However, Tampa Bay’s loss last year snapped an 8-game winning streak.

- Failing to reach the 27-point mark has left home teams with an 18-22 SU and 6-32-2 ATS (15.8%) record since ’02 in divisional playoff games. If you consider this year’s four home teams, Kansas City averaged 29.2 PPG, Philadelphia 28.1, Buffalo 28.4, and San Francisco 26.5.

- The magic point total for road teams in divisional playoff action has proven to be 21 points, as they are 21-20 SU and 28-13 ATS (68.3%) since ’02 when they reach that mark.  When scoring 20 points or less, the chance of a road team winning in this round drops dramatically to 6-37 SU and 16-25-2 ATS (39%) in that same span. That said, the 49ers and Bengals each won last year by scoring less than 20. The Giants are the lowest-scoring road team in this year’s lot, averaging 21.5 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 over more, OVER is 28-5 (84.8%). When road teams fail to reach 20 points, UNDER is 26-7 (78.8%) in the last 33.

- Teams that gain more first downs are 31-22-2 ATS (58.5%) in the last 14 divisional playoff seasons.

- Teams that control the time of possession are just 28-27-1 ATS (14.5%) in the divisional playoffs since ’09.

- Divisional playoff teams that gain more yards rushing in their playoff games are 37-18-1 ATS (67.3%) over the last 14 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a divisional playoff game are only 24-23-1 ATS (51.1%) since 2010.

- Putting up big passing numbers in divisional playoff games hasn’t been a real key to success, since teams with an edge in that stat are just 30-25-1 ATS (54.5%) since ’09, including 4-8 ATS the last 3 seasons.

- 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 a divisional playoff game are on a 34-16-1 ATS (68%) run.  Consider this year which team are more apt to put up big passing plays in the matchups. Philadelphia, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Buffalo all ranked in the NFL’s top seven in yards per pass attempt this season.

- The turnover has also been a big factor in winning or losing divisional playoff games of late, as teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponent have gone 30-11-1 ATS (73.2%) since ‘08. Not surprisingly, this is the most important in-game statistical factor. However, just this past weekend, Jacksonville was on the short end of a 5-turnover differential but still won its Wild Card game versus the Chargers.

Teams’ Regular Season Won-Lost Record Trends

- Home teams that won 13 or more games in the regular season are only 23-16 SU & 14-25 ATS (35.9%) in the divisional playoffs since ’06. When matched up against a team that won 11 or more games in the regular season, that mark drops to just 9-7 SU and 4-12 ATS (25%) during that span. All four home teams for 2023 won 13+ games, while road teams Cincinnati and Dallas each won 12 in the regular season.

- There seems to be a noticeable difference in success levels 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 12-30 SU and 19-22-1 ATS (46.3%) since ’02, while the more elite group was 15-19 SU but 23-11 ATS (67.7%). The road teams this weekend that won 11 or more games in the regular season were again the Bengals and Cowboys.

- 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 last lost on this trend in 2020. No games will apply for a second straight season.

Teams’ Regular Season Offensive Statistics Trends

- Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are 38-18 SU and 32-22-1 ATS (59.3%) over the last 14 divisional playoff seasons, including 19-8-1 ATS (70.4%) over the last seven seasons.  Kansas City, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Dallas own the edges in this category for 2023.

- Teams who averaged more rushing yards per game are 34-34 SU and 40-27-1 ATS (59.7%) since ’06. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush were 31-37 SU and 40-27-1 ATS (59.75). Buffalo, the Giants, and San Francisco own these categories in 2023, while Jacksonville and Kansas City split them.

- Passing yardage has meant more than rushing in terms of outright divisional playoff success, with teams owning an edge in total offensive passing yardage going just 41-27 SU and 35-32-1 ATS (52.2%) over the last 17 seasons in this playoff round. More efficient passing yards per attempt teams share a similar 42-26 SU and 36-31-1 ATS (53.7%) mark. Teams in that latter group were 4-0 SU and ATS last year and 10-2 ATS over the last three seasons.

- Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively in the regular season own a decent edge when it comes to divisional playoff success, going 46-22 SU and 39-28-1 ATS (58.2%) over the last 17 seasons.  The offensive yards per play statistic also reflects a good level of success, as teams with an edge in that offensive category are 33-23 SU and 32-23-1 ATS (58.2%) over the last 14 years, including 7-1 SU and ATS the last two seasons. Kansas City, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and San Francisco all ranked in the top six in the league in both categories and own the edges for 2023.

- Unlike the Wild Card round, offensive yards per point has not proven to be an effective statistical indicator long-term on point spreads, as teams who have averaged fewer yards per point are just 38-26 SU and 31-32-1 ATS (49.2%) in the divisional playoff round since ’07.

- Completely disregard the offensive turnovers statistic since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponents are only 25-32 SU and 24-32-1 ATS (42.9%) since ’08 in divisional playoff games.

- Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 37-31 SU but 25-42-1 ATS (37.3%) in the last 68 divisional playoff games.

Teams’ Regular Season Defensive Statistics Trends

- Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 23-25 SU and 21-26-1 ATS (44.7%) in the divisional round over the last 12 years, including 1-7 ATS the last two seasons. If you recall, defensive scoring edges were much more advantageous in the Wild Card round.

- Teams that allowed fewer rushing yards per game have slipped to 26-30 SU and 23-32-1 ATS (41.8%) in the divisional playoff round since ’08, including 3-13 ATS in the last four years. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush have been better for a more extended period at 42-24 SU and 36-29-1 ATS (55.4%).

- Divisional playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponent are 37-27 SU and 29-34-1 ATS (46%) over the last 16 seasons in this round. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are on a run of 33-23 SU and 28-27-1 ATS (50.9%) over the last 14 divisional playoff seasons.

- Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively own a record of 28-28 SU and 23-32-1 ATS (41.8%) since ’09, while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were a bit better outright at 29-25 SU and 22-31-1 ATS (41.5%).  Teams with edges in both of these categories are 1-6 ATS in the last two years. Clearly, this is not a reliable indicator and essentially, defensive numbers have paled in comparison to offensive prowess of late in the divisional round.

- When analyzing divisional playoff statistical matchups, defensive yards per point is not a valuable handicapping nugget, as teams with an edge there are just 32-34 SU and 32-33-1 ATS (49.2%) in the last 66 games of this round.

- Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponent are 30-23 SU and 33-19-1 ATS (63.5%) since ’09 in divisional playoff games. This one is easily our best defensive statistical indicator, but unfortunately, all four teams with edges lost a year ago.

- Teams that stopped third down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a 32-25 SU and 32-24-1 ATS (57.1%) run in the last 57 divisional playoff games, although they are 1-7 ATS over the last two years.

Summary

Admittedly, the divisional round trends and systems don’t pack the same wallop as those of the wild card round. Last year’s 3-1 road edge, which was nearly 4-0, really threw off a lot of the best angles. If you’re looking for long-term strategies that have fared well historically however, it would seem that home field, the backing of sharp bettors, and good offenses led by proven quarterbacks is a good recipe to start with as you sit down to handicap this week’s games.

Considering what we’ve analyzed with regard to divisional playoff performance and statistics, only certain statistics are really worthy of consideration when handicapping the games. Interestingly though, 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.

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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