Makinen: NFL Wild Card Playoff Betting Trends

January 10, 2023 05:40 PM
Jefferson

Another NFL season is in the books, and we look ahead to a month of great playoff action. Over the last five years for VSiN, I have dedicated my NFL features to covering each round and game in-depth, focusing on past trends and systems that have developed, for the purposes of cashing tickets. For the third straight year, we have 14 teams still alive in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. The Wild Card round will eliminate six of them. As usual, there are some favorites in the betting markets, but in both conferences, it seems like a two/three horse race to make it to Glendale, AZ in February. Theoretically, the advantages would go to Philadelphia in the NFC, and Kansas City in the AFC, as those two teams claimed #1 seeds, and will be the only teams that need not worry about what transpires this weekend. Their playoff pushes begin next weekend. However, consider that the two worst division winners a year ago, Cincinnati and the Rams, both #4 seeds, eventually ended up meeting for the title.

In this first of what will be a four-part series, I start my round-by-round playoff betting angles by looking at recent Wild Card action, as well as some overall rematch, quarterback, and playoff drought systems. As with any reoccurring sporting event, the NFL playoffs have gone through various trend patterns over the years, with some seasons being dominated by underdog and upstart teams, and others being relatively predictable with favorites taking care of business. Because of this ever-changing nature, it can be difficult for bettors to thrive when using past playoff results as a guide. In past eras, predicting the playoffs was usually as easy as looking at a team’s body of work.

How tough can this playoff-betting exercise be if you just bet blindly on recent trends? Well, consider that all road teams were on a 14-4 SU and 15-3 ATS run in the Wild Card round heading into last year’s six games. As luck would have it, the hosts enjoyed their best Wild Card weekend in five years, going 5-1 SU and ATS. Dallas’ loss to San Francisco was the only setback. If you prefer betting totals, you may want to consider that UNDER is 16-8 in the last five years and 30-13-1 in the last ten playoff seasons. Again though, discernment is key, and blindly playing anything usually doesn’t have lasting success.

My own handicapping methods have changed throughout these years as well, as it seems that lately, how a team is playing recently seems to have taken on more and more importance. It’s not an end-all factor, but it’s one area to which I give significant consideration. That line of thinking would bode well for Buffalo, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and San Francisco for this weekend, as all four of those teams are riding winning streaks of five games or more.

For those wondering, only one Wild Card team over the last nine seasons has played in (and won) the Super Bowl game, and that team of course was Tampa Bay two years ago, as the Bucs started their run on this weekend as a #5 seed. Most experts would point to Dallas as the one team capable of emerging from a Wild Card spot this season, but that thought was dampened somewhat by the Cowboys' ugly season-ending loss at Washington this past Sunday.

It is my annual ritual at this time of year to dig through the database of the recent playoff logs to see if we can uncover any tips of the trade that might help us better handicap this weekend’s Wild Card games. I try to look at it all, home/road scenarios, dogs/favorites, lines, stats, you name it. Continue reading to see what I’ve found, and then see if you can’t apply any of the findings to the upcoming weekend action. I will be doing the exact same thing for each round as we move toward Super Bowl LVII.

I would like to caution people heading into this weekend, if any playoff round is truly wild and unpredictable, it is fittingly the “Wild Card” round.

General Wild Card Playoff ATS Trends

  • The outright winner owns a point spread record of 54-7-1 ATS (88.5%) in the last 62 Wild Card playoff games! Win-no covers are rare, so regardless of the point spread, if you can’t see the team you’re betting on winning the game, you’re better off not trying to sneak a cover in regardless of the fact that two games are showing point spreads of seven points or more.
  • As noted earlier, road teams seem to have definitively regained the edge in this round in recent years, going 15-9 SU and 16-8 ATS (66.7%) over the last five seasons.
  • Underdogs are on a run of 13-6-1 ATS (68.4%) in the last 20 NFC Wild Card games but were 1-2 ATS last year.
  • Wild Card road favorites have become increasingly common in recent playoff seasons, as there have been 15 in the last 14 seasons. Those teams are 10-5 SU and 7-7-1 ATS (50%).  For 2023, we could see two, with the Chargers and Cowboys showing as short favorites in their respective road games.
  • Home favorites of a TD or more in the Wild Card round are 15-2 SU and 13-4 ATS (76.5%) since 2005, with Kansas City and Tampa Bay winning easily as such last January.
  • If you consider lines of 9.5-points or more, Wild Card hosts favored this large have now won 12 straight games outright and ATS (100%)! The average score of the 12 games has been 31.8-13.9. Both San Francisco and Buffalo are expected to close as favorites this big, as could Cincinnati depending upon the Ravens’ quarterback injury situation.
  • There has been a definitive separation in success levels of the home teams in the Saturday and Sunday games. In the last 33 Saturday games, home teams are 20-13 SU and 19-13-1 ATS (59.4%). In that same span, home teams are 16-18 SU and 13-20-1 ATS (39.4%) on Sundays.
  • Including a win last year, Sunday NFC road teams have been terrific, going 13-9 SU and 15-6-1 ATS (71.4%) in the last 22. UNDER the total is also 17-5 (77.3%) in those games.  Both Sunday NFC games last year went UNDER the total. The Giants-Vikings game will test both of these angles.
  • In the 14 Wild Card matchups between divisional opponents since 2003, road teams own an 11-5 ATS (68.8%) edge (8-8 SU), however, both New England and Arizona lost a year ago. The road teams in the divisional matchups for 2023 are Seattle, Miami, and Baltimore.

Wild Card Trends by Seed Number

  • #4 seeds are on a 19-13 SU and 19-11-2 ATS (63.3%) run over the last 16 Wild Card seasons. This year’s #4 seeds are Jacksonville in the AFC and Tampa Bay in the NFC.
  • Prior to 2021’s expanded bracket, UNDER the total had gone 15-0-1 over the prior eight seasons in the #3-#6 matchups. The games of the last two years have gone 3-1 OVER, dropping the record to 16-3-1 (84.2%). For the record, the road teams are on an 8-2 SU and 9-1 ATS surge in the series as well. The #3-#6 matchups for 2023 are Baltimore-Cincinnati and NY Giants-Minnesota.
  • Nothing else considered, in blanket wagering, the #4 AFC seed has been the best home betting option of the four choices, going 10-7 SU and 11-6 ATS over the last 17 seasons. This includes Cincinnati’s 26-19 win over Las Vegas last year.
  • #3 seeds that were an underdog or less than a 3.5-point favorite have lost 11 straight games outright and are 1-13 SU and 2-12 ATS since ‘04, scoring just 16.2 PPG in the process. This includes a loss by Dallas last season. Minnesota is a 3-point favorite as of press time over the Giants.

Wild Card Trends Regarding Totals

  • UNDER has dominated over the past ten years, 30-13-1 heading into 2023, and four of last year’s six games did go UNDER.
  • The common pattern in the last 12 years has shown that when road teams have won outright, UNDER the total has a record of 22-6-2 (78.6%)! Home teams scored just 15.6 PPG in those road wins. This includes Dallas’ 23-17 loss to San Francisco last year.
  • Of the last 35 Wild Card games with totals of 44 or higher, UNDER the total is 25-9-1 (73.5%).  Eleven of the last 12 games (91.7%) with totals of 48 or higher went UNDER. The only total of 48 or higher for this weekend figures to be Giants-Vikings.
  • Those Wild Card games with totals less than 44 are 9-8 OVER in the last 17. Six of the last 9 Wild Card games with closing totals of 40 or below went OVER the total, although totals that low are very rare nowadays in the NFL. As of Tuesday, the lowest number shown for this weekend was 43 on Seahawks-49ers, with Ravens-Bengals also at 43.5.
  • Of the last 34 Sunday Wild Card games, 25 have gone UNDER the total (73.5%). Of the 30 Saturday games, OVER the total is 16-14-1 (53.3%).
  • In games expected to be tight, or with lines in the +3 to -3 range for home teams, UNDER the total is on a run of 17-8-1 (68%).

Follow the Line Moves

Bettors have been right on sides at a rate of 31-20 SU and 28-22-1 ATS in the last 51 Wild Card playoff games that moved off their opening number, good for 56% ATS. This is determined to be when the line moves off its opening position towards either team. For instance, if the line opens at home team minus-3, and closes at home team minus-2, it is assumed that sharp bettors are favoring the road team. However, this success rate has dropped dramatically over the last two expanded playoff seasons, with bettors going just 3-7 ATS, so we could be witnessing a shift in this strategy, perhaps from the books themselves. For 2023, early action was favoring Seattle, Miami, and Minnesota.

About equally advantageous, sharp bettors have fared well on totals in Wild Card games. Over the last 14 Wild Card playoff seasons, bettors are 27-20 (57.4%) when moving totals off their opening numbers. For this weekend, the totals were fairly stable early, but there was some upward movement on the Miami-Buffalo, NY Giants-Minnesota, and Dallas-Tampa Bay games, and consensus downward movement in the Seattle-San Francisco contest.

First-Time Playoff Quarterbacks

From my annual quarterback report back in early December, there was a definitive playoff angle regarding quarterback inexperience

  • Quarterbacks starting their first playoff game in the NFL have gone just 7-17 SU and ATS (29.2%) since 2014, and 20-43 ATS (31.7%) since ‘03

Consider this as you handicap the chances for first-time playoff quarterbacks like Geno Smith (Seattle), Brock Purdy (San Francisco), Justin Herbert (LA Chargers), Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville), Skylar Thompson? (Miami), Daniel Jones (NY Giants), and the Ravens’ quarterback should Lamar Jackson not be available. Obviously, Smith and Purdy face one another, as do Herbert and Lawrence. In such cases, if you consider first-time playoff QB in a certain line range:

  • Quarterbacks starting their first playoff game in the NFL and playing as an underdog are 5-21 SU and 7-18-1 ATS (28%) since ’06.

When these first-timers are matched against an experienced quarterback…

  • Quarterbacks in their first playoff game are just 17-40 SU and 17-39-1 ATS (30.4%) since ’04 when matched up against an opposing QB NOT in their first playoff game.

The biggest difference where this experience factor comes into play is in games with point spreads in the +3 to -3 range, as these first-time QBs are just 5-21 SU and 4-21-1 ATS (16%) in those games.

First-time head coaches

  • Regarding coaches, first-time playoff coaches have been wildly more successful in recent years than quarterbacks and are currently on an 8-3 SU and ATS (72.7%) run over the last four seasons when not matched up against another rookie head coach.

However, consider that both Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni and Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury lost decisively in their games last year. For 2023, Brandon Staley of the Chargers takes on an experienced Doug Pederson of Jacksonville, rookie Mike McDaniel’s Miami team faces veteran Sean McDermott and Buffalo, Todd Bowles of Tampa Bay will be head coaching his first playoff game against much-experienced Mike McCarthy and Dallas, while the two newcomers in the Giants-Vikings games will be going head-to-head.

Playoff Drought Systems

There are a few different systems to consider based on the 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 from the prior season are just 8-20 SU and 9-19 ATS over the L10 seasons and 21-40-1 ATS since ‘04. The teams for this year that weren’t in the playoffs last year are Seattle, LA Chargers, Jacksonville, Miami, NY Giants, Minnesota, and Baltimore. This is the second straight year in which there were seven fresh playoff teams.
  • On the road, these “drought” teams are an ugly 7-23 SU and 7-22-1 ATS since ’07, all Wild Card games. At home, the teams are 16-15 SU and ATS. For 2023, five of the seven drought teams (Seattle, LA Chargers, Miami, NY Giants, Baltimore) are on the road while two, Jacksonville & Minnesota, are at home.
  • In the last 18 Wild Card games, matching teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior year, home teams are 4-14 SU and 3-15 ATS since '06. This powerful system will be in play for two games in 2023, the LA Chargers-Jacksonville and NY Giants-Minnesota contests.

Rematch Playoff Systems

There was a system in my Handicapping NFL Rematch Games a few months ago for the playoffs, however, it involved teams losing to an opponent earlier in the season and now hosting them in the playoffs. Unfortunately, none of this week’s games fit the criteria. However, with all contests being rematches from earlier in the season, I felt it was crucial to dig deeper and find a couple more rematch/revenge angles. Consider these as you handicap this weekend’s games:

  • Teams that lost the prior same-season game versus an opponent by 21 points or more are just 1-13 SU and 5-9 ATS in the playoffs since 2012, including 0-4 SU and 1-3 ATS at home.

The thought here is that a blowout loss of that nature is hard to overcome in the next meeting. For this week, that system applies in the Chargers-Jaguars game, as Jacksonville will be hosting the contest after winning 38-10 in Los Angeles back in September.

  • Teams that lost the prior same-season game versus an opponent and were then favored in the playoff contest are just 6-9 SU and 4-11 ATS since 2017.

This seems to reflect an overadjustment made by oddsmakers since the earlier contest. Assuming the lines hold, this system will be in play for both the Chargers (at Jacksonville) and Dallas (at Tampa Bay) this weekend.

Stats Generated in Wild Card Playoff Games

  • Only four home teams that have topped the 20-point mark have lost in the last 20 years of Wild Card playoff action, going 45-4 SU and 38-10-1 ATS (79.2%). Strangely, half of those losses were in 2021, when Washington (23 points) fell short of Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh (37 points) was blitzed by Cleveland.
  • Only three home teams that scored 20 points or fewer in a Wild Card playoff game have won in the last 17 years, going 3-35 SU and 3-34-1 ATS (8.1%). Those winners were San Diego, who beat Tennessee 17-6 in ’08, Houston in 2013, a 19-13 winner over Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, who held off Buffalo in 2018, 10-3. As you handicap this year’s games, it is crucial to consider whether or not the host team can score 21+ points.
  • The magic point total for road teams is 17 points. Teams coming up shy of that in the Wild Card round are 2-26 SU and ATS (7.1%) since ’02. Seattle of ’16, and Philadelphia in ‘19, were the lone outright winners. Road teams reaching that total were 43-15-2 ATS (74.1%) in that same span.
  • Teams that gain more first downs are 38-13-1 ATS (74.5%) in the last 12 Wild Card playoff seasons
  • Teams that win the time of possession battle are on a 51-20 SU and 50-19-2 ATS (72.5%) run in the Wild Card playoffs.
  • Wild Card playoff teams that gain more yards rushing in their playoff games are 46-14 SU and 43-15-2 ATS (74.1%) over the last 14 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a Wild Card playoff game are just 34-26 SU and 32-27-1 ATS (54.2%) in that same 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 eleven Wild Card seasons, since those teams are 29-19 SU and 29-18-1 ATS (61.7%) in that time. Teams often amass 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 57-19-2 ATS (75%) since ’04. All 12 outright winners from the last two year’s Wild Card rounds threw for more passing yards per attempt.
  • Teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponent haven’t been as successful as you might think in the Wild Card playoffs but are 32-12 SU and 31-12-1 ATS (72.1%) over the last 15 seasons. In 20 of the games during that span, the turnover differential was even.

Teams’ Regular Season Won-Lost Record Trend

  • If the last 14 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 25-26 SU and 21-29-1 ATS (42%) in that span. In nine matchups, the teams shared the same won-lost mark.
  • For 2023, two hosts won fewer games than their opponent, the Jaguars and Buccaneers. Home teams that won fewer games during the season than their Wild Card opponents are on a 10-8 SU and 11-7 ATS (61.1%) run but are 0-3 SU and 1-2 ATS in L3.
  • Although prior to the 2021 regular season, teams played 16 games, home teams that won nine games or fewer during the regular season were on a 7-5 SU and 8-3-1 ATS run in the Wild Card playoffs. Strangely, at the same time, hosts that won 12 or more games have a worse record at 13-9 SU and 11-11 ATS in their last 22 tries, including 3-1 SU and ATS last year. Note that the top three seeds in both conferences won 12 games or more.
  • Again, note that teams played 17 games this year. That said, road Wild Card teams that won 11 or more games and were forced to play in the Wild Card round were just 12-15 SU and 13-13-1 ATS since ’08. Alternatively, Wild Card visitors that won nine games or less in the regular season boasted a record of 10-12 SU and 13-8-1 ATS (61.9%) since ’02. We’ll see how these angles continue to play out with the additional game logged.

Teams’ Regular Season Offensive Statistics Trends

  • Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season have won just 29 Wild Card playoff games in the last 13 years, that’s 29-27 SU and 24-31-1 ATS (43.6%).
  • Rushing statistics have meant something when it comes to Wild Card playoff success lately, as teams who averaged more rushing yards per game are 32-28 SU and 32-27-1 ATS (54.2%) since ’09. An even bigger improvement, those that averaged more yards per rush were 34-25 SU and 32-26-1 ATS (55.2%) in that span, including 8-4 SU and ATS in the last two years.
  • Wild Card teams with an edge in offensive passing yardage are slightly better at 36-24 SU and 31-28-1 ATS (52.5%) over the last 14 seasons in this playoff round. More efficient passing yards per attempt are 36-24 SU and 33-26-1 ATS (55.9%) in that span and have gotten hot of late, going 35-15 SU & 30-19-1 ATS (61.2%) in the last 50 Wild Card games. Note that teams with edges in this category in 2023 are San Francisco, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, Cincinnati, and Dallas. 
  • Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively own an edge when it comes to Wild Card playoff success, going 36-24 SU and 31-28-1 ATS (52.5%) over the last 14 seasons.
  • Offensive yards per point have proven to be as effective of an offensive statistical indicator as any other category, as teams who have averaged fewer yards per point offensively are only 43-27 SU and 40-30 ATS (57.1%) in the Wild Card playoffs dating back to ‘06.
  • Teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are 28-29 SU and 28-28-1 ATS (50%) since ’08 in Wild Card playoff games, offering little advantage for handicappers.
  • Teams that converted third down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are just 32-26 SU and 29-28-1 ATS (50.9%) in the last 14 Wild Card playoff seasons. This is also a stat that has picked up importance in the last two seasons, 8-4 ATS.

Teams’ Regular Season Defensive Statistics Trends

  • Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are on a 33-24 SU and 32-24-1 ATS (57.1%) run in Wild Card playoff action, including 9-3 ATS the last two seasons.
  • Teams that allow fewer rushing yards per game are 36-24 SU & 34-25-1 ATS (57.6%) since ’08, including 11-1 SU and ATS in 2021 and 2022. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush were slightly better at the betting window at 33-26 SU and 34-24-1 ATS (58.6%). This is an angle worth considering since good rushing defenses can force opposing offenses to become one-dimensional.
  • Wild Card teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are just 32-28 SU and 28-31-1 ATS (47.4%) over the last 14 seasons in this playoff round. Defensive pass efficiency is a curious statistic in that teams who’ve held the edge in this category are 31-27 SU and 27-30-1 ATS (47.4%) over the last 14 seasons. Usually, this statistic proves to be more important.
  • Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively have been quite successful, going 34-26 SU and 34-25-1 ATS (57.6%) in the Wild Card round since ’08. Those WC teams that held an edge in yards allowed per play were several games worse at 32-28 SU and 30-29-1 ATS (50.8%) since ’08.
  • Wild Card teams that made opposing offenses work harder, or those at allowed more offensive yards per point, have won their Wild Card playoff games at a 30-30 SU and 29-30-1 ATS (49.2%) rate over the last 14 seasons.
  • Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponent are on a 32-20 SU and 28-24-1 ATS (53.9%) run since ’08 in Wild Card playoff games.
  • Teams that stopped third down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 29-31 SU and 29-30-1 ATS (49.2%) in the last 60 Wild Card playoff games, thus proving to be another insignificant factor in handicapping these contests.
  • Combination stats system…over the last two years of expanded Wild Card weekends, teams that enjoyed a regular season edge in offensive passing efficiency and rush yardage defense have won their last seven games SU and ATS (100%). Note that the teams with edges in both of these categories in 2023 are San Francisco, Jacksonville, Miami, and Minnesota.

Summary

Although it takes up a lot of space in the article, it’s obvious that statistics are virtually irrelevant when it comes to predicting these games, other than perhaps offensive pass efficiency and rushing defense. That said, the line range trends, the rookie QB/Head Coach angles, as well as the drought and rematch systems I closed with should be given strong consideration when finalizing your plays. It should be an exciting Wild Card weekend to bet the games regardless of what happens. Good luck and check back next week for the divisional round buffet of information.

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