Trends aplenty in wild-card round

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

January 5, 2021 07:31 PM

(To see the charts accompanying this report, subscribe to Point Spread Weekly.)

A lot of commentators thought the NFL would never get to this point in the 2020-21 season, yet here we are on the verge of kicking off one of the most anticipated playoff seasons in recent memory. Not only is the playoff qualifying field bigger than ever with an additional team from each conference, but the realistic title contending field might be as big as it’s ever been as well.  In fact, heading into the postseason, my Power Ratings are showing six teams between a 30.5 and 31.5 rating in the battle for the top spot. That is easily as widespread a field as I’ve had at this point in the season. Of course, with only one team from each conference getting the wild-card weekend off, those front runners, Green Bay and Kansas City, are naturally the favorites to reach the Super Bowl in Tampa next month.

Even though the playoff field is enlarged and there will be a very limited number of fans in the stands to provide the full home-field advantage, the stakes of the games are the same as always, and thus many of bettors’ usual handicapping routines should still be employed. That’s where my series on round-by-round playoff betting angles comes in handy. As with any recurring 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.

When you consider that road teams are on a 10-2 SU and 11-1 ATS run in the wild-card round over the last three seasons, perhaps handicapping this stuff is easy, right? If you prefer betting totals, you’re probably going to want to consider that Under is 10-2 in that same span and 24-7-1 in the last eight playoff seasons. Trust me though, if it were that easy, they wouldn’t play the games and the sportsbooks wouldn’t be expanding their operations.

My own handicapping methods have changed over the years as well, as it seems that how a team is playing recently seems to have taken on more and 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 Buffalo (six straight wins) and Tampa Bay (four straight wins while scoring 37 points per game).

When you consider the recent success of road teams, if any round of the playoffs is truly wild and unpredictable, it is fittingly the wild-card round.

Although each of the last seven Super Bowls have matched teams that enjoyed a wild-card round bye, before that a truly significant trend had emerged of the eventual champion having started its playoff run on wild-card weekend. In fact, six of the league’s last 15 champions have started their playoff journey here. With only the No. 1 seeds on a bye this weekend, the chances of a team playing this weekend winning a Lombardi Trophy are theoretically doubled. So is the eventual Super Bowl champion, like the Ravens of 2013, one of the teams playing on Saturday or Sunday? Only time will tell, but savvy bettors have picked up big winnings by banking on such thoughts. The Bills seem to be the most popular betting option in that regard, but in truth, who among us is ready to discount the Ravens’ chances, or the Buccaneers and Tom Brady for that matter?

It is my annual ritual to dig through the database of recent playoff games and see if we can uncover any tips that might help us better handicap this weekend’s wild-card games. I looked at it all, home-road scenarios, dogs-favorites, lines, stats, you name it. Continue reading to see what we’ve found, and then see if you can’t apply any of the findings to the weekend action. I will be doing the same thing for each of the rounds as we move toward Super Bowl LV.

Before we get into the wild-card trends, however, in response to a request I received last year, regarding first-time playoff quarterbacks and head coaches, here’s the trends info I uncovered:

* Quarterbacks in their first playoff game are just 15-36 SU and 14-36-1 ATS (28%) since ’04 when matched up against an opposing QB NOT in his first playoff game. This experience factor comes into play most in games with point spreads in the + 3 to -3 range, as these first-time QBs are just 4-21 SU and 3-21-1 ATS (12.5%) in those games.

* First-time playoff coaches have been much more successful in recent years than quarterbacks and are currently on a 7-1 SU and ATS run over the last three seasons when not matched up against another rookie head coach. Only Chicago’s Matt Nagy lost his first playoff game in that timeframe, 16-15 as a home favorite against Philadelphia in 2018.

The Browns qualify for both of these situations with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and Kevin Stefanski as coach. John Wolford also would qualify as quarterback of the Rams should he be called upon Saturday.

General Wild-Card Playoff ATS Trends

* The outright winner owns a point spread record of 44-5-1 ATS in the last 50 wild-card playoff games. That said, games in four of the last six seasons have produced the only ATS losses in that stretch, including most recently two years 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, you’re better off not trying to sneak a cover in, even though three games are showing point spreads of 7 points or more.

* As noted earlier, road teams seem to have definitively regained the edge in this round in recent years, going 10-2 SU and 11-1 ATS over the last three seasons. Looking back even further, if you take away the home SU and ATS sweep of 2017, the visitors are on an 18-5-1 ATS surge.

* Underdogs are on a run of 10-3-1 ATS in the last 14 NFC wild-card games.

* Wild-card road favorites have become increasingly common in recent playoff seasons as there have been 13 in the last 12 seasons. Those teams are 8-5 SU and 6-6-1 ATS. For 2021, we have two of them, as Tampa Bay is a heavy 8-point favorite at Washington on Saturday and Baltimore is a 3.5-point road favorite at Tennessee in a rematch of the Titans’ massive playoff upset a year ago.

* Home favorites of a touchdown or more in the wild-card round are 11-2 SU and 10-3 ATS since 2005, though Minnesota did win in New Orleans (-7) last January.

* 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 17-11 SU and 16-11-1 ATS. In that same span, home teams are 13-15 SU and 10-17-1 ATS on Sundays.

* Including two wins last year, NFC road teams have been terrific on Sundays, going 12-7 SU and  14-4-1 ATS in the last 19. Under the total is also 14-5 in those games. Chicago will test those trends at New Orleans on Sunday.

* In the 12 wild-card matchups between divisional opponents since 2003, road teams own a 9-3 ATS edge (6-6 SU). Two of this weekend’s six games are divisional matchups — Rams-Seahawks on Saturday and Browns-Steelers on Sunday.

Wild-Card Trends by Seed Number

* No. 4 seeds are on a 17-11 SU and 16-10-2 ATS run over the last 14 wild-card seasons. This year’s No. 4 seeds are Tennessee in the AFC and Washington in the NFC, both home underdogs. Interestingly, the last 10 home dogs in the No. 4 seed have split their games outright while going 6-3-1 ATS.

* Of the 16 No. 6-vs.-No. 3 wild-card matchups over the last eight seasons, Under the total is 15-0-1! This year’s 6-3 matchups are L.A. Rams-Seattle and Cleveland-Pittsburgh. For the record, road teams are on a 5-1 SU and 6-0 ATS surge in the series as well.

* Nothing else considered, in blanket wagering, the No. 4 AFC seed has been the best home betting option of the four choices, going 9-6 SU and 10-5 ATS over the last 15 seasons. That’s Tennessee this year.

* No. 3 seeds that were an underdog or less than a 3-point favorite have lost nine straight games outright while going 1-8 ATS, scoring just 12.7 points per game. Pittsburgh is a 4.5-point favorite as of this writing, but you never know how the lines might shift as kickoff approaches.

Wild-Card Trends for Totals

* Under has dominated over the last six years, 24-7-1, including six straight.

* The common pattern in the last 10 years has shown that when road teams have won outright, Under the total has a record of 20-3-2! Home teams scored just 14.4 points per game in those road wins.

* Of the last 25 wild-card games with totals of 44 or higher, Under the total is 19-5-1. The last six games with totals of 48 or higher went Under. Three of this year’s six games fit that bill.

* Those wild-card games with totals lower than 44 are only 8-7 Under in the last 15. Five straight games with closing totals below 40 went Over the total, although totals that low are now very rare in the NFL, and as of Tuesday, the lowest number shown for this weekend was 42.5.

* Of the last 28 Sunday wild-card games, 21 have gone Under the total. Of the 26 Saturday games, Under the total is just 13-12-1.

* In games expected to be tight, or with lines in the + 3 to -3 range for home teams, Under the total is on a 16-7-1 run.

Follow the Line Moves

Sharp bettors have been right on sides at a rate of 26-15 SU and 25-15-1 ATS in the last 41 wild-card playoff games that moved off their opening number, good for 62.5% 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. Although these moves were only 1-3 SU and ATS last year, for 2021, early action was favoring Buffalo, L.A. Rams, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.

Nearly equally advantageous, sharp bettors have fared well on totals in wild-card games. Over the last 12 wild-card playoff seasons, bettors are 24-16 (60%) when moving totals off their opening numbers.

Clearly it is worthwhile to follow the line moves leading up to kickoff. Again, although just 1-3 in 2020, for this weekend, the totals were fairly stable early, but there was noticeable upward movement on the Indianapolis-Buffalo and Baltimore-Tennessee games in the AFC and consensus downward movement  in the Tampa Bay-Washington game.

Stats Generated in Wild-Card Playoff Games

* Only two home teams that have topped the 20-point mark have lost in the last 19 years of wild-card action, going 38-2 SU and 31-8-1 ATS. Incidentally, those teams were Pittsburgh in 2008 and Kansas City in 2018. Not coincidentally, Houston was the only home winner a year ago, and the only home team to top 20 points, in a 22-19 win over Buffalo.

* Only three home teams that scored 20 points or fewer in a wild-card game have won in the last 16 years, going 3-32 SU and 3-31-1 ATS. Those winners were San Diego, which beat Tennessee 17-6 in ’08, Houston in 2013, a 19-13 winner over Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, which held off Buffalo 10-2 in 2018. 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 falling short of that in the wild-card round are 2-23 SU and ATS since ’02. Seattle in ’16 and Philadelphia in ’19, were the only outright winners. Road teams reaching that total were 38-11-2 ATS in that same span.

* Teams that gain more first downs are 29-10-1 ATS in the last 10 wild-card rounds.

* Teams that win the time-of-possession battle are on a 42-18 SU and 41-17-2 ATS run in wild-card games.

* Wild-card teams that gain more yards rushing in their playoff games are 36-12 SU and 33-13-2 ATS over the last 12 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a wild-card game are just 27-21 SU and 25-22-1 ATS in that same span.

* Putting up big passing numbers in wild-card games has not guaranteed success in the last seven wild-card seasons, with those teams going 22-14 SU and 22-13-1 ATS. 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 fact, teams gaining more yards per pass attempt in a wild-card game are 47-15-2 ATS since ’04.

* Teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponent haven’t been as successful as you might think in the wild-card round, going 26-10 SU and 25-10-1 ATS over the last 13 seasons. In 16 of the games, the turnover differential was even.

Regular Season Won-Lost Record Trend

* If the last 10 wild-card playoff seasons have proved anything, it’s that regular-season records do not matter when it comes to determining who will win. In fact, teams that won more regular-season games are just 18-23 SU and 16-24-1 ATS in that span. In seven 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 were the only road team to have a better record than the host team in 2020 and won at Philadelphia.

* This season, host Washington won four fewer games than its opponent, Tampa Bay. Home teams that won fewer games during the season than their wild-card opponent are on a 10-7 SU and ATS run.

* Home teams that won nine games or fewer during the regular season are on a 7-4 SU and 7-3-1 ATS wild-card run. Strangely, at the same time, hosts that won 12 or more games have a worse record at 8-6 SU and 7-7 ATS in their last 14 tries, including 0-2 SU and ATS last year. Note that there are four host teams this season that won 12 games or more.

* Road wild-card teams that won 11 or more games and were forced to play in this round are just 9-13 SU and 10-11-1 ATS since ’08. Alternatively, wild-card visitors that won nine games or fewer in the regular season boast a record of 10-9 SU and 13-5-1 ATS since ’02. All three road teams in the AFC for this weekend were 11-5, as was Tampa Bay in the NFC. Chicago is the only road team that won nine or fewer games (8-8).

Regular-Season Offensive Statistics Trends

* Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season have won just 21 wild-card games in the last 11 years, that’s 21-23 SU and 18-25-1 ATS.

* Rushing statistics have meant little to nothing when it comes to wild-card success lately, as teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are just 24-24 SU and 22-25-1 ATS since ’09. A slight improvement, those that averaged more yards per rush were 26-21 SU and 24-22-1 ATS in that span, including 4-0 SU and ATS a year ago. Note that 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 28-20 SU and 25-22-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons in this playoff round. Teams with more efficient passing yards per attempt are 27-21 SU and 26-21-1 ATS in that span and have gotten hot of late, going 26-12 SU and 23-14-1 ATS in the last 38 wild-card games. Note that the teams with edges in this category in 2021 are Buffalo, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, New Orleans and Cleveland.

* Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively and more yards per play in the regular season own edges when it comes to wild-card playoff success, going 28-20 SU and 25-22-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons.

* Offensive yards per point has proved to be as effective an offensive statistical indicator as any other category, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point offensively are only 35-23 SU and 34-24 ATS in the wild-card playoffs dating to ’06. Teams with an edge in 2021 are Buffalo, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.

* Teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponent are 23-22 SU and 23-21-1 ATS since ’08 in wild-card games.

* Teams that converted third-downs opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are just 22-24 SU and 21-24-1 ATS in the last 12 wild-card playoff seasons.

Regular-Season Defensive Statistics Trends

* Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are on a 26-19 SU and  23-21-1 ATS run in wild-card games. However they are just 1-7 ATS over the last two seasons.

* Rushing defense also had been an effective indicator for winning wild-card playoff games before the last two years (0-8 ATS). Teams that allow fewer rushing yards per game are 25-23 SU and 23-24-1 ATS since ’08. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush were a bit better at the betting window at 25-22 SU and 26-20-1 ATS.

* Wild-card teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed are just 26-22 SU and  22-25-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons in this round. Defensive pass efficiency is a curious statistic in that teams who have held the edge in this category are 24-22 SU and 20-25-1 ATS over the last 12 seasons. Usually this statistic is more important.

* Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively have been quite successful, going 29-19 SU and 27-20-1 ATS in the wild-card round since ‘08. However, they were 0-4 SU and ATS last season. Those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were several games worse at 26-22 SU and 22-25-1 ATS.

* Wild-card teams that made opposing offenses work harder, or those that allowed more offensive yards per point, have won their wild-card games at a 24-24 SU and 24-23-1 ATS rate over the last 12 seasons.

* Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponent are on a 26-17 SU and 24-18-1 ATS run since ’08 in wild-card playoff games.

* Teams that stopped third-downs opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 24-40 SU and 24-23-1 ATS in the last 48 wild-card games, thus proving to be another insignificant factor in handicapping these games.

Playoff Drought Systems

There are a few systems to consider based on how recently teams have been in the playoffs.

* Teams playing in their first playoff game in at least two seasons against a repeat playoff team from the prior season are just 8-15 SU and ATS over the last eight seasons and 20-36-1 ATS since ’04. But as luck would have it, those teams did go 4-1 SU and ATS last year. The teams for this year that weren’t in the playoffs last year are Indianapolis, L.A. Rams, Tampa Bay, Washington, Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

* On the road these “drought” teams are an ugly 4-17 SU and 4-16-1 ATS since ’07, all wild-card games. At home the teams are 15-12 SU and 14-13 ATS, with wins by both San Francisco and  Green Bay last season. For 2021, five of the seven drought teams are on the road while two, Washington and Pittsburgh, are at home.

The log below shows the last 21 teams that played on the road in the wild-card round on a playoff drought versus a repeat playoff team.

* In the last 11 wild-card games matching teams that weren’t in the playoffs the prior year, home teams are 3-11 SU and 1-13 ATS since ’06. This powerful system will be in play for two games in 2021: the Tampa Bay-Washington and Cleveland-Pittsburgh games.


It’s obvious that the 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 when it comes to predicting these games, other than perhaps offensive pass efficiency and yards per point. That said, the amazing run of Unders on totals in certain scenarios would seem to be more apt to continue than the unprecedented run of success by road teams. It should be an exciting Super Wild-Card Weekend to bet the games regardless of what happens. Enjoy the action and good luck.

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