Trends tend to trump stats on NFL's wild-card weekend

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After the NFL’s first 17-game regular season, we have reached the much-anticipated playoffs. Over the next month in Point Spread Weekly, we will dedicate ourselves to in-depth coverage of each and every round, all for the purpose of cashing tickets.

As usual, there are some betting favorites, but it seems like a wide-open race to make it to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. Theoretically, the advantages would go to the No. 1 seeds, Green Bay in the NFC and Tennessee in the AFC. The Packers and Titans are the only teams not playing this weekend.

I’ll start my series of round-by-round betting angles here. As with any recurring sporting event, the NFL playoffs have gone through various trend patterns over the years, with some seasons being dominated by underdogs and upstarts and others being relatively predictable. Because of these changing patterns, it can be difficult for bettors to thrive when using past playoff results as a guide.

When you consider that road teams are on a 14-4 SU and 15-3 ATS run in the wild-card round over the last four seasons, perhaps handicapping this stuff is easy, right? If you prefer betting totals, you’re probably going to want to consider that the Under is 12-6 in that same set of games 26-11-1 in the last nine wild-card rounds. Trust me, though, if it was that easy, sportsbooks wouldn’t be expanding operations.

My own handicapping methods have changed throughout the years. Lately, it seems late-season success has taken on more importance. That line of thinking would bode well for Buffalo and Las Vegas, with each riding four-game winning streaks into the playoffs.

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

Only one wild-card team over the last eight seasons has played in (and won) the Super Bowl, with that team, of course, being Tampa Bay last year. But with only the No. 1 seeds on a bye again, the chances of a team playing this weekend and winning a Lombardi Trophy are again theoretically doubled.

So, is the eventual Super Bowl champion one of the teams playing on Saturday, Sunday or even Monday? Only time will tell, but savvy bettors have picked up big winnings by banking on such thoughts. Keep in mind, though, that the final four quarterbacks last year were Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

It’s my annual ritual at this time of year to dig through the database of recent playoff logs. I looked at it all, home/road scenarios, favorites/dogs, lines, stats, you name it. Continue reading to see what we’ve found, and then see if you can apply any of the findings to this weekend’s action. I will be doing the exact same thing for each of the rounds as we move towards Super Bowl LVI next month.

Before we get into the wild-card trends, however, here are some trends I found regarding first-time playoff quarterbacks and coaches:

— Quarterbacks in their first playoff game are just 17-37 SU and 17-36-1 ATS (32%) since 2004 when matched up against an opposing QB with playoff experience. In games with betting lines of three points or less, these first-time QBs are just 5-21 SU and 4-21-1 ATS (16%). However, before you go hog wild and bet this trend with Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia), Mac Jones (New England) or Kyler Murray (Arizona), consider that the three first-time starters last January were 3-0 ATS.

— First-time playoff coaches, on the other hand, have been wildly more successful in recent years. They are currently on an 8-1 SU and ATS run over the last three seasons when not matched up against another first-time coach. Only Matt Nagy of Chicago lost his first playoff game in that time frame. In 2022, Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni and Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury are both first-timers going up against experienced counterparts. 

General Wild Card Trends

— The outright winner is a crazy 48-7-1 ATS in the last 56 wild-card games. Most recently, Indianapolis and Washington earned ATS wins but failed to advance last season. If you can’t see the team you’re betting on winning the game, you’re better off not trying to sneak in a cover.

— As noted earlier, road teams have gained a definitive edge in this round, going 14-4 SU and 15-3 ATS over the last four seasons.

— Underdogs are on a run of 12-4-1 ATS in the last 17 NFC wild-card games. 

— Road favorites have become increasingly common in recent wild-card rounds (15 in the last 13 seasons). Those teams are 10-5 SU and 7-7-1 ATS. There are none in 2022. 

— Home favorites of a TD or more are 13-2 SU and 11-4 ATS since 2005, including Buffalo and New Orleans last season.

— There’s an interesting divergence with home teams on Saturdays versus Sundays. In the last 24 Saturday games, home teams are 18-13 SU and 17-13-1 ATS. In that same span, home teams are 14-17 SU and 11-19-1 ATS on Sundays.

— Sunday road NFC teams have been terrific, going 12-8 SU and 14-5-1 ATS in the last 20. The Under is also 15-5 in those games. In the AFC, the last four Saturday road teams have won SU and ATS, one in each of the last four seasons. This year, Las Vegas and New England will try to extend that streak.

— In 14 wild-card matchups between division rivals since 2003, road teams own an 11-3 ATS edge (8-6 SU), including wins by the Rams and Browns a year ago. This year, New England and Arizona are in play.

Wild Card Trends by Seed

— No. 4 seeds are on a 17-13 SU and 17-11-2 ATS run over the last 15 wild-card rounds. This year’s No. 4 seeds are Cincinnati in the AFC and Los Angeles in the NFC.

— Prior to last year’s expanded bracket, the Under was on a 15-0-1 run in 3-6 matchups. For the record, No. 6 seeds are on a 7-1 SU and 8-0 ATS surge.

— Nothing else considered, in blanket wagering, the No. 4 AFC seed has been the best home betting option of the four choices, going 9-7 SU and 10-6 ATS over the last 16 seasons.

— No. 3 seeds that were underdogs or favorites of less than three points have lost 10 straight games outright while going 1-9 ATS, scoring just 13.4 PPG in the process. Dallas is a 3-point favorite as of press time.

Trending Totals in Wild Card Games

— The Under has dominated over the past nine years, going 26-11-1, although four of six games went Over last year.

— A common pattern in the last 11 years is that when road teams win outright, the Under has a remarkable record of 21-6-2. Home teams scored just 15.6 PPG in those games. Word of caution: Road wins last year were accompanied by 3-1 on Overs.

— Of the last 30 wild-card games with a total of 44 or higher, the Under is 21-8-1. Eight of the last nine games with a total of 48 or higher went Under. Four of this year’s six games currently fit that bill.

— Six of the last nine games with a total of 40 or below went Over, although totals that low are rare these days. As of Tuesday, the lowest number for this weekend was 43.

— Of the last 31 wild-card games on Sunday, 23 have gone Under the total. Of the 29 Saturday games, the Over is 15-13-1.

— In games expected to be tight, with betting lines no higher than 3, the Under is on a run of 16-8-1.

Follow the Line Moves

Sharp bettors have been right on sides at a rate of 31-16 SU and 28-18-1 ATS in the last 47 wild-card games that moved off their opening number, good for 60.9% ATS. For instance, if the line opens as home team -3 and closes at home team -2, it is assumed that sharp bettors are favoring the road team. Although these moves were only 3-3 ATS last year, early action this year favored Las Vegas, New England, Kansas City and Arizona.

Nearly as advantageous, sharp bettors have fared well on totals in wild-card games. Over the last 13 wild-card rounds, bettors are 25-18 (58.1%) when moving totals off their opening numbers.

Clearly, it’s worthwhile to follow line moves in the days leading up to kickoff. So far there has been noticeable upward movement for Las Vegas-Cincinnati and San Francisco-Dallas, and consensus downward movement for New England-Buffalo.

Wild Card Stats

— Only four home teams that have topped the 20-point mark in the wild-card round have lost in the last 20 years, going 40-4 SU and 33-10-1 ATS. Strangely, half of those losses were last year, 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 have won in the last 17 years, going 3-34 SU and 3-33-1 ATS.

— The magic point total for road teams is 17 points. Teams coming up shy of that number are 2-24 SU and ATS since 2002. Road teams reaching that total were 42-12-2 ATS in that same span.

— Teams that gain more first downs are 33-12-1 ATS in the last 11 seasons.

— Teams that win the time of possession battle are on a 46-20 SU and 45-19-2 ATS run.

— Teams that gain more rushing yards are 41-13 SU and 38-14-2 ATS over the last 13 seasons. Teams that rush for more yards per attempt are just 31-23 SU and 29-24-1 ATS in the same span.

— Teams that gain more yards per pass attempt are 51-19-2 in the last 72 games. All six outright winners from last year’s wild-card round threw for more passing yards per attempt.

— Teams committing fewer turnovers than their opponent haven’t been as successful as you might think. Still, they’re 28-11 SU and 27-11-1 ATS over the last 14 seasons.

Regular Season Records

— If the last 13 wild-card rounds 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 21-25 SU and 17-28-1 ATS in that span. With divisional winners hosting wild-card teams, it is often road teams sporting the better record. Take the Buccaneers last season, who won but failed to cover at Washington.

— Home teams that won fewer games during the regular season are on a 10-8 SU and 11-7 ATS run.

— Home teams that won nine games or fewer during the regular season were on a 7-5 SU and 8-3-1 ATS run (during the 16-game era). Strangely, hosts that won 12 or more games are just 10-8 SU and 8-10 ATS in the last 18 instances, including 2-2 SU and 1-3 ATS last year. All three NFC hosts plus Kansas City won at least 12 games.

— In the 16-game era, road teams that won at least 11 games were just 12-14 SU and 13-12-1 ATS in the last 26 instances. Alternatively, road teams that won no more than nine games were 10-10 SU and 13-6-1 ATS in the last 20 games.

Regular Season Statistical Trends, Offense

— Teams that scored more points during the regular season are just 24-26 SU and 19-30-1 ATS in the last 12 years.

— Rushing statistics have meant little of late, as teams who averaged more rushing yards per game are just 28-26 SU and 28-25-1 ATS in the last 54 games. A slight improvement, those that averaged more yards per rush are 30-23 SU and 28-24-1 ATS in that span.

— Wild card teams with an edge in offensive passing yardage are slightly better at 32-22 SU and 27-26-1 ATS over the last 13 years. Teams with more passing yards per attempt are 30-14 SU and 25-18-1 ATS in the last 44 games. The teams with edges in this category this year are Cincinnati, New England, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Kansas City and the Rams.

— Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively are 33-21 SU and 28-25-1 ATS over the last 13 seasons.

Regular Season Statistical Trends, Defense

— Teams that allowed fewer points during the regular season are on a 29-22 SU and 28-22-1 ATS run in the wild-card round, including 5-1 ATS last year.

— Teams that allow fewer rushing yards per game are 30-24 SU and 28-25-1 ATS in the last 54 games, including 5-1 SU and ATS last year. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush were a bit better at the betting window at 29-24 SU and 30-22-1 ATS. So far, this is the best long-term statistical edge we’ve seen. For the record, the better YPR defenses this year are Las Vegas, Buffalo, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Kansas City and the Rams.

— Teams with an edge in defensive passing yards allowed are 30-24 SU and 26-27-1 ATS over the last 13 years. Defensive pass efficiency is a curious statistic: Teams who’ve held the edge in this category are 28-24 SU and 24-27-1 ATS (usually this statistic is more important).

— Teams that allowed fewer yards overall have been quite successful, going 32-22 SU and 32-21-1 ATS in the last 54 games, including 5-1 ATS last season. Count Las Vegas, Buffalo, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Arizona as the teams with edges this year.

— Teams that forced more turnovers than opponents in the regular season are on a 29-19 SU and 25-22-1 ATS run.

Playoff Drought Systems

— Teams playing in their first playoff game in at least two seasons against a repeat playoff team from the prior season are just 8-17 SU and 9-16 ATS over the last nine seasons and 21-37-1 ATS dating back further. Teams this year that weren’t in the playoffs last year are Las Vegas, Cincinnati, New England, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas and Arizona.

— On the road, these teams are on an ugly 6-19 SU and 6-18-1 ATS slide. At home, these teams are 15-14 SU and ATS.

In the last 16 wild-card games matching teams that weren’t in the playoffs the previous season, home teams are 3-13 SU and 2-14 ATS. This powerful system will be in play for two games this year, Las Vegas-Cincinnati and San Francisco-Dallas.

Summary

It’s obvious that the different wild-card trends and systems I have revealed have been more definitive 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 rushing defense. That said, in my opinion, the recent underdog/road run should not be ignored until there are signs of a change. In addition, those drought systems should also be given strong consideration when finalizing your plays.

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