Trends to track in NFL divisional round

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

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Last week I started my annual NFL playoff series looking at the trends of recent years by digging into the wild-card round. I revealed a number of systems and methodologies that had been very successful in recent years, including a couple of particular angles regarding outright winners and first-time quarterbacks that continued to thrive. Like the league itself, this week I will be moving on to the divisional round. The six winners of last weekend join No. 1 seeds Green Bay and Tennessee in looking to take a big step toward the Super Bowl. Will being off last week help their prospects? I’ll look at that and a lot more.

Last year, for the fourth straight season, at least three of the four home teams advanced out of the divisional round. If you recall last week’s wild-card article, the focus was on road team success, which came to a screeching halt with hosts going 5-1. Does that mean we’ll see a shift in the divisional round? It would be a dramatic change if so. In fact, in looking back at the last 10 playoff seasons, in two years (2016 and 2019) the hosts swept this round, in another (2017) they split. In the seven other years, home teams went 3-1, meaning a cumulative record of 31-9 in that span, or 78%. Thus, if the typical pattern holds, expect just one of this year’s four hosts to be eliminated this weekend. On paper, that team would figure to be the Chiefs, with the Bills playing as the smallest underdog of the four road teams.

One important note regarding the lines for the games. This round typically sees the largest favorites of any playoff round, and four years ago (2017) marked the only time since ’09 when fewer than two teams were favored by at least a TD. That season, I speculated that perhaps it signaled a couple of upsets coming. Pittsburgh and Green Bay pulled those upsets. For 2022, none of our hosts is favored by more than 5.5 points as of press time, although that could change depending upon the status of 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered a sprained shoulder Sunday and is listed as questionable.

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 wound up winning the Super Bowl. Surely, you remember Jacksonville’s 45-42 win in Pittsburgh in 2018 or the Minneapolis Miracle the same season. There have been plenty of other great games like that in the divisional round, but rather than looking back at specific games, we’re going to look at some general trends. 

So, let’s start digging through the NFL divisional playoff log of recent seasons to see if we can uncover some nuggets that we can profit from in this weekend’s games. 

General Divisional Trends

·           The OUTRIGHT winner owns a 29-10-1 ATS mark in the last 40 divisional playoff games. If you recall, in last week’s wild-card article, outright winners were on a much stronger 48-7-1 ATS run and proceeded to go 6-0 last weekend.

·           Since the road teams last held an edge (3-1) in 2009, home teams are on a convincing run of 36-12 SU and 25-22-1 ATS in the divisional round. Hosts are 14-9-1 ATS in the last six 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 second straight season, only the two No. 1 seeds enjoyed the luxury of having last weekend to rest.

·           There have been only four road favorites in the last 25 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, which came up short 15-10 as a field-goal favorite at top-seeded Philadelphia in 2018. Unless we see a heavy swing in the Kansas City-Buffalo game, or any late-breaking injury or COVID-19 news, this trend will go untested again in 2022.

·           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 14-10 SU and 10-14 ATS 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 almost 13% outright.

·           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 underdogs in the + 3.5 to + 9.5 range have proven to be worthy bets in the divisional round, going 22-14-1 ATS in the last 37 tries (11-26 SU). However, these teams are on a seven-game outright losing streak.

·           Here are the divisional-round records since 2002 for the teams playing this weekend:

Cincinnati: First appearance since 1990

Tennessee: 2-3 SU and ATS

San Francisco: 4-1 SU and ATS

Green Bay: 6-5 SU and 7-4 ATS

Los Angeles Rams: 1-1 SU and ATS

Tampa Bay: 2-0 SU and ATS

Buffalo: 1-0 SU and ATS

Kansas City: 3-3 SU and 2-4 ATS

·           There has been a significant performance difference in home/road dichotomy based on the day the divisional playoff game has been played on. On Saturdays, HOME teams have gone 21-3 SU and 18-6 ATS over the last 12 seasons. OVER the total is also 16-8 in those games. On Sundays, ROAD teams have performed much better, going 15-17 SU and 22-9-1 ATS since ’06! They were 2-0 ATS in 2021.

·           In terms of AFC-NFC breakdown, AFC home teams are 18-7 SU and 13-11-1 ATS in the last 25, while NFC hosts are 23-9 SU and 15-17 ATS since ’06 in this playoff round, but Tampa Bay's win at New Orleans last year snapped a seven-game winning streak for NFC hosts.

·           In terms of wild-card teams’ potential success in the divisional round, note that 12 of the last 14 wild-card teams to cover the spread in divisional games played well defensively in the prior game, allowing 20 points or fewer. All six winners from last weekend covered their point spreads and will be hopeful of continuing this strong defensive play this weekend.

·           With three of this last weekend’s winners topping the 30-point mark, it should be noted that ALL of the last five teams to score 31 points or more in their wild-card wins covered their divisional point spreads, although they were just 2-3 ATS. This will affect the Rams in 2022 as the Chiefs and Bills 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 2022, 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 12-7 SU but 6-13 ATS in their last 19 when playing as single-digit favorites. Green Bay and Tennessee 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 applied to the Houston-Kansas City matchup in 2020 but will go untested in 2022.

·           There are no such cases in 2022, 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

·           Teams fight all season long to have home-field advantage throughout their conference playoffs, but that advantage has not lasted long as No. 1 seeds are 25-11 SU but just 13-22-1 ATS dating to 2004.

·           Making matters worse for the No. 1 seeds is their record versus No. 6 seeds, as in that matchup, the home teams are just 11-6 SU and 5-11-1 ATS since ’06. This was the scenario in both games of 2021 (2-0 SU and 1-1 ATS), and Green Bay hosts No. 6 San Francisco in 2022.

·           No. 1 seeds playing as small home favorites of 7 points or less are on an ugly 4-10-1 ATS slide in the divisional round, although they have won two straight outright and ATS. Green Bay and Tennessee figure to be in this scenario this weekend.

·           No. 2 seeds have been arguably more effective than No. 1s when it comes to protecting home-field advantage in the divisional round, going 24-10 SU and 19-15 ATS over the last 17 playoff seasons.

·           NFC No. 1 seeds have turned things around in recent years, going 8-1 SU in their last nine. In their current four-game winning streak, they have allowed just 13 points per game.

·           Of the last 32 teams that pulled off road wins in the wild-card round to advance to this weekend, 19 have covered the point spread (61.2% with one push) and 11 have won a second straight road game outright. The 49ers will be seeking a second straight road win this weekend.

Trending Totals in Divisional Games

·           In the last 25 matchups between a No. 1 seed and a wild-card team, or a road winner from the prior weekend, UNDER the total is 18-8-1 with the home team scoring just 22.7 points per game.

·           No. 1 seeds are on a 13-9 OVER the total run, but No. 2 seeds are a bit higher, scoring at 14-8 OVER in in the last 11 years. However, both No. 2s went UNDER the total in 2021.

·           Home teams that have covered the point spread in divisional-round games are also on a 18-4 OVER the total surge. Hosts averaged 33.7 points per game in those contests. Alternatively, road team covers have seen 11 UNDERs, four OVERs since ’14. The hosts scored 10.4 points per game fewer in those road covers. In other words, home teams cover with offense, road teams cover with defense.

Follow the Line Moves

Last week I showed you how sharp bettors were right at a 28-18-1 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 toward either team. This same group has been even more sharp in the divisional round, going 22-10 ATS since ’09. Interestingly, only eight of the last 51 divisional-round games moved more than a point off the opening number, and those all came in the last eight years. Oddsmakers have been quite sharp in that regard. For 2022, the consensus early moves seem to be on Tennessee, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Buffalo. Again though, often the key moves come late in the hours before kickoff.

Bettors have picked successfully on early totals as well, going 26-17 in the last 43 divisional playoff games that have seen the total move off the opening number. However, they were 0-3 last season following 4-0 in 2020. As of press time, early bettors were favoring OVER in all of the games except Buccaneers-Rams.

Divisional-Round Stats

·           It has taken more points to win in the divisional round than the wild-card round. Last week I explained that only four home teams that topped the 20-point mark lost in the last 20 years of wild-card action. The benchmark for the divisional round is a touchdown higher at 27 points, as home teams that reach that point total are 38-4 SU and 31-11 ATS since ’02, including a current eight-game outright winning streak.

·           Failing to reach the 27-point mark has left home teams with a 18-20 SU and 6-30-2 ATS record since ’02 in divisional playoff games. If you consider this year’s four home teams, Tampa Bay averaged 30.1 points per game, Kansas City 28.2, Green Bay 26.5 and Tennessee 24.6.

·           The magic point total for road teams in divisional playoff action has proved to be 21 points, as they are 20-19 SU and 27-12 ATS since ’02 when they reach that mark. When scoring 20 points or fewer, the chance of a road team winning in this round drops dramatically to 4-37 SU and 14-25-2 ATS in that same span. The 49ers are the lowest-scoring road team in this year’s lot, averaging 25.1 points.

·           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 26-5. When road teams fail to reach 18 points, UNDER is 24-7 in the last 31.

·           Teams that gain more first downs are 28-21-2 ATS in the last 13 divisional playoff seasons.

·           Teams that control the time of possession are just 25-26-1 ATS in the divisional playoffs since ’09.

·           Divisional playoff teams that gain more yards rushing in their playoff games are 34-17-1 ATS over the last 13 seasons. At the same time, teams that rush for more yards per attempt in a divisional playoff game are only 21-22-1 ATS 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 27-24-1 ATS since ’09, including 1-7 ATS the last two 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 33-13-1 ATS run.  Consider which teams are more apt to put up big passing plays in this year’s matchups.

·           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 29-10-1 ATS since ’08. Not surprisingly, this is the most important in-game statistical factor.

Regular-Season Records 

·           Home teams that won 13 or more games in the regular season are only 23-14 SU and 14-23 ATS 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 9-6 SU and 4-11 ATS during that span. Both NFC home teams for 2022 won 13 games.

·           For road teams in this round, there seems to be a dividing line between those that won 10 or fewer games during the season and those that won 11 or more. The lesser group is just 10-30 SU and 17-22-1 ATS since ’02, while the more elite group was 14-18 SU but 22-10 ATS. The only road teams this weekend that won 11 or more games in the regular season were the Rams, who were 12-5, and Buffalo, 11-6.

·           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.

Regular-Season Statistics Trends, Offense

·           Teams that scored more points per game during the regular season are 37-15 SU and 31-19-1 ATS over the last 13 divisional playoff seasons, including 18-5-1 ATS over the last six seasons. Cincinnati, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Buffalo own the edges in this category for 2022.

·           Teams that averaged more rushing yards per game are 33-31 SU and 39-24-1 ATS since ’06, including 23-12-1 ATS the last nine years. Similarly, those that averaged more yards per rush were 29-35 SU and 38-25-1 ATS. Buffalo, San Francisco and Tennessee own these categories in 2022, while Tampa Bay and the L.A. Rams 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 39-25 SU and 33-30-1 ATS over the last 16 seasons in this round. Teams that are more efficient in passing yards per attempt share a similar 38-26 SU and 32-31-1 ATS mark.

·           Teams that generated more yardage overall offensively in the regular season own a decent edge when it comes to divisional playoff success, going 43-21 SU and 36-27-1 ATS over the last 16 seasons. However, the offensive yards per play statistic doesn’t reflect that level of outright success at all, as teams with an edge in that offensive category are just 29-23 SU and 28-23-1 ATS over the last 13 years.

·           Unlike the wild-card round, offensive yards per point has not proved to be an effective statistical indicator long term on point spreads, as teams that have averaged fewer yards per point are just 37-23 SU and 30-29-1 ATS in the divisional playoff round since ’07. However, we could be seeing a turn in this trend in the last six years, as those teams are 17-6-1 ATS. Cincinnati, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Buffalo hold the edges for 2022.

·           Completely disregard the offensive turnovers statistic since teams that turned the ball over fewer times in the regular season than their opponents are only 24-29 SU and 23-29-1 ATS since ’08 in divisional games.

·           Teams that converted third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season were 36-28 SU but 24-39-1 ATS in the last 64 divisional playoff games.

Regular-Season Statistics Trends, Defense

·           Teams that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season are 23-22 SU and 20-23-1 ATS in the divisional round over the last 11 years, including 0-4 ATS last season. Defensive scoring edges were more advantageous in the wild-card round.

·           Teams that allowed fewer rushing yards per game have slipped to 25-27 SU and 22-29-1 ATS in the divisional playoff round since ’08, including 2-10 ATS in the last three years. Those that allowed fewer yards per rush have been better for a more extended period at 40-22 SU and 34-27-1 ATS.

·           Divisional playoff teams with an edge in defensive passing yardage allowed over their opponent are 35-25 SU and 27-32-1 ATS over the last 15 seasons in this round. Teams with the edge in defensive pass efficiency are on a nice run of 32-20 SU and 27-24-1 ATS over the last 13 divisional playoff seasons.

·           Teams that allowed less yardage overall defensively own a record of 27-25 SU and 22-29-1 ATS since ’09 while those that held an edge in yards allowed per play were a bit better outright at 28-23 SU and 21-29-1 ATS.  Teams with edges in both of these categories went 0-4 ATS last year. 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 30-32 SU and 30-31-1 ATS in the last 62 games of this round.

·           Teams that forced more turnovers in the regular season than their opponent are 30-19 SU and 33-15-1 ATS since ’09 in divisional playoff games. This one sure figures to be worth considering as it is easily our best defensive statistical indicator. Incidentally, the Titans, Packers, Buccaneers, and Bills hold the edges for 2022.

·           Teams that stopped third-down opportunities more efficiently in the regular season are on a 31-229 SU and 31-21-1 ATS run in the last 53 divisional games, although they were 0-4 ATS in 2021.

Summary

For the divisional round, 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 regards 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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