We’re approaching a huge weekend for NFL betting. Sure, nothing tops the Super Bowl, but as the last playoff round with two days’ worth of games, the Divisional Round is special in its own right. It’s the last opportunity for big parlays and great two-team teasers. If you have a bad Saturday, you have a chance at redemption less than 24 hours later. With the (theoretically) eight best teams left, there shouldn’t be any surprises; you’ve spent all season tracking these teams.
All four games this weekend are rematches from the regular season, but if you’re hoping those results can guide your picks this time around, good luck. In playoff rematch games over the last five years, the regular season winner is 16-17-3 against the spread. It’s a complete toss-up how a team will respond to seeing an opponent again.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a deep dive into this weekend’s four games and come up with some picks.
Matt Ryan is 0-5 ATS (1-4 SU) in his playoff career. His only straight up win came against the Seahawks back in 2012. While this is supposed to feel like a different Atlanta team thanks to a well-balanced and league-leading offense, there’s still reason to doubt the Falcons’ chances of going anywhere. Of the 15 teams to lead the league in scoring since 2000, only one has gone on to win the Super Bowl. Ten of those teams didn’t advance to the big game, and seven of them never even made it past the Divisional Round.
The Falcons were also not a great home bet this season, going just 3-5 against the number. Fortunately, the Seahawks are an equally bad road team, going 3-5 ATS this season and 7-10-1 over the past two.
Atlanta can score with the best of them, putting up offensive numbers equal to “the Greatest Show on Turf.” With Earl Thomas out and Seattle’s D weakened, Thomas Rawls and the rushing attack will be crucial to keeping this game close. Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are 8-2 ATS in playoff games in which they top 100 yards on the ground. Against an Atlanta D that allows 104.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, their chances of going over the century mark are good.
In this battle of a great regular season team with little playoff success versus a middling team with a proven playoff track record, I’m going to side with the proven team. Seattle could very well lose this game, but it’s rare to see them lose big. Of the 26 losses they’ve suffered in the Russell Wilson era, half were by five points or fewer.
Pick: Seattle (+5).
If the line holds, this will be the third-largest spread in postseason history. It serves as both a nod to the quality of the Patriots, who finished with the league’s best record and first in DVOA, and an indictment of the Texans, who are just awful.
Houston has followed the path of a few other notably terrible playoff teams: the 1994 Bears, 1998 Cardinals, 2004 Rams, 2010 Seahawks, 2011 Broncos, and 2014 Panthers. Each was far from respectable in terms of record and DVOA, and all of them sported a point differential of -35 or worse. Yet all of these teams won their Wild Card games. When facing real opponents in the Divisional Round, the results were far more expected. None of the aforementioned teams covered in the next round of the playoffs, despite five of the six facing enormous double-digit spreads.
While the intro discussed the ambiguity of how a team responds to a regular season loss against a playoff opponent, the numbers are a little more clear for teams that got shutout, like Houston did in Foxborough back in September (27-0). Teams that were shutout by an opponent during the season have covered just three of eight times in playoff rematches. Two of the teams that covered started a different quarterback in the postseason, while the third was shutout in the driving snow. The only difference in the Houston/New England matchup this time around is that Tom Brady will be at quarterback for the Patriots.
Surprisingly, Brady is only 9-8-1 against the spread at home in the playoffs. His biggest tormentor over the years has been the Baltimore Ravens (0-4 ATS at Gillette versus Baltimore). But just because you think defense when you think of the Ravens, it doesn’t mean the Texans can achieve the same success. Every year that Baltimore has met New England in the playoffs, they’ve had an offense that finished no worse than 12th in the league in scoring. Houston finished this season a paltry 28th.
Pick: New England (-16).
Pittsburgh is getting a lot of respect heading into this game, based somewhat off of the 43-14 drubbing they gave Kansas City back in Week 4. But, teams that lost to an opponent by over 27 points in the regular season are 14-12 ATS in a playoff rematch.
Ben Roethlisberger was seen in a walking boot after the win over Miami and his health is in question for this matchup. What isn’t in question is his effectiveness in the playoffs, going 12-6 straight up and 10-4-2 against the number. On the opposite side, Alex Smith is 2-3 both straight up and ATS.
However, Big Ben had two more interceptions last week, continuing a run of substandard play (by his standards, that is). While he’s accounted for 27 touchdowns (24 passing, three rushing) in his illustrious playoff career, he also has a concerning 23 turnovers (21 interceptions, two fumbles). Kansas City is a team that will make you pay for carelessness, averaging 3.2 points off each takeaway.
The Chiefs led the league in turnover margin this season, a stat that predicts a little more success than leading the league in points. Though seven of the last 15 turnover-margin leaders didn’t make it past the Divisional Round, three of them went onto a Super Bowl title.
Those that take Pittsburgh in this game are backing the Triple Bs, excited about what Ben, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell can do on offense. Nobody talks about Chiefs offense, but over the last six games, Kansas City has actually outscored the vaunted Pittsburgh offense 167-163.
Finally, to go along with Andy Reid’s tremendous 16-2 record after the bye in the regular season, the Chiefs’ coach is also a perfect 3-0 with a week to rest in the playoffs.
Pick: Kansas City (-1.5).
The well-rested Cowboys will take on the streaking Packers in the weekend’s last game, and the big question is whether Dak Prescott can match Aaron Rodgers. Rookie QBs in their first playoff start are 7-10, both straight-up and against the spread. Throw in the fact that Dallas hasn’t made a Conference Championship in 21 years (only Detroit and Washington have longer droughts in NFC), and the kid has a lot on his shoulders.
Prescott will have fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott to rely on, but the league’s leading rusher may be in for a rough day, too; league-leading rushers usually get clamped down on in the playoffs. In the last 15 years, Ladainian Tomlinson (2006) was the only back to equal or surpass his yards per carry from the regular season in the playoffs. Over that span, league-leading rushers have averaged just 88 yards from scrimmage in playoff games.
As a bettor, worry not about the health of Jordy Nelson. While he’s made a noticeable difference on Green Bay’s offense versus last season when he was hurt (the Packers average 34.2 yards per game and four points per game more this year), they were still a reliable bet last season without him, going 11-7 ATS, including 7-3 on the road.
Over the past 20 seasons, the late Sunday window has been the most common spot on Divisional weekend for an upset, with underdogs winning outright half the time. Throw in Aaron Rodgers’ 6-2 ATS record in road playoff games, and the Packers’ chances of moving on in this spot feel pretty good.
Pick: Green Bay (+4.5).
Photo Credit: Brook Ward (Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/].
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