There are only eight bettable games remaining this NFL season – four divisional games this weekend, the two conference championship games next weekend, the pro bowl (generally a difficult handicap for this bettor), and, of course, the Super Bowl on February 8th. Half of those eight remaining games will take place this weekend. We’ll break down all four here.
As with any handicap, I like to look back before I try to project forward. All four divisional playoff games this weekend are rematches from regular season meetings. Two of the four games will be the third meeting between the teams this year. We’ve got plenty of fodder to work with when it comes to assessing how these teams matchup against one another.
But before we break down the games themselves, let’s take a brief look at the recent history of this round of the postseason. If we take a 20- or 30-year sample size, you’ll clearly see that the rested home favorites coming off the bye have enjoyed long term success against the pointspread – those teams didn’t earn their No. 1 or No. 2 seeds by accident in most cases.
However, if we look at a shorter sample size – say, the last five years – no such trend supporting the home favorites in the divisional round of the playoffs exists. Last year the top seeds – all home favorites – went a collective 3-1 ATS. In 2008, it was the opposite, with only one favorite (Pittsburgh over San Diego) managing to win at all, let alone covering the spread as chalk.
2007 saw a 2-2 split between the higher seeded home favorites and the lower seeded road underdogs. In ’06, home favorites took the collar, going 0-4 against the spread. And in ’05, it was another 2-2 split. When we add it up, we’re talking about an 8-12 (40%) pointspread mark for the home chalk over the last five years.
It’s surely worth noting that of the dozen underdogs to cover the spread in these games, ten of them won in straight up fashion! Just as we saw this past weekend in the Wild Card Round, savvy bettors who supported the Packers or Seahawks as underdogs cashed in with very attractive plus prices on the moneyline as well.
Ravens at Steelers (-3.5, 36.5)
These two divisional rivals played a pair of tight games this year; both decided by exactly three points. The road team won both games SU and ATS. It was a similar story last year – both meetings decided by exactly a field goal, but in ’09, it was the home team that emerged victorious in both instances. In fact, seven of the last eight meetings between these two teams have been decided by less than a touchdown.
The lone exception to the ‘close final score’ trend between these two squads came in the 2008 AFC Championship Game; 23-14 Steelers win. However, if you remember the game, the SU result was very much in doubt late in the fourth quarter until a Troy Polamalu interception return touchdown with less than five minutes to play gave Pittsburgh its final margin of victory.
The first meeting between these two teams this year was a very bad situational spot for the Steelers. Pittsburgh went 3-0 using a variety of back-up quarterbacks to open the season. With a bye week (and Ben Roethlisberger’s return) on deck, Pittsburgh failed to execute with Charlie Batch behind center. They were outgained by well over 100 yards, but it took a TJ Houshmandzadeh touchdown catch with less than a minute to play for the Ravens to sneak out of town with a victory.
The rematch was just as tight. Neither team was able to run the ball effectively, and both offenses sputtered throughout. The game was decided late, with Polamalu again making the key play; a sack/fumble that set Pittsburgh up at the Ravens nine-yard line with less than four minutes to play. The ensuing touchdown gave the Steelers the SU and ATS victory.
Packers at Falcons (-2, 45.5)
Part of Atlanta’s 6-0 SU start to the season at the Georgia Dome (4-2 ATS) was its win over the Packers on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Just as we’re seeing here, the betting markets considered Green Bay to be the superior team on a neutral field. Despite their perfect home record (at the time), and Matt Ryan’s well publicized 18-1 SU mark at home (at the time), the Falcons were only 2.5-point favorites in a game they won by a field goal.
The game was a back and forth affair. Trailing by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers led the Packers on a 90 yard drive, completing the game tying TD pass on fourth and ten with a minute to play. Matt Ryan completed 14 of his 15 pass attempts in the second half, including four short completions following a long kick return, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning field goal in the final seconds.
But the key play of the game may well have been Aaron Rodgers fumble on a QB sneak from the one-yard line in the first half, giving the Falcons all kinds of positive momentum as they marched the ball down the field for a score following the game’s only turnover. Much like the Ravens-Steelers game discussed above, there wasn’t much separating these two teams.
Seahawks at Bears (-10, 40)
When these two teams met back in mid-October, Chicago was a six-point favorite against a Seahawks team that had extra time to prepare; coming off their bye week. The Bears were 4-1 at the time, but the betting markets weren’t particularly enamored with Chicago just yet – bettors really didn’t start to respect Lovie Smith’s squad until their 7-1 stretch run in November and December. That being said, bettors weren’t in love with Seattle on the road either. The Seahawks’ home/road dichotomy was well publicized and factored heavily into the pointspread, just as it is for the rematch.
Following an early Matt Forte touchdown run for Chicago, Seattle took over the game with three long touchdown drives while holding the Bears to a pair of field goals. A late Devin Hester punt return touchdown made the 23-20 final score closer than the game actually was. Jay Cutler was stymied and confused by Seattle’s defense, completing only 17-of-39 passes, and his sack/safety in the end zone on the Bears’ first possession of the second half was a real momentum shifter.
Jets at Patriots (-9, 45)
These two teams have played eight quarters of football this season, and the Pats dominated six of the eight. The most recent meeting was a complete blowout on Monday Night Football; a 45-3 Pats annihilation that was essentially over by the end of the first quarter. Tom Brady was brilliant (326 yards and four TDs) and led the Patriots on four consecutive scoring drives to open the game. Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, completed less than half of his pass attempts with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
The first meeting, back in Week 2 at the New Meadowlands was a tale of two halves. The Pats marched the ball up and down the field in the first half, taking a lead into the locker room, but Sanchez led the Jets on three extended scoring drives after the break, while making Tom Brady look human in the process. New York’s 28-14 win was no aberration – the Jets are one of only two teams in the NFL to have at least one SU win over the Pats in four of the last five seasons, splitting the season series in both years of the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez era.