Wednesday, January 6, 2016

NFL road favorites and divisional rubber matches

By Kyle Ross (posted by Rick Morris)

When examining this week’s NFL Wild Card matchups, the first thing that should jump out at you is that three of the four road teams opened as favorites: Kansas City by three at Houston (and likely headed to -3.5), Pittsburgh is either -2.5 or -3 at Cincinnati, depending on your book, and Seattle at one point was as high as minus six at Minnesota.

Only the fourth matchup of the weekend, Green Bay at Washington, where the host opened -1 (and who would have ever thought Washington would be favored in this spot?!) is exempt from the road favorite trend (Editor’s Note: Not anymore!). Though the public’s typical infatuation with the Packers has somewhat waned in recent weeks, it wouldn’t be altogether shocking to see them get bet to chalk status as well (Editor’s Note: They were!)

What does recent history tell us about road favorites in the NFL playoffs, more specifically the Wild Card round? Read on!

The league realigned to its current eight division alignment prior to the start of the 2002 season, thus (slightly) altering its playoff format as well. There are now four division winners per conference (previously only three) along with just two Wild Cards (previously three) and there’s been an obvious trend of weaker division winners since the change.  Since 2009, there have been four division winners that finished the regular season with eight losses. (Ironically, all four WON their respective WC games!). That’s more than there were in the previous 45 years of the Super Bowl era.

So, in “modern times,” it has certainly become more commonplace to have the road team favored come playoff time. While still rare in the Divisional Round and Conference Championship Games, there have been 13 road favorites in the Wild Card round since 2003 (out of a possible 52 games). So that’s 25 percent or an average of one per year. Last season was only the third time under the “new” format (2003, 2007) that there wasn’t a single road team favored in the WC round. Obviously, with there being three more this year, the average and percent increase.

There being three road favorites this year would not be without precedent (it happened in ’09 with two of the three chalk teams covering). However, all four road teams being favored would be a first!

Factoring out the three times where a team was bet to the role of road favorite (meaning they opened as the underdog) plus the two WC favorites of a TD or more – New Orleans in 2011 and Pittsburgh in 2012 – there have been eight times where a team has opened and closed as a road favorite of 3.5 points or less. Those teams are a strong 6-1-1 against the spread, all taking the game straight up. Provided the respective lines stay “as is,” that certainly doesn’t bode well for either Houston or Cincinnati does it?

As for Seattle, they currently stand as the third largest road favorite we’ve ever had in WC round. They may be in a bit more trouble. You’ll recall I earlier referenced New Orleans in 2011 and Pittsburgh in 2012, both of whom were asked to lay more than a TD for their Wild Card games. They ended up suffering two of the more infamous losses in playoff history, the Saints losing in Seattle in the game that turned Marshawn Lynch into a household name and the Steelers lost in overtime to You Know Who.

There’s another handicapping factor that I wanted to investigate for this weekend and that involves divisional rubber matches. The Steelers-Bengals matchup on Saturday night marks the 17th time (again going back to ’03) we’ve had division rivals face one another in the playoffs (any round). What’s interesting about this particular instance is that the road team won both regular season meetings – Cincinnati 16-10 in Pittsburgh (Big Ben’s first game back after an injury that kept him out the previous four games) and Pittsburgh 33-20 in Cincy (ironically the last game that Bengals QB Andy Dalton played).

Looking back, there have been six previous instances where the division foes each won on the other’s field during the regular season. The good news for the Bengals is that the home team is 4-2 SU in such instances, winning four of the last five. Unfortunately, the sixth (and furthest back) is something that they won’t want to hear and that’s what happened in 2006 when the Steelers came here and beat them 31-17, in the Wild Card Round. (That was the game where Carson Palmer’s knee was injured by Kimo von Oelhoffen on the very first offensive play from scrimmage).

Against the spread, the home teams in those six games went only 2-4. Back in 2007, Philadelphia beat the Giants 23-20, but failed to cover as seven-point favorites.  Then in 2014, the last time we saw this situation present itself, Denver had to hold on to beat San Diego 24-17 as 8.5-pt favorites.

Of course, what’s different about the present situation with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is that the road team is favored. Unfortunately, I am going to again make Bengals fans cringe. There have been only two times previous (again since ’03) where the road team was favored in a playoff game between two division foes.  The last time we saw this was in 2011 NFC Championship Game when Green Bay (-3.5) went into Chicago and won 21-14 (Jay Cutler was injured early and never returned).  The other was these Steelers coming in and beating these Bengals in the aforementioned von Oelhoffen game, 31-17 laying three. Double ouch!

So, what does any of this mean? Well, if you do want to bet Houston, I’d definitely wait to get “the hook” (+3.5).  Kansas City, like Cincinnati, has an ugly recent playoff history. They are 1-10 ATS their last 11 postseason games and while their last win did come here in Houston, it was against the Oilers all the way back in 1993 (Joe Montana started that game!). That was a really good Oilers team, by the way. (It was the same year defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sidelines).

History certainly seems to be against the Bengals, who are 0-6 SU/ATS in playoff games under Marvin Lewis. But, overall, they have had a better season than the Steelers.  Going into that 2006 playoff game, Pittsburgh had a significantly better point differential than Cincinnati (+131 compared to +71) while this year that particular metric favors the Bengals (+140 to +104).

This is actually just the third time ever in the Wild Card round that the road favorite has a worse YTD point differential compared to the home dog.  The two previous times have seen the home dog go 2-0 ATS with one outright upset, an 8-8 Chargers team over the Colts in 2009, and the Steelers just squeaked inside the 2.5-point spot vs. Jacksonville the year prior, losing 31-29.

Over in the NFC, the Seahawks are probably too good to have the same misfortune fall upon them that we saw with the 2011 Saints and 2012 Steelers. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Vikings keep this game closer than expected.  As for the game I’ve barely mentioned (Green Bay-Washington), you’ll might want to fade the Packers if they do get bet to favoritism as the three times a WC road favorite opened up as the dog, they lost outright all three times.  (Note: I’m still backing the Pack!)

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