The NFL playoffs are continuing with the Divisional Weekend, as the best teams from both the NFC and AFC face off in four unmissable ties. The first and second seeds will want to progress to the championship playoffs, but there are teams still in it capable of causing an upset. What might happen during the Divisional Weekend and what should bettors consider? Read on to find out.
AFC Divisional Round
Cleveland Browns (6, 12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (1, 14-2)
Fans will need to wait until the penultimate game of the Divisional Weekend to catch a first postseason sight of the reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City Chiefs took top seed following their impressive 14-2 regular season record, including a dead rubber Week 17 loss when starters including Mahomes were rested for the upcoming contests.
The Browns possess a slightly above average offence and below par defence, who match up badly with the hosts.
If we dig a little deeper, there are some causes for concern. Omitting the aforementioned defeat to the Chargers, the Chiefs’ record of points scored and allowed is more typical of just an 11 win side over 16 matches, rather than 14 (or possibly 15 had they played their starters in Week 17).
To illustrate the usually unsustainable translation of points differential into wins, we only need to look at the Chiefs’ results between Weeks 9 and 16. They recorded a perfect 7-0 record down the stretch, but never once won a game by more than a six-point margin, and four were won by a field goal or fewer. It seems their dominant, wide margin victories of the first eight weeks of the season have evaporated.
Despite this, Mahomes remains the league’s most impressive all-round quarterback. The Chiefs throw for a full yard further per passing attempt compared to the average allowed by their opponents. However, since Week 9, they have produced slightly fewer touchdowns per game, fewer completions and yards per attempt, and also allowed more interceptions.
The team’s points per game scored has also dipped by an average of a field goal, and a schedule that has incorporated just four sides who made the postseason suggests the Chiefs aren’t quite the force they appear to be at first glance.
However, it is a daunting thought for the remaining postseason sides that Kansas City are still the best team in the NFL. Defensively, they prioritise the pass and reduce their opponents passing efficiencies by three tenths of a yard per attempt. They are a well below par running defence, but their elite offence doesn’t enable anyone to exploit this weakness.
Stalled opposition drives reduce the opposition’s typical scoring rate by a field goal per game compared to par and extended drives, often via Mahomes’ feet, and this allowed the Chiefs to outscore opponents by five points per game.
On the other hand, Cleveland recorded their first post season win since the 1990s, although 48 points almost wasn’t enough to prevent a late comeback from their divisional rivals Pittsburgh.
The Browns possess a slightly above average offence and below par defence, who match up badly with the hosts. Cleveland will likely struggle to contain Mahomes through the air and while they are capable of running the football, they are unlikely to have the opportunity. Kansas City is taken to win by 12, with total points creeping into the mid to high 50s.
Baltimore Ravens (5, 12-5) at Buffalo Bills (2, 14-3)
With the arrival of the big guns in Green Bay and Kansas City and the potential swansong of Drew Brees with Tom Brady in attendance, this game may be overlooked. However, it has an intriguing variety of matchups and could provide the closest contest of the weekend.
Buffalo are narrow one-point favourites for a match predicted to feature 52 in total.
Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen is barely a step behind Rodgers and Mahomes and he has linked up with wideout Stefon Diggs to produce near league leading passing efficiencies. Allen is outthrowing opposition offences by nine tenths of a yard per attempt compared to their usual concession rates, as well as outscoring them by a league leading 5.5 points per game.
Saturday’s fixture matches the Buffalo passing offence against Baltimore’s top ten passing defence, which has allowed fewer than 19 points per game and has proved extremely resilient throughout the season. On ten occasions this season, the Ravens have restricted the opposition to fewer than 20 points and they repeated the feat when they beat Tennessee in the Wildcard Round.
Offensively, the Ravens are an elite running team. Opposition defences allowed an average of 4.4 yards per carry, but that increased to 5.3 yards when they faced Baltimore.
Much of that threat originates from quarterback Lamar Jackson. He’s a slightly above par passer, but possesses a dual threat with his running that confuses defences, allowing the Ravens to be aggressive, especially in short yardage situations. Jackson has run for over 1,000 yards in the regular season and 136 in the Wildcard win last weekend, and that should allow their scoring rate to be competitive with Buffalo in the Divisional round.
It’s a game that should be full of variety and 52 total points. Buffalo are narrow one-point favourites based on matchups, as well as the fact this match entails a second consecutive road trip for the Ravens and a successive home fixture for the hosts.
NFC Divisional Round
Los Angeles Rams (6, 11-6) at Green Bay Packers (1, 13-3)
As the number one NFC seeds, the Packers enter the postseason following their bye week with the added benefit of (an albeit reduced) home field advantage. Only divisional rivals Minnesota managed to overturn the Pack in their home stadium as they cruised to a 7-1 Lambeau Field record.
The Rams’ defence is their strength and they make both passing and running the ball very difficult.
They are near the top of the tree through the air and passing for an extra half a yard per attempt than the average yardage allowed by the defences they have faced. That aerial dominance is complemented by an equally effective ground game that also gained an extra half a yard above par for the opposition.
Despite drafting a quarterback, Rodgers remains the current focal point of Green Bay’s pass heavy and efficient offence. It provides multiple threats and has added five more points per game to the average number of points conceded by their opponents.
Aside from Minnesota, only two other teams who both made the postseason have defeated the Pack and just three of Green Bay’s 13 victories were by a touchdown or fewer points. They have been impressive throughout the season.
Balance is provided by a functional rather than outstanding defence that lies just outside the NFL’s top ten. They struggle against the run, allowing a couple of tenths of a yard more than average once the attacking talent of the opposition is factored in. However, that is mitigated by the Pack keeping the scoreboard moving and preventing teams grinding out a ground advantage.
Defensively, the Pack faced many more passes than runs and exhibited above average efficiency when defending the aerial route. Overall, they reduce opposition scoring rates by a point and a half per game. They have an impressively complete package, along with the added advantage of top seeding.
The Rams are two years on from their league leading offence being tamed by Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl and the limitations of quarterback Jared Goff continue to anchor their offense around the NFL’s mid-division.
In addition, they are battling injuries. Goff’s Wildcard appearance was unscripted after his late season thumb surgery, but enforced by the loss of his backup early in the postseason win in Seattle.
The Rams’ defence is their strength and they make both passing and running the ball very difficult. Opposing offences lose a full yard per attempt when going aerially compared to their usual output and just over half a yard on the ground.
Green Bay’s offensive strength matches up against one of the NFL’s best all-round defences and scoring and efficiency comparisons give the Packers a narrow three-point advantage. Scheduling advantages, a reduced home field and injury concerns around the Rams quarterback position coupled with very little depth in reserve extend their advantage to marginally greater than a touchdown, in a match featuring a total of 47 points.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5, 12-5) at New Orleans Saints (2, 13-4)
The second NFC Divisional game marks a rematch of the two NFC South games won by the Saints by an aggregate of 72-26, but everything will revolve around the meeting of two NFL legends: Tom Brady for the visitors and Drew Brees for the hosts. Both are remarkable for their longevity, but inevitably they are drifting down the quarterback pecking order.
Matchups favour the New Orleans Saints by just two points.
They’ve both kept the passing efficiencies of their respective teams in credit, but the numbers are eclipsed by their past glories. However, both leverage more than the sum of their parts from the offence onto the scoreboard.
Brees has prospered in the two Divisional games between the sides, although they do predate his enforced injury absence. Conversely, Brady was confounded by the Saints’ defense, committing five turnovers and suffering six sacks in the two games.
It may be the excellent defensive units possessed by the two teams that decides this game. They are miserly against both the run and the pass, and restrict opponents that on average score around 25 points per game to accumulate nearer 22.
Neither side will be able to pass the ball efficiently and running the football could be even more difficult to achieve, meaning reaching the seasonal average of 50 total points will prove challenging for these two veterans.
Matchups favour the New Orleans Saints by just two points, but with the intangibles of a second road trip for the Buccs and the ease with which the Saints handled Brady (especially in the second meeting), the hosts are taken to win by five points.