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.
Wildcard Weekend recap
Wildcard Weekend was dominated by the visiting sides this year. Only Houston, the fourth seed in the AFC, successfully progressed to the divisional playoffs from the home teams and were required to overcome a large first half deficit to do so.
The two number six seeds, Minnesota from the NFC and Tennessee from the AFC, were victorious and will be joined by Seattle, the fifth seed in the NFC. Despite their heroics, all three victors plus Houston will be on the road again, and wary of the fact that the divisional round has posed considerable difficulty for travelling teams in the current playoff format.
Home teams in the divisional playoffs have won just over 70% of their matches, compared to a regular season home field win rate of 57%. The reasons for this domination are varied but justified.
The home side is rested unlike their opponents and a bye week late into the season, when injuries are more prominent, offers a welcome advantage. Equally, the seeding almost guarantees that the stronger side is the higher-seeded host and this effect is reinforced if the lower seeds from the previous week have had a successful wildcard round.
Therefore, there will be four very strong home favourites this weekend.
Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
The narrative that Minnesota’s defensively-loaded roster (featuring a hugely expensive quarterback addition) fails to perform on important occasions was partially silenced on Sunday. Kirk Cousins delivered a 43-yard pass in overtime to the New Orleans two-yard line to help set up the game winning touchdown and a testing trip to San Francisco.
Many of San Francisco’s victories have been by comfortable margins, although these decreased as the season progressed.
The rested 49ers enjoyed a 13-3 regular season record, which produced one win more than their points differential of +169 tends was expected to merit. Their offence has been balanced and efficient and led by a fit again Jimmy Garoppolo, who has passed a yard more per attempt than opponent adjusted averages and beat par by two tenths of a yard per running play.
They have outscored the defences they’ve faced by six points per game compared to their usual concession rates and will face a Minnesota defence that is very good against the pass, but only an average run-stopping unit.
Many of San Francisco’s victories have been by comfortable margins, although these decreased as the season progressed, and their Week 12 win at home to Green Bay was their last by over five points.
Defensively, San Francisco possess an elite pass defence who have allowed just over five yards per attempt against teams who average nearer seven. They will test Cousins, and Minnesota may find more joy when matched against the 49ers average run defence.
The hosts are the better team and would be a four point favourite at a neutral venue based on scoring rates. However, home field advantage and the fact that this is a divisional playoff stretches their expected margin of victory to beyond a touchdown in a match with approximately 44 total points.
Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens
Another top versus bottom seed matchup kicks off the AFC divisional round of fixtures. Baltimore’s 14-2 regular season record was the best in the NFL and they are the current Super Bowl favourites, although this status is partly driven by their ‘stay at home’ schedule.
Typically, near-perfect seasons involve a dose of good fortune and the Ravens did enjoy a double digit turnover differential in their favour. However, their points differential still equated to that of a solid 13-win side, which was the highest in the NFL in 2019.
Since Baltimore staked their claim to challenge New England’s AFC dominance in Week 9, they have been peerless.
Baltimore also topped the overall offensive rankings, exhibiting synergy between an efficient passing game and outstanding ground game which elevated their scoring rate to over ten points per game more than their opponents allowed on average.
Their defence has taken more of a backseat and they have been very good against the pass, but marginally below par when facing the run.
The ground matchup with Tennessee’s running backs strongly favours the visiting Titans, although it is doubtful whether Baltimore’s free scoring offence will be contained long enough to enable the visitors to deploy a ground-based game plan.
Ryan Tannehill was Tennessee’s unexpected hero in 2019, but his efficient passing that has propelled him into the top ten quarterbacks isn’t representative of his overall career, and Baltimore’s passing defence presents a huge challenge.
Both of Baltimore’s regular season defeats were in September and since they staked their claim to challenge New England’s AFC dominance in Week 9, they have been peerless. The multitalented MVP favourite Lamar Jackson has been in particularly impressive form.
Scoring rates put Baltimore as favourites by a touchdown on neutral turf, but with their bye week advantage stretching to two weeks coupled with the fact that many of their starters were rested in a meaningless Week 17 game, they are projected to win by 12 in a game with 49 total points.
Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
According to the seeding, this should be the closest of the four games this weekend. It is also a rematch of the Week 6 meeting at Arrowhead when Houston upset KC, who were without Patrick Mahomes.
That defeat was the prelude to reigning MVP Mahomes eventually missing two and a half matches to recover, although his numbers are near identical for both before and after his recuperation. Overall, there has been a slight downward trend since his return in Week 10. His impressive passer ratings and yardage and touchdowns per attempt are all down, although his interceptions are up.
There are glimmers of vulnerabilities for KC but Houston have many more questions to answer.
On the defensive side, Kansas prioritise defending the pass well, but are vulnerable against sides capable of staying close to them on the scoreboard and running the ball efficiently. They allow an extra half a yard per carry above average and Houston are set up to exploit this weakness, as they run for three tenths of a yard per carry above the opponent adjusted par.
Houston’s poor points differential and thus flattering 10-6 regular season record has previously been highlighted, but that is not the case with the hosts. KC scored 143 more points than they conceded, numbers equivalent to an 11.5 Pythagorean winning season, which was close to their actual total of 12 victories.
There are glimmers of vulnerabilities for KC but Houston have many more questions to answer. They are an overperforming 0.500 team with a poor defence by NFL standards (let alone for a playoff run), who are fortunate to still be in contention having failed to lay a glove on Buffalo during the opening half of their wildcard tie.
KC may not have been as offensively dominant as they were in the regular season’s early weeks, but their defence kept three teams to single figure returns in the run-in to the playoffs.
Scoring rates favour the hosts by a touchdown and although the line is likely to edge above this significant number, KC are taken to win by 10 in a match with 49 total points.
Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers
This isn’t quite the elite matchup the two teams’ recent history might portray. Seattle and Green Bay, Super Bowl winners for the 2013 and 2010 seasons respectively, are trailing amongst the outsiders to repeat the feat in February and the reasons why are clear to see.
Seattle’s chances are very much in the hands of quarterback Russell Wilson. They reduced Philadelphia to single figures in Wildcard Weekend with a 17-9 win, the same scoreline they defeated them by in the regular season.
However, their bottom third ranked defence gave up the occasional big play to Josh McCown, a nine-club 40-year-old forced into a playoff debut when Philadelphia lost their starting passer early in the game to concussion.
Aaron Rodgers’ form has been slightly below average and drew comparisons to Tom Brady’s decline for New England during the regular season.
Their offensive running game is now comprised of last men standing and features Marshawn Lynch, who was coaxed from retirement to produce another post-season touchdown as Seattle stumbled into the divisional round. They averaged 28 points per game up to their bye in Week 11, but have managed just 21 thereafter.
Green Bay are a 10-win Pythagorean team who stretched their points differential out to a 13-3 regular season through a double digit turnover differential and, similarly to Seattle, a lop-sided 8-0 record in one score games.
Aaron Rodgers’ form has been slightly below average and drew comparisons to Tom Brady’s decline for New England during the regular season. However, unlike Brady, Rodgers’ decline from elite level has been visible since the 2016 season.
He’s throwing for two tenths of a yard shorter per attempt than the par, and Green Bay’s ground game is no better than average. They are also only outscoring the defences they’ve faced by a solitary point per game compared to par.
Defensively, Green Bay have allowed three fewer points per game than the opponents have managed on average, but their efficiency stats are poor against the run and mediocre against the pass.
There are few more inhospitable venues to play a postseason game than Lambeau Field. However, Green Bay’s tendency to play closely contested, one score games hasn’t been cured on home turf, despite an impressive 7-1 home record.
Scoring rates favour the Packers by two points at a neutral venue against the Seahawks, but the situational and home field advantages should extend that margin to a touchdown, which would make Green Bay the spread pick in a showdown between two flawed and wounded sides.