Compared to the wild card round, the divisional round is a piece of cake. In the wild card you have the two worse division winners and the remaining two best teams in each conference; occasionally, those wild card teams are better than the division winners. Going strictly on record, that was true of Seattle versus Washington last week. But once you get to the divisional round, you have the two best teams in each conference (even going by record, those teams tend to be towards the top of the league) at home after a week off to heal up and game plan. The result is that something like 70% of the time, the home team wins in this round. Thus, those teams are often also the favorites. But will we have any shenanigans this weekend? Let’s take a look.
As a first note, I have to say that I usually enjoy Bill Barnwell’s stuff at Grantland. If you want a more nuanced breakdown of each game, check out his articles for Saturday and Sunday. Here’s my take on each game.
Baltimore at Denver: These teams just played in week 15 in Baltimore, where Denver won handily 34-17. At the time, Denver was a three point favorite but my models saw the game as a bit more even. So what might be different? As Barnwell points out, the Ravens were a bit more injured then than they are now. And the Broncos had some turnover luck, not so much in that turnovers happened but where and how. Flacco fumbled on a third down conversion near midfield; that would have been lost costly had they not been at third and one or if they had been a bit closer to the Denver end zone. The Broncos fumbled a kick return but it went out of bounds. And most obviously, Flacco threw an interception that became a 98 yard touchdown the other way. That interception alone could have made it more like a 27-24 game, and with a few other breaks here and there you could imagine the Ravens winning around. Even if the interception happens, maybe it happens elsewhere on the field and the final ends up more like 27-20. None of those turnovers individually may have swung the game, but you can at least envision the Ravens keeping it more competitive in the rematch.
As of right now, the Broncos are 9.5 point favorites and -420/375 on the moneyline. They are at home this time, and the Broncos have indeed looked very good. But the models think the line is a little high. Luigi and Yoshi 2 like the Ravens to cover and Yoshi 1 does numerically, but actually has the Broncos by about 9. All three models think the Ravens are worth a look on the moneyline, which is just to say that the Ravens should have more than a 21% chance of winning. My gut tells me that the Broncos could run away with it again, but 9 points might be too high. Barnwell has Denver by 13.
Green Bay at San Francisco: These two played each other as well, but it was way back in week one. The Packers lost at home by 8 back when Alex Smith was leading the 49ers and Frank Gore averaged 7 yards a carry despite not having any runs longer than 23 yards. That’s kind of impressive. Barnwell notes that the 49er running attack wasn’t nearly as potent in the second half of the season as it was in the first, and that could be a problem, but all they really need to do is keep Rodgers off the field. If the 49ers can run for 4 to 4.5 yards per pop and keep moving the chains, that should be fine if they can get a lead. On the other hand, the Packers seemed much more Packer-like as the season went on, although some of that was just the schedule. The Packers had three losses in their first eight games, which came against teams that all ended up making the playoffs (including the Seahawks replacement ref bowl) while beating the Texans but only played one playoff team in the second half, splitting two games with Minnesota (they also lost to the Giants). So the schedule got easier and the Packers hit their stride. Potential bad news is that all four of the Packers’ losses came on the road this year, and they’ll be in San Fran.
San Fran is favored by the default 3 point home field advantage and a -140/130 moneyline. Luigi and Yoshi 2 think that’s about right on, while Yoshi 1 has the 49ers by just under 2 points, and so would technically take the Packers to cover. Interestingly, two of the models think the 49ers are worth a moneyline look as the favorite while Yoshi 2 doesn’t like the bet for either side. So I think if I had to choose, I would take the 49ers with no preference on the spread. Barnwell likes the Packers in an upset.
Seattle at Atlanta: An interesting game in part because it’s the only non-rematch of the weekend, we have the hot Seahawks on the road against the perennially overrated Falcons. To be sure, the Falcons were a bit lucky this year. They could have easily lost to the Panthers for one (and they did later in the year) and they had a number of other close calls, winning another three games by four or less. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good team; they did after all shut out the Giants and beat the Broncos and Redskins. Matt Ryan has had a pretty good year, and passing is important. The Seahawks have been covered enough, so let’s leave it at “they’re pretty good”.
The main issue for the Seahawks is that they’re on the road. As such, the current line is Atlanta -2.5 with a moneyline of -130/120. All three models agree that this is pretty much right, with a range of Atlanta by 2.5 to Atlanta by 3.5. It’s important to note that the models only know what the Seahawks’ stats are, not that they’re ‘the Seahawks’. So if you think Seattle has a stronger home/road difference than typical, you might want to discount the Seahawks even more. Again, two of the models like Atlanta on the moneyline but they’re close calls. I’m with Barnwell on the Falcons probably winning close, although I could really see this going either way.
Houston at New England: These two teams played in week 14 in New England where the Patriots won by 28. The Pats were only favored by 3.5 that week, which Luigi and Yoshi 2 agreed with while Yoshi 1 thought the Patriots would win by more like 8 or 9. Outside of Schaub being intercepted in the end zone once, there was no funny business in this game; just an old-fashioned beating by the Pats. The Texans were undefeated relatively far into the season and looked like the league’s top team pretty much until they lost to New England, but ended on a down note and didn’t exactly blow out the Bengals last week. As such, it’s no surprise that the Patriots are big favorites. They didn’t even have Gronkowski in that first game.
How big? They get 9.5 points, just like the Broncos. The models are more consistent in liking the Texans to cover this one, with Yoshi 1 also seeing the game being more of a 5 point win for the Pats. So the one consensus pick for the weekend is the Texans to cover. As you’d imagine, they all also like the Texans against the moneyline of -425/378. I’m not saying that the Texans won’t win, but I don’t see it happening. Barnwell is predicting the Patriots win by 11, and I can totally see that (or another blowout), but I’ll go with the models and the Patriots winning by a bit less.
In terms of predictions, going chalk is a little boring. History says that one of the favorites is likely to lose, although it’s tough to say which one in advance. If one goes down it will probably be one of the NFC teams, as they have the closer games, but you never know. As always, I’ll just hope that the games are good.