The divisional round is when the home team takes over. As you’ve probably heard, and as makes sense since this is when the teams with the top records enter the playoffs, the home team wins these games at an unusually high rate (I think about 73%). But this year at least the divisional match-ups also feature three games that already happened earlier in the season. One of those games had the current home team win but is now the underdog, and another had two ‘rematches’ that went to a split. Will we get repeated results, a boring chalk-filled weekend, something new, or all of the above? Let’s see what the models say.
New Orleans at Seattle: This game happened back in week 13, and the Seahawks ran away with it when they scored on every first half possession (two touchdowns and two field goals) while the Saints only scored on one (a touchdown). One of those scores was on a short field after a Brees fumble/interception (the ball was knocked directly into Michael Bennett’s hands), and the Saints never got into it; in fact, they never scored in the second half. So this looks like a potential mismatch. But there could be some hope for Saints fans. New Orleans generally looks after the ball, so they might not turn it over this time. Even if they do, it’s unlikely they’ll do it on their own 23 again. The Saints also did a decent job with field position even though they only scored once; Seattle never started better than their own 32. They obviously turned those long fields into points anyway, which isn’t good, but if the Saints defense can play a little better they should be able to strip some points off of that total. And finally, even though they lost this particular game, the Saints are used to beating good defenses; they have wins over the Panthers, 49ers, Buffalo, and Arizona this year. Seattle’s defense is likely better than all of those, but it’s still something to fall back on. In terms of the game numbers, the spread has moved from Seattle -7.5 earlier in the week to more like -8 now, and the over/under has dropped a couple points because (I assume) of pending weather. Weather has a bit less of an effect than people think, so you might like the Saints to cover and the over. I would still take the Seahawks to move on though.
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Indianapolis at New England: our one non-rematch of the weekend, although people are trying to connect it to last year’s
playoff game (it wasn’t even a playoff game!). That seems silly to me since the teams are fairly dramatically different this year. Last year the Colts were an underwhelming team that rode an easy schedule and a lot of one-score wins to a predictable early playoff exit. This year’s Colts beat the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos, and Chiefs and had five wins by double-digits. The Patriots are almost the opposite. Last year they had Wes Welker and a two tight-end tandem that led them to the conference title game. This year they have a laundry list of guys you might have played in your rec league and only two particularly notable wins. One was against the Broncos in overtime and the other was by 3 on a last-second touchdown against the Saints. Which isn’t to say the Patriots are bad, obviously; they still only lost four games and they got a bye. They just maybe aren’t as good as they have been in the past. This line has stayed where I saw it earlier in the week, but like the earlier game I expect the Pats to move on while the Colts cover. I think the over/under dropped here as well, which is a little surprising to me since you might be thinking ‘shootout’ given the Colts’ last game and the QBs involved this time.
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San Francisco at Carolina: We had this game already, which Carolina won, but they are the lone home underdog this week. I have to say that I don’t know why. Let’s submit that the 49ers are good, and that’s fine. Let’s look at Carolina. They beat the 49ers in San Francisco. They beat the Patriots. They split with the Saints. They were 7-1 at home, with the one loss coming in week 1 to the Seahawks. After losing to the Cardinals in Arizona in week 5, they went 11-1 (the one loss coming in New Orleans). The Panthers are obviously good. Yet they are the point underdog on Sunday. The models have them as the smallest favorite of the weekend, but still a favorite. So I’m going to roll with the upset pick.
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San Diego at Denver: We finish out the weekend with a rematch-rematch, since the Chargers and Broncos have played twice this year. They split the pair with Denver winning by 8 in San Diego and San Diego winning by 7 in Denver. I talked about that game a fair amount back when it happened, so I won’t belabor the point too much here, but obviously it seems like making the Broncos a 10 point favorite is a little high given that Denver won neither game by double digits and lost at home, where the game will be this weekend. It looks like the line has come down to 9, but still. So, surprise surprise, I’m going to go with the Chargers cover although they likely lose this one.
And finally, here are Bill Simmons’ picks. He’s only going with one underdog (the Saints), so one of us will probably be delightfully right while the other is depressingly wrong. Since ESPN has two guys writing for Insider who are expressly contrarian/underdog pickers, and one can tell you that 4+ point underdogs in the playoffs have gone 41-27 against the spread since 2004, I’m going to lean towards me being on the right side.
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