The divisional playoff round is my favorite weekend of each NFL season. The postseason tournament is down to eight teams, the pressure is cranked up, and anything can happen.
Can anyone stop No. 1 seeds Baltimore and San Francisco?
Can the Detroit Lions win a second postseason game for the first time since 1957?
Can dashing young starting quarterbacks – Green Bay’s Jordan Love, and Houston’s C.J. Stroud – lead their teams to victories over San Francisco and Baltimore (respectively) despite being heavy underdogs?
Does quarterback Baker Mayfield (Tampa Bay) have a few haymakers to throw and upset the Lions?
And then there’s the grand finale of the weekend: Sunday evening’s rivalry renewal matching the Chiefs against the Bills, and Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen.
Will scatterbrained NFL officiating crews make too many mistakes, get in the way, and ruin the fun?
Here are a few historical trends for the divisional round as calculated by the astute and always helpful Steve Makinen of VSIN:
* Since 2009, home teams are 40-16 straight up and 28-27-1 against the spread in the divisional round. That includes a 17-14-1 mark ATS over the past eight seasons.
* Point spreads have proven to be a strong giveaway as to which team should win in divisional playoff games, as home favorites of 5.5 points or less (or the underdog) are just 16-14 straight up and 12-18 against the spread (40%) since 2006.
* But the betting-favorite teams laying 6 points or more are 30-11 straight up and 19-21-1 against the spread in the same time frame.
* Road teams have been solid bets in the divisional round when listed as underdogs in the +3.5 to +9.5 range, going 26-16-1 against the spread (61.9%) in the last 43 instances. But those ‘dogs in this point-spread range are only 14-29 straight up.
It ain’t easy! I went 4-2 against the spread in the wild-card round and cashed on 80 percent of my prop bets. What does this mean? Well, I’ll probably take a beating this weekend.
Let’s have a look …
HOUSTON AT BALTIMORE
Watch: Saturday 3:30 pm STL time, ABC + ESPN
Betting Line Favorite: Ravens by 9 and ½
Over/Under: 43.5 points.
Computer Simulation: Ravens 30-19
Fun Fact: Per CBS, the Ravens are the fourth team since 1970 with a first-team All-Pro quarterback and the No. 1 defense in fewest points allowed. The other three teams all won Super Bowls (1972 Dolphins, 1978 Steelers and 1996 Packers).
The Overview: Much respect to Houston and sensational rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, but the Ravens sure look ready to put an end to their postseason malaise. Since winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, the Ravens have stumbled to a 2-5 record in the playoffs. But this 2023 edition is loaded.
Pardon my numbers, but …
— Baltimore Defense: No. 1 in overall EPA, No. 1 in fewest points conceded per game (16.5), No. 1 in sacks, No.1 in takeaways, No. 1 in lowest opponent passer rating (74.6), No. 1 in pass defense EPA, and No. 3 in lowest percentage of opponent possessions that produce points. This is the first NFL defense since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to rank first in the three most important categories: fewest points, sacks and takeaways.
— Baltimore Offense: No. 7 in overall EPA, No. 4 in points per game (28.4), No. 4 in percentage of possessions that result in points, No. 5 in average points per drive, No. 7 in red zone TD percentage, No. 2 in rushing EPA, No. 3 in average yards per rush, No. 10 in passing EPA.
Here’s a pertinent piece of information on Stroud: he thrives when playing indoors, and that includes his home field. But check out the difference in performance when Stroud competes in outdoor settings, and these are regular-season stats:
* Indoor: 7-3 record, 108.3 passer rating, 65.5% completion rate, 8.85 yards per pass attempt.
* Outdoor: 2-5 record, 85.1 passer rating, 60.6% completion rate, 6.93 yards per pass attempt.
Among the 41 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes outdoors this season, Stroud ranked 35th in completion percentage, 32nd in touchdown-pass percentage, 29th in Sports Info Solutions passer rating, and 22nd in points added per passing attempt. The Weather Channel forecast has a 27 degree temperature at game time Saturday, with 17 mph winds.
One more point to make: Stroud’s strengths — deep passing, third-down effectiveness — happen to be areas that Baltimore excels at. They take away deep balls. They are superb at third-down pass defense. It’s not the best matchup for the exciting rookie.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ranks fifth in WAR outdoors; Stroud is 23rd. The Ravens defense may see a lot of handoffs and pitches to Houston running back Devin Singletary. Baltimore has to be firm against the run.
Houston has the NFL’s best all-around special teams this season, and Baltimore ranks 16th. So keep an eye on that.
Coming in, Jackson is 1-3 in the postseason for his NFL career but has benefited from the creativity of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. LJ not only leads NFL quarterbacks with 802 rushing yards, but he’s been at his career-best level on intermediate-range passing attempts this season. And he remains dangerous on deep balls. Houston is good against the run but Jackson represents an entirely different challenge.
The Houston defense hasn’t encountered an offense better than 14th in yards per play since Week 2. Unless the Ravens revert to failing in postseason pressure, they should be ready to roll in a home environment that isn’t kind to visitors.
Prop Bet: Lamar Jackson over 53.5 yards rushing. Jackson has averaged 91.75 yards rushing in his four postseason games. And in his home games this season Jackson has averaged nine rushes for 54 yards. The Ravens’ cast of running backs is rather ordinary, so Jackson will be a constant threat to take off running.
Bernie’s Pick: I don’t like the idea of laying 9.5 points to an underdog, but I’ll do it in this case. I’ll take the Ravens to win and to cover the spread.
GREEN BAY AT SAN FRANCISCO
Watch: Saturday, 6:15 pm STL time, FOX
Betting Line Favorite: 49ers by 9 and ½
Over/Under: 50.5 points
Computer Simulation: 49ers, 31-24
Fun Fact: Jordan Love (Packers) and Brock Purdy Niners) are two of only five QBs in NFL history with 30 touchdown passes and 4,000 pass yards in their first season as a full-time starter. Kurt Warner, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert were the others.
The Overview: The 49ers have been golden in the first two playoff rounds under head coach Kyle Shanahan since 2020, going 5-0. That includes a 3-0 record in the divisional round. The Packers put up 48 points to stun Dallas in the wild-card round, but the 49ers aren’t the Cowboys. They don’t require the Heimlich maneuver in the postseason. During the regular season 11 of the Niners’ 12 victories were by double-digit margins. And while the Packers defense started playing better late in the season, the 49ers offense has too many big-play assets to contain.
I think the 49ers defense is a little overrated. Do they have the elements to slow Packers quarterback J. Love? The Packers have averaged 25 points on the road this season, and Love has 21 touchdown passes (with one INT) in his last nine games. The Packers should be able to run it with Aaron Jones against a Niners defense that ranks 24th in the league in EPA per rush attempt against. Green Bay has been averaging more than 6 yards per rush on inside runs over the last four games. And the 49ers have been vulnerable when taking on middle running plays. Those talented, young Green Bay receivers could have the 49ers chasing them around. We’ll see. But the Packers will go on the attack.
Prop Bet: San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey, over 129.5 combined yards from scrimmage. Green Bay is rolling offensively, but has had some issues on the other side of the ball. McCaffrey was the best running back in the NFL this season, and is one of the best all-purpose backs of his era. McCaffrey is fresh coming in after the team’s first-round bye.
Bernie’s Pick: The 49ers to win it. The Packers to cover.
TAMPA BAY AT DETROIT
Watch: Sunday 2 pm STL time, NBC
Betting Line Favorite: Lions by 6 and ½
Over/Under: 49 points
Computer Simulation: Lions 23-20
Fun Fact: Jared Goff (Lions) and Baker Mayfield (Bucs) are the only No. 1 overall draft picks to win a playoff game with multiple franchises before age 30.
The Overview: Tampa Bay has won six of its last seven games. This season the Bucs are 8-1 against the spread on the road, 9-3 ATS as the betting underdog, and 7-1 ATS as a road underdog. Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield is 7-1 against the spread in his last eight games as an underdog – and has covered in his last four games as the ‘doggie. That’s why I believe the visiting Bucs will keep it close and cover.
Tampa Bay’s defense had the league’s third-highest blitz percentage this season; that could bother Lions QB Jared Goff. When under pass-rush pressure Goff has six touchdown passes and nine interceptions and the sixth-highest percentage of turnover-worthy throws.
Mayfield seems to like throwing the ball in the comfort of a domed stadium. In his NFL career his teams are 5-2 in domes, and he’s thrown 10 touchdowns with only one pickoff and has a passer rating of 100. Mayfield should be able to do some damage to the Lions secondary. In the last four games, Detroit has been strafed for 367 passing yards by Matthew Stafford, 396 and 411 passing yards in two games against Nick Mullens, and 345 passing yards by Dak Prescott.
Detroit beat Tampa Bay in Week Six, but that doesn’t carry much relevance now. The Bucs have improved since then, were one of the hottest teams down the stretch, and their healthier defense has allowed one touchdown over the past 10 quarters.
Prop Bet: Detroit tight end Sam LaPorta over 36.5 yards and that’s very low – probably an overreaction to his knee injury in the final regular-season game. Even with an injured knee the superb rookie played in 80 percent of his team’s offensive snaps in the wild-card win over the Rams and looked good. LaPorta has been a full go in practice this week. Tampa Bay’s defense yielded the league’s third-highest number of receiving yards to tight ends this season.
Prop Bet: Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans, over 69.5 receiving yards. This note from handicapper Eric Cohen: In their last four games against No. 1 receivers Justin Jefferson (twice), CeeDee Lamb, and Puka Nacua, the Lions have surrendered a combined 41 catches for 781 yards and four touchdowns.
Bernie’s Pick: Tampa Bay to cover.
KANSAS CITY AT BUFFALO
Watch: 5:30 pm STL time, CBS
Betting Line Favorite: Bills by 2 and ½
Over/Under: 45.5 points
Computer Simulation: Bills, 20-16
Fun Fact: A lot of fuss has been made over Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and how this will be his first AFC playoff game on the road. OK. In his six seasons as the starter, Mahomes has a 99.3 passer rating at home, and a 107.6 rating on the road. His career completion percentage is four percent higher on the road than at home.
The Overview: Buffalo can be a difficult setting for visiting quarterbacks, but plenty of QBs have played well there over the last six seasons, leading their teams to road wins. That list includes Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Phillip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, and Carson Wentz. That group combined for 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions – including 12 TDs and one INT in the victories.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for the Kansas City offense, but rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice emerged as a go-to playmaker in the wild-card win over Miami. And tight end Travis Kelce seemed to have more quickness in his productive night against the Dolphins.
When the teams met in December in Kansas City, Buffalo was coming off the bye week and had extra time to prepare. And while the Bills barely prevailed (20-17) as a 1-point underdog, the Chiefs got a raw deal from an incompetent officiating crew, and their defense was missing two top linebackers.
This time around, the Chiefs enter with a two-day rest advantage – and that’s a rare trend for them. Because of schedule quirks this season, Kansas City has played in an unusually high number of games with a rest disadvantage. The Bills’ defense has been terrific as of late – but the unit keeps losing bodies to injuries. That’s a factor Sunday.
The KC defense is second-best in the NFL at preventing points and no NFL defense is more effective at creating pressure with blitzing. Kansas City’s defense ranks third in the NFL in EPA per dropback and should cause more discomfort for Bills QB Josh Allen – who didn’t have to worry about coping with injured and missing Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt in the wild-card game.
The Chiefs offense stirred in Week 17, averaging 7.0 yards per play against the Bengals – and then erupted for 409 yards in eliminating Miami. Is that a restart? Mahomes has a .775 winning percentage as a starting QB (postseason included) and is 8-1 against the spread in his career as an underdog – winning seven of those games outright. Head coach Andy Reid will likely keep running back Isiah Pacheco busy in this one; the Bills rank 28th in the NFL this season at defending inside runs. But the Chiefs have their own problems in stifling the run. But will Bills offensive coordinator Joe Brady have the patience to call a slug-it-out type of game?
Prop Bet: I have two prop suggestions on Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco: (1) over 14.5 carries, and (2) Pacheco as an anytime touchdown scorer. Pacheco has a touchdown (six total) in five straight games.
Bernie’s Pick: I’m betting the under (less than 46 combined points) because I don’t think this will turn into a shootout-style arcade game. Both teams have been gearing up their running game. The two teams combined for only 37 points when going at it during the regular season. The Chiefs have gone Under in four straight games and five of the last six. As for the outcome, I’m taking the Chiefs + 2.5 points and expect a straight-up win. But I’ll be happy to cash as long as the Chiefs lose by fewer than three points.
Thanks for reading, enjoy the football, and I hope you have a swell weekend …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. We will be recording a fresh Seeing Red on Monday morning, Jan. 22
All stats used in this football column were sourced from Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football Reference.