This season’s NFL wild-card round is a rare one for bettors to say the least. In the last 130-plus postseason games, not including the Super Bowl, just 18 contests have kicked off with a road favorite.
As of midweek, three of this weekend’s four matchups see away chalk in the betting market: Chiefs (-3) at Texans, Steelers (-2.5) at Bengals and Seahawks (-5.5) at Vikings. It is entirely possible that the Packers at Redskins (-1) clash swings this way, too. The situation is exceptional, and there is but a small set of data to analyze, but it may valuable to evaluate these games before heading to the bet counter this weekend.
Firstly, let us break down the market results. Over the last 15 years, 15 teams (not including this weekend's) have had the honor of kicking off as road chalk, going 12-6 straight up and 10-6-2 ATS with an average line of -3.4. Most of these games (12) take place in the first week of the postseason, as better teams with higher winning percentages typically earn home-field advantage for the divisional and conference rounds. For what it’s worth, only four of these squads made it to the Super Bowl: the Patriots (2005), Steelers (2006), Packers (2011) and 49ers (2013) with San Francisco the only one failing to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
To overcome any home-field edge in the NFL playoffs, a team has to excel in many areas of the game. However, one stat where nearly all the road favorites shine is in scoring defense. All but one team (Saints 2011) held opponents to 20 points or less on the season, and far below league averages. In fact, in all but four games the away franchise had a better scoring defense than the home underdog. They say defense wins championships, and in this case, it may be instrumental in determining the team's status as chalk in the betting market. The teams and scoring defenses are listed below:
The scoring offenses also stand out, but not as greatly. All but one team (Steelers 2011) averaged more points above the league average for the given year, but the margins were far more significant on defense than offense (nearly a 6-point difference from average versus 3 points). Nonetheless, both of the aforementioned outliers (Saints, Steelers) lost their respective games SU and ATS.
Looking at this weekend’s three road favorites, each one is facing a less-than-stellar offense and appears to have a nice edge defensively. The Seahawks have smothered sub-par units all season, allowing just 9.7 points per game against teams scoring at or below the league average of 23 points in nine overall. Through their first eight games, the unit held opponents to 13 points or below in each, but yielded 23 to the lowly Rams at home two weeks ago. The Vikings enter the meeting scoring 22.8 per contest.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, allowed just 15.2 points in eight games against offenses scoring below the league average. One has to go all the way back to their 31-24 defeat to the Broncos in Week 2 to find a contest where they gifted 18 or more in a game. Like Minnesota, the Texans enter the matchup scoring below the league average with 21.2 points per game.
The Steelers defense may face the toughest challenge against a prolific Bengals offense, but the matchup probably boils down to who ends up under center for Cincy. Marvin Lewis’ men average 26.2 points per game. They have not been as productive under backup QB AJ McCarron, though, scoring 21.7 in the three games he’s started since Andy Dalton went down with a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. Doctors removed Dalton’s cast earlier this week, and his status for the meeting is up in the air. The Steelers yielded 18.2 points to below-average offenses and 21.2 points to above-average units per game.
We can further manipulate the data to handpick some angles that may or may not hold any significance to the away-favorite playoff scenario, particularly on offense. Teams averaging less than 245 passing yards per game on the season (Chiefs, Seahawks) are 11-0 SU, 9-2 ATS, for example. Indeed, outside of scoring points, what are some meaningful situations that may aid a defense if one assumes it is the key difference maker in this spot? One may want to look at the team’s ability to establish the running game.
NFL defenses are banged up and tired at the end of the year, and maintaining freshness goes a long way in the postseason. Offenses that can establish a solid rushing attack wear down opposing defenses, often keep the chains moving and will chew up the clock. In the away-favorite playoff scenario, road teams that accrued 29 percent of their total yards or more on the ground for the season, signifying a good rushing team, went 11-3 SU and 9-3-2 ATS; two of these losses occurred in overtime, for what it’s worth. Moreover, none of the home dogs is particularly efficient at stopping the run, each ranking below the NFL average in opponent yards per rushing attempt: Houston (4.1, 17th), Minnesota (4.3, 21st), and Cincinnati (4.3, 22nd).
Again, the situation is exceptional, and the data far from confirming statistical significance, but the numbers may point to top-scoring defenses providing not only the foundation for a team's road-favorite status on the NFL odds in the playoffs, but also a potential advantage in the matchup.
As always, use this information to support your leans for your NFL picks and best of luck!