Now that the field is set for the 2015-16 NFL Playoffs, we have gone back to the advent of the current system of four divisions plus two wild cards to explore trends for every seed.
The participants and matchups for the NFL Playoffs are now set, and in an attempt to assist you with your NFL picks, we have gone back to the beginning of the four division winners plus two wild-card system back in the 2002 season to determine the betting trends for each individual seed over those last 13 playoff seasons.
Beginning with a general overview looking at all seeds over all playoff rounds, we think it is extremely interesting the ATS performance by seed gets better as the seeds get lower, an indication that the top seeds are generally overvalued in the NFL odds boards while the lower seeds have looked undervalued. Here is an ATS breakout by seed by conference, all based on the closing lines from Pinnacle:
ATS Playoff Records by Seed – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
As you can see, while the ATS records do not get worse in a straight line as the seedings get lower, the top seeds do have the worst ATS records throughout the post-season by a considerable margin at just 21-35, 37.5 percent ATS, while the 6-seeds easily have the best mark against the spread at 27-18, 60.0 percent ATS! Also, we did not omit ‘pushes’, but rather there has not been a ‘push’ on an NFL Playoff games since 2002 based on Pinnacle closers.
Obviously, we will not get to see the top seeds (or the 2-seeds for that matter) until next week in the divisional round as those seeds have earned byes during the regular season, but what is very interesting this week is that both 6-seeds are favored on the road in their respective wild card games, with the Pittsburgh Steelers favored over the Bengals in Cincinnati in the AFC and the Seattle Seahawks favored over the Vikings in Minnesota in the NFC.
For the record, 6-seeds have been favored seven times since the 2002 NFL Playoffs and they have gone a sparkling 6-1 straight up and ATS in that role including a perfect 3-0 straight up and ATS during this Wild Card Round, which bodes well for the chances of Pittsburgh and Seattle this weekend.
Now we shall move on and take a more detailed look at the performance of each seed by individual playoff round. Again, all ATS records throughout this piece are based on closing lines from Pinnacle Sports.
1-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
So much for the bye week helping the top seeds in the divisional round! AFC top seeds in particular have been dreadful from a betting standpoint despite facing teams that played the week before in the wild card round, going a dismal 3-10, 23.1 percent ATS while losing five times outright. AFC top seeds are 0-3 ATS in the divisional round the last three years, with most recently the New England Patriots failing to cover while beating the Baltimore Ravens last year.
In that sense, perhaps the Patriots knew what they were doing by playing themselves out of a top seed by losing their last two regular season games this year, allowing the Denver Broncos to lock up the top seed in the AFC with their season ending win over San Diego.
NFC top seeds have not fared much better this round while going 5-8, 38.5 percent ATS and losing outright four times. The Seattle Seahawks did buck that trend last year by covering the spread this round, ironically vs. the team that is the NFC top seed this year in the South Division Champion Carolina Panthers, but that snapped a four-game ATS losing streak for NFC top seeds in the divisional round.
The 1-seeds that have advanced to the Conference Finals have gone a nice 13-4 straight up while faring better this round than in the previous round, going 9-8, 52.9 percent ATS. Interestingly, 1-seeds have been perfect when having the good fortune to draw teams seeded fourth or lower in the conference finals going 4-0 ATS, but they are only a combined 5-8 ATS when matched up with 2-seeds and 3-seeds.
As for the Super Bowl, please note that the 4-9 overall ATS mark includes three matchups with fellow 1-seeds. If we disregard those three matchups, 1-seeds are just 1-6 both straight up and ATS in the Super Bowl when not facing other 1-seeds! Also, when the Patriots covered in a matchup of 1-seeds last year, it was the first win in those three such matchups for the AFC.
2-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
As fate would have it, 2-seeds have not been as adversely affected by the bye week during the wild card rounds as the 1-seeds, but the 2-seeds have not exactly set the world on fire during the divisional round either at just 13-13 ATS while going 17-9 straight up, which is probably not as good a straight up record as you would expect considering the higher seeded 2-seeds always playing at home this round.
As mentioned, the Patriots dropped to the 2-seed in the AFC this season, and they were fortunate enough to wrap up the AFC East before a severe rash of injuries affected their play while losing four of their last six games after dreaming of an undefeated season with a 10-0 start. They will try to avoid the same divisional round fate in the AFC next week that felled the Broncos last season, when second seeded Denver was upset outright by the Indianapolis Colts.
Over in the NFC, the Arizona Cardinals settled for the 2-seed after a 10-game winning streak had them in position to catch the 15-1 Panthers in the final game of the regular season. However, the Panthers wrapped up the top seed with a win and the Cardinals saw their winning streak brought to an emphatic halt by their biggest competition in the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks by a lopsided 36-6 score.
The Cardinals do not have recent ATS history for NFC two-seeds in the divisional round on their side either, as those teams failed to cover the spread the last two years including the Green Bay Packers just getting by but not cashing ATS tickets vs. the Dallas Cowboys last year.
The 2-seeds that advanced to the conference finals went 8-9 ATS and just 5-12 straight up that last 13 playoff years. The interesting part about this round though is that the 2-seeds went 6-4 ATS when matched up with 1-seeds despite going 3-7 straight up in those games, and yet they went just 2-5 both straight up and ATS when matched up with lower seeds.
Then, 2-seeds that were fortunate enough to reach the Big Game went just 1-4 ATS in the Super Bowl (3-2 straight up). In fact, the lone ATS Super Bowl cover by a 2-seed was by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers way back in 2003, and 2-seeds are on a four-game Super Bowl ATS losing streak since then.
3-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
And now that we have reached the 3-seeds, we have come to first seeds that are relevant this wild card weekend! Obviously the 3-seeds are always the highest seeded teams to play in the wild card round while matched up with the lowest seeded 6-seeds and the 3-seeds are always home, and yet they have gone just a mediocre 14-12 straight up in addition to the losing 11-15 ATS mark.
As we also mentioned earlier, the two 3-seeds this season are both home underdogs, which does not bode well considering their 0-3 ATS mark in this role since the 2002 NFL Playoffs. The AFC has a North Division battle with the third seeded Bengals facing the Steelers for the third time this year after the teams split during the regular season with the road team winning each matchup.
It just so happens that there was an AFC North matchup in the wild card round last season also, and in that one the sixth seeded Baltimore Ravens upset the third seeded Steelers outright.
In the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings won the NFC North and claimed the 3-seed by going into Green Bay and beating the Packers in the season’s final game Sunday night. The unfortunate part for the Vikings is that as their reward, they now get to host the two-time defending NFC Champion Seahawks, a Seattle team that won in a rout in Minnesota during the regular year.
The 3-seeds that advanced to the divisional round went a disappointing 4-10 straight up, although they did go a profitable 8-6 ATS. Then again, that poor straight up record can be chalked up be being on the road vs. 2-seeds on all 14 occasions, a fact that makes the 8-6 ATS mark that much more respectable. The 3-seeds are actually 8-5 ATS as underdogs in this round, as the third seeded New Orleans Saints were favored when losing at San Francisco in 2012.
So while only four 3-seeds have advanced to the conference finals, they did go 3-1 ATS in those contests while going 2-2 straight up, with one of the wins being an upset back in 2004 when the Panthers beat the top seeded Eagles in Philadelphia.
Perhaps most impressively, both 3-seeds that have reached the Super Bowl have covered the spread, including the third seeded Colts winning outright over the top seeded Chicago Bears in 2007 to give Peyton Manning his only Super Bowl title to date.
4-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
Now theoretically, the 4-seed vs. 5-seed matchups should be the more competitive ones of wild card weekend. The reality of things though is that 4-seeds have actually done a better job of protecting their home field than the 3-seeds, as not only do 4-seeds have a winning 15-11 ATS mark this round, but they are also 16-10 straight up.
This season could be a bit different in the AFC though with the Houston Texans emerging a AFC South Champions with just a 9-7 record, making them seemingly vulnerable vs. the fifth seeded but red-hot 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs, a team that won its last 10 games after a 1-5 start. The Texans are another home underdog this weekend, and the good news there is that 4-seeds have gone 7-3 ATS as home underdogs this wild card round since 2002.
There is a similar scenario over in the NFC with the East Champion Washington Redskins considered by many to be the weakest playoff team in the conference. The difference though is that the Redskins are the only home team that is not an underdog at the current time, although it is still possible that they could be by closing as they are just -1 at Pinnacle over the struggling Packers.
On the 16 occasions that 4-seeds advanced to the divisional rounds, they were obviously always matched up with either 1-seeds or 2-seeds on the road, and therefore neither the 5-11 straight up mark nor the 7-9 ATS record should be considered surprising. The Colts did buck that angle by upsetting the second seeded Broncos last season in the AFC, but the fourth seeded Panthers were not as fortunate in the NFC failing to cover in a 31-17 loss to the Seahawks.
So five teams reached the conference finals as 4-seeds, and they have actually performed well going 3-2 both straight up and ATS despite being underdogs on all five occasions! Unfortunately the Colts were the last 4-seed to lose this round last season 45-7 to the Patriots in the game that was most notable for Deflate Gate.
And similar to the 3-seeds, the 4-seeds have gone a perfect 3-0 in their three Super Bowl appearances, including back-to-back upset wins by the New York Giants over the Patriots in 2012 and by the Ravens over the 49ers in 2013.
5-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
You may have noticed that up until now, there has been progressive improvement with each seed going down the line. That pattern stops here, though, with the 5-seeds not performing as well as the 4-seeds overall, and the main reason for that is the aforementioned 15-11 ATS mark and 16-10 straight up mark by the 4-seeds over the 5-seeds in this wild card round.
The AFC certainly has a 5-seed capable of breaking that pattern this year though with a Kansas City team that has not lost a game since dropping to 1-5 with a loss at Minnesota way back on October 18th! Then again, there is also the poor 3-7 ATS record of favored 5-seeds in this round to consider.
In the NFC, the fifth seeded Packers fell one win shy of a fifth straight NFC North title, but no Green Bay offense has struggled this much with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback. Green Bay went from ranking second in the NFL in scoring with 29.7 points per game last year to 15th in scoring at 23.0 points per game this season while scoring 30 points just twice in the last 13 games, prompting oddsmakers to not even favor the Packers over the Redskins as of now.
Moving on to the divisional round, the 5-seeds that survived the wild card round have done exceptionally well from a betting perspective going 8-2 ATS even while going 4-6 straight up. But again, all 10 matchups were vs. either 1-seeds or 2-seeds, so the 4-6 record on the field is actually commendable. The last 5-seed to win in the divisional round was the 49ers over the Panthers two years ago as the only 5-seed of the 10 that reached this point to actually be favored.
The conference finals were the end of the line for three of the four 5-seeds to advance this far, with those teams also going 1-3 ATS. The lone 5-seed to win this round and advance to the Super Bowl was the New York Giants in 2008.
And the Giants were not done yet as they then did the unthinkable by denying the then undefeated Patriots their perfect season with a shocking upset in the Super Bowl.
6-Seed ATS Playoff Records by Round – 2002 Through 2014 Seasons
As mentioned, no seeds have done as well as 6-seeds from a betting perspective since the 2002 NFL Playoffs, and it all begins with the 15-11 ATS mark all on the road vs. 3-seeds this wild card round. And as also mentioned, both 6-seeds this season are favored to continue that trend.
The sixth seeded Steelers were as hot as any team in the NFL over the second half of the year, and even though they needed help with a loss by the New York Jets in the regular season finale to make the playoffs, more than a few experts give Pittsburgh a good chance to run the table in the AFC even while playing every game on the road.
And in the NFC, has there ever been a more dangerous 6-seed than the two-time NFC Champion Seahawks, a team that can probably stake a claim as one of the best three or four teams in the NFL right now in its current form? The Seahawks have seemingly corrected their offensive line issues from earlier in the year by playing at a faster pace than recent seasons, and now there is a chance that Marshawn Lynch could be back this week.
The 6-seeds have advanced to the divisional round 12 times and they have continued to be nice bets by going 8-4 ATS despite facing 1-seeds every single time, even going a better than expected 5-7 straight up. Not to mention that the 6-seeds were underdogs in every one of those games and usually decidedly so.
The conference finals have been the only round where the 6-seeds have not been profitable, going 2-3 both straight up and ATS. No 6-seed has reached this round since both 6-seeds in each conference did so in 2011, when the sixth-seeded New York Jets of the AFC lost to the Steelers but the sixth-seeded Packers of the NFC advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Bears.
That made the Packers the second 6-seed to reach the Super Bowl joining the Steelers in 2006, and both of the 6-seeds not only covered but also hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions. However, neither win was really an upset with the 6-seeds actually being favored both times despite the lower seeding.