During Wild Card weekend, three home teams earned victories, two underdogs covered, and, if you bet the under on all four games, you would have gone 2-1-1. This week, the top four seeds are coming off of byes and will be facing the clubs that survived the first round of the playoffs.
Let’s take a closer look at the matchups that will set the stage for the NFC and AFC Championship Games.
Baltimore (10-6) vs. New England (12-4) – Spread: Patriots -7
Baltimore needed help in week 17 from Kansas City just to make the playoffs and didn’t look like a formidable opponent heading into last weekend. However, the Ravens dispatched the Steelers (who played without Le’Veon Bell), 31-17, covering as 3.5-point road dogs. The Ravens have also won two playoff games in New England in the last six years, and should come into Saturday’s game with confidence.
Baltimore got by the Steelers thanks in part to three Pittsburgh turnovers. The Ravens also sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, and held an inexperienced backfield to 68 yards on the ground. On offense, the Ravens managed only 49 rushing yards, but Joe Flacco passed for two scores, no interceptions, and completed 18 of his 29 throws for 259 yards.
During the regular season, Baltimore did a very good job against opposing rushing games, but finished the year 23rd against the pass. The pass defense will have to play its best game of the season this weekend if the Ravens are going to have a chance. The Patriots have a top-ten passing attack, and its stats don’t reflect its true might when at full strength (which it will be this weekend).
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense would have led the team to a 13-3 regular season record, but the team rested starters in a meaningless week 17 setback against Buffalo.
After a 41-14 loss in Kansas City in week 4, the Pats were just 2-2 on the year and questions lingered about whether the dynasty was over. However, the Pats went on to win ten of the next 11, including victories over four playoff teams, and put any dynastic questions to bed. As usual, the Pats were dominant at home, going a perfect 8-0.
The Patriots were also a good bet this year, going 9-7 ATS overall and 5-3 at home. Baltimore, on the other hand, was 7-8-1 ATS, including 3-4-1 on the road.
Two trends you should be aware of: The Ravens have won their last two Divisional Playoff games; but the Patriots have won their first playoff game in three straight years by an average margin of 23 points.
Carolina (7-8-1) vs. Seattle (12-4) – Spread: Seahawks -10.5
The Panthers and Seahawks meet for a second time this season. Seattle won at Carolina, 13-9, in week 8. For Carolina, that game was part of an eight-week winless stretch. Trailing by a field goal with less than five minutes remaining, Seattle prevailed on the strength of a nine play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by Russell Wilson’s game winning touchdown pass to Luke Wilson.
Statistically, the squads were pretty even that day – by which I mean offensively anemic. Both teams went 0/3 in the redzone, and neither QB cracked 200 yards passing (Carolina’s Cam Newton went 12/22 for 152 yards, while Wilson was 20/32 for 199 yards for Seattle).
Carolina advanced to the Divisional Playoff with a dominating defensive performance against Arizona (27-16). The Cardinals were held to an NFL Playoff record 78 yards of offense and the Panthers easily covered as 4.5-point favorites. Arizona managed only eight first downs in the game and the Panthers held the ball for more than 37 minutes.
While Carolina committed three turnovers and were called for eight penalties, the Panthers gained 386 yards and got production from both the running and passing games.
The Panthers won their final four regular season games, though their opponents consisted of the other three woeful NFC South teams plus Cleveland. In terms of playoff quality competition, Carolina lost to Seattle, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. The team did manage a home win over the Lions in week 2, and tied the Bengals on the road in week 7.
While the Panthers’ defense was excellent last year, and solid at the end of this season, it only ranked 11th against the pass and 16th versus the run for 2014
The Seahawks, meanwhile, lost back-to-back games during weeks 6 and 7 to Dallas and St. Louis, falling to 3-3 on the year. Since then they have won nine times in ten tries, including a six-game win streak to close the year.
Over the last half dozen wins, Seattle has allowed less than a touchdown per game. Seattle earned homefield throughout the NFC playoffs despite playing the toughest regular season schedule among playoff teams; the Seahawks also gave up the fewest points in the NFL.
Seattle was 10-6 against the spread this year and 6-2 at home. The Panthers were 8-8 overall, and 4-4 on the road.
Dallas (12-4) vs. Green Bay (12-4) – Spread: Packers -6.5
For the first time in the history of the NFL, a team that went 8-0 on the road travels to face a squad that went 8-0 at home. This is also a rematch of 1967’s famous Ice Bowl in which the Packers beat Dallas 21-17, with the game time temperature at -15 and a wind chill of -48. While weather may play a factor this weekend, we won’t see anything resembling those conditions, thankfully.
Dallas is seeking its first NFC Championship Game appearance since 1995. Green Bay last went to the Conference title game in 2010-11 en route to a Super Bowl win.
Last weekend, the Cowboys came back from a 20-7 deficit over the final 18 minutes to beat Detroit (24-20). The Lions committed three turnovers in the game and the Cowboys went eight for 16 on third and fourth downs combined. DeMarco Murray averaged less than four yards a carry for Dallas, but Tony Romo completed 19/31 passes for 293 yards and two scores. It was the Cowboys’ first playoff win since 2009, though they failed to cover the eight-point spread.
Dallas began the season 6-0, and won their final four games of the year to earn the NFC East title. They beat fellow division champs Seattle and Indianapolis along the way. Rushing was the key for the Cowboys throughout the campaign; they were the second-best rushing team in the league during the regular season, and ranked among the top-ten at stopping the run, as well.
Though the Packers have had their share of trouble stopping the run – giving up almost 120 yards per game – the team has been dominant at home all season. Not only are they unbeaten at Lambeau, they’ve won by an average margin of more than 19 points.
Green Bay is also 6-1-1 ATS at home and has notched seven wins in its last eight games, overall. With their strong run-game, the Cowboys present a tricky matchup, though; when teams have beaten the Packers this year, they have tended to control the time of possession by running the ball effectively.
If Dallas can move the ball on the ground this weekend, they stand a good chance of continuing their ATS success from the regular season: Dallas went 10-6 ATS overall and 7-1 away from home.
Indianapolis (11-5) vs. Denver (12-4) – Spread: Broncos -7
The final game of the weekend will be a rematch from week 1 of the regular season when the Broncos beat the Colts 31-24 in Denver. Denver jumped out to a 24-0 lead in that game thanks to three Peyton Manning to Julius Thomas touchdown passes. After the Broncos went 6/7 on third down in the first half, though, they went just 1/7 in the second half and allowed Indy to make it close late.
Indianapolis never got any sort of offense going on the ground, though, and committed the game’s only two turnovers.
The Colts earned a return trip to Mile High by breezing past the Bengals (26-10) last weekend and covering the six-point spread. Indianapolis out-gained the Bengals 482-254 and, despite committing nine penalties, controlled the game.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck completed 31/44 throws for 376 yards and a touchdown. Running back “Boom” Herron emerged in a big way for the Colts, who were missing Ahmad Bradshaw, rushing for 56 yards and catching ten passes for another 85.
Indy began the regular season 0-2, but put together four and five-game winning-streaks to get to 11-5 and win their second-straight AFC South title.
Indianapolis had the good fortune of playing in a weak division, though, and did not beat another division-winner all year; but they did manage to beat fellow playoff teams Baltimore and Cincinnati.
The Colts were the top passing team in the NFL this year, but their running game floundered for most of the season and the team was average, at best, on defense.
The Broncos, on the other hand, boast a balanced team that took turns dominating offensively and defensively. Denver held its opponents to under 20 points in seven games this year, while the offense scored 35 or more on six occasions.
Peyton Manning and his teammates ranked fourth in the NFL in passing and, late in the season, running back C.J. Anderson proved to be a reliable ball carrier. On defense, Denver stops the run well and has good DBs who can matchup with the best receiving corps in the league.
The Broncos were unbeaten at home during the regular season, but they were often huge favorites and went just 4-4 against the spread. Needing a win in week 17 to secure a bye, Denver manhandled Oakland, 47-14. They were lucky to win their previous two home games, though; in week 14, they edged out the Bills by seven; and, in week 12, they had to come from well back in the fourth quarter to squeak past the Dolphins, 39-36.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode]. Photo has been cropped.)