Last year, between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, there was a lot of discussion about whether the Carolina Panthers deserved a home playoff game; all they had done was win a historically awful AFC South at 7-8-1. Pundits were quick to suggest new ways for the league to seed the playoffs, or maybe even eliminate divisions. Carolina silenced critics by winning a Wild Card game at home, and then playing a tight contest in Seattle. This year the NFC South looks strong – with Carolina at 5-0 and Atlanta 5-1 – but other divisions have filled in the suck-vacuum at the bottom of the league. We talk a lot about individual strength of schedule, but does strength of division matter when betting?
Last year, the two best divisions in the NFL by cumulative record were the NFC West and AFC North. Five of eight teams in those divisions earned postseason berths. Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh managed one total victory in the playoffs, and it came when the Ravens sent the Steelers packing. While Seattle represented the conference in the Super Bowl, Arizona lost in their first playoff game. In other words, one of the five teams in the two “power divisions” had a successful second season.
While coming out of the best divisions might not have a huge impact come playoff time, it does matter in the regular season. Last year, the AFC North was the best division by record in the NFL accruing 38 totals wins; their four teams went 33-27-4 against the spread. Interestingly, Cleveland, the one non-playoff team, was a division best 9-5-2 against the number. Perhaps the Browns were overshadowed by three elite teams, but they were valuable to bettors even if they were inferior to rivals. Meanwhile, the NFC West, with 37 regular season wins, went 34-30 ATS. The dreadful NFC South totaled 22 wins, finishing 28-36 for betting purposes.
Much like last year, through six weeks this season, there are two elite divisions, and one substantially sub-par grouping. The AFC East is 14-7 while the NFC South is 14-8. The eight teams in those two divisions have combined to go 25-17-1 against the spread. The AFC South is picking up the rear thus far. The Jags, Texans, Colts, and Titans are a combined 7-16 straight up and 8-15 ATS.
On Sunday, Miami predictably crushed Tennessee and New England beat the Colts on the road, though they failed to cover thanks to a garbage time touchdown for Indianapolis. The Jags have already lost games by big margins to Carolina, New England, and Tampa Bay. The Texans are 1-2 against the NFC South.
While the Buccaneers aren’t sexy, and the Colts looks like they may be improving, consider who they have played and what their competition looks like coming up. Perhaps we’ll toss this information come playoff time, but it seems that there is a strong possibility that betting on the teams from the top divisions while fading the AFC South will be a winning formula for the next ten weeks.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)