Unlike Wild Card Weekend, not much has changed in the Divisional Playoffs since the advent of the four-division system. I found what I expected, but not how I expected to find it.
Just to recap, until the last two years, three of the four home teams won a large percentage of the Wild Card games. For the two most recent season, including this one, home teams were 1-3. Read last week's story for the intricacies of the theory (it's simple, but I'm not rewriting everything).
The Division Playoffs maintained their consistency -- at least, there's not enough data to say otherwise yet. Basically, it's like this: The home teams in the Divisional Playoffs have a week off, are rested, healthier, had an extra week to prepare, and for the most part are better teams to begin with. In a large percentage of cases since the six-team playoff system, home teams win at least three of the Divisional Playoff games. If a road team, especially an underdog road team, wins in this round, that's really an upset.
Let's look a little deeper.
Since 1990, the home teams have been 4-0 six of fifteen times and 3-1 seven times. That's 3-1 or better 13 of 15 times. The other two times, they have been 2-2, so even in the "worst" years (1995 and 2003) road teams have had at best a 50-50 shot.
But there's a little twist in all of this. In the NFC, which was dominated by Dallas and San Francisco, and to a lesser extent Green Bay, during the 1990s into the new millennium has gone 2-0 in the Divisional Playoffs 12 times and 1-1 the other three times.
Meanwhile, the AFC has gone 2-0 only seven times, and 1-1 eight times. What makes everything so tidy is that most of the not all the NFC's 1-1 seasons matched up with AFC 1-1 seasons. Otherwise, it would be a little more interesting. Never have the home teams gone 0-2 in either conference.
So, we look at this year's teams that got byes through the first round: Indianapolis (14-2), Denver (13-3), Seattle (13-3) and Chicago (11-5). Except for Chicago, those are pretty formidable records, and Chicago had the best scoring defense in the league. Their foes, respectively, are Pittsburgh (12-5), New England (11-6), Washington (11-6) and Carolina (12-5).
History tells us we can expect to see only one of these latter teams next week. History tells us not to expect what we New Englanders want: A Patriots-Steelers AFC Championship Game. But History tells us not to worry about that game. History says you have to play them one at a time. What will History have to say about this weekend when it's all over?
Oh, one more thing you may have heard, but I don't know where it stands in history: All four of these games are rematches from the regular season, all at the same venues except Washington at Seattle.
Here are my picks:
Saturday, Jan. 14
Washington (11-6) at Seattle (13-3), 4:30 p.m., FOX
No upset here. Washington put on a good show beating Tampa Bay, but they'll never beat Seattle with that offense. Yes, Washington's defense is excellent, but so is Seattle's, especially against the run (ranked 5th). If Seattle can stop Clinton Portis, which should be easy enough, Washington is all done. Washington beat Tampa Bay because neither Chris Simms nor Carnell Williams are NFL elite. Matt Hasselbeck is maybe second tier, but Shaun Alexander is second-to-none. In the matchup of minds, which seems to be the "in" thing among sportswriters this year, I think it's even between Joe Gibbs and Mike Holmgren. A lot of people would give Gibbs the edge, and he may have it, but his mind won't be enough to stop Alexander. Washington has a chance if it can force a lopsided turnover ratio, but I don't think Seattle will be particularly careless. Careless went out with the Wild Card round.
Prediction: Seahawks, 34-16.
New England at Denver, 8 p.m., CBS
New England?s front seven are the key to the game. They have to do to Denver?s running game what they did to New York?s and Buffalo?s and Tampa Bay?s and Jacksonville?s -- this won?t be as easy. They also have to not only pressure Jake Plummer, but contain him, keep he from scrambling and creating time for his receivers to find open spaces against New England?s overmatched secondary. However, if the defensive backs can bump and disrupt of the line and hit the way it appears Rodney Harrison is teaching them, that can close the gap considerably. Both teams have to protect the ball as if their lives depend on it. One turnover could be the difference. The New England offense still has a struggling running game. Brady is going to have to be sharp as a knife, and the tight ends could play huge roles again. Very likely this goes down to the last possession.
Prediction: Patriots, 31-30.
Update [2006-1-15 6:42:31 by tommasse]:
Sunday, Jan. 15
Pittsburgh (12-5) at Indianapolis (14-2), 1 p.m., CBS
Indianapolis beat Pittsburgh, 26-7, just six weeks ago on Nov. 28. Indy jumped out to a 7-0 lead on their first play from scrimmage, Peyton Manning hitting Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger showed he?s nothing more than an average quarterback with a great team around him. Indy hasn?t done much since, while Pittsburgh has been on a tear. Has Indianapolis taken too long of a vacation? Can they possibly be prepared for an aggressive, hard-hitting defense? Dry-dock is no place for a warship. Several weeks on the sidelines is no place for uninjured pro football players. Then you have the whole Dungy family emotional factor. We?ll probably never know what effect if any it really has. The bottom line is that Indianapolis offense and the Pittsburgh defense will be the two best units on the field, and the Indy offense has the advantage. Even the Indy defense is better than the Pitt offense. Roethlisberger hasn?t been the same without Plaxico Burress, and that makes Pittsburgh nearly one-dimensional. Indy too much of a coordinated air and land attack.
Prediction: Colts, 38-16.
Carolina (12-5) at Chicago (11-5), 4:30 p.m., FOX
Chicago and Carolina met a week earlier than Indy and Pitt. Chicago sacked Jake Delhomme eight times and intercepted him twice on their way to a 13-3 win. There?s no doubt Chicago?s defense is excellent. Carolina?s isn?t bad either. A defensive performance like Chicago?s on Nov. 20 would be nearly impossible to repeat. Their lone touchdown came on a short field following one of the interceptions. Carolina?s offense is far better overall. It still will come down to what most divisional games come down to: who makes the fewest mistakes. Except in this case, it may be like looking through the wrong end of binoculars. It will be the team that forces the other team into more mistakes, and which team can make the one or two big plays. Like Pittsburgh, Chicago is too one-dimensional. Defense wins, but defense plus offense wins over just defense.
Prediction: Carolina, 24-10.