The New England Patriots are the #1 seed in the AFC coming off a bye week and are welcoming in the #5 seed Tennessee Titans to Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are favored by two touchdowns and have an impressive track record in such games- New England is 24-0 when favored by 14 or more points.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for the Titans, even if Luke Skywalker had better odds of hitting the exhaust port, because there always seems to be an upset during the divisional round.
The second round of the postseason involves two types of teams: 1) the #1 and #2 seeds that are coming off an extra week of rest; and 2) the opponents that made their way through the wild card round. The #1 and #2 seeds are generally favored because they’re the better teams playing at home, but if the road team wins they have a real shot at the Super Bowl.
In the ten years prior to this season, from 2007-16, 14 teams that played on wild card weekend upset a #1 or #2 seed coming off a first round bye. The New York Giants did it in both 2007 and 2011 en route to winning the Super Bowl, as did the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2012 Baltimore Ravens. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals pulled off the upset, but came up short in the Super Bowl.
So half the years saw a team that won on wild card weekend represent their conference in the Super Bowl- but since there’s two slots in the Super Bowl, that means that 75% of the Super Bowl teams received a first round bye. While five of the six Super Bowls from 2007-11 featured a team that played on wild card weekend (2009 between the #1 seeds Colts and Saints the exception), the past four Super Bowls have been between two teams with a bye week.
But generally speaking, there’s usually one “upset” during the divisional round as the home team wins 70% of the time.
Three of the 14 upsets over the past decade belong to Peyton Manning’s teams as they lost to the 2007-08 San Diego Chargers, 2012-13 Baltimore Ravens, and 2014-15 Indianapolis Colts while favored by 11-, 9-, and 7-points, respectively.
The New York Jets pulled off two of the upsets, once against the 2009-10 Chargers when 9-point underdogs and again versus the 2010-11 Patriots as 9.5-point underdogs.
There were just seven divisional round games with a double-digit favorite from 2007-16 (three by the Patriots) and only the Colts and Panthers managed to lose. Double-digit favorites in the divisional round are 21-4 in NFL history, while teams favored by 13 or more are 10-0.
The most likely “upset” in the divisional round is the #6 seed Atlanta Falcons over the #1 seed Philadelphia Eagles since the Falcons are actually favored in this game by 3 points. This is the third time a road team has been favored in the divisional round since 2011, as the 2011 New Orleans Saints were 3.5-point favorites over the San Francisco 49ers and the 2013 49ers returned the favor as a 1-point favorite over the Carolina Panthers. The home underdog is 4-2 in NFL history, so the Falcons winning is not a sure bet.
The Saints upsetting the Minnesota Vikings is the second-most likely opportunity for a wild card weekend team to defeat a top-two seed.
Barring an incredibly unforeseen level of play, the New England Patriots should dispatch of the Titans; double-digit favorites have covered in the divisional round in 75% of the games over the past twenty years, including the past two times the Patriots were double-digit favorites.
But expect an upset to happen this weekend- it’ll probably just happen in the NFC.