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NFL Divisional-Round Playoff Picks: Trust the Home-field Guarantee

Road teams aren’t winning — unless they have Aaron Rodgers

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Home teams are enjoying unprecedented playoff success. That may surprise you, given the dominant-road-team narrative that emerged after last season’s wild-card round, when lower seeds went four-for-four, but that seeming pattern proved to be a blip: The top seed has prevailed in 10 straight postseason games, won six straight conference title showdowns, and claimed 10 of the past 12 divisional contests. So when you’re settling on your picks for this weekend’s matchups, keep these three factors in mind:

1. Home-team dominance tells us that the best clubs are really damn good. Don’t overthink this: Home teams have played awesome postseason football because the clubs that earn the bye and host the divisional round are significantly better than the ones that play in the wild-card round. Though parity has come to dominate the regular season, not all franchises have succumbed: The Patriots, for one, have not lost a home playoff game since the 2012 season. We’re in an era of imperfect teams, with coaching turnover and sloppy play swelling the middle. Sometimes poor teams make the playoffs — and in the Texans’ case, sometimes they make it and then luck into a playoff win. But the truly elite teams remain apart. If a consistently successful squad has a good coach, a good quarterback, and home-field advantage, it rarely blows it.

2. Despite that, there are a lot of bad quarterbacks in the playoffs. Pick against them. This year’s postseason field featured particularly awful passers, with injuries and a lack of depth at the position forcing ill-equipped QBs into meaningful roles. Houston’s Brock Osweiler managed to escape with a win in the wild-card round, but Miami’s Matt Moore (who exceeded expectations but committed two costly fumbles) and Oakland’s Connor Cook (who inspired this blog post) both flopped on the road. When subpar quarterbacks play on the road in the postseason, they lose. The divisional round features much better passers than the opening weekend, but Osweiler on the road is a sure thing — to fail. Pick against bad quarterbacks on the road as often as possible.

3. Aaron Rodgers will be impervious to the home-team guarantee. Forget the trends, forget the statistics, forget the divisional-round streaks. Rodgers, who famously won three consecutive road playoff games in January 2011, doesn’t care about any of that. He’s Aaron Rodgers.

And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)

ATLANTA (-5) over Seattle

This game features a lot of juicy matchups: Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn against his old boss, Pete Carroll; Atlanta breakout pass rusher Vic Beasley against the Seahawks’ bad offensive line; Atlanta superstar receiver Julio Jones against blatant pass interference. It’s all here.

The Seahawks have lost their past eight playoff games as a road underdog, and in order to change that here, they’ll have to get some breaks against one of the best offenses in NFL history. The Seahawks boast the best rush defense in the NFL by yards per attempt and should be able to neutralize the Falcons run game, bringing this down to Jones versus a secondary that hasn’t been itself since losing safety Earl Thomas in early December. Even with Thomas on the field, Jones dominated when these sides last met in October, snagging a touchdown and 139 yards.

Seattle dismantled the overmatched Lions in the wild-card round, but has forced just three turnovers in its past five games; before losing Thomas, meanwhile, it had forced at least one per contest over a six-game span. If this turns into a shootout, turnovers could be the difference, and that favors Atlanta. Plus, the Falcons are still pissed about the Week 6 loss in Seattle; will be at home, where they’ve won four of their last five games; and will be saying an emotional goodbye to the Georgia Dome. They’ll win this by a score after being lifted up by Ludacris:

NEW ENGLAND (-16) over Houston

Um:

The only intriguing part of this game is the point spread. Only three other playoff games in the Pro-Football-Reference database, which includes every Super Bowl and dates back to 1978 for all other playoff games, featured spreads this high: the Jets-Colts Super Bowl played in 1969 (18 points), the Chargers-49ers Super Bowl played in 1995 (19 points!), and a Vikings-Cardinals game from 1999 (16.5 points). Among playoff teams in the database facing spreads of 13 points or more, only two have won outright: The Jets (+18) beat the Colts in that 1969 matchup and the Patriots (+14) beat the Rams in 2002. The only distraction for the Patriots this week is that, like with the Giants last week, a key Patriot spent time on a boat before the game:

That mini-excursion won’t matter much. Remember, Tom Brady was on a league-sanctioned vacation in September when these teams last played, and the Patriots won 27–0. With Brady back and home-field advantage in effect, the Patriots will have a similarly easy time.

KANSAS CITY (-1) over Pittsburgh

The Steelers beat the Chiefs 43–14 in Week 4, a result that now seems like an aberration for Kansas City, which hasn’t given up even 30 points since. After that meeting, the Chiefs started a five-game streak of creating multiple turnovers, a trait that became a big part of their identity this season. Now, they’ve won five of six.

But the Steelers have gotten better, too. Remember, they started 4–5 before their current eight-game win streak, and lately have out-Chiefed even the Chiefs, creating seven turnovers in the past two contests.

So why do I think the Chiefs will win? Because they’re at home (duh), they’re well-coached, and they have quietly assembled a multitude of game-changing players. Their five defensive touchdowns tied for the league lead this year, and safety Eric Berry, one of the responsible parties, can change a game in a second. They’ve also got return man and receiver Tyreek Hill, who lately has been as capable of delivering a quick touchdown as anyone in the league. Yes, the Steelers have Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but the Chiefs have players like that in all three phases of the game, and that matters.

Unlike the lopsided regular-season result, this will be a tight game that comes down to a late turnover or two — and despite the Steelers’ defensive improvement in that area, the Chiefs still have the best unit in the league at forcing mistakes. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown two picks in each of his past two starts and spent time this week wearing a walking boot. If it comes down to quarterback depth, the Chiefs have the edge there, too, thanks to Dontari Poe.

Green Bay (+4) over DALLAS

Point: The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football.

Counterpoint:

Point: Though Zeke Elliott and Dak Prescott are both rookies, the former is one of the NFL’s best running backs and the latter is one of its most poised quarterbacks.

Counterpoint:

Point: The Cowboys rank fifth in points allowed, have a great run defense, and will make the Packers one-dimensional.

Counterpoint:

I picked the Giants to beat the Packers last week mainly because I thought the Giants defense was engineered to stop Rodgers. I was wrong, because at the moment the only thing that can stop Rodgers is magic or luck or some combination of the two. Green Bay has a bad pass defense? Doesn’t matter. Dallas is in the middle of a great season and return to glory? Doesn’t matter. Rodgers, Rodgers, Rodgers.

Last week: 2–2
Regular season: 122–121–10