As we move from Wildcard Weekend to the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs, the single biggest factor that looms largest is the bye week. The teams with the best two records in each conference were at home relaxing last weekend, scouting their eventual opponents. How big of an advantage is this?
Bye teams are fresher, because they enjoyed extended rest
Bye teams are healthier, because nobody got hurt last week
Bye teams are better prepared, because they could plan ahead
Bye teams also enjoy home field advantage!
Man, those edges sound HUGE! How do bye teams ever lose with so much going for them? Should we just pencil in New England, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Philadelphia now for the conference championship games?
KELSO STURGEON has been handicapping a long time. Like, before the NFL-AFL merger! Before the concept of a Wildcard had been invented! I’ve studied this issue long and hard. I know it’s a complicated dynamic that the media tends to oversimplify.
You’ll hear studio pundits saying that the bye week truly is huge, and they’ll point to a few recent games where the rested team won easily. Then, some guy will jump in to argue with him, showing examples of recent upsets. “If bye weeks are so important, then how did THAT happen?” So, bye weeks are either worth two touchdowns, or are meaningless depending on who you ask.
Your assignment this week is to go back and review how bye teams have performed straight up and ATS over the last five seasons. This will give you an immediate sense of the percentages in play. You’ll see that blowouts sometimes happen…upsets sometimes happen…and you’ll begin to recognize what kinds of teams are prone to run away and hide, or what kind of underdog is capable of overcoming its disadvantage and winning anyway.
I’m not going to talk very much about my personal process because I need to protect this week’s plays for my paying customers. I’m coming off a 3-1 weekend in the Wildcards. It should have been 4-0 but my loss held its opponent to three points on the scoreboard but couldn’t cover! I also won a 100-unit college play on Georgia (+3.5) over Alabama in the college playoff Monday night. My approaches to “playoff style” football are really in synch with how all the games are playing out.
I will tell you this though. It’s important to remember that some bye teams are able to use their advantages to get an early lead, THEN use the nature of football to pile up big victory margins. That’s how the reputation for bye weeks became so powerful initially. Some historically great teams would earn a bye, then bully a Wildcard winner to the tune of 42-3 or 55-10. People started to think the byes were worth a touchdown or more because many of the blowouts were so ugly. While this “could” happen again this weekend, current-day offenses are much more focused on running out the clock with a lead than piling up points. And, there’s more parity in January of 2018 than there was when Joe Montana was playing.
BLOWOUTS will happen if a superior team gets an early lead…against an underdog that isn’t comfortable trying to play catch up from way behind. The dog will just keep turning the ball over, setting up easy scores.
UPSETS will happen if the underdog is able to avoid mistakes, and get some points on the board early. That will keep field position normalized, and will prevent the favorite from opening things up too aggressively.
Your research of the past five seasons will show you examples of both, and should help you visualize which if this weekend’s games might swing either way. Just off the top of my head from last year, I can tell you that Atlanta won the first half at home against Seattle on the way to almost a double-digit cover as a favorite. But, both Green Bay and Pittsburgh won their first halves as underdogs (at Dallas and Kansas City respectively) on the way to springing upsets.