In the first 23 years after the NFL playoffs expanded to their current format in 1990, the two top-seeded teams met in the Super Bowl only four times. In the past three seasons, it has happened all three times.
That streak will run to four if the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys reach Super Bowl 51 in Houston. Favorites have dominated the NFL Playoffs lately, and not just on a macro level. The results have been just as definitive round-by-round on the point spread, which has failed to fulfill its function as the great equalizer. Underdogs haven’t posted a winning record against the spread in the playoffs for three straight years, and they’re in a major hole again this season.
All four favorites covered on wild card weekend, and each of them beat the number by more than a touchdown. The knee-jerk reaction is to investigate what’s behind the parade of favorites, but so far in these playoffs it’s not hard to figure out: Some of the teams that reached the postseason were glorious flukes, who got exposed by more formidable competition.
A 16-game regular season, the shortest in any major sport, gives way to randomness, and that was quite apparent this year, with teams like the Lions and Dolphins advancing to the playoffs. Neither Miami nor Detroit outscored their opponents over the season as a whole, but both benefited from fortunate breaks in close games to finish with a stronger record than deserved.
The New York Giants weren’t much better, going 7-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown. Oakland might have been the lone wild-card team wholly worthy of a playoff berth, but injuries knocked it down to a third-string rookie quarterback and inhibited any chance of a Super Bowl run.
The Raiders hardly threatened the 4-point line in their 27-14 loss at the Texans, who might be the weakest playoff team of all. Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, the NFL’s preeminent advanced metric, placed Houston as the third-worst team to ever make the playoffs.
The Texans are 16-point underdogs to the Patriots in a Saturday divisional-round matchup, the highest playoff spread in 22 years. The good news for fans of close games: The lines in the other three games don’t equal 16 points combined. Besides Houston, the three wild-card weekend winners are perennial powers who suffered through rough stretches they appear to have put behind them.
Green Bay, which defeated the Giants, has won seven straight games since a midseason swoon; Seattle’s much-maligned offensive line looked shored up in the team’s win over the Lions; and four of Pittsburgh’s five losses this season came when Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t 100 percent.
Kansas City is laying 1.5 points at home against those Steelers this week, while Dallas and Atlanta are both 4.5-point favorites at home against Green Bay and Seattle, respectively.
Full of fat when they began, the NFL Playoffs are now looking decidedly lean. Don’t pencil in the Patriots and Cowboys for the big game just yet. From here out, favorites won’t easily run away from dogs closer to their own size.