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AFC Wild Card Playoffs picks using the Golden Rules

Wagering against the spread (ATS) on NFL games often leads to tough decisions and requires you to research all the intangibles. My weekly "The Golden Rules" examines historical ATS betting trends relevant to specific games. Consider these Golden Rules to be the tie-breakers, the game-changers and the intangible factors you are looking for.

For the playoffs, I am going to analyze each team’s 2015 regular season ATS track record to identify factors that are most appropriate in considering their upcoming playoff matchup. What could be the variable that swings the odds in your favor? Could it be a franchise’s record at home? Or their performance following a bye week? Or what about a team’s improvement once their star quarterback returned to action.

Saturday January 9, 2016 – Kansas City Chiefs (-3.0) at Houston Texans

Three seasons ago, the Kansas City Chiefs disappointed the Arrowhead faithful by coming up with only a pair of wins. However, Andy Reid and Alex Smith came to town and quickly righted the ship. Now Kansas City is set to embark on their second trip into playoffs since the disappointing 2012 campaign. And perhaps bring a football title to the city to match the World Series crown earned by their counterparts across the parking lot.

Houston is on a path that resembles that of the Chiefs. After a gradual climb into a 12-win team in 2012, the Texans tumbled down the standings in 2013 and finished 2-14. J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing and Whitney Mercilus lead a tenacious defense that set claim to the underwhelming AFC South. Could Houston do what Kansas City failed to do when they rebounded from the league’s depths and reached the playoffs? The Chiefs lost on Wild Card weekend two seasons ago in heartbreaking fashion as Andrew Luck guided the Colts back from a 38-10 deficit to win miraculously 45-44.

The Chiefs visit NRG Stadium as three-point favorites. To begin my analysis of this week’s matchup, I have charted Kansas City’s straight up and ATS results for the 2015 regular season in the chart below.


Note that I have used the same format for all my charts for purposes of this analysis. The bars represent the team’s straight-up performance. If the bar is above zero, they won outright; if they lost, the bar drops below zero. The size of the bar is based on the game’s margin of victory. The impact of the spread is depicted by the dots. Similar to the bars used for straight-up performance, the dots show the team’s spread-adjusted margin of victory. In other words, if the dot is above zero, the team covered the spread. 

This chart is an ideal visual to demonstrate that Kansas City’s season turned around after a fifth consecutive loss in Week 6. The team headed into a Week 9 bye with a 3-5 mark following strong showings at home versus the Landry Jones-led Steelers and a reeling 1-6 Lions squad. We all know the magic Andy Reid has always woven in the week following a bye, but what he did for the Chiefs in 2015 in each and every subsequent week could not have been predicted. The next chart isolates Kansas City’s straight-up and ATS results to those games following their bye. 


Starting in Week 10, Kansas City beat their final eight opponents to give them ten straight victories. They needed each and every one to reach the playoffs. They went 5-3 against the spread over this stretch including four covers of 10 or more points. Of their three ATS defeats, one was by a single point and the other two were under double digits. A strong ATS showing to close out the season.

Next, I looked at the 2015 regular season straight-up and ATS results for the AFC South champions from Houston. Compared to the Chiefs, the Texans were far less streaky; only this season, would seven wins over Houston’s final nine games pale in comparison to what their Wild Card opponents pulled off.


Against the spread in 2015, the Texans equaled their 9-7 straight-up win-loss record. In fact, they covered every game they won and failed to beat the spread in every game they lost. No narrow victories as the favorite and no back door covers as the underdog. There were also no tense games for bettors. Whether they won or lost against the spread, 11 of the 16 contests had spread-adjusted margins in double digits and not once was an ATS result decide by a field goal or less.

Houston’s division crown was a by-product of a 5-1 record against their AFC South rivals. This season the Colts, Jaguars and Titans combined for a 16-32 mark and Houston took advantage. The chart below takes the results from above and removes these divisional matchups. Let’s just see how well the Texans performed outside the AFC South.


Looking outside the division, Houston’s chart is far more weighted below zero. Their straight-up and ATS results were 4-6, but the focus should not be placed as much on the wins and losses as it should on the magnitudes. Many of the large favorable margins of victories no longer appear, yet all the significant losses remain.

In addition, it’s worth noting that Houston only beat one playoff team all season. Their Week 10 win versus the previously undefeated Bengals was an important trigger for their late season turnaround, but the lack of big game experience outweighs all the other favorable variables.

Golden Rules say to take Kansas City

Saturday January 9, 2016 – Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.0) at Cincinnati Bengals

The second AFC Wild Card battle is between two longtime rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Each team’s season has been filled with many highlights, but the most notable events were the injuries Pittsburgh and Cincinnati endured at quarterback. The Steelers fought through a couple of Ben Roethlisberger mid-season setbacks and the Bengals must begin the postseason without Andy Dalton.

This absence of Dalton is a primary reason why the Steelers are field goal favorites on the road Saturday night. The Steelers wish that each franchise’s long ATS history could dictate the outcome. Since 1991, Pittsburgh have posted a 33-17-1 ATS mark against Cincinnati. Even if you focus on more recent history, Marvin Lewis has only beaten the Steelers against the spread in seven of their last 25 outcomes. But, this week’s matchup isn’t played in the past. That is why I have focused on the 2015 straight-up and ATS results of each team to perform my analysis.

The first chart summarizes Cincinnati’s game-by-game performance over the 2015 regular season. The Bengals completed this season with one of the NFL’s top ATS records. Cincinnati posted a 12-3-1 ATS result, losing against the spread to Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore and pushing and outcome versus Seattle.


Several of Cincinnati’s 12 ATS victories were by a touchdown or more. These significant wins came at the hands of the Raiders, Chiefs, Bills, Rams and, of course, twice against their in-state rivals from Cleveland. It doesn’t take long to notice that Kansas City is the only team among this group to reach the playoffs. Winning games you should win is an important component of any successful season, but their struggles against the teams that did qualify for the playoffs led me to narrow my analysis.

The chart below takes the results presented above and confines the analysis of the Bengals to only 2015 opponents who reached the playoffs. Cincinnati’s schedule turned out to be quite strong as nearly half of their competitors were playoff bound. We can also benefit from studying their two battles versus Pittsburgh.


The first chart showed staggering ATS results well above .500; however, a different story unfolds when examining Cincinnati’s results against this year’s crop of playoff teams. Technically, their ATS record is 4-2-1 in this scenario; however, two ATS wins were by a half-point. They did have a convincing early season win against Kansas City, but neither rivaled the big spread-adjusted losses to the Texans and Steelers.

Many of these games were played before Dalton’s injury early in a Week 14 game in Pittsburgh; however, this single game with A.J. McCarron in relief could be the best comparable available for this week’s matchup. No game throughout the season had a worse outcome for the Bengals on both a straight-up and ATS basis.

Before crowning Pittsburgh as a result of one game versus another team’s relief pitcher, I prepared a season-long outline of the straight-up and ATS results of the Steelers during the 2015 regular season. The chart below depicts a club who had their fair share of ATS losses, but the magnitude of the losses is minimal with the exception of Pittsburgh’s odd and unexpected Week 16 meltdown in Baltimore. 


Let’s not forget that Mike Tomlin’s crew pushed the Patriots in Week 1, defeated the road-favorite Cardinals with Michael Vick and Landry Jones behind center and trounced the Colts 45-10. Ben Roethlisberger came off the bench from his most recent injury during the Cleveland game prior to their Week 11 bye. However, the Steelers team that we saw wrap up the season started to take shape following their bye.

With Roethlisberger healthy for this week’s game in Cincinnati, I decided to target my analysis from Week 12 forward. Consequently, I charted below the final six Steeler games from this season.


Once again, the actual ATS win-loss record of 3-3 is misleading. The loss to Seattle in front of the 12th Man is understandable but the Ravens game was inexcusable considering the playoff implications. Other than that, the three ATS wins versus the Colts, Bengals and Browns were dominant and, despite losing against the spread by a half-point to the Broncos, a solid victory against the eventual AFC 1-seed is a strong indicator of the team’s potential this postseason.

Golden Rules say to take Pittsburgh

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

The Golden Rules were 3-3 during Week 17 and are 35-31 for 2015

You can access last week’s 2015 Weekly Golden Rules Analysis below.

- Week 17 NFL Picks Using the Golden Rules


Historical data on NFL spreads was accessed via Sunshine Forecast, whose latest source was, or accessed from directly. Spreads were collected by Sunshine Forecast as close as practicable to game time.

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