Winning a division is supposed to be a good thing. It's an accomplishment that saves coaches jobs, gets you home-field advantage for at least one playoff game and sometimes even raises banners within your stadium.
Heading into this weekend's Wild Card Round, however, it appears winning a division has become a curse. None of the four division winners enter this weekend's games as favorites, according to Vegas Insider, an anomalous feat that seems historic.
Keep in mind that oddsmakers typically bake in three points for a home-field advantage when setting a line. That means if two teams are considered even on a neutral field, the home team would open as a three-point favorite. While Washington opened as a one-point favorite against the Packers, bettors have spiked the line all the way to minus-one in favor of Green Bay.
To put it another way: Three of the four road teams (Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle) are seen as roughly touchdown favorites over their opponents on a neutral field. The other (Green Bay) has such faith in bettors that it's swung the line two points already in less than a week.
As for the reasoning, it's pretty simple. The four road teams are better at football. Kansas City will travel to Houston winners of 10 straight games. The Chiefs began 2015 with a 1-5 start, saw some question Andy Reid's job status and were reeling after the season-ending knee injury to Jamaal Charles.
Their subsequent 10-game winning streak is a testament to the perseverance of Reid and the entire locker room. They survived another season-ending injury to Charles' replacement, Charcandrick West, and plugged right along despite a number of their other top players dealing with lingering ailments.
Houston, meanwhile, has spent 2015 struggling to keep its head above water amid massive offensive problems. The Texans started four different quarterbacks and shuffled through a series of running backs amid Arian Foster's season-ending injury.
Brian Hoyer and Alfred Blue have settled into their respective roles, but neither are much more than replacement-level options. Hoyer ranks 20th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric among quarterbacks, while Blue is 22nd among running backs. It's fair to say they're the worst running back-quarterback combo in these playoffs.
The Texans have instead been buoyed by their defense, a unit spearheaded by Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt. Watt finished the regular season with 17.5 sacks, combining with Whitney Mercilus to give Houston an elite one-two punch. The only way the AFC South champs really have a shot here is keeping the winning score at or below 20.
Houston won one game all season where its opponent scored 20 or more points, while it was 8-0 in games where the opponent failed to hit that mark. The Chiefs have been held below 20 points just twice in their 10-game winning streak.
In the other AFC matchup, Pittsburgh will have the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with Cincinnati's top quarterback, either. Andy Dalton remains out of the lineup with a thumb injury, meaning AJ McCarron will be in the lineup. McCarron took over for Dalton during the last meeting between these teams, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns against as many interceptions. He hasn't thrown a pick in his three starts since.
"We felt good about his decision-making those (last) three games," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters. "We weren't as thrilled with some of his decisions his first opportunity. He's progressed."
In the NFC, there aren't any issues under center. Seattle comes in winners of six of its last seven games, with Russell Wilson emerging as the second-half MVP—unless you'd like to give that to Washington's Kirk Cousins, who has been equally brilliant during the team's late-season push. Cousins threw 11 touchdowns without an interception in Washington's final three games, but he'll be making his first postseason start against former MVP and Super Bowl winner Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers have been far from elite—Cousins' numbers actually eclipse Rodgers' in every major category—but playoff experience has helped swing the line. Same goes for the Vikings, who will be playing their first playoff game under second-year coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. While Minnesota's defense has been stellar down the stretch, the Seahawks also blitzed Minnesota during their matchup earlier this season.
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