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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

The Redzone: Home advantage proves to be anything but on a wild weekend

Road teams came up big in the first weekend of NFL postseason action.

It wasn't quite that cold in Green Bay last night but it was close.
It wasn't quite that cold in Green Bay last night but it was close.
Image: MIKE ROEMER/AP/Press Association Images

IF YOUR WEEKEND was anything like mine, you’ve lots of black circles beneath your eyes and you’re already on your fourth cup of coffee to get through this wet and windy Monday morning.

Still, as bad as you feel can you imagine how Chip Kelly, Marvin Lewis and Mike McCarthy feel? All three went into the playoffs as divisional winners with a chance to play in front of a home crowd and get to the next round and yet, this morning, all three are wondering what to do for the rest of January.

Indeed, the only home team to advance this weekend were the Indianapolis Colts and they needed more than a little luck/Luck to overcome a 28-point second half deficit to squeeze past the Kansas City Chiefs by the smallest of margins.

And though nothing should surprise you when it comes to NFL, all those road wins this weekend felt as if they went against the grain.

The Saints had never won a playoff game outside New Orleans, the Chargers faced a Bengals team that were undefeated in Cincinnati this year and the sun-kissed kids of San Francisco had to brave a kick off temperature of -15C (with the small matter of a wind chill of -22C) in Lambeau Field.

Playing at home has its benefits of course. According to the NFL’s own statistics, since the Super Bowl era began, home teams win 57.5% of the time during the regular season but that number jumps to a full ten points to 67.5% in the playoffs.

Indeed, such was the advantage of playing in front of your home fans, just one Wildcard team — the 1980 Oakland Raiders — won the Vince Lombardi trophy in the first 31 Super Bowls.

(Fun fact: The 1969 Chiefs also won the Super Bowl without winning their division but the term ‘Wildcard’ was only introduced for the 1970 season)

However, there have been five Wildcard winners since 1997 and five of the last seven Super Bowl champions have played on the first weekend of the playoffs meaning having home advantage throughout the postseason is not the golden ticket it may appear to be.

That’s good news for the two lowest ranked teams — Chargers and Saints — left in play. Since 2005, the number six seed has beaten the number one seed on the road in the divisional round on six of eight occasions.

Even more worrying for Super Bowl favourites, the Broncos, not to mention those who’ve backed them, is the fact the three teams left in the AFC are the three teams to beat them this season, with the Chargers already tasting victory in Denver just a few weeks ago.

We’re on the road again

So why does home advantage not matter so much anymore? Well, it’s partly to do with structure. With so much emphasis on winning the division, it can be easy to overlook the actual records of teams.

Just one road team, San Diego, went into a game this weekend holding a worse record than their hosts with the starkest contrast being in Wisconsin where 49ers were forced to travel despite winning four games more (25%) than Green Bay.

And that — teams with better records having to travel — is something that’s happening more and more. Indeed, while between 1989 and 2001, only three road teams with better records than their first-round opponents had to go on the road, there have been 15 such occasions in the last seven seasons, including two this weekend.

The key factor? Realignment in 2002 which broke each conference into four divisions.

The NFL has noticed the trend too and the league will now ‘consider’ ranking teams based on their record, rather than whether or not they won a divisional title.

Whether or not that happens, indeed, whether or not it’s a good idea even, remains to be seen. As a great sporting icon once said — okay, it was Rick Flair — “to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best”. As teams have shown this weekend and over the past few years, if you’re good enough you’ll win playoff games not matter where they take place.

Now, where’s that fifth cup of coffee?

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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