NFL Playoffs: How Much Does Home-Field Advantage Really Matter?

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NFL Playoffs: How Much Does Home-Field Advantage Really Matter?
Courtesy of The News Tribune

The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers worked hard to finish the 2011 NFL regular season with a combined 28-4 record. They were clearly the two best teams in the NFC from September on. But this didn't stop a 9-7 New York Giants team from coming into their home stadiums and pulling off upset victories in the playoffs.

For Green Bay, it was a dose of reality. Aaron Rodgers and company had won their last 13 home games since a Week 6 loss the previous season to the Miami Dolphins. Overall, the Packers were winners of 19 of their last 20 at Lambeau going into that NFC divisional matchup. It was only Green Bay's fourth home playoff loss in franchise history, a span of 19 games.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Despite going 15-1, Aaron Rodgers and Co. couldn't hold off a 9-7 Giants team.

Meanwhile, San Francisco was coming off a stirring victory over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round when New York arrived to play in a hostile environment at Candlestick Park. The Giants came away with a victory in overtime in the NFC Championship Game, handing San Francisco a rare home playoff loss. 

 

Home Field Doesn't Mean Home Domination 

It isn't necessarily how you have played all season that matters the most when the postseason comes around. While playing at home in the playoffs is an added benefit, it doesn't necessarily guarantee victory.

The wild-card round of the playoffs is what it's supposed to be—wild. There really isn't an advantage for teams that were good enough to win their division but not able to acquire that all-important first-round bye. Home teams during the wild-card round are just 17-15 since the 2004 season. 

In 2012, the 8-8 Denver Broncos hosted a 12-win Pittsburgh Steelers team and came away with the win. This has happened more than once over the course of the last few seasons, and for good reason: Road teams in the wild-card round can have a better record than home teams. This is because winning your division automatically qualifies you to host a first-round playoff game. That game is an actual example of home field coming into play.

The divisional playoffs are where it gets interesting. 

No. 1 or No. 2 Seeds 
Season Home Team Road Team Score
2005 Indianapolis (14-2) Pittsburgh (11-5) Pittsburgh 21-18
2005 Chicago (11-5) Carolina (11-5) Carolina 29-21
2006 Baltimore (13-3) Indianapolis (12-4) Indianapolis 15-6
2006 San Diego (14-2) New England (12-4) New England 24-21
2007 Indianapolis (13-3) San Diego (11-5) San Diego 28-24
2007 Dallas (13-3) New York (10-6) New York 21-17
2008 Tennessee (13-3) Baltimore (11-5) Baltimore 13-10
2008 Carolina (12-4) Arizona (9-7) Arizona 33-13
2008 New York (12-4) Philadelphia (9-6-1) Philadelphia 23-11
2009 San Diego (13-3) New York (9-7) New York 17-14
2010 New England (14-2) New York (11-5) New York 28-21
2010 Atlanta (13-3) Green Bay (10-6) Green Bay 48-21
2011 Green Bay (15-1) New York (9-7) New York 37-20

There is a train of thought around the NFL that having a bye in the initial round and hosting your first playoff game is a huge advantage, but that has proven to be somewhat false. As you can see above, the team with a first-round bye—and home-field advantage—has lost 13 division-round games since 2005. In total, they are just 15-13 during that span. 

Common logic seems to indicate that having a week of rest and hosting a team that had to play in the first round would be a huge advantage. Last season, San Francisco and Green Bay struggled a bit down the stretch. The 49ers went 4-2 in their last six games after starting 9-1, while Green Bay lost its first regular-season game in Week 15 to a lowly Kansas City Chiefs team. 

A week would have seemed to do both teams good. While San Francisco did beat the New Orleans Saints a week later, Green Bay turned the ball over four times to the Giants in the divisional playoffs.

San Francisco went on to lose the NFC Championship Game to the Giants in overtime after Kyle Williams fumbled two punts late in the game. Home-field advantage didn't seem to do its job for the 49ers, who were facing a road-tested New York team. Speaking of that...

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

 

Road Warriors

Only 11 wild-card teams have gone on to play in the Super Bowl. Of those, seven have won the championship. 

The last five wild-card teams to play in the Super Bowl have actually gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. 

This is more of a trend than anything else. 

The last two New York Giants teams to win the Super Bowl (2007 and 2011) won a total of one home game en route to winning the championship. The five road games they won during that stretch were against teams that went a combined 34-6 at home during the regular season that year, including a 15-1 mark by San Francisco and Green Bay last season. 

2010 saw Green Bay win three road games against the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears en route to defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. The three teams they beat to get to Texas Stadium were a combined 16-8 at home that season—not exactly what you would call defending your home turf. 

One of the most miraculous Super Bowl runs in recent NFL history was the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004-05. Ben Roethlisberger and company finished the regular season with an 11-5 record and had to go up against the best teams the AFC had to offer on the road in the postseason. 

They went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (11-5), Indianapolis Colts (14-2) and Denver Broncos (13-3) en route to grabbing the Lombardi against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Indianapolis and Denver were a combined 15-1 at home during the regular season. 

 

Exception to the Rule 

Then came the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. Many around the NFL called for realignment of playoff rules after they made the second season over a 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad. How could the league remain viable in the minds of fans when something like this happened? 

Adding insult to injury for many around the league, Seattle "earned" the right to host the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round because they won a weak NFC West. Despite playing at home, Seattle opened as 10.5-point underdogs.

It really didn't matter to Pete Carroll and company, who seemed to be playing on borrowed time. Seattle shocked the entire football world by defeating New Orleans 41-36, as Marshawn Lynch tallied 131 rushing yards and one amazing touchdown run. 

For many, this Seattle victory acted as vindication that the NFL didn't need to change its playoff rules. For others, it indicated that home-field advantage is absolutely enormous when it comes to the postseason. After all, there is arguably no way that the Seahawks would have beaten the defending Super Bowl champs on the road. 

 

Not Dumb Luck

Since 2000, only the New England Patriots (2003) and New Orleans Saints (2009) have gone on to win the Super Bowl after heading into the postseason as the No. 1 seed in their conference. As I mentioned before, five wild-card teams have hoisted the Lombardi during that span. 

Last Seven Super Bowl Champions
Year Champion Playoff Seed
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers No. 3 AFC
2006 Indianapolis Colts No. 3 AFC
2007 New York Giants No. 5 NFC
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers No. 2 AFC
2009 New Orleans Saints No. 1 NFC
2010 Green Bay Packers No. 6 NFC
2011 New York Giants No. 4 NFC 

There is something to be said about going into the playoffs with momentum, not taking a week off and riding a hot streak to the ultimate goal. While teams would love to have that additional week to rest sore bodies following a gruesome 17-week regular season, it seems that they end up either being complacent or rusty. 

Overall, home teams have a .587 winning percentage in the playoffs since 2004. This means that the road team comes into a hostile environment in January and wins 41 percent of the time. 

 

What Does it Mean? 

Postseason predictions will be coming out within the next couple weeks. The usual characters—the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons—are going to be discussed a whole heck of a lot during this time. 

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Teams that inch their way into the postseason the last week of the season are almost always left out in the cold when it comes to projections. "They don't belong here" and "They're going to be outclassed" are two things you will commonly hear. 

Despite this, teams like the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys or even the Seattle Seahawks are licking their chops and ready to go when the postseason rolls around in early January. In fact, there is a good chance that one of the clubs that no one is talking about right now will end up hoisting that Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans in early February. 

As we all know, history has a way of repeating itself. Don't be too surprised if one of the top teams in the NFL ends up going down in their first playoff game. After all, no one saw the New York Giants, at 9-7, running roughshod over Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco en route to defeating New England in the Super Bowl last season. 

 

Conclusion

Of course, it all depends on who the home team is. The road warrior mantra might only go so far if you have to go into Gillette Stadium and defeat the New England Patriots in January. While San Francisco was able to pull off a mighty impressive win on Sunday against Tom Brady and company, that definitely doesn't represent the norm. 

The Pacific Northwest is also turning into one of the most hostile environments for a football game. Pete Carroll has his Seahawks playing on a completely different level at home than on the road. A lot of what Seattle does, or doesn't do, this postseason will depend greatly on where they play. 

Other teams are a bit more balanced when it comes to how they perform. San Francisco, for example, is 11-4 under Jim Harbaugh on the road over the last two seasons. In short, the 49ers have proven they can go into any terrain, no matter the climate, and come away with a victory. Meanwhile, they are 12-2-1 at home since 2011. For those of us who aren't math majors, that represents nearly the same winning percentage at home as it does on the road. 

Home Wins for top six teams in NFL since 2011

A better predictor of postseason success than playing at home is how a team is performing once it enters the second season. Two of the last three Super Bowl champions had to win on the final week of the season just to get into the playoffs. Meanwhile, a No. 1 seed has gone down in its first playoff game three times in the last two seasons. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL

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