How Much Will Home-Field Advantage Affect Each Divisional Round Matchup?
We are about to embark on what is the best weekend of the entire National Football League season. The pretenders have been weeded out and four games will decide who goes to the conference championship in both the AFC and NFC.
It is a time when elite athletes and leaders come through to show the entire football world what they're made of. They take it upon themselves to lead their team to victory, even against the harshest of all odds.
One of the primary things facing four of these teams as they enter another week of do-or-die football is that they will have to travel into a hostile environment and shut down the home team in front of 65,000-plus crazy fans.
They have to do so while the home team is rested after taking Wild Card Weekend off. Yes, this seems to be a major disadvantage.
Today's article will push some of those worn-out dogmas out the window as I will utilize stats and history to paint a different story—a story that tells us something different than some of those playing at home would want you to believe.
On the other hand, there are some concrete advantages for home teams in these four games. I will delve into both aspects in the next five slides.
History Tells Us a Story...
Last January, a 9-7 New York Giants team went into Lambeau Field and dominated a 15-win Green Bay Packers team that was coming off a Super Bowl championship. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the divisional round.
It isn't, however, comparable to a No. 16 team going into the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament and defeating a No. 1 seed. This story has been repeated over and over again throughout the history of the NFL.
Let's take a look at some statistics as they relate to success road teams have had going into hostile environments and winning in the divisional round:
- Home teams are just 15-13 in the divisional round playoffs dating back to 2005.
- Home teams who won a minimum of 13 games during the regular year are only 9-9 in this round since 2005.
- Home teams have swept this round only three times dating back to 1995.
- Only half the Super Bowls since the 1978 season have featured a No. 1 seed from either conference. During that span, seven Super Bowl matchups have been between two No. 1 seeds.
- Four of the last 18 championship games have exclusively featured No. 1 seeds.
This paints a much different picture than most of us would have initially thought. While there is somewhat of an advantage to playing at home, it really doesn't indicate anything heading into the weekend.
In the most general of terms, road teams have won their divisional round matchups 46 percent of the time. If history holds, two of the top four seeds heading into the weekend will have their seasons cut short in an upset loss.
Let's take a look at which teams might be most vulnerable.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
As mentioned in an article earlier this week, Denver has won its last six home games by an average of nearly three touchdowns. Peyton Manning threw 18 touchdowns compared to three interceptions and compiled a 117.6 quarterback rating in those games.
Needless to say, Denver has been pretty dominant at home. The level of competition for Denver during that winning streak hasn't been too great, as opponents won a combined 31 games during the regular year.
On the other hand, Baltimore struggled a great deal on the road during the regular year. It scored nearly two fewer touchdowns per game than at home, finishing .500 away from M&T Bank Stadium.
For his part, Joe Flacco was nothing more than a mediocre quarterback away from home. He averaged just 182 yards per game and boasted a pedestrian 74.9 rating.
While many will proclaim that all the indicators are here for a Denver blowout—heck, I have done so myself—there is reason for optimism in Baltimore.
Flacco is 4-4 on the road in the postseason, including a win against the New England Patriots in January of 2010. That single game is noteworthy considering that it represented one of the mere two losses Tom Brady has suffered at home in his postseason career.
If you can go into Gillette Stadium in January and come away with a win, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Saturday night represents a renewal of one of the best playoff rivalries and games of the 1990s. While many of us were too young to remember these games, we are definitely in for a treat come this weekend.
As it relates to this specific matchup, you are looking at the two best teams in the NFC since the start of the 2011 regular season coming together in what could have easily been a conference championship matchup. Heck, many were anticipating this game in last January's playoffs.
Including the postseason, San Francisco is a whopping 14-3-1 at home since Jim Harbaugh took over as its head coach. It has outscored opponents by an average of nearly two touchdowns in those 18 games.
Coincidentally, only four of those wins have come against playoff teams. One could easily come to the conclusion that San Francisco's success at home has a direct correlation with the level of competition it has played.
That would be too easy.
San Francisco did defeat both the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints at home last season and took out the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7 of this season. There is definitely a newly minted home-field advantage for the 49ers in a stadium they will cease to call their own following next season.
Far be it from me to ignore how well Aaron Rodgers has performed on the road over the last two years. He has thrown 43 touchdowns compared to five interceptions while compiling a staggering quarterback rating of 116.2 away from Lambeau since the start of the 2011 regular season.
Though Green Bay went a pedestrian 4-4 on the road this season, Rodgers performed better statistically than he did at home. He tallied 22 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions.
Of course, stats are only one thing to look at. After all, the Packers were only .500 with Rodgers performing at the top of his game on the road.
One of the key matchups to look for in this one is how Green Bay's running game will fare against one of the best rush defenses in the NFL. The 49ers are 13-2 at home under Harbaugh when they hold an opponent to under 100 yards on the ground (1-1-1 when they don't). Overall, San Francisco is 21-3 at home since 2009 when holding offenses under that 100-yard threshold on the ground.
You see a theme here.
San Francisco averaged 376.4 total yards per game and 24.8 points at home during the season. Meanwhile, it yielded an average of just 13.9 points at Candlestick.
On the other hand, Green Bay averaged 23.8 points and 360.1 yards per game on the road during the regular year. It did, however, yield more points than it scored away from Lambeau.
This game couldn't get any closer in terms of talent and matchups. Could it be that Candlestick, in one of its final NFL games, could help decide the outcome?
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Including last week's playoff win, the Seattle Seahawks have now won four of their last seven road games after going 5-14 in their previous 19. Needless to say, having a better team means you will have more success on the football field on Sundays.
Still, a 4-3 record with losses against the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions isn't anything to write home about.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons have won 13 of their last 16 home games. The Georgia Dome definitely seems to act as an advantage for the home team here.
With that in mind, Matt Ryan was nowhere near as productive at home as he was on the road during the regular year:
- Home: 65.1 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 86.2 rating.
- Away: 71.9 completion percentage, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 111.3 rating.
In addition, the combined winning percentage of Atlanta's home opponents during the regular year was a mediocre .461. In short, the Falcons haven't taken on a team of this caliber at home since defeating a much different Denver Broncos team in Week 2.
Russell Wilson, on the other hand, has been downright ridiculous on the road over the course of the last four games. Including last week, the rookie has tallied nine touchdowns compared to zero interceptions during that span.
If any road team stands a chance at coming through with a win this weekend, I have to believe it will be the Seahawks. They are among the hottest teams in the playoffs and are going up against an opponent that might very well play a bit too tight due to overwhelming pressure.
Let's see if Atlanta fans in the dome can have some type of 12th-man impact against a team that knows all too well what it means to have a home-field advantage.
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
About a month ago, the Houston Texans went into Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football and were destroyed six ways to the next Sunday.
The 42-14 final score doesn't even begin to tell the entire story. New England jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and never looked back. It was able to hold Arian Foster to just 46 yards on 15 rushes, completely taking the Texans out of their game plan from the onset.
This isn't new territory for the Brady-led Patriots late in the season. They possess a 37-5 record in the months of December and January at home. In those 42 games, Brady has tallied 77 touchdown passes compared to 26 interceptions.
It goes without saying that the Patriots are nearly unbeatable at home late in the season and in the postseason during the Brady era.
They are, however, just 2-2 in their last four home playoff games. During that span, Brady has thrown a surprising seven interceptions.
After starting the season 6-0 away from Reliant Stadium, Houston struggled a great deal away from home in its final two games. Matt Schaub and company were outscored by a combined 40 points in two games against the Indianapolis Colts and these very same Patriots.
The Texans are going to have to pick it up all around to even compete with New England for a full four quarters come Sunday. They are going to have to do it with all the odds and history working against them.
An .881 winning percentage for Brady in December and January coupled with the fact that Houston has never won a road playoff game (one appearance) leads many to believe that it will get run out of Gillette this upcoming weekend.
I guess that's why they play the actual football game.