Monday, January 12, 2009
Where's the Advantage?
When it comes to examining and handicapping the NFL, throw conventional wisdom out the window. The term "home-field advantage" is becoming an oxymoron. The craziness in the NFL continued with three road teams winning on a playoff weekend for the first time since 1971. Road teams are 5-3 in the post-season to this point and an interesting trend has taken root the last several years. Since the start of the 2005 playoffs, the top two seeds in each conference are 7-9 in the divisional round playing at home with a first-round bye.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. During the regular season between weeks 10 and 13 the road teams in the NFL went 36-25-1. But the regular season is one thing. The playoffs should still be a distinct advantage for the home team.
For years, Major League Baseball has seen the so-called "underdog" make deep playoff runs. In seven of the last nine World Series, at least one wild card team has made it to the Fall Classic. The Angles, Marlins and Red Sox have all won the World Series as a wild card team in the last decade. The success is attributed to the mental grind a wild card team faces down the stretch, often fighting off a number teams to make it to October. The theory goes like this; when the playoffs begin, wild card teams feel like they've been playing playoff baseball for six weeks. Teams that coasted in with 100 victories aren't as sharp.
Whether you believe the theory or not, it's hard to argue with the trend. It's also hard to make a direct comparison to what's happening in the NFL. After all, the seasons are so different with baseball playing an exponentially greater number of games. However, is there a fundamental psychology involved? Do home teams with two weeks off lose its mental edge? Are the players faced with too much pressure from fans and media? Or, is it simply the parity in the NFL? It's hard to know for sure, but the lower seeds aren't to be taken lightly.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers became the first--and only--sixth seed to win the Super Bowl. The Steelers had to win three road games just to get to Super Bowl XL in Detroit before beating Seattle. Ironically enough, the Bears had something to do with that championship run. Pittsburgh was 7-5 heading into a week 14 match-up against the Bears at Heinz Field. The Steelers dominated the Bears 21-9, snapped a three-game losing streak and didn't lose again. They won eight straight games to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
Last year, the Giants were the fifth seed in the NFC when the playoffs began. They too used a game against the Bears to ignite them down the stretch. New York rallied to beat the Bears in week 13 at Soldier Field and won three of its last five games. Giants coach Tom Coughlin famously played his starters the entire game in week 17 to try and upend the Patriots' perfect season. New England won by a field goal. A month later, when it mattered most, the Giants were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the Arizona desert after defeating New England. And like the Steelers in '05, the Giants won three straight road games in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl.
The Carolina Panthers were a perfect 8-0 at home this year. The Arizona Cardinals were 0-5 in the Eastern Time zone this season; however, the Cards pounded the Panthers in every facet of the game Saturday night in Charlotte.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco became the first rookie QB in NFL history to win two road playoff games after Baltimore knocked off top seeded Tennessee Saturday.
The Giants lost just one home game during the regular season. They were beat by Philadelphia in early December. I guess it's fitting the Eagles knocked the defending champs out with another win in the Meadowlands Sunday. In three games this season the Giants failed to sack Philly QB Donovan McNabb.
The Steelers are the highest seed left in the NFL playoffs. Will they protect their home this weekend against the Ravens? It's anyone's guess.