Home-field advantage has its advantages
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
It may not be the most elite eight in everyone's opinion, but we keep forgetting that in the NFL playoffs, they settle these kinds of debates on the field rather than the chat room. A little chagrined from last week's pontifications, Burning Questions presses on into the divisional round:
1. Now that we're down to the final eight, and all those NFL "experts" who predicted a 4-0 road-team sweep last weekend have been exposed as frauds (this one included), how much of an advantage is it to be playing at home and coming off a bye week in the divisional round?
Answer: That depends on the conference. In the NFC, it has meant almost everything. In the AFC, the results are much more mixed.
Since the NFL went to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, where the top two seeds in each conference are off the first week and then play at home in the divisional round, teams that earn a bye are 33-7 (.825).
But let's take a closer look. In the NFC, the edge is overwhelming, with home teams in the divisional round going 19-1. The lone exception to the rule was the 1995 Green Bay Packers, who went to San Francisco and upset the defending Super Bowl champions a week after they beat Atlanta at Lambeau in the wild-card round.
That's a remarkable statistic to ponder. In the 1990s, only one NFC team playing at home in the divisional round lost, a .950 winning percentage. Of course, the 1990s are over. But the trend still bodes very well for Minnesota and the New York Giants this weekend. The Vikings are 7-1 this season at home, while the Giants went just 5-3.
In the AFC, the top two seeds have had a strong advantage, but not ridiculously so. In the 1990s, the top two seeds have gone 14-6 in the divisional round (.700). But in the past eight years, that record drops to a modest 10-6 (.625), and in the most recent five years, 6-4 (.600).
Tennessee at Indianapolis last year, Denver at Kansas City in 1997, Jacksonville at Denver in 1996, and Indianapolis at Kansas City in 1995 are all recent examples of road victors in the divisional round. In four of the past five years, AFC divisional-round home teams have gone just 1-1.
If that trend holds, either Tennessee or Oakland will probably stub a toe this weekend at home against Baltimore or Miami. The Titans are 7-1 at Adelphia Coliseum, but that one loss was to the Ravens. The Raiders also were 7-1 in that dungeon they call home, falling only to Denver early in the season. Oakland outscored its last six opponents at home by a whopping 240-74.
2. Postseason experience didn't seem to count for much in the wild-card round, where first-timers like New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia all handled more playoff-tested teams. In the divisional round, who gets that maybe-not-so-all-important check mark in the playoff experience category?
Answer: The Minnesota Vikings are making their league-high fourth consecutive appearance in the league's final eight, and have gone 1-1 in the playoffs in each of the past three years. That makes them the obvious choice, even more so in the NFC.
The Vikings are lumped with three other NFC teams that all had losing records in 1999. The Saints, Eagles and Giants went a combined 15-33 (.313) last year. New Orleans hadn't made a playoff trip since 1992 and never has played in a divisional-round game. This is Philadelphia's first taste of the postseason since 1996 and its first divisional appearance since 1995. New York made the playoffs in 1997, but last won a postseason game and reached the final eight in 1993.
Minnesota has somehow landed in this enviable position despite not having won since Nov. 30, and having given up more than 30 points and 400 yards per game in their three consecutive regular-season-ending losses. That's not exactly the blueprint for momentum.
The Vikings went 0-3 in December, prompting us all to remind them that no team has ever lost its last three regular-season games and won the Super Bowl. Minnesota was outscored 104-67 in that span, the most points allowed by the Vikings in a three-game run since allowing 120 in the last three games of the terrible Les Steckel era in 1984.
Over in the AFC, Miami, if you can believe it, is making its third consecutive trip to the final eight. Of course, the Dolphins have been shellacked by a combined 100-10 (we're not making this up) in the divisional round the past two years. Those were courtesy of Denver and Jacksonville. Oakland could administer the same kind of beating and no one would be too surprised. Miami hasn't won a divisional game since 1992.
That's why Tennessee gets the AFC playoff experience edge. The Titans had that memorable four-game Super Bowl run last January, and in football, there's no experience like recent experience.
The Raiders are making their first playoff -- and divisional-round -- appearance since 1993. Baltimore has never been this far, but the franchise last made to the divisional round in 1994, when it was still located in Cleveland. Only this much we know for sure: After a season in which form didn't really hold, the first-round playoffs seedings did when they weren't expected to. All four NFC survivors have 11 wins or more, and all four AFC contenders have at least 12 wins. Even if you think the best teams aren't alive, the teams with the best records are.
3. What great deduction can we make from the opening round of the NFL playoffs?
Answer: That reputations don't always matter.
The Ravens' Brian Billick and the Eagles' Andy Reid are heady offensive coaches who earned head-coaching jobs with their outstanding work on that side of the ball. So, of course their teams won with smash-mouth defense in the wild-card round, turning in twin 21-3 throttlings of Denver and Tampa Bay.
The Saints' Jim Haslett and the Dolphins' Dave Wannstedt are tough defensive coaches, who parlayed their resumes in that department into head coaching opportunities. Naturally, New Orleans won a slugfest against St. Louis and Miami's offense scored 23 of the game's final 26 points in rallying past Indianapolis.
It was a tough weekend for offense and offensive geniuses all around. The Colts lost despite forcing three Miami turnovers, committing none and collecting just one penalty. The talented trioka of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison was outdone by the likes of Jay Fielder, Lamar Smith and O.J. McDuffie. Maybe Jim Mora is snakebit. Or just a bad postseason coach. The Mike Martz-led Rams? What other team down 31-7 with 10 minutes to go was still alive, and yet so capable of summarizing its whole half-empty season with one crucial giveaway at the wrong moment?
In Baltimore, the Broncos' No. 3-ranked offense and its mastermind, Mike Shanahan, were tamed like they haven't been tamed in a long, long time. It was the first time in its 28 postseason games that Denver hasn't scored a touchdown, and first time in more than eight years that the Broncos scored as few as three points in any game.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.