NFL Playoffs: Conference Champions at Stake!
By Jim Feist
This is it, the final weekend of games before the Super Bowl. The last month we’ve been hearing about playoff seedings, bye weeks and home field advantage. Are all those things really important? Historically it has been during the second round of the playoffs. Teams with the bye have home field advantage and two weeks to prepare, both of which are usually important edges this time of year.
However, during the conference championship games that kick off this weekend, history shows us that the two remaining teams in each conference are often on fairly equal footing, both straight up and against the spread. You might think the team with the home field has a big edge, but that’s not usually the case this deep into the season.
Last year both home teams won and covered, with underdog Denver beating the Patriots, 20-18, and Carolina rolling, 49-15, over Arizona.
Two years ago the favorites split, with New England crushing the Colts, 45-7, but Seattle failed to cover as -8.5 chalk against Green Bay, 28-22. The Packers were never in doubt of covering, either, leading 19-3 late before a shocking Seahawks comeback win in overtime. Four years ago the underdogs went 1-0-1 ATS in the title games, with the 49ers winning 28-24 at Atlanta as 4-point chalk and the Ravens beating the Patriots on the road, 28-13. Five years ago both underdogs covered in squeakers, with the underdog Giants beating the 49ers in OT (20-17) and the 7-point underdog Ravens nearly winning at New England, blowing a late field goal in a 23-20 defeat.
The last eight years, 12 of 16 home teams won and went only 9-6-1 ATS. Notice that since 1992, the home team has won just 28 of 48 NFL title games straight up and the visiting team is 24-23-1 against the spread. Going 29-18-1 straight up is an edge for the home teams, though far from dominant than many might expect to find in the second-biggest game of the season.
Within those statistics remember that there have been plenty of road underdogs that not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl, including the Ravens and Giants recently, both going on to win the Super Bowl. The Packers two years ago were one botched onside-kick away from advancing as a road dog.
Coming into this weekend, the dogs are 19-12-1 against the spread the last 16 years in the NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 11-5-1 ATS the last 17 years, including five of the last seven seasons with the Giants, the Packers twice and the Cardinals as a home dog to the Eagles. Philadelphia’s trouncing of the Falcons in 2005, 27-10, ended a six-year run by underdogs covering in the NFC championship tilt.
Evenly Matched Teams
Certainly you can’t discount home field advantage. However, there is generally greater balance between teams simply because at this point in the season, the remaining four teams are very strong and often evenly matched. In mid-January, you rarely find a team that has glaring weaknesses, for example, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in some offensive or defensive category.
It’s difficult for teams with major weaknesses to make the playoffs in the first place, and if they do make it, opposing coaches will attack those weak spots to their own advantage. The cream rises, which is what competition is all about. You also know that teams will be playing at a high level of intensity, as there is so much at stake — the winners go to the Super Bowl, the losers go home and sulk about what might have been. After such a long season, teams that have come this close to the Holy Grail are going to give everything they have for four full quarters.
Dogs Holding Their Own
Slicing the history another way, we find that the favorites are 30-15-1 straight up in NFL championship games but 23-22-1 against the spread the last 23 years. The total is 25-20-1 “over” during that time. Oddly, there have been more blowouts by the underdog than the favorite. The NY Giants rolled 41-0 in 2001 over Minnesota as a 2-point home dog. In January of 2000, Tennessee ripped the Jaguars 33-14 as a 7-point road dog, and four years ago the underdog Ravens won by 15.
Several big favorites have struggled, as well. Still, before you jump on the live dogs, remember that the favorites had a nice run of their own from 1993-97 going 8-2 against the spread in the NFL title games. This is why looking at trends and angles must be approached with great caution. The current trend: the favorites are on a very mild 10-7-1- ATS run in Conference Championship games.