Home Underdogs in the NFL Playoffs

In the first round of the playoffs, two teams will take their home field as decided underdogs. Much debate in recent years has centered around whether division winners should get automatic home games or not. Those who believe that division winners should get the home game regardless of record cite to the devaluing of winning a division.

My position on that is division winners get a big enough advantage from getting automatic qualification into the tournament, regardless of how well they fared against the rest of the league. I’m not sure we want to confer an extra advantage over other conference teams. Make no mistake–it is an advantage. Certainly not determinative of a game’s outcome alone, but a subtle advantage that we can see over thousands of games.

It even says so right in the name-home field ADVANTAGE. Not only is it an advantage, but it is at its strongest when teams are closer in talent, and particularly when the home team is slightly worse than the visitor. How much of an advantage? Well, the teams that have been home underdogs in the playoffs have fared pretty well. I find it amusing when people cite to the 2008 Arizona Cardinals as evidence that division winners deserve home games, because they were able to advance despite a poor regular season record. It is a rather circular argument, as they advanced, in part, because they had a new stadium and were able to play two home games (plus one Jake Delhomme special) against teams that had a superior record in the conference.

I was able to piece together point spread data from recent sources and then fill in with newspaper archives from the 1980′s, and I have found 26 occasions since 1980 where a team playing at home in the playoffs was an underdog per the point spread. Those teams are 17-9 straight up in winning the playoff contest, and 18-7-1 against the spread.  In recent years, it hasn’t been quite as strong (3-5 straight up, 4-4 ATS since 2004), but I’m not ready to declare that the home dog is dead.

You’ve been warned, Baltimore and New Orleans.

Here is the complete list of home dogs since 1980 (w=wildcard round, d=division round, c=conf. championship):

Year Round Home Line Away Home Away
2008 w ARIZONA +1 Atlanta 30 24
2008 c ARIZONA +2.5 Philadelphia 32 25
2008 w MIAMI +3.5 Baltimore 9 27
2008 w SAN DIEGO +1.5 Indianapolis 23 17
2008 w MINNESOTA +3 Philadelphia 14 26
2007 w PITTSBURGH +3 Jacksonville 29 31
2005 w CINCINNATI +3 Pittsburgh 17 31
2004 c PITTSBURGH +3 New England 27 41
2000 c NY GIANTS +2.5 Minnesota 41 0
2000 w MIAMI +2 Indianapolis 23 17
2000 w NEW ORLEANS +6.5 St. Louis 31 28
2000 w PHILADELPHIA +3 Tampa Bay 21 3
1997 c PITTSBURGH +3 Denver 21 24
1997 c SAN FRAN +2.5 Green Bay 10 23
1996 d CAROLINA +3 Dallas 26 17
1995 w PHILADELPHIA +3 Detroit 58 37
1992 c MIAMI +2.5 Buffalo 10 29
1992 d MIAMI +1 San Diego 31 0
1991 d DETROIT +1 Dallas 38 6
1988 c CHICAGO +1 San Francisco 3 28
1985 w NY GIANTS +3 San Francisco 17 3
1984 w SEATTLE +1.5 Los Angeles Raiders 13 7
1982 c WASHINGTON +2 Dallas 31 17
1982 d MIAMI +2 San Diego 34 13
1981 c SAN FRAN +2.5 Dallas 28 27
1980 c PHILADELPHIA +1 Dallas 20 7

[photo via Getty]

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