In his recent post “The Payoff of Playoffs”, Joe Posnanski points out that road teams are performing better in the playoffs recently, and that the teams with a bye week and home field advantage are now 12-12 since 2005, compared to 39-9 between 1990 and 2001, when the sixth playoff team was added and before the eight division format.
Posnanski offers up several reasons as to why he thinks this might be happening: the scheduling sytem, home field advantage losing its edge, and more real parity.
After thinking about it and taking a look at it, and then remembering our old friend Occam’s Razor, I think the reason that road teams are winning more games in the divisional round is simple. The Divisional Road Teams recently have been better than their historic counterparts.
Now, the reasoning behind why we are producing more high quality road teams recently is more complicated, but I checked. It’s true. The road teams in the divisional round, since the league went to 8 divisions in 2002, and particularly in the last six years, have been better.
A few years ago, I looked at whether the bye week increased home field advantage, concluding it does not, once we control for matchups. The reason that we have traditionally had more blowouts in the divisional round is because it was the round that had the most mismatches. Similar to what I did in that study, I used the simple rating system for the divisional road teams to see if they have been better recently. From 1978 to 1989 (excluding the strike years), the divisional round road teams had an average SRS of +2.9. During that period, one wildcard advanced, and the other road team was automatically the worst division winner.
From 1990 to 2001, the divisional round road teams had a slightly higher rating, with an average SRS of +3.6. This makes sense, as the worst divisional winner, usually the weakest conference team in the playoffs, was no longer guaranteed automatic passage into the second round. Still, though, the two best wildcards had to square off in the first round, while the weakest wildcard went on the road at the worst division winner.
From 2002 to present, the divisional round road teams have an even higher rating, with an average SRS of +4.4. This is true even though we have seen some bad teams advance, like this year’s Seattle or the two 8-8 teams in the NFC in 2004. Now, the two best wildcards in the conference don’t have to beat each other up, plus, the scheduling imbalance can sometimes mean the best division winners aren’t always the ones that secure a bye.
When we consider how many “very good” road teams are advancing, we see why there have been more upsets. I’ll define very good here as at least 6.0 points better than league average in the regular season. From 1978 to 1989, only 10% (4 out of 40) of the road teams in the divisional round had a rating of +6.0 or better. From 1990 to 2001, that jumped to 25% (12 of 48), including both the 1997 Broncos and 2000 Ravens. Since 2002, it has jumped again, and half of the divisional road teams (18 of 36) have been at least +6.0 better than league average in the regular season.
I also checked the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, which uses play by play data. I can’t go all the way back to 1978, but they do go back to 1993 right now. The average road team in the divisional round does have a higher rating (14.9% compared to 12.9% for 1993-2001). When we look at teams that have a DVOA of 20.0%, which would represent the upper tier teams that are likely Super Bowl contenders, we see that 11 of the 36 divisional road teams pre-2002 were above that level, while 16 have had a rating that high since 2002. Over the last six seasons, when road teams in the divisional round have won half the games, 11 road teams had a DVOA rating higher than 20.0%.
The better the road team, particularly at defending the pass or passing the ball, the better your chances of advancing. The visitors these days have just been better, and that’s why the bye doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to.
[photo via Getty]