Home not always sweet in title games

Jan 17, 2006 1:22 AM

For the last month, we’ve been hearing a lot about playoff seedings, bye weeks and home field advantage. Are all those things really important in the playoffs?

Yes!

During the second round teams with the bye have home field advantage and two weeks to prepare — both important edges. However, during the conference championship games this weekend, history shows that the two remaining teams in each conference are often on fairly equal footing both straight up and against the spread.

There have been some road underdogs that not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl. San Diego was a 9½-point dog at Pittsburgh in 1995, but pulled the upset 17-13. Atlanta was an 11-point dog at 16-1 Minnesota in ’99, yet won 30-27 in overtime.

Tennessee flattened big home favorite Jacksonville 33-14 in 2000. Four years ago the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh and won 24-17. Two seasons ago the upstart Panthers rained on the Eagles parade, 14-3.

Those were just the big underdogs that triumphed. Smaller dogs have won in the conference championship games. Tampa Bay beat Philly as a 4-point road dog, 27-10 on its way to winning the Super Bowl. The NFC has seen the dog go 6-1 ATS in title games the last seven years.

Philadelphia’s trouncing of Michael Vick and the Falcons a year ago, 27-10, ended a six-year run by underdogs covering in the NFC championship tilt. Before that win, the last NFC favorite to win and cover was Brett Favre and Green Bay (23-10) at San Francisco.

Certainly, you can’t discount home field advantage. The Patriots used it the previous two seasons, beating up the indoor Colts twice (24-14 and 20-3) in the Foxboro cold. However, there is generally greater balance between teams because the remaining four teams are very strong and often evenly matched. In mid-January, you rarely find glaring weaknesses. Smart opposing coaches will attack any weak spots. The cream rises and teams play at a high level of intensity with so much at stake.

The "over" is 14-12 in NFL title games during the past 13 years, with the last four championship games going 3-1 "under" the total (all outdoors). Oddly, the dogs have pulled off more blowout victories than the favorites. This decade, the NY Giants rolled Minnesota (41-0) as a 2-point home dog, Tennessee ripped the Jaguars (33-14) as a 7-point road dog, and the favored Raiders fell to Baltimore (16-3) and the Bucs (27-10) in Oakland.

We have also seen several big favorites have struggle. The Rams were a 13-point chalk back in 2000 against the Bucs, yet needed a late TD to pull out an 11-6 win. The 10-point favorite Rams came from behind in 2001 to nip Philly, 29-24. The Steelers were big favorites over the Colts in 1996, but failed to cover in a 20-16 win.

Still, from 1993-97 the favorites went 8-2 ATS in the title games. That is why when looking at trends and angles, one must be proceed with caution.