NFL playoffs: Conference
champions at stake!

Jan 16, 2007 1:07 AM

This is it — the final weekend of games before the Super Bowl.

The last month we’ve been hearing a lot about playoff seedings, bye weeks and home field advantage. Are all those things really important once the playoffs begin? Yes, during the second round of the playoffs. Teams with the bye have home field advantage and two weeks to prepare, both of which are important edges this time of year.

In the conference championship games that kick off this weekend, history shows the two remaining teams in each league are often on fairly equal footing both straight up and against the spread. You might think that the team with the home field has a big edge. Not the case.

Going 15-13 SU is a slight home edge, though far from dominant many might expect for the second biggest game of the season.

Within those statistics there have been some road underdogs that not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh was a road dog at Denver last year, but clobbered the Broncos 34-17. San Diego was a 9½-point dog at Pittsburgh in 1995 and pulled a 17-13 upset. In 1999, Atlanta was 16/1 and an 11-point dog at Minnesota and won 30-27 in overtime. Tennessee flattened big home favorite Jacksonville the following year, 33-14.

Five years ago the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh and won 24-17. Three seasons ago, the upstart Panthers rained on the Eagles’ parade 14-3 in the NFC Championship game at Philadelphia.

Those were just the big underdogs that triumphed. Smaller dogs have won in the conference championship games, as well. When the Tampa Bay Bucs won the Super Bowl, they were victorious 27-10 at Philadelphia as a 4-point road dog. Entering this weekend, the dogs are 10-4 ATS the last seven years in NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 6-2 ATS the past eight years. Philadelphia’s trouncing of Michael Vick and the Falcons in 2004-05 ended a six-year run by underdogs covering in the NFC championship tilt.

Certainly you can’t discount home field advantage, something the Patriots used in consecutive years to beat up the indoor Colts, 24-14 and 20-3 in the Foxboro cold. However, there is generally greater balance between teams. 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 ranking at the bottom of the NFL in some offensive or defensive category.

It’s difficult for teams with glaring weaknesses to make the playoffs in the first place. If they do qualify for postseason, smart opposing coaches will attack those weak spots. The cream rises, which is what competition is all about. You also know that teams will be playing at a high level of intensity with so much at stake. The winners head to the Super Bowl. The losers go home and sulk about what might have been.

Slicing the recent history another way, we find that the favorites are 18-8 SU in NFL championship games and 15-13 ATS the last 13 years. The over is 16-12 during that time. Oddly, there have been more blowouts by the underdog than the favorite. The N.Y. Giants rolled 41-0 six years ago over Minnesota as a 2-point home dog. In January of 2000, Tennessee ripped the Jaguars 33-14 as a 7-point road dog.

Throw in a 16-3 Ravens win at Oakland, the Tampa Bay win at Philly in ’03 along with a Steelers rout at Denver last January and the road dogs have packed quite a playoff bite.

Several of the big favorites have struggled, as well.

The Rams were a 13-point favorite over Tampa Bay in 2000, yet needed a late TD to survive, 11-6. Five years ago, the 10-point favorite Rams came from behind to squeeze by Philly, 29-24. In 1996, the Steelers were a heavy favorite over the Colts. Instead, the underdog got the money in a 20-16 Pittsburgh win.

Before you jump on the live dogs, remember that the favorites had a nice run of their own from 1993-97 going 8-2 ATS in the NFL title games. This is why looking at trends and angles must be approached with great caution.

The dogs may be 7-5 ATS the last five years in the title games, but that doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen this weekend.