Form will hold up at
home for one team

Jan 16, 2007 7:07 AM

Form has held up in the NFC as both top seeded Chicago and second seeded New Orleans both defended their home field and advanced to the NFC Championship game this Sunday at Soldier Field.

However, in the highly competitive and very deep AFC, neither home team was able to win last weekend. So Indianapolis will host New England for the league title with the winner advancing to Super Bowl XLI in Miami two weeks later on Feb. 4.

Last weekend’s Divisional Playoff Round did not follow a long established historical pattern, suggesting that even more surprises are on the way. Aside from road teams winning two of the four games outright, all four underdogs covered the point spread.

This marked the second time in four seasons we have witnessed this phenomenon. In the 2003 playoffs, there were also two outright road upset winners along with two home teams that won but failed to cover as favorites.

Additionally, the four games were decided by a total of just 18 points. Three of the games were each decided by exactly a field goal. This also represented a dramatic departure from history. Normally the divisional round produces an average margin of victory of 15 points — the largest of any postseason round dating back to 1990.

Thus far through eight games, home teams are 6-2 SU, but just 2-6 ATS. Five of the eight have been decided by a field goal or less. Only one (New England’s Wild Card win over the New York Jets) has been a rout — and even that game was close into the fourth quarter.

None of this season’s playoff games has produced more than 53 total points. During the past regular season, nearly 20 percent of all games totaled more than 53.

Parity or mediocrity? You decide.

On to the Conference Championship games.

The straight up winner covers the point spread 87 percent of the time since 1990 (27-4-1). That would figure to happen again this season with both games priced at a FG, but don’t rush to the windows just yet.

Since 1990 the home team in the conference championship game has won just 18-of-32 games (56 percent) — hardly an overwhelming endorsement of home field advantage. In each of the last nine seasons, at least one road team has advanced to the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh did it last season, winning the AFC Title in Denver.

Only four times since 1990 have both home teams won their conference championship games. On two occasions both road teams won. Prior to 1990, the home team had been dominant in this round of the playoffs. The salary cap combined with greater free agency have narrowed the gap between the best and worst NFL teams.

That’s why a "worst to first" story unfolds almost every season. Consider the New Orleans Saints this season.

Here’s a look at both Conference Championship games.

Saints +3 at Bears (43): The New Orleans Saints have been the "feel good" story of the season. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, the Saints were forced to play all 16 games away from home. The result, understandably, was a 3-13 season, their worst record since an identical mark in 1999. Following that 3-13 of 1999, the Saints turned things around in 2000 winning the NFC West on tie breakers over St. Louis and their only other playoff win by defeating Rams. New Orleans finished either 8-8 or a game within .500 the next four seasons.

Chicago started 7-0, winning the NFC North by five games over Green Bay. The Bears were the defending division champs, going 11-5 in 2005. Their repeat was no surprise. An outstanding defense returned and was complimented by improved offense. The Bears wreaked havoc on the rest of the league over that seven game start, outscoring the opposition 221-69 before being shocked at home by 1-6 Miami.

QB Rex Grossman struggled mightily over the season’s second half, as did the defense, especially vs. the run. The swagger vanished.Chicago did lead the league with 44 takeaways in the regular season, but turned the ball over 36 times for just a +8 in that category.

New Orleans was quite good at protecting the football, but ranked 31 in forcing just 1.4 turnovers per game. Brees was every bit as valuable to his team as was former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson was to San Diego. The Saints led the league in passing yards and still had a decent running attack.

Weather is always a factor to be considered in Chicago at this time of year. Brees has a background of playing through inclement weather from his college days at Purdue, but his bad weather was in November, not January. The Saints are capable of winning it all, having won six of eight road games.

Being asked to lay a pretty cheap price, which might dip below a FG, provides an additional edge in backing the team with the greater football tradition. The future is incredibly bright for New Orleans. Now, the future is Chicago. BEARS.

Patriots +3 at Colts: The Pats are Indy’s playoff nemesis. In back-to-back seasons the Colts were eliminated from the playoffs by New England, the most recent being just two seasons ago. That win marked the fifth straight time the Pats had defeated the Colts overall. The teams met during the 2005 regular season with Indy finally getting a win to snap that streak.

That win came at New England and the Colts won again this season on the road to earn the home field for this game. Now the Colts are the team with the momentum. After allowing all 16 regular season opponents to gain over 100 yards rushing, the Indy defense held first Kansas City to just 44 rushing yards and Baltimore to just 83.

The return of injured players played a part, along with Tony Dungy’s decision not overextend the team during the regular season. The Colts were a virtual certainly to earn double digit wins in the AFC South and make the playoffs. Although the Colts offensive output was down noticeably, having QB Peyton Manning operating behind an offensive line that provides him with great protection has the Colts one play from a touchdown at any spot on the field.

Several times this season Manning was called upon to rally the Colts from a deficit and much more often than not he delivered. The defense, despite the ugly numbers, entered the playoffs fresher than in seasons past.

Belichick has shown so often the ability to make adjustments on the run. Entering this AFC Title game, the Patriots have won five in a row and 8-of-9. That’s very much the profile of a Super Bowl winning team — playing its best football at the end of the season.

New England poses a far more formidable challenge than did either the Ravens or the Chiefs. No QB since Joe Montana has been better in big games than Tom Brady. The Pats are 12-1 in the playoffs under Belichick, the lone setback in a divisional round game at Denver.

Perhaps this is the season when Manning, Dungy and the Colts as a whole finally make it to the Super Bowl. But as long as the Patriots are still in contention, they have to be respected if not feared.

Poetically it should come down to a last minute Peyton Manning drive and a made or missed Vinatieri FG against his former mates with the Pats nursing 24-23 lead. The SU game winner and totals result hang in the balance, but perhaps not the spread. PATRIOTS.