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Dogs have had their days in NFL title games

Jan 15, 2008 4:33 AM

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

The last month we’ve been hearing about playoff seedings, bye weeks and home field advantage. Are all those things really important? 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.

However, during the conference championship games that kick off this weekend, history shows us that the two remaining teams in each conference are often on fairly equal footing both straight up and against the spread.

You might think the team with the home field has a big edge, but notice since 1992, the home team has won just 17 of 30 NFL title games SU and the visiting team is 16-14 ATS.

Going 17-13 SU is a slight edge for the home teams, though far from dominant that many might expect to find in the second-biggest game of the season.

Within those statistics remember that there have been road underdogs not only getting the money, but winning the game and advancing to the Super Bowl. Last year both home teams (Colts and Bears) won and covered, but that hasn’t been the norm.

Two years ago Pittsburgh was a road dog at Denver, but clobbered the Broncos 34-17. In 1995, San Diego was a 9½-point dog at Pittsburgh and pulled the 17-13 upset. In 1999, Atlanta was an 11-point dog at 16-1 Minnesota yet won 30-27 in overtime. In 2000, Tennessee flattened big home favorite Jacksonville, 33-14.

Six years ago, the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh and won 24-17. Four seasons ago, the upstart Panthers rained on the Eagles’ parade in a 14-3 NFC Championship game upset in a somewhat frustrated City of Brotherly Love.

Those were just the big underdogs that triumphed. Smaller dogs have won in the conference championship games, as well. When the Bucs captured the Super Bowl, they won 27-10 at Philadelphia as a 4-point road dog.

In fact, coming into this weekend, the dogs are 10-6 ATS the last eight years in NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 6-3 ATS the last nine years. Philadelphia’s 27-10 trouncing of the Falcons in the 2004-05 season, ended a 6-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. The Colts turned the trick at home last January. However, there is generally greater balance between teams simply because at this point in the season, the remaining four are very strong and often evenly matched.

In mid-January, you rarely find a team that has glaring weaknesses, such as 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, smart opposing coaches will attack those weak spots to their own advantage. 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 go to the Super Bowl, while the losers head home and sulk about what might have been. After such a long season, teams that have come this close to the Holy Grail are going to give everything they have for four full quarters.

Slicing the recent history another way, we find that the favorites are 20-8 SU in NFL championship games and 17-13 ATS the last 14 years. The OVER is 18-12 during that time. Oddly, there have been more blowouts by the underdog than the favorite.

The NY Giants rolled 41-0 seven 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, a 27-10 Tampa Bay in 2003, and the Steelers rout at Denver in 2006 and the road dogs have packed quite a playoff bite.

Several 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. Six years ago the 10-point favorite Rams came from behind to squeeze past Philly, 29-24. In 1996, the Steelers were a big favorite over the Colts, but the dog got the money in a 20-16 Pittsburgh win.

Still, 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 viewed with great caution. Dogs were 7-5 ATS for five straight years in the NFL championship games, before the favorites went 2-0 ATS last January.