Home no lock in finals

Jan 13, 2004 5:40 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, they are, during the second round of the playoffs. Teams with the bye have home field advantage, and two weeks to prepare. Both are huge edges over their opponents. However, in conference championship games since 1992, the home team is just 12-10 straight up and the visitors are 13-9 against the spread.

Within those statistics remember there have been some road underdogs that not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl. In 1995, San Diego was a 9½-point dog at Pittsburgh, but pulled the upset 17-13. In 1999 Atlanta was an 11-point underdog at 16-1 Minnesota yet won the game in overtime 30-27. Tennessee flattened big home favorite Jacksonville, 33-14, in 2000, while two years ago the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh and won 24-17. And those were just the big underdogs that triumphed.

Smaller dogs have also won in the conference championship games. The most recent occurred last January when Tampa Bay won as a 4-point road dog at Philadelphia, 27-10. The only favorite to cover was the Raiders a year ago as an 8-point home chalk over Tennessee, 41-27.

The NFC has seen the dog go 5-0 ATS in the title game the last five years. The last NFC favorite to win and cover was way back in 1998, when Green Bay and Brett Favre won at San Francisco as a road favorite, 23-10.

There is greater balance between opponents simply because 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 that has glaring weaknesses, for example, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in some offensive or defensive category.

It’s difficult for teams with weaknesses like that to make the playoffs in the first place, and if they do make it, smart opposing coaches will attack those weak spots to their own advantage. The cream rises, which is what athletic competition is all about.

You also know that teams will be playing at a high level of intensity, so there is much less likelihood of a "let down spot" or a team packing it in emotionally.

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 14-8 SU in NFL championship games and 11-11 ATS. Talk about perfect balance by the oddsmakers!

The "over" is 13-9 during that time, including the past four championship games.

Conspicuously absent from the recent list of title games are blowout wins by the favorite. Since the 1994-95 pro football season, only one favorite has won convincingly. That was Green Bay in 1997 with a 30-12 victory over Carolina. (The Raiders’ 41-24 victory over the Titans last January was 27-24 going into the fourth quarter.)

There have actually been more blowout wins by the underdog! The NY Giants rolled 41-0 three years ago over Minnesota as a 2-point home dog. In January 2000, Tennessee ripped the Jaguars 33-14 as a 7-point road dog. Throw in a 16-3 Ravens win at Oakland and a 27-10 Tampa Bay victory last January, and the road dogs have packed quite a playoff bite of late.

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.

Two years ago the 10-point favored Rams squeezed by 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.

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 proceeded with great caution. The dogs may be 4-0 ATS the last two years in the NFL championship games, but that doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen this weekend!