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? Historically it has been during the second round of the playoffs. Teams with the bye have home field advantage and two weeks to prepare, both of which are usually important edges this time of year.
However, during the conference championship games history shows us the remaining teams 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 that’s not usually the case this deep into the season.
A year ago both underdogs covered in squeakers, with the underdog Giants beating the 49ers in OT (20-17) and the 7-point underdog Ravens nearly winning at New England, blowing a late field goal in a 23-20 defeat.
The last four years six of eight home teams (Colts, Saints, Cardinals, Pats, Steelers twice) won but went 4-4 ATS. Notice that since 1992, the home team has won just 22 of 40 NFL title games straight up, and the visiting team is 22-18 ATS.
Plenty of road underdogs not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl, including the champion Giants a year ago. Five years ago both road teams covered. The Patriots topped San Diego, 21-12, but failed to cover, while the +7 underdog road Giants won at Green Bay, 23-20. Six 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, but pulled the upset 17-13. In 1999 Atlanta was an 11-point dog at 16-1 Minnesota, yet won 30-27 in overtime, while Tennessee flattened big home favorite Jacksonville, 33-14, in 2000.
Nine years ago the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh but won 24-17, and seven 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.
Coming into this weekend, the dogs are 16-8 ATS the last 12 years in the NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 10-3 ATS the last 13 years, including the last three seasons with the Giants, the Packers covering at New Orleans and the Cardinals as a home dog to the Eagles. Philadelphia’s trouncing of the Falcons in 2005, 27-10, 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, with the Colts turning the trick at home in 2007. However, there is generally greater balance between teams 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 or ranking at the bottom of the NFL in some offensive or defensive category.
It’s difficult for teams with major weaknesses to make the playoffs in the first place, and if they do make it, opposing coaches will attack those weak spots to their own advantage. The cream rises, which is what competition is all about.
Favorites are 25-13 SU in NFL championship games but 19-19 ATS the last 19 years. The total is 22-16 OVER during that time (2-0 under last January). Oddly, there have been more blowouts by the underdog than the favorite.
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. The current trend: the favorites are on a 6-4 ATS run.
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]