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NFL Playoffs: Conference Title Games
by Jim Feist - 01/12/2014
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 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 that's not usually the case this deep into the season.
A year ago the underdogs went 1-0-1 ATS in the title games, with the 49ers winning 28-24 at Atlanta as 4-point chalk and the Ravens beating the Patriots on the road, 28-13. Two years 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 five years six of ten home teams (Colts, Saints, Cardinals, Pats, Steelers twice) won but went 4-5-1 ATS. Notice that since 1992, the home team has won just 22 of 42 NFL title games straight up (0-2 last year), and the visiting team is 23-18-1 against the spread. Going 23-18-1 straight up is a slight edge for the home teams, though far from dominant than many might expect to find in the second-biggest game of the season.
Within those statistics remember that there have been plenty of road underdogs that not only got the money, but won the game and advanced to the Super Bowl, including the Ravens and Giants the last two years, both going on to win the Super Bowl. Six 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. Seven 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 17-8-1 against the spread the last 13 years in the NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 10-3-1 ATS the last 14 years, including the last four seasons with the Giants, the Packers covering at New Orleans and the Cardinals were a home do 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, for example, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in some offensive or defensive category. And home field didn’t help the Pats in last year’s AFC title game.
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. You also know that teams will be playing at a high level of intensity, as there is so much at stake -- the winners go to the Super Bowl, the losers go 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 history another way, we find that the favorites are 25-14-1 straight up in NFL championship games but 19-20-1 against the spread the last 20 years. The total is 23-17 "over" during that time (3-1 under the last two Januarys). Oddly, there have been more blowouts by the underdog than the favorite. The NY Giants rolled 41-0 in 2001 over Minnesota as a 2-point home dog. In January of 2000, Tennessee ripped the Jaguars 33-14 as a 7-point road dog, and last year the underdog Ravens won by 15.
Several big favorites have struggled, as well. 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 against the spread in the NFL title games. This is why looking at trends and angles must be approached with great caution. The current trend: the favorites are on a very mild 6-5-1- ATS run in Conference Championship games.