The Numbers Say NFL Homefield Advantage Still Matters

There’s a theory floating around NFL fandom and the media that says homefield advantage in the playoffs no longer matters—or at the very least is no more than an incidental edge. We can give our main thanks to Eli Manning for this theory, and to a lesser extent to Aaron Rodgers. Over the last five years, Eli’s Giants and Aaron’s Pack have won a combined three Super Bowls coming out of the first round, with a road record of 8-0. Conversely, those same quarterbacks have each seen their team lose in the second round as #1 seeds (2008 Giants, 2011 Packers). So is the theory true? Is getting to the dance all that matters, or is there still something to be said for favorable seeding?

Maybe I’m thinking this theory has gained far more traction than it really has, but living in southeast Wisconsin and surrounded by Packer fans, the circle I inhabit has definitely bought into it. The fact Green Bay went 3-0 on the road in 2010 en route to a Super Bowl title and then lost at home the following year as a 1-seed has a lot of people convinced that the Packers are better off playing in the first round. With the team set to play Minnesota on Sunday with a two-seed and first-round bye at stake, that’s no small thing right now. And in the national media, especially as it pertains to teams like the Cowboys, I’m hearing how the lessons of the Giants—both 2007 & 2011—have taught us that just getting in is the only thing that matters.

Let’s take a look at the record. I’ve gone through the last ten years of playoff history. This provides both a credible sample size, along with using as 2002 as the marking point, the year the NFL went to its current divisional alignment and postseason format.

The overall record of NFL playoff home teams in that timeframe is 63-37 (63%), which strikes me as pretty resounding In favor of homefield advantage. The weakest round is the first, where home teams win about 58% of the time. The strongest round is the conference championship game, where the win rate is 65%, and the second round—where the bye would be the biggest factor—being right on the average.

Now let’s break this ten-year period into two distinct halves. The second half—2007-11 can be called the Era of Eli, since it both begins and ends with New York’s improbable Super Bowl runs. Even with three Super Bowl champions coming out of the first round, even with the bracket-shattering year of 2008 when three of four teams with byes lost in the second round, the home team still went 31-19 overall for 62 percent. Most of that edge was created in the championship round, where home teams won seven of ten, while the first two rounds were more competitive, at 11-9 each for the home team.

If we go into the previous five years of 2002-06, the overall homefield edge stayed strong, at 32-18 (64%), and it was overwhelming at the bye level, with teams using the week off to go 14-6 (70%). The win rate was 60% in both the first round (12-8) and the conference championships (6-4).

Now let’s take this research one level further and focus on the #3 seed in particular. This is the area that draws the most attention, with the bye marking the clear dividing line between the 2-3 spots in the bracket. Again, if you want to argue it’s irrelevant, you have to argue against facts, or rely on a few narrow examples. Because just getting out of the first round is no guarantee, with the #3 seed going 11-9 over the past ten years. It gets worse in the second round. Against rested opponents and playing on the road, the 3-seed has gone 4-7. Three of the four winners lost in the conference championship game. The one exception was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who won the Super Bowl.

And the Era of Eli, presumably the one where homefield advantage and high seeding became things of the past, were even worse for the 3-seed. They only split in the first round (5-5), only one of those teams—the 2007 San Diego Chargers—won on the road in the second round and the Chargers then lost the AFC Championship Game. This example in of itself is instructive—while the ’07 Bolts lost to an undefeated team in New England, San Diego was also a wounded team in that conference championship, with LaDanian Tomlinson unable to go and Philip Rivers being hurt. Would a week off have made the difference?

Therefore, we can conclude that homefield advantage is still a big deal in the NFL playoffs, with win percentages remaining steadily between 60-65 percent. We can further note that while the first-round bye has lost a little bit of juice from the 2002-06 period when it was virtually tantamount to a win, the numbers still say that being in the 3-spot gives one a very difficult road to the Super Bowl.

I believe the numbers on the 3-seed in the first round are the most revealing. When fans debate whether it’s better to keep momentum or to take a week off, they overlook the most obvious point—they might get beat in the first round! It’s not as though it’s a glorified 60-minute scrimmage  to tune up with before going on to the second round.

The overall data places the odds of the 3-seed losing right out of the gate at 45 percent, which is hardly insignificant and the record goes drastically downhill from that point forward. In fact, within the context of the 2 vs. 3 debate, proponents of playing in the first round contradict themselves—on the one hand, homefield doesn’t matter. On the other hand, a first-round home game is just an easy tuneup win.

Every matchup is different and every team has its own nuance. When you look at the Houston-Denver-New England troika in the AFC angling for the top spots, I’d give the ultimate #3 seed a considerably better chance than 55 percent of beating Cincinnati in the first round. If Green Bay should lose to Minnesota on Sunday and be forced into a first-round rematch with the Vikings at Lambeau Field, I’d place the Packers’ odds of winning that game much higher than 55 percent. But in no case in the NFL playoffs, should you ever place the odds of winning higher than 70 percent. Isn’t a 30 percent chance of losing reason enough to push for favorable bracket position, to say nothing of avoiding injuries and getting homefield in future rounds, where the numbers say you have a 60 percent-plus chance of winning?

The record of the Giants and Packers over the last five years—both good and bad—are reasons to suggest that perhaps NFL homefield advantage isn’t as prohibitive as it once was. But it doesn’t mean homefield isn’t a very significant issue, and with byes on the line in both conferences in Week 17, this could still be the week when the Super Bowl teams are settled.