by Jim Feist
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 favorites did win and cover, with Denver beating New England, 26,-16, and the Seahawks hanging on against the 49ers as 4-point chalk, 23-17. However, two years 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. Three 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 six years, eight of 12 home teams won but went only 6-5-1 ATS. Notice that since 1992, the home team has won just 24 of 44 NFL title games straight up and the visiting team is 23-20-1 against the spread. Going 25-18-1 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 recently, both going on to win the Super Bowl. In 2008 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. In 2007 Pittsburgh was a road dog at Denver, but clobbered the Broncos 34-17.
Ten years ago the Patriots were a double-digit dog at Pittsburgh but won 24-17 and the previous year the upstart Panthers rained on the Eagles' parade in a 14-3 NFC Championship game.
Coming into this weekend, the dogs are 17-10-1 against the spread the last 14 years in the NFL title games. The NFC has seen the dog go 10-4-1 ATS the last 15 years, including four of the last five seasons with the Giants, the Packers covering at New Orleans and the Cardinals were 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. 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.
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 27-14-1 straight up in NFL championship games but 21-20-1 against the spread the last 21 years. The total is 23-19 "over" during that time (5-1 under the last three 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 8-5-1- ATS run in Conference Championship games.