For the first time since the NFL-AFL merger, home teams posted a losing record at home.
Long thought to be a comfort and a competitive advantage, home field advantage wasn't diminished by COVID-19 adjustments alone; this has been a trend over recent seasons. The pandemic, though, did seem to accelerate the pattern.
"It doesn’t feel any different playing at home or playing away right now," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said recently. "It has just evened everything out."
With reduced attendance and in some cases games completely absent of fans, home teams went 127-128-1 (.498) this season, the lowest winning percentage since the 1970 merger. Compare that to last season, when home teams went 132-123-1 (.518).
Going back one more year, home team winning percentage was .606 in 2018.
A few fans watch in Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers' game against the Tennessee Titans. (Photo: The Associated Press)
So, what does this mean for the postseason?
Teams that take advantage of the relative silence in otherwise imposing road environments may be in better suited to upset the higher seeds. Teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a savvy quarterback like Tom Brady who has seen everything opposing defenses can throw at him and a veteran coach in Bruce Arians who looks for competitive advantages, could be among the wild card clubs to make a deep run.
Furthermore, attentive teams in the seconds before a ball is snapped could also wield an advantage, keying in on what the other side is planning to do.
"There are absolutely times in games where you hear a defender say, 'Hey, watch this,' and you’re like, 'Man, that’s what we called,' " Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after a Week 16 victory against the Colts. "Some of that is dumb luck. Some of that is maybe tendencies. We can hear stuff that they talk about. It is one of the most unique years when it comes to strategy, when it comes to trying to trick people."
With that, though, playoff teams should also maybe exercise caution.
"Sometimes you even are trying to do dummy signals and saying dummy things just to make things happen or to trick other teams," Roethlisberger continued.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the outliers to 2020's stats on ineffective home field advantage were playoff teams, and the very best ones. Of the top four seeds in each conference, the only playoff squad to have a winning percentage at home lower than .625 was the Washington Football Team, which went 3-5 at FedEx Field.
In fact, removing Washington from the group of the top four seeds in each respective conference, the other seven went a combined 45-11 (.803) at home. The Chiefs, one of those seven teams, lost their regular season finale at home in a game in which they pulled the majority of their key starters.
It should be noted, also, that the top four teams in each conference were also particularly good on the road, too. Those teams combined to go 46-18 (.719) and that includes Washington's 4-4 road mark.
Even some of the lower seeds in both conferences enjoyed success away from their home stadiums. The No. 7 Colts, No. 6 Browns and No. 7 Bears each went 5-3 on the road this season, while the No. 5 Ravens and No. 5 Buccaneers both went 6-2.
That could suggest that the record low winning percentage for home teams in 2020 may have been the result of a widening gap between the strongest teams in the league and the weakest. For example, nine teams went 2-6 or worse at home this season, with four of those going 1-7.
Home field environments in the postseason, however, are notorious for being particularly difficult. With the stakes even higher and crowds at capacity, losing players often comment about how difficult crowd noise can be in road playoff games.
Well aware of this, Saints coach Sean Payton even floated the idea of quarantining 50,000 fans and having them subjected to daily tests in order to allow them to attend games.
"Uniquely this year, the away games for any of these opponents are not as daunting maybe as it would be when you have to go in and deal with the crowd noise and all the other factors," Payton said Wednesday.
It makes sense why he would want to do that, as far-fetched as his idea may be. In the SuperDome, where New Orleans plays its games, Payton has a 7-2 record in the playoffs as the coach of the team. His postseason record away from the stadium: 1-5.
Don't just take it from him. Using hard counts, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers manipulated the Saints defense in a Week 3 victory in New Orleans.
"This place is rocking all the time," Rodgers said after that game. "I know we all miss that in the sport — the fan interaction, the energy from the crowd. But it definitely helps us out in tough environment like this."
Contributing: Associated Press
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