SuperStudy: Home-field advantage in playoffs

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 18, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts History Major


The 2011 postseason started as a homer’s delight – that is, the first seven games each went to the home team. There had not been a postseason like that since 2000, when home teams started 6-0 before the Ravens upset the Titans in Tennessee. In case you forgot, the Super Bowl that season would feature the Ravens and New York Giants; two teams that make up half of this year’s final four.
 
It was only last season when the home team was just 4-6 in the playoffs, as Green Bay became the third team since 2005 to go on a three-game road trip to the Super Bowl.
 
Is home-field advantage everything it’s cracked up to be? We opened up the playoff history book again to get the all-time numbers you need to know about home-field advantage in the playoffs and how it compares to the regular season. The difference might be bigger than you expected.

Home-Field Advantage (1940-2011)

After the Giants’ victory in Green Bay on Sunday, it concluded the 479th playoff game in NFL history. We have had 46 games played on a neutral field, which includes all 45 Super Bowls, and the 1936 NFL Championship game between Green Bay and Boston, which was played on a neutral field in New York. That leaves 433 playoff games where one team had a clear home-field advantage. AAFC games were excluded.
 
In postseason history, the home team holds a 293-140 (.677) record.
 
That’s a significant advantage, especially when you consider what the home team usually does in the regular season. Using the Play Index at Pro Football Reference, we compiled records on home-field advantage for a few different scenarios.
 
Regular Season - Home-Field Advantage
Years Games Wins Losses Ties Pct.
1940-49 540 301 216 23 0.579
1950-59 726 403 305 18 0.567
1960-69 1611 839 700 72 0.543
1970-79 1932 1087 813 32 0.571
1980-89 2128 1212 906 10 0.572
1990-99 2328 1387 939 2 0.596
2000-09 2544 1450 1092 2 0.570
2010 256 143 113 0 0.559
2011 256 145 111 0 0.566
TOTAL 12321 6967 5195 159 0.572
 
No matter if you go all the way back to the 1940’s, when playing on both sides of the ball was the norm rather than a gimmick, the home team usually wins around 57% of their regular season games. The 90’s saw a slight increase at 59.6%, but it’s settled right back into the 57% range since 2000.
 
So where does the 10% increase in the playoffs come from? For starters, the playoffs eliminate bad teams from the field. Even if they’re playing at home, the teams that finish 2-14 or 3-13 lose to almost any team they play. The following table shows the home records for teams that only had a winning record that season.
 
Regular Season (.500+ Teams) - Home-Field Advantage
Years Games Wins Losses Ties Pct.
1940-49 292 221 61 10 0.774
1950-59 351 261 83 7 0.754
1960-69 736 514 185 37 0.724
1970-79 912 686 210 16 0.761
1980-89 988 738 246 4 0.749
1990-99 1048 814 233 1 0.777
2000-09 1160 854 305 1 0.737
2010 112 81 31 0 0.723
2011 96 74 22 0 0.771
TOTAL 5695 4243 1376 76 0.752
 
Home-field advantage shoots up to 75.2% when only winning teams are considered. Doing the subtraction, that means teams without a winning record only win 41.7% of their home games. That is a major reason for why it’s only 57.2% overall in the regular season.
 
But the playoffs are all about good teams playing each other. You get some of these quality matchups every regular season, so the next split we looked at was the home team’s record in regular season games between teams that made the playoffs that season.
 
Regular Season - Playoff Team vs. Playoff Team
Years Games Wins Losses Ties Pct.
1940-49 14 9 5 0 0.643
1950-59 17 10 6 1 0.618
1960-69 46 25 20 1 0.554
1970-79 140 92 47 1 0.661
1980-89 256 151 104 1 0.592
1990-99 353 239 114 0 0.677
2000-09 303 166 136 1 0.550
2010 31 18 13 0 0.581
2011 32 18 14 0 0.563
TOTAL 1192 728 459 5 0.613
 
While this 61.3% advantage brings us closer to our real postseason average of 67.7%, the number is still closer to the overall regular season advantage (57.2%). There’s clearly something different about a real playoff game than a regular season impostor.
 
Maybe it’s as simple as the crowd; one that knowingly paid more money to come see a big playoff game? When the 2-4 Denver Broncos hosted the 5-2 Detroit Lions this year, did Denver fans really go into the game with the expectations that this was going to become a playoff season, or that they really needed to win the game to extend their season? Detroit won 45-10.
 
But as Denver won six games in a row to reach 8-5, then were hosting the playoff-bound Patriots, you did notice the excitement and attention build up for the Broncos. They would lose that game as well, but it wasn’t the same type of loss as Detroit. Unless it’s really late in the season, many times the fans don’t know they are going to a game between two teams that will still be playing in January.
 
How about the numbers for playoff home-field advantage over the years?
 
Postseason - Home-Field Advantage
Years Games Wins Losses Pct.
1933-39 6 5 1 0.833
1940-49 13 7 6 0.538
1950-59 15 11 4 0.733
1960-69 31 20 11 0.645
1970-79 64 43 21 0.672
1980-89 86 59 27 0.686
1990-99 100 73 27 0.730
2000-09 100 64 36 0.640
2010 10 4 6 0.400
2011 8 7 1 0.875
TOTAL 433 293 140 0.677
 
Once the sample size started to increase in the Super Bowl era, you can see we’ve stayed around that 67% mark, with the 90’s at 73%. We’ll need one road team to win on Sunday to finish the last two seasons at 12-8 (.600). As more Wild Card teams go on Super Bowl runs, we are seeing the percentage drop since 2000 from where it was during 1970-99.
 
Of course, even with 100-game samples from the two previous decades, the playoffs are still small samples compared to the regular season. That 9% difference between the two decades instantly shrinks to 7% should Miami’s Pete Stoyanovich make a 48-yard field goal in San Diego in 1994, while Nate Kaeding makes his 40-yard field goal for San Diego a decade later in 2004.
 
Here is a summary of the previous tables to show the differences in home-field advantage over the various decades and splits (all regular season games, regular season games between teams that would make the playoffs, regular season games for teams that had a winning record, and all playoff games).
 
Home-Field Advantage Summary
Years RS RS-PO Teams RS-.500+ PO
1940-49 0.579 0.643 0.774 0.538
1950-59 0.567 0.618 0.754 0.733
1960-69 0.543 0.554 0.724 0.645
1970-79 0.571 0.661 0.761 0.672
1980-89 0.572 0.592 0.749 0.686
1990-99 0.596 0.677 0.777 0.730
2000-09 0.570 0.550 0.737 0.640
2010 0.559 0.581 0.723 0.400
2011 0.566 0.563 0.771 0.875
 
How did the 90’s rank so high across the board? Despite the introduction of free agency, more teams found sustained success in that decade. Eight different teams won at least 72.5% of their home games in the 90’s, compared to just one in the 80’s and two since 2000 (New England and Baltimore). These were powerhouse contenders such as Dallas, Buffalo and San Francisco (especially early) in the decade, then Denver, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh later on. Kansas City had a big advantage at Arrowhead, and the expansion Jaguars went 30-10 at home.
 
What about breaking the playoffs down by round? There’s a bit of a more profound advantage for the Divisional round, but there’s nothing as significant as the change from regular season to postseason.
 
Home-Field Advantage - By Round
Round Games Wins Losses Pct.
Wild Card 118 76 42 0.644
Divisional 187 132 55 0.706
Conference 82 55 27 0.671
League Champ. 46 30 16 0.652
TOTAL 433 293 140 0.677
 
How about a quick look at scoring in the playoffs? You can see from the 60’s on that scoring by the road team (Avg. PA) has gradually increased.
 
Postseason Scoring Averages (Home Team = Avg. PF)
Years Games Wins Losses Pct. Avg. PF Avg. PA Margin
1933-39 6 5 1 0.833 25.0 14.3 10.7
1940-49 13 7 6 0.538 15.1 19.9 -4.8
1950-59 15 11 4 0.733 26.8 17.0 9.8
1960-69 31 20 11 0.645 22.3 15.5 6.8
1970-79 64 43 21 0.672 21.0 16.0 5.0
1980-89 86 59 27 0.686 25.3 17.4 7.9
1990-99 100 73 27 0.730 26.0 17.0 9.0
2000-09 100 64 36 0.640 24.7 19.2 5.5
2010 10 4 6 0.400 22.6 26.8 -4.2
2011 8 7 1 0.875 31.3 19.4 11.9
 
For this week, fans of the 49ers may remember they lost the 1990 NFC Championship at home to the Giants. They aren’t alone, as New England fans remember very well the 33-14 defeat to Baltimore in the 2009 AFC Wild Card. Tomorrow we'll be looking into some of those home playoff losses.
 
One can make arguments for peaking too early, mishandling the end of the regular season in regards to rest, and the increase in teams winning on the road to get to the Super Bowl.
 
But as this postseason has shown, in addition to being a great team, it still helps to be the home team as well.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He’s very good at home; the road is another story. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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