Since the NFL postseason expanded to 12 teams in 1990, home teams have won 65 percent of the time on wild-card weekend — an even better rate than the league’s 59 percent home field advantage in the regular season. For teams that can’t lock down a bye week, playing at home has traditionally been a solid consolation. This year, though, it could be that none of that will matter once the games begin.
As of Tuesday morning, three of the four home teams in this weekend’s games are underdogs in Vegas, and you can make a good case that the fourth — Washington, which hosts Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers — should also be expected to lose. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, our favorite measure of a team’s strength at any given moment, this is the first time since 1990 that three home teams have been underdogs in the wild-card round:
|YEAR||AVERAGE HOME ELO||AVERAGE ROAD ELO||DIFFERENCE||AVERAGE HOME WIN PROBABILITY||HOME UNDERDOGS|
This year’s group is also the second-most-overmatched batch of home teams since 1990, the only impediment to No. 1 being 2010, when the 7-9 Seahawks hosted (and won!) a wild-card game. That year’s crop of home teams was exceptionally weak; in addition to Seattle, Kansas City was a below-average team according to both Elo and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, and the Eagles and Colts were helped by good fortune (they exceeded their Pythagorean expectations).
While this year’s wild-card home teams aren’t great, they’re not all that bad — that three-quarters of them are underdogs owes more to the strength of their opponents. By Elo, this is easily the strongest group of road squads that wild-card weekend has seen since 1990. It includes teams ranked Nos. 1 (Seattle), 4 (Kansas City), 7 (Pittsburgh) and 9 (Green Bay) in the league. Those are the kinds of teams that typically host wild-card games, not travel to other cities as guests.
Back in October, my colleague Andrew Flowers and I wrote about how downright weird the season was shaping up to be, in the sense that the distribution of wins was out of whack compared with historical norms. Now, on the eve of the playoffs, that weirdness is manifesting itself another way: Each conference’s lowest-seeded teams are among its strongest. It’s a phenomenon that could pay big dividends for road teams on wild-card weekend.