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Is home-field losing its advantage in the playoffs?

7:52 AM, Jan 10, 2014   |    comments
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USA TODAY - The New Orleans Saints had never won a road playoff game in their 47-season history until last Saturday. Now they hope to win a second just one week later.

They'll have to do it in Seattle, where the Saints have already lost big this season, and where full-throated Seahawks fans are known collectively as the 12th man, a moniker that suggests they're like having an extra player on the field.

"You got to find a way to tune it out and stay focused," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis says. "We know the situation. This is playoff football. If we lose, we snooze. If we win, we're still in."

Sports teams everywhere agree with Dorothy, who said after her road trip to Oz that there's no place like home. She meant Kansas – and the Kansas City Chiefs understand: They lost last week in Indianapolis, and now they're home alone in Missouri.

NFL teams fight all season for home-field advantage. Then, once they've got it, they can lose it in an instant. Last week, three of four NFL playoff games were won by road warriors. Top seeds, who get a first-round bye and can reach the Super Bowl with two home wins, have won the Super Bowl just twice in the past 10 years.

Champions lately have put the road into Road to the Super Bowl: The Baltimore Ravens won it last season as a four-seed, the New York Giants the year before as a five-seed – and the Green Bay Packers the year before that as a six-seed.

So, is home-field advantage all it's cracked up to be?

"No one is going to say they'd rather play on the road in the postseason," says ex-center Matt Birk, who retired from the Ravens after last season's Super Bowl. "But I do think we overemphasize the importance" of home, sweet home.

The Cincinnati Bengals were 8-0 at home in the regular season – and 0-1 in the playoffs. "They fell behind against San Diego," Birk says, "and had to be thinking, 'Oh, crap.'"

That could be what the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots were thinking last postseason when the Ravens roadies beat them.

"You have to really embrace that challenge" as a road team, Birk says. "It's the us-against-the-world type of deal, especially in the playoffs. The home team is jacked up. The crowd is jacked up. Especially with us last year going into Denver and New England, a lot of people were saying, 'The home team is supposed to win.' So that's a little pressure on them."

Birk figures if a road team can hang in there and keep it close late, the pressure builds on a home team, especially one that has locked up home field through the Super Bowl, if only it can hold serve.

"If you get into that third, fourth quarter and you're leading, the crowd gets a little antsy and the home team can tighten up a little bit," Birk says. "Because you stress the importance of home-field advantage so much all year when you're jockeying for playoff position. Your coach is talking about it, the media is talking about it.

"They make it sound like the Seahawks have home-field advantage throughout this postseason. They make it sound like a trump card, like it's their ace in the hole. The longer a game stays close, it starts to affect some teams and some guys mentally a little bit. It shakes them up."

The Patriots, who play host to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, were 8-0 at home this season, but they are just 5-3 in their last eight home playoff games.

"There's no tomorrow in the playoffs," Patriots safety Devin McCourty says. "No matter where you play ... you're going to get everyone's best shot, everyone putting up everything they have into one game. Home field is good. You get to be familiar, you've got your fans. But at the end of the day, it comes down to playing football."

SEATTLE CRANKS IT UP

The Seattle crowd noise tamps down to 87 decibels when the Seahawks are on offense. That's not as quiet as a church mouse, but it's quieter than a car radio at full blast, and their offensive players can hear snap counts.

Opposing offenses often can't. The noise generated by the Seattle faithful – as much as 112 decibels, approaching the sound of a Boeing 747 – causes 2.36 false starts per game, most in the NFL, according to the Seahawks, who've been keeping track since 2005.

"If you screw up, false start, get behind the chains, all of a sudden a negative run – you're looking at third-and-12 against a good home team with a bunch of noise," Seahawks center Max Unger says. "That's a tough ticket, man."

This week the Saints piped in noise at practice to simulate Seattle – and blew out two speakers.

"Just ignore the noise," Seahawks linebacker Heath Farwell says, "if you can." And then he laughs.

Normally, offenses have a built-in advantage because offensive linemen know the signal count, while defensive linemen can't tee off until they see the ball move. But that basic advantage can disappear if offenses feel they must resort to silent counts such as hand or foot signals.

"Then, as an offensive lineman, you're looking at the ball, too," says retired NFL guard Steve Hutchinson, who played for three teams, including the Seahawks. "You're not able to concentrate on your guy and anticipate a snap count."

Birk says the reason the Ravens won on the road a year ago was that their silent-count offense was so good.

"Our silent count was deadly in Denver," Birk says. "I think we got four offsides penalties called against them on the silent counts. That's crucial. Not only was it three or four offsides, but the effect of that. How many other times did (Denver defenders) not get off the ball because they were late off the ball?"

Birk says sometimes the Ravens even used their silent count at home, not because of noise, but "because we were so good at it because we practiced it so much. We took a disadvantage and made it into an advantage."

OFFICIATING CAN BE A FACTOR

Home-field advantage is real, though ethereal. It clearly exists, even if why is hard to say. The usual suspects include the roar of the crowd and the rigors of travel and time zones. But Tobias Moskowitz, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, believes conventional wisdom is wrong.

He is co-author of the book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Is Played and Games Are Won, which tracked how often home teams win in each sport. The findings: 69% in Major League Soccer, 60% in the NBA, 57% in the NFL, 55% in the NHL and 53% in Major League Baseball.

"Home-field advantage is no myth," Moskowitz says. "It's consistent in every sport. We looked at all the explanations everyone threw out there, the conventional thoughts about travel and being tired. None of that really matters. Nor does it matter that the crowd is cheering for one side. That doesn't affect players that much. They are professionals.

"But the crowd does have a big influence, through the referees. What happens is the refs start seeing things the way the home crowd wants them to. Not consciously – they are calling games as best they can. But the human condition is that when 50,000 people are screaming, it changes their perception on close calls, the ones that could go either way."

He cites pitches on the corner in baseball and charge/block calls in basketball. "They're making split-second calls under extreme pressure," Moskowitz says. "Social conformity is a natural human tendency."

From 1985-98, NFL home teams won 58.5% of the time, Moskowitz says. From 1999, when the current replay review began, through 2008, NFL home teams won 56% of the team, he says.

"That is a very significant change," Moskowitz says. "We downloaded the data from the NFL and we found unfavorable calls come against visiting teams, particularly when they are winning."

Moskowitz says he discounts travel as a factor in home-field advantage in part based on this: When the Los Angeles Lakers play the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Giants play the New York Jets, the home team wins at the same rate as when visiting teams travel 2,000 miles. "The only difference," he says, "is the season ticket holders in the stands."

Moskowitz says that, yes, crowd noise in football can make a difference by disrupting offenses, as with the Seahawks, "but that's a small thing, in my opinion." He points out, for instance, that NBA players shoot almost exactly the same percentage from the free throw line in the quiet of home arenas as they do in the din of road ones.

'YOU'VE STILL GOT TO PLAY WELL'

Here's how the Seahawks look at it when they go on the road.

"What we do around here is say, 'We're only facing 11 guys on the opposing team – it's not like they're coming out of the stands,'" Farwell says.

That's even though the Seahawks feel like their fans are a 12th man.

This week Saints coach Sean Payton painted the Seahawks' logo on the Saints' practice fields and blew out those speakers. Saints center Brian de la Puente says better than piped-in noise was playing in Seattle last month in a 34-7 loss.

"To our advantage, we've been to Seattle and experienced how loud it can be," he says. "And it's really loud."

So is Denver. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is counting on that: "Our fans will be excited. We'll need them in an important way – counting on them to be loud."

This season, as last, the Broncos earned home field with the best record in their conference. The Ravens beat them a year ago. This week, the San Diego Chargers come calling – and they are the only team to beat the Broncos in Denver this season.

"I know it's going to be a little bit louder than last time in Denver," Chargers wide receiver Kennan Allen says, "but I don't think that will faze us."

Manning dismisses the notion that earning home field throughout confers extra pressure. "It means you've played good football all season," he says, "giving yourself an opportunity."

Broncos coach John Fox likes the comforts of home and sleeping in his own bed.

"I think there was an old movie I saw – you guys might not have been alive – but The Wizard of Oz," he says. "There's no place like home."

Fox seems to be forgetting one thing. Dorothy was on the road – the yellow-brick road – and soon enough the Wicked Witch of the West found her home-field advantage melting away. The AFC West champs want to make sure theirs doesn't disappear into a burbling puddle of goo the way it did a year ago.

"I think everybody would rather play at home," Fox says. "But you've still got to play well. That is the bottom line. That is our big task at hand."

Contributing: Brian Allee-Walsh in Metairie, La., Jarrett Bell in Foxborough, Mass., Lindsay Jones in Englewood, Colo., and Jeffrey Martin and Tom Pelissero in Renton, Wash.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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