Once upon a time, the top two seeds in each conference could view the division round as a tuneup for the conference title game.
Since 2005, the home teams in the conference semifinals have lost as many games as they have won: 12 wins, 12 losses.
It’s a dramatic difference from how things used to be. And it’s hard to pinpoint the reason.
The most plausible explanation comes from the boost that a team winning in the wild-card round receives. With low expectations and a chip firmly attached to their shoulders, the first-week winners can take to the road with a strong sense of confidence and an even stronger sense of disrespect.
The top two seeds, on the other hand, often are caught flat-footed by a loose team that isn’t supposed to win anyway. And if the home team falls behind and the visitor acquires even more confidence, things can get ugly, quickly.
That’s the primary problem with statistics in a true team sport like football. We can break games down from every possible numerical angle, but there’s no way to predict the human dynamics that unfold when 11 men who are trying to do one thing face 11 men who are trying to do something else. From game planning to execution to confidence to momentum to looseness to tightness to nerves to complacency to panic to getting in “the zone” to the benefit of a rematch (see LSU-Alabama), these intangibles make the game of football inherently more exciting — and they make attempts to quantify what will happen in the future based on what has happened in the past a bit, well, ludicrous.
Of course, it doesn’t mean the four home teams this year will all win. But if that happens, it’ll cut against the same trend that was defied in wild-card weekend, when a home-team sweep reversed a 21-19 home record in all playoff games since 2007.