Home field advantage is even more valuable in the playoffs

December 27, 2012

After the Redskins’ win and the Giants’ and Cowboys’ losses Sunday, the numbers give Washington a 73% chance of making the playoffs. This includes both the more likely possibility that they win the division Sunday with a victory over Dallas, and the less likely possibility that should they lose, they get enough help to qualify for a wild card spot.

The league couldn’t have scripted the final week of the season any better. The Redskins host their division rival Sunday night in a winner take all battle for the NFC East. The Redskins have home field advantage and look like the slightly better team at the moment. My model gives them a 63% chance to beat the Cowboys, and the odds makers agree. Washington is currently a 3 to 3 1/2-point favorite.

It’s unlikely, but still possible, that the Redskins could lock up a playoff berth before their nighttime kickoff. Losses by both Chicago at Detroit (43% chance) and Minnesota hosting Green Bay (57% chance) would guarantee the Redskins the 6th seed. The chance that the combination happens is just under 25% (.43 * .57). Detroit has very little to play for, and games like that are hard to quantify. But here again, the oddsmakers are in agreement; they have made Chicago a 3-point favorite.

Even in the event the Redskins clinch a wild card spot prior to their showdown with the Cowboys, they would be well advised to push hard for the win. It’s not just about division bragging rights. The NFL’s playoff format heavily favors higher seeds. The combined effect of byes and home field advantage can make a several-fold difference in the probability of reaching the Super Bowl.

I often hear or read the notion that once a team gets into the playoffs, “anything can happen.” Although true, the chances of that something happening for the top seeds is several times better than it is for the bottom seeds. For starters, having a first round bye nearly doubles a team’s chances of making the Super Bowl. The week off to rest may be helpful, but the dominant effect of a bye is that it’s effectively an automatic win in the first round.

Home field advantage is also critically important, especially in the playoffs. Home field advantage is enhanced in the postseason because teams tend to be of equal strength. In the NFL regular season,  the home team wins about 57% of the time, but that includes large mismatches which don’t exist in the playoffs. (For example, it didn’t matter very much where New England played Jacksonville last Sunday.) It’s very difficult to parse the effect of home field from the impact of team strength in the postseason because the better teams tend to have the higher seed and thus home field. But it appears it’s close to 60%. That’s a big difference in the first round alone–a wild card on the road starts with a 40% chance of progressing, but a division champion starts with a 60% chance, half-again better.

Just based on seeding alone, the #1 through #6 seeds in the playoffs have, in order, a chance of : 36%, 29%, 11%, 10%, 7%, and 6% of making it to the SB.  (Details here.) You can see that the #1 seed has about six times the chance of a wild card team to make it to the Super Bowl. The #2 seed has nearly five times the chance. Actual percentages throughout the current playoff format closely match these chances.

In the Redskins case, the #4 seed would give them nearly twice the chances of the #6 seed. It’s a long shot either way. But even if Detroit and Green Bay are able to hand the Redskins a guaranteed wild card, Sunday night’s game will have a lot on the line.

As always, thanks to nfl-forecast.com for its assistance with playoff probabilities.

Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.

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Lindsay Applebaum · December 27, 2012

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