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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Predicting a 2-2 Home-and-Away Split

The home team wins something between 56 and 63 percent of the games during the NFL's regular season, depending on exactly which regular season you're looking at.
But that advantage goes way up during the playoffs. Over a ten-season period, 1994-2003, home teams went 31-9, a .775 winning percentage, in the first round. Since the 1990, when the playoffs expanded to include 12 teams, the home team has won 53 of 64 games in the second week, an .828 percentage.
Why the big difference? There are several reasons.
Seeding, for example. Teams play those 16 regular-season games not just to get into the playoffs, but to get the home field for as many playoff games as possible. In any playoff game, the home team is likely to be the better team. And better team plus home-field advantage should produce a pretty good winning percentage.
But the home favorite wins only about 70 percent of the time during the regular season. . . and that's against all comers, good, bad, and mediocre. In the playoffs, against playoff teams, that percentage ought to come down, but it goes up, instead. (Of course, I'm assuming here that the favored team is also the better team, which is pretty close to the truth but not entirely true.)
Another factor, I think, is that players and fans alike get more revved up for a home playoff game than they do for a game during the regular season. Football is a game of emotion, to a great extent, as long as the emotion is channeled, and I believe that's a major factor in home playoff success.
Finally, in the second week of action, the four top seeds are at home after a bye week. All those nagging aches and pains that build up in the course of the season have had an extra week to get better, if not heal completely. (That's why one NFL general manager calls it "the health field advantage.")
Last season, visiting teams won three of four games on wildcard weekend for the first time. That happened again last weekend.
I'm not saying that signals a trend, but I do believe that only two home teams will win this weekend.
Here's how I see the games, in chronological order.

Washington at Seattle

The Redskin offense looked pretty sick last week. It will get a little better against Seattle, but not enough.
Seattle has an outstanding offense, with the league's MVP, Shaun Alexander, running behind one of the NFL's very best offensive lines and Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck throwing to Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, and others.
The Seahawks will be able to score enough, even against Washington's excellent defense, to win. That's not saying a lot: Two touchdowns might well be enough.
The only way I see the Redskins winning is if they get good field position off takeaways two or three times. A long pass or two to Santana Moss would help, too.
But I see Seattle prevailing.

New England at Denver

Many years ago, I heard a conversation between two guys who did quite a bit of betting on sports. This was during the baseball season. One of them, who was known for losing money, had bet against a team that was on a winning streak, his theory being that they were due to lose.
The other guy, who had a reputation for winning more than he lost, said, "Let me tell you something. Keep betting on a winning team until somebody beats them."
Sure enough, that team continued its winning streak and Gambler No. 1 lost his money.
Right now, the Patriots are on a playoff winning streak and I can't see picking them to lose.
New England had the NFL's best rush defense over the second half of the season, and I don't think the Broncos can run consistently against them.
The game is likely to come down to Tom Brady against Jake Plummer, and I've just got to go with Brady in that contest.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis

Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said earlier this week that his team would have to play its A game to beat the Colts' B-minus game.
I think that was pretty accurate.
The Steelers may bring their A game to the RCA Dome, but I doubt very much that Indy will play at the B-minus level.
The Steelers have a pretty good defense and a pretty good offense. The Colts have a pretty good defense and a great offense.
The only way I see Pittsburgh winning this game is by taking advantage of a lot of turnovers, three or four or even more. And Indy gave the ball away only 19 times all season.

Carolina at Chicago

Last weekend, four quarterbacks were playoff starters for the first time. All four of their teams lost. Of course, Carson Palmer was one of them, and he was lost to injury on Cincinnati's second offensive play. So maybe I shouldn't count him.
Nevertheless, quarterbacks usually struggle in the first couple of playoff starts. And Chicago's Rex Grossman is not only making his first playoff start, he's starting a meaningful NFL game for only the eighth time.
I know, I know, the Bears are all about defense. When these teams met during the regular season, the Bears sacked Jack Delhomme eight times and got 10 points off turnovers in a 13-3 win.
I just don't think they can do that again. The Panthers will be better prepared and, overall, they're simply the better team, I believe.