For the seventh consecutive season, at least one NFL team will be forced to play a playoff game at the stadium of an opponent with a worse record.
If some owners get their way, that eventually will change — perhaps as soon as a year from now.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Thursday the league has “looked at multiple ways” to change its playoff system, including letting the team with the superior regular-season record play at home. While some clubs lobby for that sort of switch, McCarthy said others “raised the concern that reseeding would minimize the value of winning a division; winning a division now means a guaranteed home playoff game.”
Both NFC matchups this weekend will be hosted by the team with fewer wins: The wild-card Saints (11-5) play at the NFC East champion Eagles (10-6) on Saturday night, and the wild-card 49ers (12-4) play at the NFC North champion Packers (8-7-1) on Sunday.
Consider the conditions the Superdome’s Saints and West Coast 49ers are expected to face. The forecast calls for a high of 31 degrees in Philadelphia, and a high of minus-3 in Green Bay.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow, being 12-4 and not having any home games,” San Francisco defensive tackle Ray McDonald said, “but we’re in a tough division and that happens sometimes.”
The league’s competition committee and NFL staff members have compiled reports examining the pros and cons of changing the postseason structure. There have been repeated conversations about the topic, as recently as the owners’ meetings last month, but there hasn’t been a formal vote yet.
“I’ve been there and really felt like, ‘Why in the world are we traveling? Why aren’t we playing at home?’ I’m sure that’s how some of these other teams feel,” said four-time Super Bowl coach Dan Reeves, whose New York Giants played — and lost — a second-round road game against a team with fewer wins after the 1993 season.
Generally, playing at home is an advantage.
This season, home teams went 153-102-1, a .600 winning percentage, even better than the .575 enjoyed by home teams for all regular-season games in the Super Bowl era, according to STATS. During the playoffs, STATS said, home teams win at a .675 clip — which makes sense, because usually that club was better during the regular season.
Even when home teams had a worse regular-season record, they have gone 20-16, a .556 winning percentage.
From the 1989 season through the 2001 season, there were only three playoff games hosted by the team with fewer victories. But it’s become a regular occurrence lately, with this weekend raising the total to 15 such games over the past seven seasons.
“It’s easier to play at home. That’s league-wide,” New Orleans right tackle Zach Strief said. “You have an advantage in the playoffs to play at your own place. You’re more comfortable there. You don’t have to deal with the noise.”
His team provides about as stark a contrast as possible: In 2011 and 2013, the last two seasons coached by Sean Payton, New Orleans is 16-0 at home, 8-8 on the road.
The Saints have never won a road playoff game, going 0-5. That includes a 41-36 loss at Seattle after the 2010 season, when the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints were 11-5 and the division-winning Seahawks were 7-9.
When the same teams played at New Orleans in Week 11 that season, the Saints won by 15.
“I definitely think it could have played out differently” in the playoffs if the site were switched, Strief said, “and yet, fair is irrelevant. The real world isn’t fair.”
The Eagles, meanwhile, went more than 400 days between home victories, from Sept. 30, 2012, until Nov. 17, 2013, a franchise-worst 10-game losing streak in Philadelphia. Then they ended this season with four home wins in a row.
Take a look at the schedule, though, and the Eagles’ 0-4 home start included losses to playoff clubs San Diego and Kansas City, while the 4-0 home finish came against teams that didn’t reach the postseason: Washington, Arizona, Detroit and Chicago.
When coach Chip Kelly was asked about the Saints’ home vs. road records, he dismissed their relevance, saying, “We defend schemes” and “Everything we do is based on situational football.”
Maybe so. Still, the NFL will continue to consider tweaking its postseason.
“Every scenario has been discussed, ranging from reseeding to one extra game, expanding from 12 to 14 teams,” the league’s McCarthy said. “Think of a scenario, it’s been discussed and remains in play.”