Home Sweet Road: Why Visiting Teams Are Dominating Recent Postseasons

Ravens win

It was fitting, really, that the Steelers ended -- at least for now -- the domination of road teams in the NFL playoffs with Sunday's win over San Diego. The Steelers were, after all, the ones that started this home-away-from-home madness in the first place.

In the 2005-06 season, Pittsburgh barely inched into the postseason, needing four straight wins to do so. The sixth-seeded Steelers then went on the road and won at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, setting up a Super Bowl win over NFC No. 1 seed Seattle.

With that run, the Steelers became the first team since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970 to be crowned champion without playing a single postseason home game.

Last season, the Giants became the second. Baltimore or Philadelphia could become the third on Feb. 1 in Tampa.

Sure, eventual-Super Bowl champs have ventured away from their friendly confines for big wins before -- the Ravens themselves did it twice in the 2000-01 playoffs (though it's worth pointing out that no other playoff team won a road game that year)

We're witnessing an entirely different animal right now. Visiting teams are 5-3 through two rounds of this year's playoffs. They were 3-1 this weekend, an astounding number given that the NFL's top-four overall seeds hosted games.

How did this happen? How did home-field advantage become, for all intents and purposes, a virtual wash in the overall equation?

The long answer probably involves a detailed analysis of how the salary cap, draft, scheduling system and increased stockpile of talented players has combined to create greater parity in the league than ever before.

To save everyone from reading until the conference championship games start, the short answer is this: the league's four-division format means better teams are forced to play road games, and, recently, the majority of those teams have been incredibly well-equipped for the challenge.

By giving all four division winners in each conference at least one home game, you'll inevitably have some subpar hosts -- even though 8-8 San Diego and 9-7 Arizona held serve this year, that point still holds true.

Donovan McNabb

Beyond that, however, it's no fluke that similar teams are the ones crashing the parties.

Go all the way back to the Super Bowl-winning Ravens team, if you want. You'll find the same qualities in them that the 2005-06 Steelers, 2007-08 Giants and this year's Ravens and Eagles display.

Strong defense. Veteran leaders. A quarterback with a steady hand.

Often, it's that final factor that proves most important -- especially if a team happens to be lacking one of the first two traits.

Every single team that has lost at home in this season's playoffs could have won (yes, even Carolina). Miami fell when Chad Pennington threw four interceptions, the Panthers when Jake Delhomme tossed five. Kerry Collins had a costly turnover for Tennessee, and Eli Manning a huge one early against the Eagles.

On the flip side, Joe Flacco, Donovan McNabb, Kurt Warner and (in one less game) Ben Roethlisberger have been collectively outstanding. Oh, and the defenses playing behind all four of those quarterbacks are forcing the opposition into making mistakes.

You don't need to be a football wizard to deduce that the four teams remaining in the 2009 playoffs feature the hottest defenses and the quarterbacks playing at the highest levels.

Those are factors that translate no matter where the games are -- if your QB takes care of the ball while making a few plays, and your defense keeps the other team's offense from exciting the crowd, you could play at Giants Stadium, Heinz Field or on the moon, and you'd get the same results.

Crowd noise and unfamiliar surroundings don't change the strengths and weaknesses of your team. They don't change the talent level of your roster, either -- which means that, home or road, the teams best prepared for the playoffs are winning.

It is a bit of a coincidence that, starting with the Steelers' recent Super Bowl spurt, visiting teams have enjoyed a ton of success. But it's no surprise why.

Home Sweet Road: Why Visiting Teams Are Dominating Recent Postseasons originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Mon, 12 Jan 2009 02:45:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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