Commentary

Will home teams thrive?

Division winners are rested, but road teams may be sharper

Originally Published: January 13, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Unlike in the wild-card round last week, home could be a haven in the NFL's divisional round of the playoffs this weekend.

The top four seeds naturally are the oddsmakers' picks. The Steelers are favored over the Ravens by 3½ points and the Falcons over the Packers by 2½. The Sunday games put the underdog with long odds to win. The Bears are 10-point favorites over the Seahawks. Rex Ryan's Jets are 8½ point underdogs to the New England Patriots.

Combined, the home teams this weekend are 25-7 with their home crowds cheering behind them. But in the playoffs, games intensify. Playoff teams that don't earn the bye week gain momentum from the wild-card round and pose more of a threat in this part of the NFL tournament. Although the bye week allows a division winner to get healthier, the week off sometimes leads to a slow start in the playoff games.

Anything can happen in these four live reality shows.

1. Recent history of upsets: From 1983 to 2001, home field was sacred, as the home playoff teams in the divisional round won 77.7 percent of their games. Things have changed a little since 2002, when the league expanded to eight divisions. The home teams have since gone 20-12, dropping the success rate to 62.5.

The chance of an upset is clearly present this weekend. Since the league went to eight divisions, all four home teams advanced together in the same year only in 2002 and 2004. The Chargers lost at home to the Jets last year, and New York advanced to last season's AFC Championship Game. Arizona upset a second-seeded Carolina Panthers team in the 2008 playoffs and eventually earned a trip to the Super Bowl. In 2008, three lower seeds won. Still, odds favor the home teams this weekend.

[+] EnlargeChicago D Line
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe Bears' defense did not fare well at home late in the regular season, giving up an average of 32 points in its past three games in Chicago.
2. Bears feel like strangers at home: Lovie Smith built his Cover 2 defense for speed, pressuring the quarterback and having defensive backs reading the eyes of quarterbacks to intercept passes. Even though the Bears are 5-3 at home, their defensive numbers aren't great. Part of the problem is the slick grass field that doesn't give defensive linemen great traction to get around blockers quickly. Cold weather has turned the Bears' defense cold as ice in Soldier Field. Opponents averaged 33.7 points per game in Chicago's final three home games of the regular season. And when the weather was warmer, Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks were able to come into Chicago and come away with a 23-20 victory. To get to the NFC title game, the Bears must re-establish home-field advantage.

3. A third-downer? Hasselbeck knows the Bears game won't be easy. He's coming in with an 8-9 team that somehow upset the New Orleans Saints last week in Qwest Field. In the Seahawks' 23-20 win in October, the Bears went 0-for-12 on third down. The Seahawks, meanwhile, converted 7 of 18 of those opportunities. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was particularly awful in that game; he completed 17 of 39 passes for 290 yards and was sacked six times. For the Seahawks to win, Hasselbeck concedes the Seahawks will have to play better, because it's hard to figure that the Bears' offense can play as badly as it did in Week 6. After that game, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz cut the seven-step drops from the offense. He's put Cutler more on the move, rolling him out and letting him use his powerful arm and strong legs. The Bears learned that the offense works more efficiently when Cutler is limited to 30 pass attempts a game.

4. McCarthy has some decisions: In the Packers' 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 28, Packers coach Mike McCarthy used a five-receiver formation 16 times, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, Aaron Rodgers completed 77.8 percent of his passes. Last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, McCarthy tried a three-back inverted wishbone formation that allowed running back James Starks to get 61 of his 123 rushing yards. Should the Packers spread the field or go to the power sets against the Falcons? Whatever Green Bay does, Falcons coach Mike Smith has had an entire week to figure out solutions. His Falcons defense has been more vulnerable to the run than the pass in the Georgia Dome. Opponents average 4.7 yards per carry and 114.1 yards per game rushing in the Georgia Dome. The Packers have struggled to run the ball all season since losing Ryan Grant in the opener, and McCarthy is unlikely to rely on the running offense to try to advance to the NFC title game.

5. The Falcons' defense is good but not great: Quarterback Matt Ryan quickly established himself as a star by taking the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie, then leading the Falcons to a 9-7 record last season. But it has taken a little more time for the Falcons to establish a defense. The Falcons ranked 16th on defense during the regular season, but they play better at home. Opposing quarterbacks average 6.83 yards per attempt in the Georgia Dome and complete 64.9 percent of their passes compared with 6.91 yards an attempt and 65 percent on the road. This is significant because the Falcons played their toughest schedule at home. They've faced Drew Brees, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Rodgers and Carson Palmer in the Georgia Dome and lost only one game.

6. Why run your head into a wall? The Steelers usually have one of the league's best run defenses, and this season they had one of the best in NFL history, allowing only 62.8 yards a game. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has come up with a smart idea: Don't run on them. In their Week 4 victory in Pittsburgh, the Ravens ran 27 times for 70 yards, and Flacco dropped back to pass 38 times, completing 24 of 37 attempts for 256 yards and being sacked once. In the 13-10 loss to the Steelers in Week 13, Cameron called 20 runs for 43 yards while Flacco completed 17 of 33 passes for 266 yards and was sacked four times. The idea is to spread the field with receivers and hope the Steelers replace nose tackle Casey Hampton with a defensive back. Expect the same strategy Saturday.

[+] EnlargeMichael Oher
Brett Davis/US PresswireMichael Oher of the Ravens may need some help protecting Joe Flacco from Pittsburgh's pass-rushers.
7. Protecting the protector: The Ravens' offensive line has a lot of challenges. First, it must make sure it identifies the location of safety Troy Polamalu, who could explode through the line and sack Flacco. The other issue is to decide whether left tackle Michael Oher needs occasional help. Oher is a talented left tackle, but he's still learning the position and gave up seven sacks in 16 games. Sometimes, Ravens coach John Harbaugh will use an extra offensive lineman to line up in a tight end position to help the left or the right tackle. Oher might be the one needing assistance because he'll face linebacker James Harrison. In the two regular-season games against the Steelers, though, Oher and the Ravens held Harrison in check, as Harrison didn't pick up a sack against the Ravens.

8. Two tight ends a problem for the Jets: Bill Belichick will never fully disclose why he gave up on Randy Moss and switched exclusively to a two-tight end offense, but you have to think he had the Jets in mind. Having an extra blocker to hold off blitzing Jets helps, but having tight ends who can create matchup problems for the Jets' secondary is also a great weapon. It's evident that the Jets have lost a half-step getting to the quarterback with their blitzes -- their touchdown passes allowed jumped 300 percent from eight last season to 24 this season. In each game against the Jets, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady keeps getting better against the Jets' blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady went 10-for-18 with an interception against the Jets' blitz this season. In Week 13, he was 7-for-10 and had two touchdowns. Last season, he was only a 50 percent thrower against the Jets' blitz in two games and didn't have a touchdown pass.

9. Losing Woody a problem: The surgically repaired knee of Jets right tackle Damien Woody finally gave out, and he had to be placed on the injured reserve list. Wayne Hunter replaces him, and that could be a big problem for the Jets. One of the positive things the Jets have been able to do this year against the Patriots is run to the right. According to ESPN Stats & Information, LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 12.6 yards per carry to the right side of the line and Shonn Greene averaged 4.2, slightly better than he's done against the Patriots in runs up middle or to the left.

10. Who goes on Revis Island? Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis proved his worth by limiting the Colts' Reggie Wayne to one catch for 1 yard last week. The problem facing the Jets on Sunday is again figuring out whom he should cover. In the Week 13 game in New England, Revis tended to move man coverage toward slot receiver Wes Welker, but there were times he stayed on one side of the field and covered the pass-catcher on that side. The Patriots create problems for defensive coaches because they have too many quality players to cover. The Pats line up in two-tight end sets an average of 39 times per game, and matching up against their tight ends has been a problem all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady has a 143.3 quarterback rating when he targets tight end Rob Gronkowski and 130.6 when he targets Aaron Hernandez.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer