01/08/2021

NFL insider notes: Packers may be the only winners when it comes to home-field advantage, plus Week 17 picks

Aaron Rodgers sat on his couch last Sunday and watched the snow come down in Green Bay. He checked his phone’s weather app to see what the percentages were that the snow would continue into that evening’s game against the Titans, hoping that it was going to last.

It did, of course, and Rodgers felt just at home. In a performance that will probably put him over the top for his third career MVP award, Rodgers led the Packers to a 40-14 win over Tennessee and one step closer to securing home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs alongside a first-round bye. The Packers can clinch the top seed with a win against Chicago or a Seattle loss this weekend.

In a season where home-field advantage has virtually disappeared across the league, and for a team like the Green Bay that doesn’t need much more than an abacus to count attendance the last few weeks, I believe the Packers will profit more than most teams by getting the No. 1 seed if and when Week 17’s results bear that out. 

“I think we all heard enough about us not beating enough good teams. Not responding and playing a complete game, and this was our response,” Rodgers said after the win. “I feel good about where we’re at. It’s tough to play in the cold and it’s tough to play in Lambeau.”

I wrote extensively before the start of the season about the impact the lack of fans would have on home-field advantage. Studies have shown the greatest driver of home-field advantage is the fans’ influence on officials. And with no or few fans in the stands — and especially with tarps covering the first several rows of seating — that influence would theoretically disappear. 

This year, home teams are 120-119-1 going into Week 17. That’s the closest margin of the last decade at least. Home teams have outscored the visitors 5,944 points to 5,910 points this year, so just one more road team winning on Sunday and blowing out the home team will essentially make this year a wash.

It’s not just because of empty stadiums that we’re seeing such tight margins, though. Last year, home teams went 132-123-1 and were actually outscored by 30 points. What we know for certain is that home-field advantage is not worth the three points it once was, and this year it hasn’t even been worth the 2.5 points or so it had been adjusted to. Home teams are 117-123 against the spread this year, so betting markets never truly figured it out. 

Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle are all in the running for the No. 1 seed, and all exhibited better-than-expected home-field advantages this season, relative to the rest of the league and adjusted for opponent strength. Those numbers come to me with (all the) help from Robby Greer, who does strategic analytics for a Silicon Valley startup and who holds an econ degree from Vanderbilt and MBA from Dartmouth. We worked together on my previous home-field advantage article, and I reached out to him this week for help on this one.

“Given weather, bye week and slight home-field advantage, I think you’d probably look at 1.5 to 2 points (of advantage for Green Bay) depending on the opponent,” Greer says. “That seems low but in the context of 2020 that’s actually pretty big home-field advantage.”

The Packers have had no more than 1,000 fans in the stands since Thanksgiving, and those people include health care workers, first responders and team employees and their families. Team officials have yet to make a call on how many fans, if any, will be allowed into Lambeau for the playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll go from a few hundred to more than 10,000 people. 

If home-field advantage is driven mostly by packed crowds, and no one outside of Dallas has any more than a couple thousand fans in the stands, then what does playing at home really mean for the outcome of the game?

The only tried and true home-field advantage across sports has been observed in Denver thanks to the altitude. So what if Green Bay offers some sort of perceptible home-field advantage with windy, cold and/or snowy conditions?  

“I think that the cold is something that we always embrace here, and just that’s what we practice in, that’s what we live in every day,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said after the Titans win. “So, our guys embrace that. It’s just we’ve had some bad weather games, more so in terms of the wind. That is something that I think is a little bit more challenging than all the snow that’s out there tonight. Obviously, I think just guys having the proper footing in those types of situations, I think is critical.”

Rodgers used to talk with former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy about the utility of big backs in poor weather conditions. From Ahman Green to Ryan Grant, from Eddie Lacy to AJ Dillon, Green Bay has normally had a big back to handle the load when the field forces the game plan to be adjusted.

When the tarp is removed from the field in pregame, the snow starts to get into the grass and make the field slicker. If it’s cold (and colder than it was Sunday against Tennessee), the field could start to freeze and make it even slicker. The ball is also slicker and tougher to throw in the wind, so the team that’s more familiar and comfortable with these conditions would obviously have a leg up.

The Packers are 15-5 at home in the Super Bowl era, and Rodgers is 4-2 as a playoff starter at home. Green Bay finished 7-1 at home this year with the lone loss to Minnesota in Week 8. 

But Greer dove deeper than that and crunched the numbers from 1999 to today. He found that the Packers have a 1.49-point home-field advantage in regular season games played after Nov. 1 than in games played in September and October.

“You look at that Green Bay data from 1999, a pretty large sample, and granted there’s a lot of volatility in those numbers, but on average their home-field advantage in November and December is quite a bit higher. A full point and a half,” Greer says. “There could be something there and something to that. Maybe the No. 1 seed would be worth a little bit more to Green Bay [than others], especially a team like New Orleans and a quarterback like Drew Brees who, for all of his strengths, does not have a good arm.”

The greatest advantage of all, of course, is the first-round bye for only the No. 1 seed. When the expanded playoffs were first proposed, I thought taking the first-round bye from the No. 2 seed would create too great an advantage for the top seed. Yes, the regular season should matter, but giving just one team a week off and having the other six play opening week felt like the league was starting the postseason with too large of an imbalance.

The best piece I saw written about this was from Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart. He found that the chances of the top seed making the Super Bowl in this new format compared to the previous format had increased by 5%. Meanwhile, the chances of the No. 2 seed to get to the Super Bowl decreased by 11.2%. The last two Super Bowl winners were both the two seeds in their conference playoffs, by the way. 

This piece was written before the pandemic hit, and it does not take into account the effect of empty stadiums on postseason performance. We’ve never seen anything like it, so any guess at how it will affect the play is just that. But however you weigh home-field advantage, there’s no question the No. 1 seed’s chances of making the playoffs has increased and the No. 2 seed’s has decreased.

The advantage of playing at home in the NFL has never been so slim. Add into the mix weather conditions that are unique to Green Bay among its potential NFC opponents along with all that comes with the No. 1 seed in today’s NFL, and you get what may be the greatest home-field advantage of all in a weird 2020 season.

“I’ve played in a lot of these games so I feel pretty good about being able to throw it should we have snow and wind like we did today,” Rodgers said after Sunday’s win. “That’s just something we’re used to. We practice outdoors. We play in these types of games.”

To the picks!

I went 10-6 last week in an up-and-down week that saw me pick the Jets to win but also pick Dwayne Haskins to beat an NFL team. I’m now 161-78-1 going into the final week of the regular season. This week has a chance to be a disaster based off who rests their starters and when. Ah, well. Let’s do it!

Dolphins at Bills

1 p.m., Sunday, CBS

This is the hardest game of all to pick this week. For me it comes down to this: the Bills have been considering these final games like the postseason already. They’re playing like the second-best team in the NFL — not just the AFC. I don’t see Buffalo slowing its momentum, and I believe Miami will need some help Sunday in order to get into the playoffs.

The pick: Bills

Jets at Patriots

1 p.m., Sunday, CBS

If the Jets had either Frank Gore or La’Mical Perine available for this game, I may very well pick the Fighting Adam Gases to finish the season on a three-game win streak. But I just don’t know how the Jets are going to keep the Pats defense guessing without a reliable running back. Bill Belichick is almost done having to answer questions about his quarterback for another four-or-so months.

The pick: Patriots

Cardinals at Rams

4:25 p.m., Sunday, FOX

When you build your team like the Rams do, you wind up with a backup quarterback like John Wolford. His security blanket would normally be Cooper Kupp but he won’t be playing. If the Rams want to get back into the playoffs, they better hope the Bears can’t find a way to beat the Packers — which they won’t.

The pick: Cardinals

Football Team at Eagles

8:20 p.m., Sunday, NBC

If it’s Alex Smith under center Washington and he’s healthy, I reserve the right to change my mind. Doug Pederson knows the pressure is on and I believe he happens to be a coach who doesn’t deserve to get fired. By virtue of his play, Jalen Hurts has made for a very interesting offseason coming in Philadelphia. I think that continues Sunday night by eliminating the Washington Football Team from playoff contention.

The pick: Eagles

Cowboys at Giants

1 p.m., Sunday, FOX

It’s the Jason Garrett (post-COVID-19) Revenge Game! The Giants have dropped seven straight to the Cowboys, but this game is a simple one for me to pick. New York houses the better quarterback, better defense and better head coach. Make room for your new NFC East champs.

The pick: Giants

The rest

Ravens over Bengals

Browns over Steelers

Vikings over Lions

Saints over Panthers

Buccaneers over Falcons

Titans over Texans

Colts over Jaguars 

Chiefs over Chargers

Raiders over Broncos

Seahawks over 49ers

Packers over Bears