How Much Will Home-field Advantage In NFL Playoffs Matter In The COVID Era?

Written By Juan Carlos Blanco on January 9, 2021
Homefield advantage record Titans Bills NFL Playoffs

The 2020-21 NFL regular season was largely a microcosm of how everyday life can currently be defined – a constant exercise in adaptation and navigating uncharted waters. In times of upheaval, a number of long-standing beliefs can often be challenged. And in the world of sports betting – pro football specifically – the quantifiable advantage of playing in one’s home stadium was one of the theories that was surely tested.

Due to the pandemic, the majority of NFL teams played to stadiums completely devoid of fans when on their home field. There was a smattering of exceptions across the league – Cleveland, Dallas, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Tennessee and Houston among them – but even those venues were typically filled to about quarter capacity.

Now, for the first time in modern pro football history, playoff games will be played in front of sparse crowds instead of jam-packed stadiums. Here we look to find out how much that will matter in a betting-sense.

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Does the postseason change the equation for sportsbooks?

There’s a school of thought that having a vocal fan-base in the building during the playoffs has a completely different level of importance. There could be some validity to that thinking, although one doesn’t have to go back too far to find home playoff losses as the Ravens, Saints, Eagles and Patriots were upended in their own houses just last January. Those games were, of course, played in front of packed houses.

The teams that will have fans during Wild Card weekend are still expected to host a very limited number, which consequently doesn’t change the oddsmakers’ process much – if at all.

For example, BetMGM confirms the Bills’ planned 6,700-fan capacity this coming weekend had no tangible impact on the setting of the game’s initial number.

Patrick Eichner, Director of Communications for PointsBet, similarly acknowledges the sportsbook set the initial line with the modest crowd already factored in but didn’t necessarily assign it much weight.

“Given the very limited numbers, we don’t expect lines to shift based off the amount of people in stadiums,” Eichner said. “Looking at Buffalo, for example, the 6,000 fans allowed to attend will equate to less than 10% of the stadium’s capacity – so despite the fact that all 6,000 fans will certainly be rowdy and hungry for a win, the line won’t see much movement as a result.”

Eichner notes that the one appreciable line movement this week had nothing to do with homefield edge. It instead involved a personnel-related factor – the forthcoming absence of Cleveland’s head coach Kevin Stefanski from the sideline due to COVID-19 protocols.

“The COVID news surrounding the Browns almost immediately moved the line a full 1.5 points, from 4.5 to 6,” Eichner said. “While perhaps not as damaging as losing a starting quarterback, losing a head coach is certainly not a good thing, and thus the line has adjusted accordingly.”

ALSO READ: The best sportsbook promos and odds boosts for Wild Card weekend

Oddsmakers adapt throughout unique 2020 campaign

The review of statistics do seem to offer a good sense that raw physical talent still very much overrides the intangibles of playing at home.

DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello confirms that teams still actually have to be talented and well-coached for any home-field edge to be real.

“Home-field advantage has always mattered in sports when making prices on games,” Avello said. “It has never been equal for all teams because all teams are not created equal.

“Initially, we cut home-field advantage in half at the start of the regular season but have made adjustments along the way as each playoff team will continue to have some home-field advantage,” Avello continued. “For example, the Bills might be 3 points whereas for the Washington Football Team – it may only be 1 point. For the Saints it’s around 2.5 points, but if they get by this first round Wild Card game and were to get that home-field 50K quarantine gig on, that would bring the number up to 4 points.”

BetMGM’s oddsmakers concur that home-field advantage in its classical sense didn’t truly factor in this season league-wide, considering home teams were just 127-128-1 straight-up during the regular season.

That statistical nugget once again underscores the importance of talent.

After all, consider the Bills, Steelers, Seahawks, Saints, Titans, Washington, Packers and Chiefs went a combined 48-16 straight-up at home – and the six visiting teams during Wild Card weekend had a combined 31-17 home mark in their own right. That means the non-playoff teams are largely responsible for the losses in that full-season sample, going 48-95-1 on their home fields.

NFL home team scoring margins

One way to get a feel for how much (or how little) home-field advantage matters in the modern NFL is to examine home scoring margins over the past few years.

Here are the league-wide home scoring margins during the regular season for all 32 teams since 2016. As you can see, home-field advantage seemed to be getting less relevant by the year – regardless of the absence of fans in the stands starting in 2020.

YearLeague-wide home scoring margin totalLeague-wide home scoring margin average
2020+1.7 +0.05
2019-8.4 -0.26
2018+64.6 +2.01

And here are the home scoring margins over the past few seasons for each team that we know will host a playoff game this January. Keep in mind that these team-by-team scoring margins are less predictive than the league-wide data due to the smaller sample size.

Buffalo Bills+8.5+1-4.5-0.1+4.9
Green Bay Packers+12.1+6.0+3.1-2.9+9.4
Kansas City Chiefs+5.2+8.0+12.7+6.3+7.0
New Orleans Saints+6.9+4.2+7.1+7.3+1.5
Pittsburgh Steelers+10.1+4.9+7.5+4.0+8.2
Tennessee Titans+4.6+1.2+3.4+3.6+3.0
Seattle Seahawks+9.1-3.0+6.9+0.6+12.3

Good teams seem to shake off lack of fans

The purported advantage for home teams has always been attributed to being most prevalent in football.

The game’s already hefty emotional on-field component is thought to be even more enhanced by the comprehensive power of the roar of the crowd — it offers an avalanche of encouragement when the home squad has the ball and plenty of disruption for the visitors when its offense is on the field.

What, therefore, would transpire when every team in the league was forced to play in a literal cavernous echo chamber, or at best, with just a modest amount of crowd noise that probably took many players back to their days of playing at local high school fields?

Judging by the teams in this year’s playoff field – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In fact, from a pure win/loss perspective, the takeaway isn’t very surprising it all. It turns out talent, game plans and execution still trumps all.

Two of this season’s playoff squads — Washington and Chicago — actually had better road marks than home records this past regular season. Additionally, no 2020 postseason participant had a road record worse than Washington’s 4-4 tally. The remaining 13 clubs had winning records when traveling.

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Juan Carlos Blanco

Juan Carlos Blanco has served as a freelance writer for a wide variety of online publications and websites, with an intensive focus on fantasy sports. Juan has provided analysis and comprehensive coverage of the MLB, NBA, NFL, CFL, AAF and AFL while also reporting on news and developments in the daily fantasy sports and online gaming industries.

View all posts by Juan Carlos Blanco