NFL's return of crowds no big boost to home-field advantage

AP photo by Aaron Gash / Fans watch Sunday's game between the Minnesota Vikings and the host Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Being accustomed to playing outdoors in the Wisconsin winter is something the Packers hope to use as an advantage in the upcoming NFL playoffs.

Cheering fans returned to NFL stadiums in capacity this season, forcing road teams to use silent counts and other coping mechanisms to deal with the noise.

What's still missing is the home-field advantage that could be expected over opponents who have to deal with travel, occasional time zone changes and the din from the loud crowds.

A trend that began in 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic began, and continued last season when games were played in mostly empty stadiums has been evident once again in the 2021 season.

Home teams have posted a .510 winning percentage (excluding two games in London) for the third-worst such mark since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, with only the .498 winning percentage last season and the .508 in 1972 faring worse.

"I think really winning on the road is not as big of a challenge, in my opinion, as it was probably 10, 15 years ago," Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said.

McCarthy pointed to quarterbacks' comfort from college in using no-huddle offenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage to more visiting fans traveling to games among the factors leading to the change.

"I think that the home field is something that is definitely still a benefit," he said, "but I think the statistics would support that the challenge of winning on the road - I think teams do a better job of it in today's game."

The league was on track for a second straight season with an overall winning record for road teams before home teams went 21-11 the past two weeks.

Before a key home win against the Denver Broncos in Week 16, Las Vegas Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia joked he might take his team out of town before the game because success on the road have proven easier to come by.

The Raiders won that game and got a boost from the crowd, but they're just 6-10 in two seasons at their fancy new Allegiant Stadium compared to 11-5 on the road in that same span. Now they likely need another win at home Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers to clinch a playoff spot.

"We get Raider Nation coming in here. They call them crazy Raider fans; we can't get enough of them," Bisaccia said of the team's silver-and-black-clad supporters. "We want every one of them, and we want them to be loud. Hopefully it's a blackout come Sunday night."

The Raiders are just one of several potential playoff teams that have struggled to win at home this season. The New England Patriots posted their first losing record in 20 seasons at Gillette Stadium, the New Orleans Saints have gone 2-5 at the Superdome for their worst mark since 1996 and the Arizona Cardinals are taking a 3-4 home record and 8-1 road mark into their regular-season finale.

While hosting used to traditionally be worth about three points and was reflected that way on betting lines, that has dropped in recent years to just less than two points. But that change is a far smaller factor on betting lines than injuries and weather - or in recent weeks, COVID-19 outbreaks.

"I would say we're aware of it, but it really doesn't play into how we're going to open the line," said Adam Burns, sportsbook manager for BetOnline.

While the home and road records have been close to even this season, home teams have had the edge when it comes to scoring (23.7 points per game at home to 22.0 on the road), passer rating (92.0 to 89.1) and penalties (5.9 per game to 6.1).

That wasn't the case in 2020, when scoring was even and road teams fared slightly better in passing efficiency.

The success of road teams last season carried over to the playoffs when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers triumphed in successive weeks at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay to become the fifth team in history to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl.

Notably, though, they didn't have to contend with loud crowds in any of those games, with Washington having no fans in attendance and the Saints and the Packers having fewer than 8,000 apiece.

The Bucs then became the first team to win the Super Bowl on its home field when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs in a partially filled Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Getting to the big game on a road path isn't expected to be as easy this year, and given their preference, coaches and players would rather be at their own stadium no matter what the statistics might say.

The Tennessee Titans are in position to seize home-field advantage in the AFC after going 7-2 at home, while the Packers have once again clinched the top spot in the NFC thanks in part to a perfect 8-0 mark at Lambeau Field, where January can be bitter.

"It's a different ballgame when it's cold at home and we've handled the cold pretty well over the years," Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "So that's what we're hoping for in the playoffs."