The Eagles are home underdogs to Falcons in the divisional round. Since the AFL/NFL merger, this is just the seventh time that’s happened, according to Pro Football Reference. With one exception, they all fit the same template: the home team was a rebuilding team making the playoffs for the first time, while the road team was an established playoff team. Obviously, the oddsmakers weren’t sold on the home team. And that’s exactly the case with the Eagles and Falcons: the Eagles haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 and have to start Nick Foles, the Falcons are the defending NFC Champions.
But were the oddsmakers right to favor the road team?
1979 Buccaneers vs Eagles -4.5
That’s right, Saturday’s game isn’t even the first time the Eagles have played in a home underdog game. But this time, they were the road favorite.
Tampa Bay had won 7 games in franchise history prior to the 1979 season. They started in 1976 with their infamous 0-14 team, then steadily improved to 2-12 and 5-11. In ‘79, on the back of the league’s top defense, they won 10 games and were the 2nd seed. They hosted the Eagles, who were in the playoffs for the second season in a row and had defeated the Bears in the wild card round.
It’s easy to see why the Eagles were road favorites: Tampa’s worst to first turnaround out of the abyss seemed too good to be true, and their 5-6 record after a 5-0 start appeared to back that up. Entering the season finale Tampa Bay was on a 3 game losing streak and had to win to make the playoffs, in one of the heaviest storms in NFL history they eked out a 3-0 win. Meanwhile the Eagles were in their fourth year of steady improvement, with then-career years from Ron Jaworski and Wilbert Montgomery.
In the game, the Bucs defense, #1 in points and yards that season, stifled the Eagles. Jaworski threw for just 199 yards on 39 attempts and Montgomery ran for just 35 yards, and Tampa Bay won 24-17.
1982 Dolphins vs Chargers -1.5
It’s uncommon for a home team to be an underdog, to happen to the same team in consecutive years is just insulting. We’ll take these together.
The first matchup fit the mold of upstart vs established. The Dolphins had missed the playoffs in 1980 in a rebuilding year after making the playoffs in 1978 and 1979. By the beginning of the 1981 season, only seven starters from ‘79 were starters in ‘81, the revamped Dolphins and their 11-4-1 record were seen as a surprise. The Chargers were an established team, having made the playoffs the previous two seasons and winning a wild card game in 1980.
The playoff format in 1981 sent only five teams per conference to the playoffs, so the wild card game was to see who traveled to face the top seed. With Miami the 2 seed and San Diego the 3 seed, they both had the first week off. They’d need the rest.
In what is known as “The Epic in Miami” the Dolphins and Chargers played one of the greatest games in NFL history. The Chargers and their league best offense raced out to a 24-0 lead in the 1st quarter. Don Shula benched QB David Woodley and put in long time backup Don Strock, who led the Dolphins to scoring 24 straight points of their own. The teams then traded touchdowns, and with seconds on the clock at 38-38, Miami attempted a 43 yard field goal to win the game, but Kellen Winslow blocked it to send the game to OT. Overtime was just as dramatic as regulation, with both teams exchanging missed field goals. Then, 13:52 in to overtime, San Diego kicked a 29 yard field goal to win 41-38. An instant classic. If you’ve got two and a half hours to kill, you can watch the whole thing.
The next season the teams met in a rematch that couldn’t possibly live up to the billing. But in the strange 1982 season, it somehow made sense that a rematch should happen. An in-season player strike caused the season to be just 9 games long. To help make up for the lost games, the NFL altered the playoff format: three additional teams per conference made the playoffs, up from five to eight, nobody got a bye. That’s one reason why home teams are almost always favored in the second round. In addition to usually being the better team anyway, they also had a week off. But that wasn’t the case in 1982, when Miami dispatched the Patriots, who they had lost to earlier in the year in The Snowplow Game while the Chargers had to mount a comeback against the Steelers.
With the Epic fresh in people’s minds and the Chargers offense looking even more lethal in 1982, the Dolphins were home dogs by 1.5 points. But this game didn’t fit the profile: the Dolphins weren’t an upstart team. As a back to back 2 seed, Miami was no longer an out of nowhere team.
And it showed in the game. The Chargers offense was one of the best in league history scoring 32 points a game. But the Dolphins “Killer Bees” defense was excellent as well, 2nd in scoring and 1st in yards. Fouts called it the best defense he’d ever seen as Miami had their way with him. Fouts completed just 15 of 34 attempts, was intercepted 5 times and sacked 3 times. This time it was Miami who got out to a 24-0 lead, and they held it. Don Strock wasn’t needed, and the Dolphins won 34-13.
Like the Bucs-Eagles game in 1979, this was a clash of new vs established. In this case, both were even more extreme. The Panthers were in their second season of existence, the Cowboys were reigning Super Bowl champions. Dallas’ defense was still one of the best, but the offense had dropped off severely from the highs of the Super Bowl teams. Troy Aikman had his worst season of the Cowboys six year playoff stretch. Emmitt Smith had the worst season of his career to date. Michael Irvin missed 5 games (Deion Sanders filled in) and Jay Novacek had retired. Dallas was coming off a 40-15 beat down of the Vikings, who had six turnovers, but they got lucky, four were fumble and Aikman had a terrible game with a 67.9 passer rating.
The Panthers didn’t have the names the Cowboys had, but they were a more balanced team. Carolina was 7th in scoring, the defense was 2nd, and they had good special teams. It was an upstart team, but it was also an experienced one: nine starters were 30 or older.
In the game Carolina picked off Aikman three times and sacked him twice, Irvin caught just one pass, while Smith rushed for 80 but caught 3 passes for -2 yards. Kerry Collins threw 2 touchdowns as the Panthers won 26-17.
This wasn’t that long ago, but the 49ers three year run starting in 2011 was so good it’s easy to forget why the Saints would be favored on the road. 2011 was Jim Harbaugh’s first season in San Francisco, and the oddsmakers weren’t quite buying the turnaround and Alex Smith. The Saints were just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl, though the year before they had lost to the 7-9 Seahawks.
As we know now, the Harbaugh 49ers were no fluke, they would go on to three straight NFC Championship Game appearances. San Francisco won 36-32 as Drew Brees and Alex Smith got into a shootout, Brees throwing for 462 yards and 4 TDs, Smith putting up 299 yards and 3 TDs, including the game winner with 9 seconds to go.
2013 Panthers vs 49ers -1
Two years later, the tables were turned on San Francisco: they were the established team, the Panthers were the new kids on the block. Beyond that, they were fairly similar teams. Both had dual threat QBs who had star WRs and TEs to throw to, both had top defenses, and to stretch the similarities all the way, Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh were teammates for six seasons in Chicago.
The teams traded leads in the first half, but in the second half the established 49ers bucked the trend, and won 23-10 after shutting out Carolina in the first half. To date, they’re the only favorite road team in the divisional round to win.
So does this mean anything? A little. Home underdogs have won 5 out of 6, either in shootouts (1981, 2011) or with a strong defense (1979, 1982, 1996). The Falcons are favored because Carson Wentz is out, but we’ve seen the Eagles win both a shootout (vs the Giants) and win with defense (vs the Raiders) with Nick Foles. The more likely outcome for an Eagles victory is to win with defense and ball control, as the Eagles are just 14 months removed from having upset the Falcons, at home, with that same formula. For extra encouragement, there have been 24 wild card games where the home team was the underdog, and the home team went 13-11. History says the Eagles can win.