The Eagles are once again home underdogs. Can they defy the oddsmakers two weeks in a row? Against the Falcons they kept with the trend of home underdogs in the divisional round winning, their victory the 6th win in 7 such games. But in conference championships, the luck loses steam. 14 prior conference title games have had a home underdog, according to Pro Football Reference, and the upset has happened 6 times. An underdog winning nearly half the time is an impressive rate, and since a conference championship is supposedly between the two best teams in the conference, so we shouldn’t be too surprised at a nearly even outcome. On paper, that’s what we’re getting with the 1 seed Eagles and 2 seed Vikings.
With divisional home underdogs there was a clear trend, the road team was an established playoff team, the home team was a newcomer to the playoffs. Is there any kind of trend for home underdogs in the conference championships, and if so does that apply to the Eagles?
Sort of. Eight of the 14 games did have that new vs old theme.
1979 Bucs vs Rams 3.5
1982 Redskins vs Cowboys 2.0
2000 Giants vs Vikings 1.0
2008 Cardinals vs Eagles 3.5
All eight of these teams hadn’t made the playoffs in at least the previous three seasons, and all were facing teams that least made the playoffs in at least one of the previous two seasons. Which fits the description of the Eagles-Vikings game: Philadelphia didn’t make the playoffs in the previous three seasons, the Vikings did in 2015. Home underdogs went 4-4, with wins by the 49ers, Redskins, Giants and Cardinals. But we have to stretch out the definition of established here, as the 2008 Eagles had missed the playoffs the year before. That game is, like the 1982 Dolphins-Chargers divisional rematch, an outlier, which we’ll see with the rest of the conference home dogs.
But six teams didn’t fit the the new vs old description in any way.
1978 Rams vs Cowboys 3.5
1980 Eagles vs Cowboys 1.0
1988 Bears vs 49ers 2.0
1997 49ers vs Packers 1.5
2012 Falcons vs 49ers 4.5
2015 Broncos vs Patriots 3.0
These were established playoff teams who were facing other established playoff teams, and the home team went 2-4. That’s not the situation with the Eagles and Vikings. But there’s a smaller recurring theme within those games that fits the Eagles-Vikings game.
In five of those six, the home underdog had a disadvantage or perceived disadvantage at QB. The 1997 matchup of the 49ers hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Packers is the outlier here.
The ‘78 Rams had Pat Haden, who made the Pro Bowl in ‘77 after taking over for Joe Namath. (Yes, you read that right.) But Haden regressed in ‘78, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, ending the year 4th in passing attempts but 15th in rating. His counterpart was Roger Staubach.
In 1980 Ron Jaworski had the best season of his career, and did so on the back of a 1979 season with marked improvement. But he played terribly the week before, going 17 of 38 for 190 yards 1 TD and 2 INTs. The Cowboys had Danny White, who in his first year as a starter after the retirement of Staubach looked like he was on the path to stardom, and in the previous week had thrown 2 fourth quarter touchdowns as the Cowboys came from behind to beat the Falcons.
The ‘88 Bears were starting Jim McMahon, who had lost his starting job to Mike Tomczak, but regained it when Tomczak injured his shoulder the previous week in the Fog Bowl. He was going up against Joe Montana.
The ‘12 Falcons had Matt Ryan, who coming into the playoffs was seen as a choker, and in their win over the Seahawks in the divisional round threw an interception that led to a touchdown as Seattle scored 21 points in the 4th quarter to come from behind and win 30-28. His counterpart was Colin Kaepernick, who was taking the league by storm after taking over for Alex Smith and had scored four touchdowns against the Packers the week before in what looked like a signature game for a new star.
And the ‘15 Broncos were on their second QB change of the year, having reinstated Peyton Manning after replacing him with Brock Osweiler earlier in the year. He was facing Tom Brady.
(In case you were wondering, home underdogs who played the late game were 3-5.)
These teams went 2-3 as the Rams and Broncos won. In terms of QB match up, it’s fair game to favor the Vikings, who are 12-3 with Case Keenum over Nick Foles, who will start his fourth game of the season, one of which was a keep the rust off token Week 17 appearance. The Vikings don’t have the head and shoulders superior QB, but they do have the advantage of Keenum having played more this season. Is that really enough to justify making Minnesota a 3.5 point favorite?
This game seems to be another outlier for home underdog games. Their similarities with each other are more striking than any similarities with previous home underdogs games. Neither team is a returning playoff team. Both teams are starting QBs that began the season as backups. Both teams made significant changes to their offense in the offseason, the Eagles replacing nearly every skill position player, the Vikings changing running backs and three offensive linemen. Both have strong defenses, and both have special teams that are suffering a down year. There’s no clear advantage at head coach either.
So maybe being the underdog really is disrespectful this time.
It’s no small task winning two playoff as the underdog. But history says it absolutely can happen.