What kind of advantage is home field?

While the national media mostly seem to favor the Cowboys, the Vikings are installed as slight favorites by the odds-makers. Why? They are playing at home. But what do the numbers say about playoff teams at home after a bye? We look at that and the players respond.

Home field advantage. It's something every team looks to achieve for a couple of basic reasons. First, teams that earn home field in the playoffs get a first-round bye. Second, when they do return to action, they play in front of their home fans, who can make life miserable for the visiting team.

But as the Vikings prepare for the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, the debate centered on just how important home-field advantage is.

If recent history means anything, it doesn't matter as much as some might think. Over the last three years, the teams that got a first-round bye have lost seven of the 12 games played. Last year, three of the four teams that got byes lost their first playoff game, including both in the NFC. The Giants and Panthers combined to go 24-8 in the regular season in 2008, yet both of them fell in the playoffs – the Giants to the 9-6-1 Eagles and the Panthers to the 9-7 Cardinals. It wasn't the home-field advantage they had envisioned.

Despite the recent home woes for teams that have earned playoff byes and home-field advantage, to a man the Vikings are confident that having Sunday's game at the Metrodome will be an enormous edge for them – not just because of the raucous fans making noise to disrupt the Cowboys offense, but because of the natural weekly routine players find themselves in. NFL players are creatures of habit and having a home game makes the work week go that much smoother.

"It's definitely an advantage," defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "You're at home. You don't have to change your routine. You've got the crowd into the game. Every team wants to play at home, so it's definitely a plus for us. We went undefeated at home and want to keep that tradition going."

Kicker Ryan Longwell is no stranger to the postseason. He was there almost every year with the Packers and has seen the advantages of getting veteran players a week off to heal up for a postseason run. He said that home field can cut both ways. It can allow a team to get a big edge early that rides the wave throughout the game, but, if things don't go well early, all the advantage of playing in front of the home fans can be erased.

"It is an advantage because you can get teams on their heels quick," Longwell said. "Especially when it's in the playoffs, where it's one shot and three hours and you're out. If you get a couple plays to go your way early it can snowball really. But, at the same time, you can also take a crowd out of the game if you're on the road and the plays go your way early. It cuts both ways."

Whether the home-field advantage is becoming more of a myth than a reality, linebacker Chad Greenway found a way to put in perspective. Wherever this game was going to be played, it is expected to be intense. Having the game at home clearly beats the alternative.

"I wouldn't want to be playing this game in Dallas," Greenway said. "I'm glad we're home. We know what kind of fans they have and it would be rabid down there. We're fortunate that we played ourselves into the position to have a home game."

For some of the players, however, what happened last year or the year before that means nothing. Much in the same way the Vikings have dismissed discussion of Brett Favre being 0-3 against Dallas in his playoff career – largely because those games were played in the mid-1990s. What is past is prologue and doesn't really factor in to what is going to happen Sunday. It's food for thought for those analyzing the matchup, but for the players involved, what other teams have done has little bearing on what will happen in the four games played this weekend.

"I don't even think about it," cornerback Benny Sapp said. "Those are old stats. We're looking at right here, right now. We have been hard to beat at home, so I see it as an advantage for us."

With most in the national media jumping on the Cowboys bandwagon and predicting that they will come into the Metrodome and beat the Vikings, it has actually made the Vikings something of a home underdog. They've been counted out as a Super Bowl contender a couple of times this year and responded in a big way at home – pounding the Bengals and Giants into submission at the Metrodome. Will the third time be the charm?

The Vikings are willing to admit that Dallas is playing as well as any team in the NFC right now, but, in the end, the Vikings earned home-field advantage. Regardless of whether it has worked out for other teams in the recent past, they're happy with the position they find themselves in as the home team in the divisional playoffs.

"When you're playing hot, you're playing hot," wide receiver Bernard Berrian said. "We can't argue and say (the Cowboys) are not playing hot right now. But we'll take the position we're in right now."

That position? To re-establish that home-field advantage is an edge that teams need to make a Super Bowl run.


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