Steve Bisciotti reminded me why he's a billionaire during the State of the Ravens Press Conference. Even though his day job might be running his other business, he demonstrated a firm understanding of the things that have held the Ravens back from achieving perhaps more than they have.
Joe Flacco and the Ravens are often lauded for their road playoff record, which is most in the NFL, and rightly so. It is a truly impressive accomplishment. Winning against playoff caliber teams on the road is one of the hardest things to do in sports and Baltimore has done it better than anyone else.
The problem of course lies with the fact that they've had to play so many road playoff games. The Ravens are well aware of the problem.
It also wastes one of Baltimore's strongest assets: their own homefield advantage league-wide. Bill Barnwell suggests that their's is second only to Seattle.
The principal reason for earning so many road playoff games in the first place starts and ends with their struggles against division opponents. Even though Baltimore has a 28-17 record against the AFC North since 2008, a huge chunk of that is feasting on the Browns.
Against Pittsburgh, Baltimore is 8-9 all time including playoffs. Perhaps more distressingly, they are just 7-7 against Cincinnati who most would agree has been an inferior team all around since 2008. This inferior record against Pittsburgh and Cincy is distressing because of how good they've been otherwise.
The Ravens are 34-19 against all non-division AFC opponents since 2008. They are 54-28 against all NFL non-division NFL opponents since 2008.
In 2014 they blew games against Cincinnati that were very winnable. It essentially cost them the AFC North and very nearly a playoff berth. In 2013, they blew a road game at Cincy to cost themselves a playoff berth.
This has to change if they are to get more opportunities for the ultimate prize.
Qualifying Home Field Advantage
Vegas gives home teams a 3-point boost for a reason: home teams enjoy certain advantages that road teams do not. Most would agree that home teams enjoy an edge in officiating. It has been proven again and again that close calls often lean towards the home team (a result of human nature, not some grand conspiracy).
Home teams also don't have to contend with crowd noise on offense where precise execution is important. The furor of playing at home often allows teams that are down or underdogs to make comebacks they otherwise might not have. In short there is a major qualitative, emotional component to playing at home that matters. Every NFL team plays better at home, point blank.
Quantifying Homefield Advantage
Since 1966, home teams have won 58% of all games played in that time. That number might even understate the true number since many are home games by bad, bottom-feeder teams who invariably get beat by superior teams.
When we reduce the sample to only teams with a winning record, the win percentage of the home team goes upwards. Instead of a 58% win rate, games between two teams with winning records at season's end show a 61% win rate for the home team.
Oh we're not done yet.
When the game is between two playoff teams, the win rate goes up again. The home team has won 63% of such games.
The Ravens have one of the best home field advantages in the NFL, as Barnwell noted. That's an advantage going to waste every year we are forced onto the road.
There's really only one conclusion to draw from this: the Ravens struggles to earn home playoff games has hurt their ability to make multiple Super Bowls. In essence they are playing with one arm tied behind their back too often going into January. They've managed to accomplish far, FAR more than everyone else under those road conditions but nonetheless, it is not to their benefit to continue playing on the road.
There are good common sense reasons for this of course. The AFC North has been far more competitive on balance since 2000, notably because of the other AFC Heavyweight Pittsburgh Steelers. Earning a division title is a lot easier in the laughable AFC East and AFC South where not even one team has demonstrated consistent success aside from the mid 2000s Tennessee Titans perhaps.
Two of the worst divisions for over a decade, the Patriots and Manning-led Colts long had grooved paths to division titles. They might be the best quarterbacks of the previous 15 years, and the Patriots might have had the best coach in that time, but without a doubt, having sorry divisional competition has greatly helped them earn easy division titles with little competition. To their credit though they have often beaten everyone else to get those byes.
Our rivalry against Pittsburgh is instructive
Using our competitive division as an out isn't good enough, however. After all, the Steelers have the league's best record against winning teams since 2008. Yet, they've had it just as tough as we have.
In fact, the Steelers are 10-4 against Cincinnati since 2008, far better than our 7-7 and of course are 9-8 against us. In short, Pittsburgh has been better at division games and maybe not surprisingly has had more home playoff games. Those home playoff games are the principal reason for having an extra Super Bowl appearance.
For instance, in 2008 and 2010, Pittsburgh beat us in Baltimore and earned the bye and home games each time. They consequently were able to get a friendly divisional matchup in 2008 (the 8-8 Chargers) and a friendly AFC title game match up at home (the 11-5 Jets) in 2010.
In 2011, Baltimore handled business in the division to earn a bye where they got the T.J. Yates led Houston Texans. Pittsburgh meanwhile traveled to Mile High and even had they won, would've played the #1 seeded Patriots the following week. The difference? Owning a tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.
The New England Patriots are a quintessential example of this dynamic
The NFL's most consistently dominant team of the past 15 years, the Patriots actually have a surprising Achilles heel: they've never made the Super Bowl unless they had a first round bye.
Of course, they've had to earn a lot of first round byes (again, it helps to have pathetic divisional opponents) but they've done their job and won a lot of games regardless.
But even the best team of the past 15 years has failed to get to even have a shot at the ultimate prize, much less win it, unless they had a first round bye. That is a compelling data point if even the league's best team needs byes to get where it wants to go.
Steve Bisciotti was completely right and the Ravens clearly recognize their biggest flaw: they simply don't beat Pittsburgh and especially Cincinnati often enough to earn the home playoff games or even byes necessary to earn more Super Bowl trips. That has arguably been their biggest obstacle to more games in February.
6 playoff appearances in 7 years is an amazing accomplishment. Winning a Super Bowl on the hardest path possible as they did in 2012 is an even more incredible feat. Baltimore must find a way to be more consistently successful against Pittsburgh and especially Cincinnati.
Otherwise, they will continue to set new records in road playoff wins to the detriment of their ultimate goals.
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