For NFL title, teams home in on victory

JOHN EISENBERG

January 12, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

This just in: Life isn't fair. We know because Jeff Robinson made $575,000 last year. Because there aren't enough Maui beachfront condos for all of us. Because someone somewhere made a fortune designing powder-blue leisure suits with orange pinstripes.

We also know because each of today's two championship football games will occur on an uneven field. And no, RFK has not suddenly tilted end-zone-up like the bow of the Titanic. It's that the Redskins and Bills get to play at home, an advantage more potent than any mismatch in personnel, coaching or horoscopes.

The NFL doesn't particularly want this made public because it's like reading the last page of a mystery first. It doesn't exactly enhance suspense. But in the interest of truth, justice and finishing a column, yours truly has dug up the dirt.

Here it is: The home team wins the conference championship game 68 percent of the time.

That is the highest such number in sports. In baseball's postseason, the figure for the home team is 57 percent. It is 64 percent in the last two (read: championship) rounds of the NBA playoffs. (Hockey data were unavailable. League mistakenly mailed false teeth being sent for buffing.)

In the NFL, it is almost a 70 percent shot that the home team advances to the Super Bowl. That's not exactly a bye, but it's in the vicinity. Think of things that happen 70 percent of the time. A favorite finishes in the money at the track 70 percent of the time. Kevin Costner is achingly earnest 70 percent of the time.

According to one numbers book, parents win arguments with their young children only a bit more than 70 percent of the time. So think of today's game at RFK thusly: The Redskins are 35 years old and the Lions are 2. Is that fair?

Now, it is true the number is high because, unlike in other sports, the team with the better record always plays at home in these title games. But as high as 70 percent? Doesn't that suggest the advantage is, well, a tad unfair?

A call was put in to Saints GM Jim Finks, chairman of the competition committee.

L "I'm not sure home field is that big an advantage," he said.

"How does 70 percent sound?" came the ambush, hurled with a Mike Wallace-style raised eyebrow.

"Hmmm," Finks said. "Well, that does suggest maybe there is something. . . . "

Sure there is. Whether it be sleeping at home, the emotion of playing a big game to cheers instead of boos or simply weather to which you are predisposed -- or all of the above -- clearly there is, as Finks said, "something" working.

In a perfect world, it wouldn't be in play today. It tilts the fairness scale, which should be dead horizontal for such a big game. The Lions may not even be able to run their hurry-up offense at a sloppy RFK. Redskiniacs would say that's evidence of inferiority. They'd be a lot less smug if their team were heading into a head-ringing Silverdome sprint.

The NFL could solve the problem by awarding conference title games to neutral sites, much as they do Super Bowls. Selling tickets would not be the problem some envision. They could play games in cities in the expansion hunt. Why, we could guarantee a crowd of 199,000.

Of course, that will never happen. "I heard [neutral sites] mentioned many years ago, but never at all seriously," Finks said. So there's nothing to do except file it under "World: &L Imperfect" and forget about it.

Not that anything really should be done, anyway. The pros of home field do outweigh the cons. A neutral site would guarantee a truer champion, but removing the home advantage would remove punch from the regular season, which needs all the punch it can get. The home fans would get shortchanged. The setting would be sterilized.

"The system we have now works pretty well," Finks said.

It does, if ratings, crowds and advertising rates are any measure. But it is interesting to consider the impact of the 68 percent solution. How many close games did it decide? Oddsmakers say RFK is worth 3 1/2 points to the Redskins, who won by seven and three points the past two times they were home for the NFC title game. Would they have won those in, say, Miami?

Certainly, had the fathers of the Super Bowl decided to play the early editions at home stadiums instead of neutral sites -- it was mentioned -- the Colts never would have lost to Joe Namath and the Jets. Not at Memorial Stadium.

Anyway, the point is that the Lions will start today's game at an enormous disadvantage, which isn't fair. But that's the breaks: Life just isn't fair sometimes, and we all must cope. Consider the chef who was all excited about cooking for President Bush the other night in Japan. Look where his work wound up.

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