There's no place like home.
That old adage certainly applies to the National Football League, especially its playoff teams.
Homefield advantage isn't what it used to be as the league has become extremely competitive, but any player will tell you that teams like their chances of winning games at home as opposed to doing it in enemy territory on the road.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to defend their NFC South division title and return to the playoffs, history suggests they’ll have to defend their home turf during the 2006 regular season.
Teams that produce winning records at home significantly increase their chances of making the playoffs, and the Bucs have a chance to start off on the right foot Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens invade Raymond James Stadium.
In 2005, all 12 teams that qualified for post-season play finished the regular season with winning records at home.
Two teams went undefeated (8-0), three teams went 7-1, three teams went 6-2 and four teams produced 5-3 records. Of the 20 teams that failed to make the playoffs, only five compiled winning records at home during the regular season.
Of the 12 teams that secured playoffs spots in 2004, two teams went 8-0, four teams went 7-1, three teams went 6-2, two teams went 5-3 and one team went 4-4. Of the 20 teams that did not reach the playoffs that year, only four produced winning records at home.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. The 2001 New York Jets and 2002 Cleveland Browns managed to make the playoffs despite producing 3-5 records at home in those respective seasons.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers proved that winning on the road was definitely possible by winning three straight playoff games on the road en route to defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
But what Pittsburgh managed to accomplish last year proved to be the exception, not the norm, evidenced by the fact that they were the first team in NFL history to accomplish such a feat.
One of the main reasons why Tampa Bay was able to rebound from two straight losing seasons and compile an 11-5 regular season record and win the NFC South division championship last year was because of their improved play at home.
The Bucs compiled 3-5 and 4-4 home records in 2003 and ’04, respectively, and it’s no coincidence that they failed to make the playoffs both years.
But last year, the Bucs produced an impressive 6-2 regular season record at Raymond James Stadium, and that played an integral role in helping them make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“It’s important, obviously, to play your best football at home,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “It’s not a given anymore. I think the win-loss record for the home team has been on the decline in recent years. We love playing at home. We love playing in front of our home fans, and it’s a great incentive. Hopefully we take advantage of that and use our fans to our advantage.”
Gruden has made winning at home a point of emphasis over the past two seasons. He has went as far as taking his team over to Ray-Jay to conduct offseason workouts and practices in an effort to get them better acclimated to their home environment. That practice regimen definitely paid off last year, and winning at home is something the Bucs want to continue to do for the foreseeable future.
“We always say that nobody comes into our house, or our home, and takes over,” said Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips. “This is our turf, our territory and we’re going to protect that at all costs.”
The Bucs have produced a 54-26 regular season record at home over the past 10 seasons, and if they’re going to return to the playoffs this year, history suggests they’ll increase their chances of reaching post-season play by winning at home.
“It’s huge,” Bucs quarterback Chris Simms said of playing at home. “You’ve got to defend your home turf. Playing on the road is just too hard these days to go out there and expect to win every week. Realistically looking at it, are you going to win all eight road games? More often than not – no.”
Simms’ point is well taken. Perhaps there’s no better example of a good team going bad on the road than Tampa Bay’s first opponent of the 2006 regular season.
Baltimore went 6-2 at home during the 2005 regular season. But its road games were a different story. In fact, the Ravens went 0-8 on the road last season and are winless in their past 11 regular season road games dating back to the 2004 regular season. The Bucs hope that is one of several trends that continue on Sunday at Ray-Jay.
Tampa Bay Home Records (2000-05)