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Do teams have an advantage in a rematch?

Photo by Greg M. Cooper, USA Today Sports

Written by Kristen Mori

This Championship Sunday features the four best teams in the NFL, and after it concludes, we will have the AFC’s best and the NFC’s best battle it out in two weeks in Atlanta for the Super Bowl. We have actually seen both of these matchups before this year: in October, the Patriots ruined the Chiefs undefeated streak, and in November, the Saints did the same to the Rams. Only time will tell whether history will repeat itself. Until then, however, we can look back on seasons past and see how similar situations panned out.

I looked at data from 2002 up until now and examined how many postseason matchups have been rematches from the regular season. I chose 2002 because that is the year that the playoffs began to resemble what they are now.

I found 86 occasions in which there was a rematch of the regular season. In 45 of those games, one team won all 2 (or 3) matchups. That is only a slight majority - in other words, there is a very good chance that the Rams or the Chiefs will prevail this time around. In the case of the AFC Championship, the Chiefs are actually favored despite their early loss to the Patriots - we can assume that much of this is due to them earning the number one seed and thus earning home-field advantage.

We already have had one such occasion this year - sort of. The Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans in the wildcard round, after having lost to them earlier in the year. However, as we all know, they are both in the AFC South, so Indy had also previously beaten Houston, and their loss to Houston came via a very controversial coaching decision in overtime. One could argue that the Colts could easily have swept Houston, so this is not the most interesting case. In the 2016-17 playoffs, we had four postseason playoff rematches with different outcomes than their regular season counterparts.

Let’s check out how many of these rematches featured a change in venue. For this analysis, we will remove rematches in which the teams hail from the same division because obviously, they have played at both fields. This removed 18 matchups. For non-divisional rematches, about 60% of games had the same winner. This leaves us at 27 rematches with different winners. Just over half of those (15) had a change in venue, as well. Let’s also look at it from the flipped point of view: there were 29 (non-divisional) rematches in which the home team became the away team. Of those, just under half (14) had the same winner.

A lot of values are hovering around 50% here. This doesn’t provide us a lot of insight on who has the advantage in our championship games. The conclusion we can make, though, is that what happened in October and November certainly does not decide what happens today. There have been plenty of occasions where the winner remained the same, and plenty where the script was flipped. We may not know much going into Championship Sunday, but this makes it more exciting for us - who knows what will happen?



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