Coaches Want Home Primetime Games, But Should They?

You might think its a huge advantage hosting a primetime NFL football game as compared to, say, a 1pm or 4pm standard Sunday game.  The crowd is more “lubed up” as Tom Brady would say, there is more energy in the atmosphere, and thus theoretically the home field edge should be larger.

But actually, its not.  It turns out, across the league, home teams win more games on Sunday in the daytime than any other primetime game on any day other than Thursday.  Thursday is a unique animal because the road team has to travel on a short week.  Which is why the home team wins 60% of the time, and blindly betting the home team on Thursday games won’t actually lose you money (although at 52.6% cover rate, you won’t win anything either).

As it turns out, there are a fair number of teams, like the Falcons, Steelers, Vikings and Redskins, who perform much better SU and ATS when hosting a regular Sunday afternoon game than any other the other (non-Thursday) primetime games.  Here is a sampling of records to illustrate this concept by some of the worst offenders over the last 5 seasons:

  • Atlanta is 23-7 SU and 16-13 ATS in home Sunday day games, but 4-4 SU and ATS in home primetime games.
  • Minnesota is 24-11 SU and 22-13 ATS in home Sunday day games, but 1-3 SU and ATS in home primetime games.
  • Washington is 12-18 SU and 14-14-2 ATS in home Sunday day games, but 2-9 SU and 2-8-1 ATS in home primetime games.
  • Pittsburgh is 22-8 SU and 18-12 ATS in home Sunday day games, but 5-4 SU and 4-4-1 ATS in home primetime games.

The bottom line looking at all NFL teams since division re-alignment in 2002:

  • Home teams have won Sunday day games 58% of the time, by an average of 2.8 ppg (as an avg -2.6 point favorite).
  • Home teams have won primetime games on any day 55% of the time, by an average of 1.9 ppg (as an avg -2.2 point favorite).

To break down the primetime games further:

  • Home teams have won Thursday night games 60.0% of the time, by an average of 2.0 ppg (as an avg -1.7 point favorite).
  • Home teams have won Sunday night games 56.6% of the time, by an average of 2.3 ppg (as an avg -2.8 point favorite).
  • Home teams have won Monday night games 55.7% of the time, by an average of 2.3 ppg (as an avg -2.1 point favorite).
  • Home teams have won Saturday night games 33.3% of the time, by an average of -2.8 ppg (as an avg +1.8 point underdog).
  • Home teams have won primetime games on other days 0% of the time, by an average of -11 ppg (as an avg -4.7 point favorite).

Not all teams are as poor in the evening as other teams and as the league average.  The last 5 seasons:

  • The Saints are 21-8 SU and 17-11 ATS in home Sunday day games, but are 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS in home primetime games.
  • The Patriots are 30-6 SU and 21-15 ATS in home Sunday day games, but are 8-1 SU and 4-5 ATS in home primetime games.
  • The Packers are 23-8 SU and 17-14 ATS in home Sunday day games, but are 8-1 SU and 7-2 ATS in home primetime games.
  • The Seahawks are 23-11 SU and 22-12 ATS in home Sunday day games, but are 4-0 SU and ATS in home primetime games

These teams certainly swing the average, so without them, the league average would be even more slanted but the fact is, these are all EXCEPTIONAL home teams and they parlay that into an even larger edge in primetime.  Clearly most of the league is not similar in this regard.

The surprising bottom line is while hosting any home game provides an edge and helps a team to win more often than lose, hosting the game in primetime actually hurts these edges as opposed to helping them, provided the time of the game does not also include travel edges (as we see on Thursday).

In fact, combining all other primetime (non-Thursday) games together, since 2002 we have seen the home teams win 53.7% of the time as opposed to Sunday day game hosts winning 58% of the time.  That is a 4.3% difference, and is significant.

I know your first thought might be the same as mine:  “But they are likely playing a more difficult opponent in their primetime game, afterall, the NFL won’t get many viewers if the Packers hosted the Browns instead of the Saints.”  The fact is, however, the quality of opponent is reflected in the line, and the average line for the Sunday day games is very similar to the average line for all other primetime (non-Thursday) games, thereby dismissing that objection.

Instead, the most likely reason for the decrease is that while these primetime games are circled by the home team, they also are circled by the visitors.  And despite the fact that heading into the Mercedes Benz Dome, Lambeau or Gillette in primetime is a virtual death wish, most of the time visitors are going to enter this game MORE focused than they would a standard Sunday day time game.  And with the visitor perhaps putting forth a slightly higher percentage effort (even if its ever so slight), hat could translate into the slightly higher win percentage they also achieve, coupled with the slightly lower average underdog they are being made.

In conclusion, EVERY NFL coach wants more home primetime games, but most really have no clue that such a wish, on average, actually will cause them to lose more games.  In fact, I’ll leave you with this:

Excluding the ridiculously strong overall home teams (particularly in prime time) of the Saints, Patriots, Packers and Seahawks, since 2002 the results are staggering:

  • The other 28 teams went 1251-965-3 SU (56.5%) in Sunday day games
  • But they went 178-180 SU (49.7%) in non-Thursday primetime games

The average line changed from -2.1 point favorite to -1.6 point favorite, but that 1/2 point difference is NOT equal to the almost 7 percentage point swing from winning almost 57% of the time to not even cracking the 50% mark!

{Regressing win percentages with lines since 2002, we find they are ridiculously correlated as one might expect (R^2=0.91), such that you can show the win rate = -0.0272 x line + 0.5003.  A -2.1 point favorite should win 55.7% of the time, while a -1.6 point favorite should win 54.4% of the time.  That is a 1.3% difference.  The real numbers in our “Primetime” analysis above show a 6.8% true difference!}

And taking it a step further: unless you’re playing one of those 4 teams, as a visitor you actually have had a slightly BETTER result on the road in primetime than your host actually does!  In other words, by coaches begging for home primetime games, they have actually been more likely to LOSE that game then they have been to WIN it!

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