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They should go home again

One of the greatest advantages in all of sports is playing on your home field or court. It’s why they call it home field advantage. There’s a lot that goes into that. Fans would have you believe they’re the difference, harassing the opposing team while lifting the home favorites. But there’s much more than that. You’re playing in a familiar space, no travel, and you can sleep in your own bed the night before. It’s familiar food and driving yourself instead of team charters. It’s a long list, which is why the home team always has a slight edge over the same game on a neutral field.

This is also why home field is used as a reward for the higher ranked team going into most playoffs. In sports like baseball and basketball, the team with the better record gets to host one more game in a playoff series, which often means playing the final and decisive game with a distinct advantage. That is, except in the World Series, which is a whole other ridiculous issue. In things like pro football, where playoffs are a one-and-done affair, home field can mean a lot, especially when it’s, say, a team down south having to travel up north to play in a freezer.

But if things go according to form in the AFC playoffs, no one will have home field advantage in the AFC Championship game. That’s because if the two top ranked teams win this weekend and advance to the title game, Kansas City and Buffalo, they will play in neither city, but instead in Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of the Falcons. That’s even though Kansas City technically has the better regular season record, 14-3 as opposed to Buffalo’s 13-3. That imbalance is because the League wisely decided not to reschedule the recent game between Buffalo and Cincinnati where Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after going into cardiac arrest in the first quarter. That game was pivotal in deciding which AFC team would have the best overall record and top seed for the playoffs. And as Buffalo beat Kansas City earlier in the season, they technically would have had homefield with a tie. But, as Buffalo never had the chance to beat the Bengals and thus has one less win than the Chiefs, they technically had the worse record of the two, by percentages at least.

But, instead of giving Kansas City the edge, or punish Buffalo for something out of their control, League owners decided that if the two do in fact play on Jan 29, they would instead play in Atlanta, giving neither team an advantage. Atlanta was chosen for a long list of reasons, including relative equal distance from both cities, predictable travel weather, and lots of luxury stadium seating to generate more revenue. There were a few dissenters in the conversation, but the League got one more than the required 24 votes to move this forward. To be clear, there is a considerable chance this game never happens, as both have to win this weekend. And obviously, the winner of this game would play in another neutral site game – the Super Bowl – which was built to give neither team an edge.

The question is, was this the right decision. And to be clear, there was no fair decision, because playing in either city was unfair to the other. But playing in neither town changes the entire complexion of the event, one where location was essential to its constitution. There’s nothing wrong with a stadium that’s split down the middle – the Texas/Oklahoma and Florida/Georgia college games come to mind. But they’re inherently built for that purpose, to take advantage away and create a party like atmosphere. That’s a far cry from an NFL playoff game, where things like the Frozen Tundra and unbearable crowd noise – or the deafening silence of an upset – are part of the show. Which is why playing the potential game in Atlanta feels hollow, like serving only cheese pizza because no one can agree on toppings.

That’s why I would have advocated for a more exciting way of picking the home field, like a coin toss, straight out of Friday Night Lights. Or imagine a rock, paper, scissors contest to see who would host. That might have gotten bigger TV ratings than the game itself. Imagine both quarterbacks sitting at a table across from each other playing a game of chance and wits to host the game. The only question would be, in what city would they meet.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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