SAN DIEGO -- It’s no coincidence that the home team moved on to the championship game this season in three of the four divisional matchups in the NFL playoffs last week.
They call it home-field advantage for a reason, which gives the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks a prime opportunity to move on to the Super Bowl as the No. 1 seed in their respective games, with Seattle hosting the San Francisco 49ers and Denver welcoming the New England Patriots.
The San Diego Chargers snuck into the playoffs at 9-7 and won a hard-fought victory on the road at Cincinnati in the AFC wild-card matchup. But the well-rested Broncos earned a bye as the No. 1 seed and overwhelmed a San Diego team dealing with too many injuries to overcome in the divisional playoff game.
The lesson learned? Win the AFC West and earn a home playoff game, bettering your chances of making the Super Bowl.
“The No. 1 goal is to always win your division,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said.
Yes, some NFL observers will point to the last three Super Bowl champions -- the Baltimore Ravens, the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers -- as examples of teams that got hot at the end of the year and won consecutive games on the road to advance to the big game.
But those are exceptions, not the norm. Since 2003, eight No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl compared to four wild-card teams, so the odds are still in your favor if you win your division and finish as the No. 1 seed.
“That 12th man is always big,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. “You like to think the reason you sacrifice and devout all of that time in OTAs [organized team activities] and practices throughout the regular season, is to have that advantage in the postseason. And it made a difference [against Denver]. The crowd noise made a difference. There were times when we had some issues offensively and we had to call a timeout, because of crowd noise and not being able to hear.
“So when you think about the preparation you do in the regular season, and all of that time and hard work you put in, it pays off in the postseason because you get a home game, and you’re able to take advantage of that energy.”
For San Diego, there's also the need to become a better home team. Since 2011, the Chargers are 13-11 at home. San Diego has had five games blacked out locally on television in the past two seasons because it did not sell out in time. And at several home games this season, large sections of Qualcomm Stadium were filled with the colors of the opposing team.
Even Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers acknowledged to having to go to a silent count during the second half of his team’s home game against Oakland because the Raiders fans were making so much noise his offense couldn’t hear the snap count.
However, San Diego’s lack of a home-field advantage does not fall solely on the fans. The Chargers have to consistently put out an entertaining, winning product. And the organization has to do a better job of fostering a festive environment, which includes setting ticket prices so games are more affordable, and stadium improvements in order to create a better in-game experience so that fans will chose going to the game rather than watching it on television.
“As the season went along and especially the last month of the season, that’s the way it needs to be every day here,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “I think every Sunday needs to be that environment like it was in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City game. The excitement, the energy -- but that comes with winning and you have to win football games. That is anywhere. Anywhere I have ever been. It starts with winning.”