If you host a divisional-round game in the NFL playoffs, you were one of the two best teams in your conference and had a first-round playoff bye.
In other words, you’re good, you’re rested and you’re playing at home.
Yet, in the last five years, the divisional-round hosts are .500 (10-10). That record improves going back to 2000, to 28-16 for the home teams. Still, the last five years should give pause to the top-seeded teams, including the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, who are seeded Nos. 1 and 2 in the NFC, respectively, and have a bye this weekend while Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta and the New York Giants try to fight through the wild-card round.
“It tells you have to come to play,” said Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. “Just because you’re home, it doesn’t give you a win. We proved that last year.”
Among the possible pitfalls for a team after the playoff bye is rust, especially if it had nothing to play for in the regular-season finale and thus sat players for most or all of that game. That means at least some of its key players wouldn’t have played at NFL game speed for three weeks. For the Packers, that group consists of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, cornerback Charles Woodson and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who all were healthy scratches last week against Detroit.
Teams still prefer the bye, but the Packers also have experienced twice in the last four years the advantage of a team getting on a roll by playing each week in the playoffs. They won the Super Bowl last year as the No. 6-seeded team in the NFC, and in the 2007 season they lost the NFC Championship game at home to the fifth-seeded Giants.
“There’s benefit for working your way up and getting the bye, getting your rest and recovery,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “Then there’s benefit for teams that can continue to build momentum. The approach we’re taking with practicing this week, keeping things kind of rolling so guys don’t have the full week off to totally be out of football, that’s a smart thing to do. The only thing you really can do.”
The Packers, like the other teams with byes this week (San Francisco, New England and Baltimore) practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Coach Mike McCarthy is giving his players off from Thursday afternoon until Monday morning, when they’ll have a day of meetings and jog-throughs to prepare for the Packers’ divisional-round opponent, followed by the mandatory day off Tuesday, and the first practice of the week Wednesday.
During the regular-season bye, McCarthy and most NFL coaches gave their teams the entire week off. But practicing this week allows them to hold a mini-training camp, where they can spend more time on fundamentals rather than working mostly on the upcoming opponent.
On Wednesday and Thursday, players spent more time doing individual drills with their position coaches than they would during a game week. McCarthy took the team outside for 11-on-11 periods and said he spent about half those drills working the starters against each other, as is common in training camp but rare during the season except for the two-minute drill.
The other half of team drills featured starters working against scout teams on preliminary game plans for the three possible opponents in the divisional round: Detroit if it upsets New Orleans on Saturday, or the winner of Atlanta at New York on Sunday.
The collective bargaining agreement allows teams to practice in pads once a week during the playoffs, and McCarthy did that Thursday.
“To be able to go one-on-one blocking and one-on-one pass rush and do one-on-one bump-and-run drills, red-zone drills and all those things, it had a lot of characteristics of a training camp practice, which is so important to being successful,” McCarthy said.
“On the other side of it, the weather was actually a lot nicer than I would have liked (Thursday). I don’t think it’s going to be like that in two weeks, but we’ll see. It was good to get outside. I thought (Wednesday) and (Thursday) was quality work.”
Though the players are free until Monday, interviews with several suggested not many were taking long trips or returning to their hometowns. Several players said they were staying in Green Bay to rest and work out, or rehabilitate if they were injured. One said he was going to Chicago for the weekend, and all said they would watch the playoff games this weekend.
“We’re not looking at it as a bye week, more of an open week is our mind-set,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “We practiced Wednesday and Thursday, put the pads on (Thursday). A lot of guys will stick around. Traveling takes a lot out of you, especially if you have to go across the country, just for a few days is not really worth it.”
McCarthy said he will watch the playoff games on TV Saturday, and the coaching staff will get together Sunday, either to work on the game plan for the Lions, or to watch the Falcons-Giants game and then immediately get to work on the winner of that game.
“I’ll watch them very closely,” McCarthy said. “It’s important to see the game live. I’ve always felt if you had the opportunity, that there’s some things you can get off TV that you can probably apply to your film study.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.