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How home field advantage, record and division rivalries play into NFL Wild Card playoff outcomes

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The Cincinnati Bengals are playing at home, and have a better record than the Pittsburgh Steelers. How much of an advantage, if any, do these factors play historically?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back, over the last decade of NFL seasons, there have been a total of 40 games played in the Wild Card round. What have we learned over that span of time when it comes to who has the advantage in a Wild Card game?

Better Record Advantage?

In those 40 games, 7 of them have featured teams with the same number of wins. In the other 33 games, the team with the better record was 18-15, winning just barely more than half of the games with a 55 percent success rate.

In the Wild Card round, many of the games feature teams with similar records, such as a 10 win team facing an 11 win team, or a 12 win team playing against an 11 win team. But what about games where the overall regular season records are not as close? Looking at the games where the team with a better record had at least two more wins, the team with at least two more wins was only 7-7 against their opponent. So having a better record of at least two more wins only yields no better than a 50 percent chance that the team with the better record will win.

Home Field Advantage?

So, if record doesn't seem to play much of a factor in predicting who will win in the Wild Card round, what about home field advantage? Does the team who plays at home win more often?

In the 40 games played in the Wild Card round over the last decade, the home team has won 23 games, and lost 17. The home team has won 58 percent of the time. While this is slightly better than the 55 percent success rate for teams based on record, the 58 percent isn't much of a jump.

Historically, the NFL home team will win about 57 percent to 60 percent of the time in the regular season, depending on how large of a sample size you use. So the Wild Card round home team winning 58 percent of the time fits perfectly into the NFL average.

Better Record + Home Field Advantage?

So far we have seen that a better record and home field only seem to provide slight advantages. But what about a team who has a better record and home field advantage?

There have been 17 such games played since 2005. In those games, the teams with home field and the better record are 11-5, for a 65 percent rate of winning. This combination yields the best results yet, with almost two thirds of teams fitting into this category coming away with a victory.

Divisional Rematch?

What does the rare occurrence of a Wild Card game that features two teams from the same division yield?

In the 40 Wild Card games since 2005, this has only happened six times. In those six games, the team who won the division came away with a victory in four of the six games. Interestingly, the only two times the team who won the division did not win the Wild Card matchup were the two times that the rematch involved teams from AFC North - last year between the Ravens and Steelers, and 2005 between the Bengals and Steelers.

So how does this all fit into the 2015 Wild Card games?

Chiefs (11-5) at Houston (9-7)

The Chiefs have a better record (by 2 games), which historically means a victory 50 percent to 55 percent of the time. The Texans are at home, which gives them a 58 percent chance. Therefore, history slightly favors the Texans.

Steelers (10-6) at Bengals (12-4)

The Bengals have a better record (by 2 games) and are also at home. The combination of the Bengals possessing a better record and playing at home, increases the historical success rate to 65 percent, and if you factor in the rare intra-divisional rematch, the odds of a victory for the Bengals inches up to 67 percent.

Seahawks (10-6) at Vikings (11-5)

The Vikings have a better record (by 1 game) and are also at home, which historically means a victory 58 percent of the time.The combination of the Vikings possessing a better record and playing at home, increases the historical success rate to 65 percent.

Packers (10-6) at Redskins (9-7)

The Packers have a better record (by 1 game), which historically means a victory 55 percent of the time. The Redskins are at home, which gives them a 58 percent chance. Therefore, history slightly favors the Redskins.

Ultimately, every game is unique and is not dictated by past events. But it is interesting to see historically how the various combinations of better record, home field, and divisional rematches have played out in the playoffs. With these past events in mind, teams in similar situations as the Bengals and Vikings have won about two thirds of the time, while the other games are essentially 50/50 wagers.