No, my title isn’t entirely true. It goes without saying the Steelers want the number one seed for the 2020-2021 NFL playoffs.
What team doesn’t—especially this season and beyond, when that will be the only one that comes with a bye? And, yes, it would also be cool if Pittsburgh captured the second seed—even if that one now arrives in the mail with some assembly required in the form of three postseason wins to get to the Super Bowl, instead of two.
The higher the seed, the better....obviously. Run the North, the AFC North, that is. Winning the division is always a goal, a desire, something to make the Super Bowl path that much easier. Why travel if you don’t have to? Why possibly jump to another time zone and screw up your internal clock? And those fans? Those zany, crazy fans? You might as well have them on your side, come playoff time, right?
In most seasons, yes to all of that, a thousand times yes!
But those zany, crazy fans likely won't be a factor this postseason.
If the 2020 NFL season plays out like every other professional sports league amid the (say it with me) ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, there will be no fans in stadiums all across the NFL. And even if fans are allowed to attend some games, will there be enough of them to make much of a difference in terms of noise and creating a true homefield advantage? And even if fans are allowed in some NFL stadiums and not in others during the regular season—the Cowboys have said they’d like to have fans attend their home games in 2020, while the Washington Football Team, Dallas’ bitter division rival, has already announced it won’t allow any at FedExField—my guess is the NFL will forbid fans to attend any postseason games, if for no other reason than it could create a competitive imbalance if attendance isn’t acceptable at all locations.
As my podcast partner, Bryan Anthony Davis, pointed out during our latest episode of Steelers Q&A, no, or few, fans in the stands could lead to less parity around the league this season. If that’s the case, there may be more 12 and 13-win teams and less eight and nine-win teams.
What could that mean for the Steelers, a squad I feel has a chance to actually make the playoffs for the first time since 2017? It could mean finishing with 11 or 12 victories and STILL losing out to the Ravens in the race for AFC North supremacy.
Fear not, though, because without fans in the stands, a road playoff game suddenly becomes a neutral playoff game, meaning it’s nobody’s house. Sure, you can scream “THIS IS OUR HOUSE!” all you want if you’re the team wearing the dark-colored jerseys, but it’s like what the bad guys always say in the movies, nobody will hear you.
Why are fans crucial for home games? Because they obviously make a difference. How? According to the book, Scorecasting, the main reason homefield advantage exists in every sport isn’t really because of the rigors of travel or different time zones. It’s not because the home team is hyped up by the loud fans or that the road team is intimidated by those Terrible Towels. It’s actually the on-field officials who are heavily influenced by the home fans. Not consciously, but studies have shown home-team bias is an unconscious result of thousands of people wanting a particular call to go a certain way—especially at a crucial moment.
Therefore, while it may not be ideal for the Steelers to land a lower seed and have to go on the road for the duration of the playoffs—the lower the seed, the tougher the opponents—they won’t have to deal with any unintentional official bias.
Does traveling suck for the playoffs? Yes. What about switching time zones? Never a great thing. But neither thing appears to be as prohibitive to winning on the road as those home fans and their influence on in-game officials.
But, again, unless something drastically changes between now and January, fans won’t be around to sway any close calls at critical moments.
In summary, it goes without saying the Steelers will be fighting for every last playoff advantage in 2020—including the division title and the highest seed possible—but if they have to don those road whites and do a little traveling this January, it won’t be the end of the world.