Can the Seahawks and Steelers Overcome Their Road Struggles in the Divisional Round?

Both the Seahawks and Steelers have been radically different teams on the road than at home. Will this prevent them from advancing in the playoffs this weekend?

This past weekend's wild card round of playoff games was a solid display of the nastiness the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers can unleash when they're on. Thomas Rawls battered the Detroit Lions for 161 yards as the Seahawks cruised to a 26-6 victory, and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown both topped 120 yards with two touchdowns apiece in the Steelers' 30-12 romp of the Miami Dolphins.

These are two teams who just dismantled quality opponents in the playoffs, which could lead you to believe they're primed to make big pushes for conference championships. That's entirely possible, but they're also fighting a whole new demon in the divisional round.

Sure, the opponents are tough as the Seahawks face the Atlanta Falcons and the Steelers square up with the Kansas City Chiefs. But that's not what we're talking about here. Instead, we're talking about something these teams have battled the entire season that has nothing to do with the team on the opposite sideline.

Both the Seahawks and Steelers have absolutely grotesque home/road splits, and it's going to put them behind the eight ball before each game even kicks off this weekend.

Of the Seahawks' 11 total wins this year, nine have come when they've been in Seattle. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers have averaged 30.43 points per game at home compared to 21.63 on the road. As they pack up shop and hit the road for this week's action, the two teams will face their shared biggest weakness in a spot where they must win in order to advance. Are these splits simply noise that we can ignore, or are the Seahawks and Steelers in line for a rude awakening?

Let's try to break this down further using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. NEP looks at the expected points a team adds on each play over the course of a season, meaning it'll give us a much better read on a team's true abilities in a small sample than any point or yardage totals will.

Using NEP, let's dig into how these two teams performed on the road this year to see whether they can overcome these faults to hold a solid chance of advancing to the next round.

Missing the 12th Man

The Seahawks' season has largely been a story of inconsistency, following impressive victories with big ol' duds time after time. Most of those duds have come when they've been on the road.

There have been five games this year in which the Seahawks failed to score 20 points. Four of those were on the road, including all four games in which they scored 10 or fewer points. They scored at least 30 points at home four times compared to just once on the road. From a points perspective, this wasn't even a competition.

However, as mentioned above, it's hard to draw full conclusions from looking just at a team's yardage and point totals. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, their efficiency stats may be even worse outside of Seattle.

Here's a comparison of the Seahawks' metrics at home compared to on the road. Success Rate is the percentage of plays on which the player increased the team's expected points for the drive, and the other categories track the expected points the player added on a per-play basis. Only pass attempts by quarterbacks and rush attempts by running backs were included.

VenuePassing NEP per Drop BackSuccess RateRushing NEP per CarrySuccess Rate

At home, Russell Wilson had roughly the same efficiency metrics as Drew Brees. On the road, his numbers most closely resembled those of Trevor Siemian. If you're looking for an explanation for their rough performances on the road, you need not look further.

Because we're operating off of a sample of 298 drop backs for Wilson on the road, we can put a lot more stock in this than we would how many points they scored in those respective games. This largely validates all concerns and shows this is a legitimate problem they'll need to overcome in Atlanta on Saturday.

The matchup with the Falcons may help matters a bit. They finished the regular season ranked 22nd against the pass, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. The Seahawks did, however, struggle on the road in the regular season against the Green Bay Packers, who finished one spot behind Atlanta in this same category. Even in great matchups, their offense hit the tubes, dampening enthusiasm for the divisional round.

The Seahawks are currently 4.5-point underdogs to the Falcons for Saturday's game. Based on the Seahawks' advanced metrics, it's possible that number should be even larger, and there are plenty of plausible reasons to be concerned that their road woes will persist.

More Optimism Around Steelers

When we dig into the Steelers' metrics, you'll see that Ben Roethlisberger experiences many of the same struggles away as Wilson. However, the Steelers have a little gadget that gives them a boost on the road, and it could help them stay in contention against the Chiefs.

Here's the same table we had for the Seahawks above except with the Steelers' splits. Because there's a fairly significant difference between Roethlisberger and Landry Jones, Jones' numbers were excluded. Additionally, because Bell gets every significant carry for the Steelers when healthy, he's the only player included for the rushing categories. And, oh baby, did he slay souls on the road.

VenuePassing NEP per Drop BackSuccess RateRushing NEP per CarrySuccess Rate

While the Seahawks' ground game stagnated on the road, Bell reached a whole new level. Only two running backs this year had at least 80 carries and a Success Rate higher than Bell's mark on the road, and only one had a higher Rushing NEP per carry. It's incredibly rare to see a running back more efficient than the team's quarterback, but that's exactly what Bell was for the Steelers on the road this year.

This doesn't mean the Steelers are set in their pursuit of defeating the Chiefs. A team can't lean on the run if they fall behind early and need to make up ground. If that were to happen, they'd need Roethlisberger to amp his road efficiency while eschewing Bell's immense Gucciness as a runner. If they can at least keep things close, though, we should expect Bell to be a focal part of the offense.

A potential aid in this aspiration is that the Chiefs will be without stud linebacker Derrick Johnson, who ruptured his Achilles back in December. In three games since, opposing running backs have 0.17 Rushing NEP per carry and a 55.07% Success Rate on 69 carries. The volume hasn't been high, but the efficiency has, and they likely won't be able to dodge the volume bullet against Bell on Sunday.


There are plenty of similarities between the Seahawks and Steelers with their struggles on the road. However, the Steelers seem to have a more realistic avenue for skirting those issues than the Seahawks do.

Seattle's issues spread both to their passing game and their ground game, limiting the entire offense for games at a time. The Seahawks are facing a defense that has suffered plentiful injuries and lacks overall talent, but their past history against even those teams is far from encouraging. The outlook for them is decidedly bleak.

It's not quite as bad from the Steelers' perspective. For whatever reason, Bell has been a bonafide monster on the road this year, even at high volume. That just happens to coincide with a time when the Chiefs' defense is particularly deficient against this type of attack. If the Steelers can keep it close and allow continued viability for the ground game, then Bell may be able to single-handedly snag a victory. That's not something you can say about many running backs, but Bell has shown this season that he's a special breed capable of changing the way we view the position.