There's no place like home in the NFL 2020

There will be no fans in attendance when No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow makes his home debut for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

But when the Bengals visit the rival Cleveland Browns four days later in the same state, 6,000 fans will be permitted to enter.

Cincinnati then will play in another empty stadium against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 27 before coming home to 6,000 fans against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 4.

Confused? You're not alone.

When it comes to a uniform attendance policy during this pandemic-saturated season, the NFL decided to punt. Individual franchises have been given the freedom to make their own decisions in concert with state and local health officials.

As a result, there will be roughly 16,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium when the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans to open the regular season Thursday. But 26 teams will not have fans at least for their first home game, and most teams plan to revisit their policy throughout the season.

For a league obsessed with details as minute as the length of players' uniform socks, the inconsistency is glaring.

"I think it's honestly ridiculous that there will be, on the surface, what appears to be a playing field that's like that - inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums," Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott told reporters on Aug. 24.

The Bills have announced fans will not be permitted for at least their first two home games. But the Miami Dolphins plan to have 13,000 fans on hand when Buffalo visits Sept. 20.

The Las Vegas Raiders don't plan to welcome fans at any point during their inaugural season at Allegiant Stadium, and the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, New York Jets and Washington Football Team all have no current plans for home crowds pending future reconsideration.

The situation could create something of a referendum on home-field advantage.

In its lone concession to consistency, the NFL allowed teams to pipe in 80 decibels of manufactured crowd noise through speakers inside stadiums. Whether created by a relatively small number of human voices or by artificial means, the sound is unlikely to cause opposing offenses to alter their gameplan.

It will be odd not hearing the roar of the home crowd when the visitors face a critical third-down conversion, and teams that keep track of false start penalties created by full-throated fans could have nothing to add to the tote board this fall.

But what effect will that have on games? Could road teams' winning percentage rise?

Including the playoffs, away teams won 47.3% of the time in 2019.

Some trends are easily explained. The top four seeds in the NFL playoffs - Baltimore, San Francisco, Kansas City and New Orleans - were a combined 27-4 away from home (the Chiefs had one road game moved to Mexico City). Likewise, the Bengals finished 0-7 on the road, and the Detroit Lions - who picked third in the draft - were 1-6-1.

Other teams paid a costly penalty for their lack of success away from home. Losing road records helped keep the Dallas Cowboys (3-5), Indianapolis Colts (2-6), Raiders (2-6) and Denver Broncos (2-6) out of the postseason despite the fact all four played winning football at home.

There are several factors that play into home-field advantage. Loud crowds like those in Kansas City, Seattle and New Orleans are often cited for their impact on the game. But fans aren't the only part of the equation.

West coast teams notoriously do not fare well with 1 p.m. kickoffs in the Eastern time zone, when players' body clocks are set to 10 a.m., for example.

Conversely, some coaches believe there's an advantage to being on the road. Players often are isolated in hotels - even more true in 2020 - and the focus can be 100% on football.

With crowds mostly muted at least at the start of the season, this fall could serve as a quality control group for future studies.

How much credit do fans deserve for home-field advantage? Over the next four months, we just might find out.

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