Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Sports NewsMayfield's Mutterings: Illini adventure continues

Road teams favored in playoffs

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[December 31, 2008]  TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- The Indianapolis Colts ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak, earning the designation as a team no one would want to meet in the playoffs.

RestaurantBut they got the worst possible break when Denver folded and San Diego came on late to win the AFC West. That's because over the years, the Chargers have troubled the Colts more than any other rival, including New England.

Nonetheless, the Colts remain the favorites by one point when they go to San Diego, a reflection of their 12-4 record to the Chargers' 8-8. San Diego had to win its last four to get there and have Denver lose its last three in the AFC West.

In fact, in an oddity reflecting the imbalance in the divisional alignment this year, all four road teams, the wild cards, are favored in the first round of the playoffs.

It may also reflect what has happened in two of the last four seasons, when wild-card teams won the Super Bowl: The New York Giants, the top seed in the NFC this season, won it last year, and Pittsburgh won as a sixth seed after the 2005 season.


"We can do it. New York did it last season, so we know it can be done," Donovan McNabb said after Philadelphia had everything break right Sunday to make it in the hardest possible way. Tampa Bay and Chicago lost, then the Eagles crushed Dallas 44-6.

Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips had been saying the same thing about the Cowboys since midseason, not imagining they'd end up finishing out of the playoffs after losing their last two games to Baltimore and the Eagles.

The Giants (12-4) and Carolina (12-4) are the top seeds in that order in the NFC, and Tennessee (13-3) and Pittsburgh (12-4) are at the top in the AFC. All will be idle next weekend.

This is how the first-round games look:


Indianapolis (12-4) at San Diego (8-8)
(8 p.m. EST Saturday)

The Colts broke a three-game losing streak to the Chargers by winning 23-20 in San Diego on Nov. 23 on Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal as time expired. That was the second of three losses in a row by the Chargers. The kick made up for a 29-yard miss by Vinatieri a year ago that cost the Colts a game in San Diego.

That November game was decided in part by what might decide this one: Indy's coaching superiority with Tony Dungy over Norv Turner.

The biggest mistake the Chargers made may have been calling timeout with 1:30 left before Nate Kaeding's tying field goal. That gave Peyton Manning time to get Indy into field goal range, which he did with a 14-yard pass to Marvin Harrison on fourth-and-inches.

Indianapolis also should be healthier after resting folks the last week. The Chargers pulled out two key players who were hurt during the win over Denver, but running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates say they will play against the Colts. If Tomlinson is healthy, he and Darren Sproles could make life difficult for the often tepid Indy run defense.

Baltimore (11-5) at Miami (11-5)
(1 p.m. EST Sunday)

This matchup features two rookie coaches who got their jobs without being coordinators or members of the "hot list:" Tony Sparano of the Dolphins and John Harbaugh of the Ravens. And some history:

The Ravens won in Miami 27-13 on Oct. 19, starting a run of nine wins in their final 11 games. They also were the only team to lose to last season's 1-15 Dolphins, who started 0-13, then beat the Ravens 22-16 in Miami.

Baltimore may be too physical for the Dolphins. While Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get the notice, Haloti Ngata, 350 pounds of defensive tackle and linebacker, can destroy offenses single-handedly. He could probably play safety, too.

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One other thing: After they beat the Jets to win the AFC East on Sunday, the Dolphins seemed very much like a "just happy to be here" team. After 1-15, who could blame them?


Atlanta (11-5) at Arizona (9-7)
(4:30 p.m. EST Saturday)

The Falcons belong in the playoffs, the Cardinals don't. They are there only by virtue of a weak division and possibly because the 49ers started the season with Mike Nolan as their coach and J.T. O'Sullivan as their quarterback instead of Mike Singletary and Shaun Hill. The latter combination went 5-4 and might have won the division if they'd been there all season.

Yes, it's a matchup of a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, against a two-time MVP, Kurt Warner. But when Warner and his Arizona teammates went on the road to places like Philadelphia and New England, they came back beaten by scores like 48-20 and 47-7. To put it another way, the Cardinals were 6-0 against their division, 3-7 against everyone else.

Sure they can win because they are home, where they were 6-2. And Ryan might get rookie playoff jitters. But the visitor is definitely the better team.

Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Minnesota (10-6)
(4:30 p.m. EST Sunday)

The Eagles are certainly the most enigmatic team in the playoffs. Their rout of Dallas came a week after a 10-3 loss in Washington in which they played terribly and seemingly knocked themselves out of the playoffs. They beat the Giants on the road (dominated them, actually), but tied the Bengals in the game in which McNabb acknowledged he didn't know there could be ties.

At their best, the Eagles are certainly better than the Vikings, who needed a last-play 50-yard field goal to beat the Giants' JV -- New York, already assured of the No. 1 seed, played much of the game with guys it had picked up off the street.

But that game could help Minnesota against the Eagles. Tarvaris Jackson was beleaguered by the Giants' blitzing schemes, which are very similar to the ones Philadelphia runs. Steve Spagnuolo, New York's defensive coordinator, came from Philly, where he worked for Jim Johnson, the Eagles' coordinator. And, of course, Vikings coach Brad Childress used to be the Eagles' offensive coordinator, so he knows a lot of things about Philly.

So this one will depend on whether the Eagles choose this week to throw in a clinker.

[Associated Press; By DAVE GOLDBERG]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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