Suddenly roadisn’t a bad thing

Jan 10, 2006 5:22 AM

Prior to last season, three NFL road teams had never won in the Wild Card round. Now it has happened two years in a row.

Washington, Carolina and Pittsburgh all won away from home last weekend and each will be on the road again facing opponents off byes. The quality of this season’s Wild Card round was much better than last season with all eight teams having won at least 10 games.

The NFL’s elite teams open their playoff runs this weekend with Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis and Seattle seeking to continue a long standing trend that has seen home teams win over 80 percent of all games in the divisional round since 1990. That’s the highest rate of success enjoyed by home teams in the three playoff rounds leading to the Super Bowl.

Home teams also enjoy the greatest rate of pointspread success — just over 60 percent. The Divisional round also produces the most lopsided games. The average margin of victory is 15.4 points. Slightly below half of the 60 games played in this round since 1990 have being decided by more than 14 points.

All four games are rematches. With the exception of Washington’s 20-17 overtime win over Seattle in Week 4, the other three are being held at the same sites. Each was won by the home team.

Here’s a look at each of the games to be played in determining the teams that will meet for the AFC and NFC Championships on Sunday, Jan. 22.

Redskins +8½ at Seahawks (41½): Much has been made of the woeful offensive display put on by Washington in its 17-10 Wild Card win over Tampa Bay. The Redskins set a record for the fewest total yards gained (120) in winning a playoff game. The fact is the game figured to be a defensive battle and the Redskins forced two early Tampa turnovers to build a 14-0 first quarter lead. From that point, Washington had to be concerned about was protecting that lead, not making mistakes, and shortening the game.

Seattle had the best record in the NFC at 13-3, but played a very weak schedule. How weak? Only 4 of Seattle’s 16 games were against teams that finished the season with 10 or more wins. In the earlier meeting, total yards were almost identical. The Redskins out-rushed the Seahawks 141-119 in a 20-17 overtime win. Seattle’s three poorest games defensively against the rush came against NFC East foes. The line in this game likely rises with the public reacting to Washington’s poor offensive effort last week.

A closer look at Seattle’s season shows it gained the top NFC seed largely based on a favorable schedule. The only wins against "quality" teams were over the Giants and a Week 16 win against Indianapolis, which rested most of its starters. Even against the Colts, the Seahawks were outgained by 55 yards. Expect a better effort from the Washington offense, while Seattle steps up in class. Seattle likely gets the win, but it will be by less than a touchdown. SKINS, OVER.

Patriots +3 at Broncos (44): New England QB Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are now 10-0 in playoff games. After a dull first half, New England outscored the Jaguars 21-0 for a 28-3 win. The stats were nearly even, but both the offense and defense made the big plays when needed. The Patriots have rarely dominated the stats, but they are well prepared and coached. The Pats have a solid game plan and an ability to make the right halftime adjustments. Denver quietly overcame an embarrassing opening day loss at Miami to win 13-of-15 games, with only a late one point loss at the Giants and a 4 point loss at Kansas City marring their record.

Denver won its final four games and 8-of-9. The Broncos were undefeated at home with five of the wins by more than a TD, including a Week 6 win over New England 28-20. In that game the Broncos led 28-6 after three quarters, but New England owned a 432-388 total yardage edge. Denver’s strengths all season have been their strong running game (ranked second), mistake free offense (11 turnovers was fewest in the league) and ranked No. 2 against the rush. New England’s offense relied much more on the pass than the run. Denver’s defense was fourth best in forcing turnovers, while the Pats’ defense was next to last.

The Patriots have considerable intangibles in their favor, including being two time defending champions seeking a third straight Super Bowl title. But the strong home field of Denver, solid fundamentals, a confident Jake Plummer at QB, dominant running game and excellent receivers suggest this is where their run ends. The Broncos are 0-3 in the playoffs since the Elway era, but all three losses were on the road. Denver’s season should continue with a win. BRONCOS, OVER.

Steelers +9 at Colts (47½): When these teams met on the Monday night following Thanksgiving, the Colts scored on a Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison 80 yard TD pass on the first play. That set the tone for a convincing 26-7 win. Ben Roethlisberger was returning from having missed the previous three games due to injury and his rust showed, tossing a pair of interceptions. Indianapolis has been the team to beat all season. Pittsburgh is playing their best football of the season. Arguably the Steelers may be the best sixth seed since the playoff format expanded in 1990.

Pittsburgh was impressive in winning on the road at Cincinnati last week, notwithstanding the absence of Bengals QB Carson Palmer for much of the game following his injury on Cincy’s second snap. Pittsburgh has won 13 of its last 16 road games during a two-year span. Pittsburgh’s other four losses this season were each by a touchdown or less. The Steelers have a solid running game and a strong rush defense. They will be prepared for Indy, looking to strike quickly. Roethlisberger is healthy and, against the Bengals, the Steelers showed some offensive creativity. The Colts won five of six games against "elite" competition this season but were just 3-2-1 ATS.

Steelers rarely are underdogs of this magnitude, although they were +8 in the earlier loss to the Colts. The public will likely make a case for the Colts, but the Steelers had an "excuse" for their performance. Fully healthy and playing great football, look for this game to be closer. An outright upset is not beyond the realm. The Colts should get the win, but they’ll have to earn it. STEELERS, UNDER.

Panthers +3 at Bears (30½): Carolina played close to a perfect game in shutting out the Giants last Sunday. Pitching a road playoff shutout is very rare, the first since the then Los Angeles Rams won at Tampa Bay 9-0 in the 1979 NFC Title game. Now the Panthers seek a fourth road playoff win in three seasons by returning to Chicago where they lost to the Bears 13-3 in Week 11. In that game the Chicago defense was dominant, sacking Panthers QB Jake Delhomme eight times and limiting Carolina to just 55 rushing yards, second lowest allowed by the Bears all season.

Interestingly, seven of Chicago’s final nine opponents rushed for over 100 yards. It was early in the season that the Bears defense was dominant against the run, allowing six straight foes 93 or fewer rushing yards. Carolina’s defense was actually the equal of Chicago’s (each at 282 ypg). Carolina’s defense forced eight more turnovers, but its big edge is offense (averaging 54 more total ypg). Kyle Orton started at QB for the Bears in the first meeting but has since been replaced by Rex Grossman, who missed most of the season with a broken leg. Grossman was nothing special the following week in a win at Green Bay and did not see action in the season ending throwaway loss at Minnesota. He’ll enter this game having not played in three weeks.

Chicago won 7-of-8 at home, the only loss coming in Week 3 to Cincinnati. Carolina should be better prepared to avoid eight sacks in this rematch, although this again figures to be a defensive struggle. The Panthers should be able to top the 3 tallied in the first contest. In a game between defensive equals, the preference is for the significantly better offense, especially off that dominating win at the Giants and with more playoff experience. CAROLINA, UNDER.

Last week: 4-4

Season: 137-117-10