Look for San Diego
to claim Super Bowl

Jan 2, 2007 4:30 AM

A dozen teams have survived the grueling five month journey that began with two-a-days in the heat and humidity of August, followed by what was often an inconsistently played regular season to arrive at the precipice of the playoffs.

The field of eight Division winners and four Wild Cards has been determined and after 256 regular season games the following observations can be noted.

The likelihood that existed over the past month that a team with a losing record in the NFC would make the postseason and a 10-6 team in the AFC would remain on the sidelines never occurred. In fact, only one winning team in the AFC (Denver at 9-7) failed to make the playoffs.

The AFC again dominated Interconference play, going 40-24 straight up (62.5 percent) and 36-27-1 against the pointspread (57 percent).

Collectively as a group, the six NFC playoff teams were 10-14 SU against AFC teams this season (42 percent) and 11-13 ATS (46 percent).

The dominance of the AFC is further demonstrated by the success their six playoff teams had in Interconference games. The six pack was 21-3 straight up (87.5 percent) and 16-8 against the line (66.7 percent) versus the NFC. The only losses suffered by this group were Indianapolis’ 21-14 loss at Dallas, Baltimore’s 23-21 home loss to Carolina and the Jets’ 10-0 home loss to Chicago.

The AFC, which was as low as a 2½ point favorite over the NFC in the Super Bowl future book, could wind up being close to a TD favorite when the game is played next month depending on the matchup.

Collectively the six AFC playoff teams were 70-26 (73 percent) SU and 54-41-1 (57 percent) ATS. The ”˜under’ held a narrow 48-47-1 edge. The six NFC playoff teams were 59-37 SU (61 percent) and 51-44-1 ATS (54 percent). The ”˜over’ held a more significant 53-38-5 advantage.

At the start of the season the forecast in this column was for Philadelphia to face Miami in Super Bowl XLI. Miami will indeed host the Super Bowl but the Dolphins will at best be spectators. The Eagles have a shot with their current momentum. If they defeat the Giants, they’d have to likely win road games at New Orleans and Chicago.

The top two teams in the AFC should both win their Divisional round games and the AFC Title should feature a rematch of an early season contest that saw Baltimore defeat San Diego. The difference this time might be that this game would be played in San Diego.

The forecast of Philly representing the NFC still holds, based especially upon Chicago’s leaky defense over the second half of the season and the continued erratic play of QB Rex Grossman.

In the AFC the forecast is for San Diego to make to their second ever Super Bowl and to win — unlike their initial appearance in which they were nearly 20-point underdogs to powerhouse San Francisco. San Diego was the most consistent team from start to finish this season and, but for the time Shawne Merriman missed due to suspension, played outstanding defense before they got out to big leads. More on the Chargers next week.

Here’s a preview of all four Wild Card games.

SATURDAY

Chiefs +7 at Colts (51): The Chiefs overachieved in 2006 but did enough to fashion a winning record and earn the final Wild Card berth. The Colts started the season 9-0 before losing four of their final seven games. The offense was not nearly as productive as in 2005 and overall the Colts scored just 67 more points than they allowed. That’s compared to a net margin of +192 a season ago (when they yielded the second fewest points in the NFL) or the +171 in 2004 and +111 of 2003 — the first of their four consecutive Division title seasons. In fact, the Colts scored the fewest points and allowed the most this season than in any of the previous three.

The decline on both sides of the ball was largely due to deficiencies in the running game. The Colts were average on offense following the offseason departure of Edgerrin James with neither Joseph Addai nor Dominic Rhodes able to make up for his absence. Defensively the Colts ranked last in the league allowing 173 rushing yards per game. The ground game is the strength of the KC offense with Larry Johnson having a banner season. QB Trent Green gives the Chiefs offensive balance and they should be able to trade points with the Peyton Manning led Indy offense. The Chiefs have the better overall defense but it could be tough to win straight up on the road. Call for Indy to win the game but for the Chiefs to keep it close. CHIEFS.

Cowboys +3 at Seahawks 47: Both teams were very inconsistent over the course of the season and neither team played especially well down the stretch. Seattle’s two key offensive weapons, QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander, missed significant playing time during midseason with both out simultaneously for several games. Dallas made a midseason QB change, switching from aging immobile veteran Drew Bledsoe to energetic Tony Romo. For a while it appeared that Romo was the answer, but the de-facto rookie struggled over the last few games.

Dallas does have the better defense and played a much tougher schedule. The Cowboys road mark of 5-3 matches Seattle’s mark at home, which included losses to San Francisco and San Diego in the two weeks prior to the end of the season. Fundamentally these teams are pretty evenly matched on offense with Dallas earning marks for the better defense. Historically Seattle has enjoyed a very strong home field advantage. but Dallas is more than capable of pulling off the upset. This is the shortest priced home favorite of the four Wild Card games and the one that on many levels is the most likely to produce an upset. COWBOYS.

SUNDAY

Jets +9 at Patriots (38): This is the third meeting of the season for these long time rivals with each having won on the road. Both meetings came early this season with the second meeting back on November 12. New England won the first meeting 24-17 but the game was not that close as the Jets rallied after being down 24-0 in the middle of the third quarter. But in the rematch the Jets played well, leading 17-6 in the fourth quarter before the Pats got the final score of the game. Jets coach Eric Mangini learned under New Coach Bill Belichick and has done a masterful job in turning the Jets around despite the absence of Hall of Fame RB Curtis Martin all season.

QB Chad Pennington was healthy and played in all 16 games for the first time in his career. Statistically this is a mismatch as the Jets rank poorly in most categories on both sides of the ball. Yet they don’t make mistakes. Note that despite their poor record last season when they were hit hard by injuries, the Jets are actually making their fourth playoff appearance in the past six seasons. New England is not as strong as in recent seasons but remains well coached. These foes are familiar with one another and a low scoring, conservatively played game should not be a surprise. UNDER.

Giants +6½ at Eagles (46): Philadelphia arguably outplayed the Giants in both meetings this season. The Eagles lost the first game at home 30-24 in overtime after giving back a 24-7 fourth quarter lead. In the rematch at Philly three weeks ago, the Eagles got their revenge 36-22. The stats for both games were fairly even with Philly mustarding New York 451-404 in the first game and 382-358 in the rematch. In both games the Giants did not run the ball well, but did show a strong passing attack. Philly did more damage on the ground in their second meeting in which Jeff Garcia was the Eagle QB after Donovan McNabb, who quarterbacked the Eagles in the first meeting, had been injured in midseason.

The Giants played poorly over the second half of the season after having been anointed co-favorites to win the NFC in late October. New York lost 6 of their final 8 games as QB Eli Manning struggled and the defense played poorly, albeit with key defensive players lost due to injury for much of that time. Still, the Eagles also had to contend with injuries and were able to overcome them as their late season momentum showed. Philly was very impressive in winning three straight Divisional games on the road. The Eagles are healthy right now and the Giants are nursing injuries to several key contributors. That will be tough for the Giants to overcome. EAGLES.