It’s either ‘bye’ or
hello for top seeds

Jan 9, 2007 2:55 AM

The first week bye gave the top two seeds in each conference a key edge heading to the second round of the NFL playoffs.

Sitting at home this past weekend were the Ravens, Chargers, Bears and Saints. Before the season started, Baltimore was 35/1 to win the Super Bowl. San Diego was lowest of the four at 15/1, while Chicago was 20-to-1 and New Orleans 100/1.

The Bears also earned a bye in the first week last year, but fell at Soldier Field 29-21 to Carolina. Still, gaining the bye is an advantage. Teams can rest injured players and have two weeks to put together a game plan.

Since 1990, there have been 26 first and second round seeds filling 32 Super Bowl slots. Seattle, the No. 1 seed a year ago in the NFC, wound up in the Super Bowl. So did the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles two years ago. In 2003, the AFC’s top seeded New England Patriots also made it.

In 2002 and 2005 the Steelers were the No. 1 AFC seed and fell short. Before that, the Ravens had to win road games against Tennessee and Oakland during their surprising run to the title. Home field is important, but you still have to play and win.

Here’s a look at the four teams that come into this weekend’s playoff games rested with home field.

NFC

SAINTS

(10-6 SU, 10-6 ATS): New coach Sean Peyton engineered a miraculous turnaround and is a cinch for NFC Coach of the Year. He turned a 3-13 team from 2005 into the No. 1 offense and second seed in the NFC. Talk about a makeover! Free agent QB Drew Brees (26 TDs, 11 INTs, 4,418 yards) turned out to be worth every penny and received plenty of help from electric rookies in WR Marques Colston and all-purpose back Reggie Bush.

The Saints were an impressive 6-2 SU, 7-1 ATS on the road and 7-2 ATS as a dog. On the other hand, they went 1-3 SU/ATS against the AFC, giving up 35, 38 and 31 points in losses to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Their question: Did they excel by taking advantage of the weaker NFC?

BEARS

(13-3 SU, 10-6 ATS): George Halas would be proud.The 2006 Bears are again Monsters of the Midway. The No. 5 overall defense yielded 15.9 points per game. Lovie Smith has put his stamp on this aggressive, ball-hawking unit. The offense improved from a year ago, averaging 26.7 points to ranks 15 in the NFL from 29 in 2005. All those numbers point to a dominant team, but there are some questions as the Bears roar into the playoffs with the No. 1 seed.

QB Rex Grossman was both red-hot and ice-cold. In five games, he has thrown at least three interceptions (four against Arizona) and finished with 20. He nearly was benched after producing a microscopic 1.3 passer rating in a home victory over Minnesota. After allowing only one team to exceed 200 passing yards through the first 10 games, Chicago allowed over 260 in five of the last six.

Their question: Can they eliminate inconsistency?

AFC

CHARGERS

(14-2 SU, 9-7 ATS): No. 4 in total offense, No. 10 in defense, No. 1 in scoring (30.8 ppg), No. 2 in rushing yards per game (161).

Record-setting RB LaDainian Tomlinson (1,815 yds) carried the load, becoming the NFL’s most prolific scorer in a single season with 31 touchdowns. QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, WR Eric Parker anchor a super-talented offense.

Although Rivers was voted to the Pro Bowl, he’s had some poor passing performances lately. Rivers suffered through two straight games in which he completed less than 35 percent of his passes. In one contest, he threw for less than 100 yards. Rivers sat out practice last week with a boot on his foot, suffering a sprained ankle in the last game.

San Diego is 8-0 SU, 5-3 ATS at the Q (Qualcomm), where they beat opponents by a 31-16 average. If a Ravens rematch is on the horizon, the Chargers will look to avenge a 16-13 loss at Baltimore in Week 3.

Their question: What can’t this team do?

RAVENS

(13-3 SU, 10-6 ATS): If defense wins championships, the Ravens should be taken seriously. Baltimore is No. 1 in total defense, tops in scoring defense and allows 76 yards rushing per game. Since Week 8 they haven’t given up more than 17 points in any game.

QB Steve McNair (3,050 yards, 16 TDs, 12 INTs) has been steady. Since Brian Billick took over the play-calling duties, the offense has averaged 24 points the last 10 games. Baltimore is the 11th-best passing team in the NFL. This offense ranks 17, similar to the 2000 Super Bowl champs that were 16 in total offense. In that championship season, the Ravens were 2 in total defense.

Their question: Will McNair remain steady?