Mediocrity advances

Jan 9, 2007 6:10 AM

With the departure of New York’s Giants and Jets, the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs three quarters of the NFL’s 32 teams can turn their full attention to preparing for the 2007 season.

The remaining eight will play this weekend in the Divisional round of the playoffs with the four winners meeting a week from Sunday to determine the two teams that will play in Super Bowl XLI (that’s 41 for the non-Romans among us) in Miami on Feb. 4.

The past year showed remarkable parity in the NFL. Some cynics might refer to it as mediocrity and it would be tough to argue that point.

Consider that last season all 12 playoff teams had at least 10 regular season wins. Kansas City also won 10, but failed to make the playoffs. Additionally, four teams that finished 9-7 also were left on the sidelines.

This past season saw just eight teams managing to win at least 10 games and only Denver at 9-7 failed to make the playoffs. An NFC Wild Card was earned by the 8-8 New York Giants. It really was not that much of a surprise to see all four much of a surprise to see all four home teams win their games in the Wild Card round. That hadn’t happened since 2000 and it was just the second time it occurred since 1990 when the playoff format went from 10 to 12 teams.

The Divisional round has produced some of the best games over the past quarter century. It is a round that historically has been dominated by the home team and it makes sense. The home teams got byes as a result of having the best records in their conferences. Often these have been clearly dominant with the extra week rest and facing Wild Card winners with significant flaws.

Since 1990 the home team has won straight up at a higher rate (80 percent) than any other playoff round. The home team also has the highest success against the spread (60 percent) of any playoff round. The divisional round produces the lowest rate of upsets in the playoffs. Favorites win 76 percent of these games since 1990. The average margin of victory (15 points) is also the highest of any playoff round. Some 44 percent of these games are decided by more than 14. The winners have demonstrated they are the better team over the totality of the season.

Here’s a look at the divisional round games this weekend which features a pair of regular season rematches in the NFC and a pair of first time AFC meetings.

SATURDAY

Colts +4 at Ravens (40½): After the Indianapolis Colts had allowed over 100 rushing yards in each of their 16 regular season games, the Kansas City Chiefs could manage just 44 in last week’s 23-8 Wild Card loss. The Colts played one of the best defensive games played of any team this past season. The Chiefs gained just 126 total yards, eighth lowest output in the 260 games played this season. Yet despite that impressive win, Indy QB Peyton Manning was victimized by three interceptions.

Baltimore has the best defense in the NFL, leading the league by allowing just 264 total yards and 12.6 points per game. They were also second in the league in forcing 2½ turnovers per game (only Chicago was better at 2.8) and second best at limiting the run (76 yards per game). The Ravens are looking to win their second Super Bowl under coach Brian Billick who has to be given the coaching edge over Indy’s Tony Dungy based on past playoff results.

Billick took over the offensive play calling in mid season and the Ravens have responded by gaining over 300 yards in 8-of-9 games, scoring at least 24 points in 7 of 10 games following the bye. None of the last 7 foes has scored more than 17 points and only Tennessee scored more than 23 points against the Ravens all season.

Steve McNair gives the Ravens a clear upgrade at QB. Although Baltimore’s rushing game was below average for the season, they will be facing the league’s worst rushing defense. Indianapolis did win four road games this season, all against teams that made the playoffs. The Colts lost their final four road games, including three against non-playoff teams.

Baltimore lost just once at home and their last four home wins have each been by double digits. When strength meets strength the preference is for the team with the strong, and proven, defense. Add to that the recent playoff woes of the visitor and the edges clearly point to a solid win by the home side. RAVENS.

Eagles +4½ at Saints (48½): These teams met in mid October with New Orleans winning 27-24 on a 31 yard FG on the game’s final play. The stats were fairly even with both team rushing for just under 100 yards. A major difference in this game will be that Philly will be led by QB Jeff Garcia after starting QB Donovan McNabb was injured several weeks after these teams first met.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton deservedly was awarded Coach of the Year honors, turning around this franchise that went 3-13 in 2005 and playing all road games in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Philly cares little about sentiment and is out to further prove that the 6-1 record with Garcia is no fluke. The Eagles are seeking their fifth appearance in the NFC Title game in the past six seasons.

The teams are evenly matched. Philadelphia has several key edges, mostly related to its overwhelming advantage in playoff experience. Coach Andy Reid has been a great postseason coach in the past and the Eagles have also excelled on the road throughout his head coaching tenure. While Payton has been an assistant coach on past playoff teams, it’s a huge step up when you are the dude in charge.

This is the one game that is most likely to produce an upset, although there has to be concern with the injury to Philly’s excellent cornerback Lito Sheppard. Saints QB Drew Brees had an outstanding season and part of the New Orleans game plan will be to test that Philly secondary. With two potent offenses and average defenses, this should be the highest scoring and perhaps most entertaining of the weekend games. OVER.

SUNDAY

Seahawks +8½ at Bears (37): Seattle is extremely fortunate to be here following Dallas’ misplayed snap on what appeared to be a game winning FG late in last week’s 21-20 loss. Seattle did not play well in that win and last season’s Super Bowl runner ups haven’t been up to par all year. The Seahawks won the NFC West with just a 9-7 record and went 3-3 in that very weak division. Not only that, but two of those three divisional wins were over St. Louis, each by exactly two points.

The Seahawks allowed more yards than they gained and more points than they scored this season. "Ugly" would be a mild understatement to describe their credentials. Chicago was the dominant team in the NFC all season. In winning their first seven games, the Bears outscored their opposition by an average score of 32-10 and outgained those foes 336-246. Over the final nine games, the Bears were 6-3 but their scoring margin declined to 23-21. The Bears were also outgained by an average of 334-316.

Included in their 7-0 start was a dominating 37-6 win over the Seahawks. Seattle was without RB Shaun Alexander but did have QB Matt Hasselbeck. Although Seattle is accustomed to playing in often rainy weather, contending with the typical January weather in Chicago is a major disadvantage.

The Bears will be well rested and out to atone for last season’s early elimination on this field by Carolina. Prior to their throw away season ending loss to Green Bay (for which QB Rex Grossman admitted he was ill prepared) all seven Bears home games had gone over the total. The defense held foes to 101 rushing yards or less in five of the final six games. This game might not be as one sided as the earlier meeting, but Chicago’s defense is likely to key a double-digit victory. BEARS.

Patriots +4½ at Chargers (46½): Since the first month of the season San Diego emerged as the team to beat in the AFC. A strong running game behind All Everything RB LaDanian Tomlinson and the efficiently well managed quarterbacking of first year starter Philip Rivers makes San Diego perhaps the best balanced offense in the league. Add in the talents of Shawne Merriman, who led the NFL in sacks despite missing four games due to a suspension, and the Chargers also played first rate defense. However, it must be noted that San Diego had a relatively soft schedule, facing just one team all season that finished with double digit wins. In that one game the Chargers lost at Baltimore, 16-13.

New England struggled early, yet found a way to win 12 regular season games and a fourth straight AFC East title. The Patriots provided QB Tom Brady with virtually an entirely new set of receivers. The running game was bolstered by the addition of rookie RB Laurence Maroney who complimented veteran Corey Dillon quite nicely. The tough defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed. The 37 points scored in last week’s Wild Card win over the Jets marked the third time in their last four games that the Pats have amassed that many points.

Clearly this is San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer’s best chance at reaching and winning a Super Bowl. The longtime coach has often been criticized for his very conservative game management. New England coach Bill Belichick has already won three Super Bowls and is considered the best in football. This handicaps as a very close game, despite several strong statistical advantages and historical edges for San Diego.

With the Chargers having to give more than a FG to a very experienced New England team that won 7-of- 8 road games compels looking at the dog. The outcome quite likely could come down to a made or missed FG at the end. PATRIOTS.