Gearing up for road

Football: The Panthers and Titans today and the Colts and Packers tomorrow possess enough horsepower to take the traditional postseason course in a new direction.

Nfl Playoffs

January 10, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When the heavyweights of the NFL playoff field weigh in this weekend, they will have a rich sense of history on their side.

Since the league went to a 12-team format in 1990, home teams have dominated the divisional round, winning 43 of 52 games. Those home teams are the top two seeds in each conference, refreshed and refocused after earning first-round byes.

Only once in 13 years under the current system have two home teams, coming off byes, lost in the second round. It happened in 1995, when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers both bombed. Five times in those 13 years, home teams achieved a 4-0 sweep in the divisional round.

Which brings us to 2004 and four tantalizing second-round matchups. Because of their opponents' abysmal run defense, both the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers are believed to have a good chance of winning on the road tomorrow.

Because of their stifling defensive play, the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans also appear capable of pulling an upset on the road today.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn't taking anything for granted this week when he addressed home-field advantage for tonight's game against the Titans.

"The most important element is playing well," Belichick said. "I think that overrides everything else. If a team plays well home, away or on a neutral site, they have a lot better chance than if they don't. ... And if you don't play well at home, then the crowd really gets taken out of the game."

Here's the shakedown on prospects for a road-warrior weekend:

Today

Carolina (12-5) at St. Louis (12-4), 4:30 p.m.

Potential heroes: Carolina's vaunted defensive line of Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker could turn the playoff debut of St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger into a nightmare. The Rams surrender turnovers easily, and the Panthers showed a fondness for the blitz last week against Dallas.

Critical issue: The Rams' home-field advantage is significant. They went 8-0 in the Edward Jones Dome this season and have won a league-high 14 straight home games. Bulger has playmakers across the field. If he catches the blitz right, the Panthers are toast.

Tennessee (13-4) at New England (14-2), 8:15 p.m.

Potential heroes: Quarterback Steve McNair had two good practices this week and would like to atone for last week's three-interception stinker in Baltimore. It's hard to imagine running back Eddie George will be anywhere close to full strength with a dislocated shoulder, so the heat's on McNair. Cornerback Samari Rolle is another player who must perform well for the Titans to have a chance against Tom Brady's efficient passing game. Brady hasn't thrown an interception at home this season.

Critical issue: The frigid weather won't favor either team, but it will make ball-handling and kicking difficult. Turnovers could sway the game early. And in Foxboro on a January Saturday night, you don't want to play from behind early.

Tomorrow

Indianapolis (13-4) at Kansas City (13-3), 1 p.m.

Potential heroes: Matching big-play offense with big-play offense, the Colts have a chance to rearrange the pecking order in the AFC. The Chiefs have to devote a lot of attention to wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and running back Edgerrin James. That means slot receiver Brandon Stokley, a former Raven, should be singled up on the third cornerback or a safety on the NFL's 29th-ranked defense. Advantage, Stokley.

Critical issue: The Colts must defy a longstanding trend to advance through Kansas City to reach the AFC championship game. Since 1990, dome teams have won only four of 23 games outside in the postseason. Nevertheless, the Colts under coach Tony Dungy are a good road team, winning seven of eight this season. Quarterback Peyton Manning has beaten the Chiefs three times in his career.

Green Bay (11-6) at Philadelphia (12-4), 4:45 p.m.

Potential heroes: Packers running back Ahman Green rushed for 192 yards in a Nov. 10 loss to Philadelphia, and the Eagles' rush defense still hasn't recovered. But it did a lot better in the second half of that game, holding Green to 70 yards, 45 of which came on one touchdown play. Green had a fumble problem that night. If he has another, Najeh Davenport might get a chance to be the rushing hero.

Critical issue: The Eagles' offense has been potent with 215 points in its past seven games. That's because Donovan McNabb came out of his early-season funk to play like a Pro Bowl quarterback. How much the Eagles miss Brian Westbrook (torn triceps tendon) is another matter, though. Westbrook scored a team-high 13 touchdowns (seven rushing, four receiving, two on punt returns) and was clearly the team's best playmaker.

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