Wild-card survivors hurting, except Pats

ON THE NFL

Ravens Extra

January 08, 2007|By KEN MURRAY

The recuperative power of the bye week and the history of home team success await the survivors of the NFL's wild-card weekend.

For the Philadelphia Eagles, that means replacing Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard in a short week before heading to New Orleans to meet the resurgent Saints.

For the Seattle Seahawks, it means finding enough healthy receivers to run their offense when they visit Chicago to face the Bears next week.

For each of this weekend's four wild-card winners, there is this sobering perspective to next weekend's divisional round: Home teams, armed with No. 1 and 2 seeds, are prohibitive favorites.

In the past 10 years, home teams have won 31 of 40 divisional playoff games. Since the league went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, home teams have gone 51-13, a nearly .800 winning percentage.

That's the good news for the Ravens, San Diego Chargers, Saints and Bears, all rested and presumably healed.

Home teams completed a wild-card sweep yesterday when the Eagles bounced the New York Giants, 23-20, on a 38-yard field goal by David Akers on the final play. Earlier in the day, the New England Patriots knocked out the New York Jets, 37-16, a result so satisfying to Patriots coach Bill Belichick that he hugged his one-time pupil, the Jets' Eric Mangini, at game's end.

The divisional round offers matchups of intriguing proportions. In the AFC bracket, the Indianapolis Colts come back to Baltimore for what promises to be a week's buildup of nostalgia and a day's worth of mayhem against the Ravens' defense.

The second AFC semifinal sends the Patriots to San Diego against the top-seeded Chargers. The most tantalizing matchup there is coaching: Belichick, the proven playoff winner, against Marty Schottenheimer, the proven playoff loser.

In the NFC, the Eagles and Saints will roll out the league's No. 2 and 1 offenses in a rematch of New Orleans' 27-24 win in Week 6. Brian Westbrook saved the Eagles again yesterday with 141 rushing yards that included a scintillating 49-yard touchdown run.

The Saints get back defensive tackle Hollis Thomas this week from a four-game suspension for a failed steroids test, and the Eagles will try to cover the loss of Sheppard, who dislocated an elbow.

The other NFC semifinal offers another rematch. In Week 4, the Bears drilled the Seahawks, playing without Shaun Alexander, in Chicago, 37-6. Neither team is the same at this point in the season.

The Bears' defense has been in back-pedal mode the past month, suffering from injuries. It hasn't held an opponent under 327 total yards since Nov. 19. And although the Bears' defense led the league in take-aways with 44, it had just five in its past four games.

Then there's the issue of quarterback Rex Grossman, who has followed up his interception-marred outings with strong performances this season.

Seattle, on the other hand, was scouring the streets a week ago looking for cornerbacks. This week, the Seahawks may be looking for receivers. They lost Darrell Jackson and D.J. Hackett to injuries in Saturday night's 21-20 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

If there is a team that appears capable of making a Super Bowl run out of the wild-card round, it would be the Patriots. Corey Dillon's lost fumble was their first turnover in four weeks. Their defense allowed a franchise-low 237 points this season and only 10 touchdown passes.

More significant, Tom Brady's passing game looks playoff-ready. He threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns, and 15 of his 22 completions went to wide receivers, a group that had not distinguished itself during the regular season.

The Jets sacked Brady four times in a Nov. 12 win in Foxborough. Yesterday, they got to him only once.

And if the Patriots can beat the Chargers next Sunday, they could be coming to Baltimore for the AFC championship game.

That is, if the Ravens take care of the Colts. The matchup of the Ravens' No. 1 defense against the Colts' No. 3 offense will highlight this game. It is worth noting that quarterback Peyton Manning has had problems against 3-4 defenses. In games against two 3-4 teams this season -- the Patriots and Cowboys -- Manning completed just 53.3 percent of his passes and threw three of his nine interceptions.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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