WWhile much of the conversation about the Super Bowl favorites focuses on the four teams with first-round byes — the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC and the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC — recent history suggests there’s a good chance that one of the eight clubs playing in this weekend’s first round of the NFL playoffs could end up celebrating on the field next month in Indianapolis.
Of the last six Super Bowl champions, four played first-round games.
“I was so amused with all the talk about the number one seeds,” former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. “Who wants to be a number one seed these days? When do they ever win any more? That just puts a bigger target on you. Do you want to be on a roll or do you want to be rested? Being rested has become more like being rusted.”
Last season’s Packers reached the playoffs as the sixth seed in the NFC, then went on the road to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago and beat the conference’s top three seeds en route to their Super Bowl title. The Packers joined the New York Giants in the 2007 season, the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 season and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 season as Super Bowl champions in the last half-dozen years to have played in the first round of the playoffs.
“If you have some issues with injuries, it’s nice to have that first weekend off,” former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso said. “But if not, I like to have that continuity of playing and keeping things in the same routine. I like the idea of playing that opening weekend. . . . Teams like New Orleans, with the precision in the passing game, I think it’s good for them to play the opening weekend. It could give them an advantage early in the game the next weekend over a team that didn’t play.”
Among the teams playing this weekend, the most obvious threats to make a run deep into the postseason and perhaps capture the big prize are the New Orleans Saints in the NFC and the Steelers in the AFC. The third-seeded Saints, who host the Detroit Lions on Saturday night, went 13-3 during the regular season, enter the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak and have record-setting quarterback Drew Brees. The fifth-seeded Steelers, who play Sunday at the Denver Broncos, finished 12-4, led the league in total defense and have a two-time Super Bowl winner at quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
But neither exactly qualifies as a true playoff underdog. That, perhaps, is where a team like the Giants comes in. The Giants are the NFC’s fourth seed and host the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands.
“That Giants-Atlanta game has the potential to be one of those down-to-the-last-minute things, a real momentum-type game for whichever team wins it. . . . It’s about who can get momentum and who can get on a roll,” Cross said. “That’s what happened when Pittsburgh won its Super Bowl [after playing a first-round game], when the Giants won theirs. It’s all about the momentum.”
The Giants beat the New York Jets and the Cowboys in their final two regular season games to get into the playoffs. Quarterback Eli Manning threw for more than 4,900 yards during the regular season and led the Giants to five victories via fourth-quarter comebacks.
“I didn’t lose faith,” running back Brandon Jacobs said after the Dallas game. “This is a good football team. We’re coached well. We have great players that want to win and guys know what to do when their backs are to the wall. And we’ve been in this position already and we came through it. . . . I think we’re playing well right now and it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Manning played almost flawlessly during the Giants’ Super Bowl run at the end of the 2007 season, with six touchdown passes and only one interception in four games that postseason, and probably would have to do something similar this time around.
“We’re playing smart football,” Manning said late last Sunday night. “We’re not making many mistakes . . . and we have the big-play potential with our players.”
Former Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman said he expects Green Bay or New Orleans to emerge from the NFC playoff field. But he also said, “I look at the Giants and see the Packers of last year.”
The Lions are cut from the same mold as this season’s Packers, Patriots and Saints. Matthew Stafford, Detroit’s quarterback, joined Brees and New England’s Tom Brady in surpassing 5,000 passing yards during the regular season.
The sixth-seeded Lions ranked fifth in the league in total offense but 23rd in total defense, and lost their regular season finale at Green Bay, 45-41, even with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sitting out. But if an offense-first team is going to win the Super Bowl in this season of record passing, the Lions might have a chance, even with their opening game coming against the Saints in the Superdome.
“The Lions definitely have an opportunity to win,” Freeman said. “They’re in their element, playing in a dome.”
Dark-horse candidates seem tougher to come by in the AFC. The third-seeded Houston Texans, who host the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, and the fourth-seeded Broncos each enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The Bengals and Broncos lost their way into the playoffs last weekend, getting help with losses by other teams.
Cincinnati, with Andy Dalton, and Houston, with T.J. Yates, must rely on rookie quarterbacks. The Broncos, meantime, hope that second-year pro Tim Tebow recaptures the magic from his 7-1 run in his first eight starts of the season before the 0-3 finish. The Broncos, playing at home, face a Pittsburgh offense that’s without tailback Rashard Mendenhall because of a knee injury.
“I think Pittsburgh will probably squeak by, but I would give Denver an outside shot,” Freeman said. “Mendenhall being out is huge.”
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