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News » No one-and-done deal Parity gives lowest seeds fighting chance to win Super Bowl

No one-and-done deal Parity gives lowest seeds fighting chance to win Super Bowl

No one-and-done deal Parity gives lowest seeds fighting chance to win Super Bowl
INDIANAPOLIS - As the top seed in the AFC playoffs, Tennessee gets the advantages: only two home wins needed to reach Super Bowl XLIII.

As the No. 5 seed in the six-team field, Indianapolis gets the disadvantages of a wild-card entrant: up to three road wins needed to make it to Tampa, Fla.

The difference between the teams, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said, could be as slender as one interference call that went against the Colts.

Dungy was not complaining about the officiating in an early- season loss to Jacksonville. He used the costly play to illustrate the contention that being a wild-card team no longer means a one-and-done appearance in the NFL's postseason tournament.

If the call goes the Colts' way, Dungy said, they might have swapped playoff spots with Tennessee.

"It speaks to the parity in the league and how close it is," Dungy said. "We have a lot more closer, tougher races. What we've seen is the 5 and 6 teams not being that much different than the 1 and 2 teams.

"The healthy and hot teams going in have a shot to win it."

In recent seasons, that has been a wild-card team. Pittsburgh, as a No. 6 seed, and the New York Giants, as a No. 5 seed, have won the Super Bowl in the past three years.

The trend could continue. The wild-card participants include a 12-win team in Indianapolis and two 11-win teams in Atlanta and Baltimore. The final wild card, Philadelphia, got in with a 44-6 destruction of Dallas on Sunday.

It is the strongest collection of wild-card teams in terms of victories since 2005, when 11-win Pittsburgh went all the way.

"It's been proven the last few years that your seed really does not matter," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's anybody's to take. Across the board in the AFC, you have six teams that are playing really well."

With the wild-card Colts in the forefront, an unlikely idea a few months ago.

No margin of error

The playoffs officially begin Saturday. Indianapolis has been in a playoff mode since October.

A 3-4 start put the Colts in danger of being eliminated from contention before December. With no margin of error, Indianapolis responded with a nine-game winning streak that makes it an unusual wild-card team.

The Colts have four more wins than opening-round opponent San Diego, the first 8-8 division winner since Cleveland in 1985. It is the biggest difference in favor of a wild-card team against a division winner since the expanded playoffs debuted in 1970. The previous high was two wins.

Indianapolis also goes into the playoffs as the field's hottest team. That is the opposite from Dungy's previous Colts teams. They would wrap up the division early and pull back late in the season.

That approach led to a Super Bowl victory in the 2006 season. It also produced embarrassing opening-playoff losses in the 2002, 2005 and 2007 seasons.

"Our battle came early this year," Dungy said. "We stayed focused and got into that stretch where we couldn't afford a loss, and it helped us concentrate.

"We knew it was doable to get ourselves going and come back, but you have to credit our veteran players, who continued to work and practice and not worry about anything other than the next game. It has been rewarding."

Manning has made the difference. He has had more impressive numbers in his 11-year career but never performed as well under such trying circumstances.

Manning missed most of training camp because of two surgeries on his left knee. The running game was nonexistent. The offensive line was riddled with injuries. That included playing four games without center Jeff Saturday, whom Manning calls his "personal security blanket."

With all that working against him, Manning carried the Colts. In the nine-game winning streak, he has completed 72.1 percent of his 290 passes for 2,208 yards, with 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. In the past four games, Manning has completed 90-of-110 passes for 1,104 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

"In Football terms, we've been through some adversity," said Manning, careful to separate the real world from the NFL. "I wasn't as comfortable as I wanted to be early in the season. It's been the most rewarding regular season that I've been a part of."

Road warriors

Every wild-card team faces a daunting task. Unless it faces a lower-seeded team in a conference title game, the wild-card team must win three consecutive road games to reach the Super Bowl.

Only one NFL team played three consecutive road games this year, and Chicago went 1-2 in that stretch. Of the 99 teams that have played three consecutive regular- season road games since 1990, only seven went undefeated.

As the Giants performed the feat during last season's playoffs, coach Tom Coughlin used the "pyramid approach." He never mentioned the Super Bowl, talking only about the game at hand.

"Sometimes, when you get into those modes when you're playing on the road, you get a mentality," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator for the wild-card run of the 2005 season. "And that helps you be successful."

The Steelers rode that energy all the way to a Super Bowl victory against Seattle. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher had his team wear its white road jerseys in the game. That's a tactic a team from this wild-card group could use.




Baltimore Ravens

* Plan the parade: The Ravens have a Super Bowl-quality defense. They rank among the league's top three for fewest yards allowed per game at 261.1 and fewest points per game at 15.2. Run the ball? The Ravens have not allowed an individual 100-yard rushing performance in the past 35 games. Throw the ball? The Ravens have 16 interceptions in the past eight games and led the league with 26 overall.

* Start the vacation: Baltimore's defense wilted against top-ranked competition. The Ravens went 2-5 against playoff teams and were ripped for 30 points by the New York Giants and 31 points by Indianapolis. The playoffs are no place for a rookie quarterback. Joe Flacco has held up well in his first season, but he has thrown nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns (12-14). Flacco has also been prone to fumbling. He had five fumbles, tied for the third-highest total in the league.

Indianapolis Colts

* Plan the parade: The high-powered offense excels at keeping the ball. The Colts had the league's best third-down conversion rate at 50.2 for the fourth consecutive season. Tight end Dallas Clark, who had 77 catches, is the top option on third downs for quarterback Peyton Manning. Teams that fall behind to the Colts are in trouble. Indianapolis allowed only six touchdown passes, a record low for the 16-game schedule. The previous low was nine.

* Start the vacation: Conventional wisdom maintains a team must run well to win in the postseason. The Colts have not done that all season. Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes averaged only 3.5 yards per carry, tying for the lowest figure among the 43 backs with at least 500 yards. The undersized defense is vulnerable against the run. The Colts allowed more than 150 rushing yards five times, but only once during the current nine-game winning streak. Kick coverage has been a seasonlong problem.


Atlanta Falcons

* Plan the parade: Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan benefited from the backing of a strong ground game. The Falcons placed second to the New York Giants with 152.7 rushing yards per game. In his first season as a starter, Michael Turner finished second behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in rushing with 1,699 yards. John Abraham, who lines up in several positions depending upon down and distance, led NFL linemen in sacks with 161/2.

* Start the vacation: The Falcons have the worst run defense of all playoff teams. They allowed 4.9 yards per carry, the fourth-highest figure in the league overall and 127.5 yards per game. The defense has been unable to give the offense good field position through takeaways. The Falcons have only 10 interceptions, tied for the fifth-lowest total in the NFL, with eight recovered fumbles.

Philadelphia Eagles

* Plan the parade: The defenses of blitz-happy coordinator Jim Johnson keep opponents off balance. The Eagles ranked third in total defense with 274.3 yards per game allowed, and disrupted passing attacks. Philadelphia was third in sacks with 48 and second in opponents' completion rate at 54.1. Johnson is at his best when opponents face third down. The Eagles had the NFL's second-best stop rate on third down at 67.8. Only Pittsburgh was better.

* Start the vacation: Knee and ankle injuries have slowed all-purpose running back Brian Westbrook. He averaged 4 yards per carry and had 54 receptions, a steep drop from 4.6 yards per carry and 90 catches in 2007. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has been wildly inconsistent. He had nine touchdown passes with one interception in the past five games. Before that, McNabb had only 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 11 games.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: January 2, 2009

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