By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There was a time in the NFL that finishing as one of the top two seeds in the playoffs and getting a bye in the wild-card round was a huge advantage.
In 2001, the second-seeded New England Patriots defeated the top-seeded St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl after both teams had a bye in the wild-card round. A year later, the top-seeded Oakland Raiders made it to the Super Bowl, but they were toppled by the second-seeded Tampa Bay Bucs.
In 2003, the top-seeded Patriots rolled to the title and defeated the Carolina Panthers, who emerged from the wild-card round to represent the NFC. The Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl the following year after both teams had been top-seeded in their conference.
But since that time, the bye has no longer been an advantage. Teams playing in the wild-card round have reached or won the Super Bowl in seven of eight seasons.
Expect that trend to continue this season. On the surface, each of the four teams that are rested and playing at home this weekend appear to have a major advantage over their wild-card challengers. But there’s a lot more to these matchups that meet the eye. All four of the underdogs have key factors that are working in their favor.
San Diego (10-7) at Denver (13-3)
The Chargers took advantage of Andy Dalton’s lack of accuracy and poor decision-making to advance to the divisional playoff round as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. Many were shocked that the Chargers were able to beat the Bengals who were 8-0 at home during the regular season. They shouldn’t have been.
While the Chargers were just 9-7 during the regular season, they were 4-0 on the road against teams that made the playoffs. No other NFL team had anything close to that mark. Additionally, the Chargers were 4-2 on the road against teams that were .500 or better. The Chargers’ most impressive victory of the season was a 27-20 victory over the Broncos at Denver in Week 15.
On the field, the Chargers have the versatility of Ryan Mathews running the ball and Philip Rivers throwing to Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green and that could cause issues for Denver’s yielding defense.
Indianapolis (12-5) at New England (12-4)
The Colts travel to New England riding the crest of a huge momentum surge following their comeback 45-44 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round.
The Colts have been strong against the league’s iron all season, having recorded a 5-2 record against playoff teams this season. They have already defeated the Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
While the Colts don’t have much of a running game, Andrew Luck should be able to find open receivers against the Patriots’ 22nd-ranked defense. New England has weapons in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Stevan Ridley.
New Orleans (12-5) at Seattle (13-3)
This appears to be the biggest mismatch of the weekend, based on the Seahawks’ strength at home and the Saints’ struggles on the road.
However, New Orleans overcame a huge hurdle when it defeated Philadelphia 26-24 in the wild-card round.
The Seahawks have lost just one game at home in the past two seasons, and they ran away from the Saints 34-7 in their Week 13 meeting at CenturyLink Field. Overconfidence could be an issue for the Seahawks, who have looked like the best team in the NFL for the majority of the season.
Seattle’s offense was not at its best in the regular season’s home stretch. Quarterback Russell Wilson has just a 4-3 TD-interception ratio in the last four games.
San Francisco (13-4) at Carolina (12-4)
The 49ers were not able to keep pace with the Seahawks early in the season and had to settle for the wild-card spot in the NFC West, but they are rolling now with a seven-game winning streak.
They are coming off a well-earned 23-20 road victory over the Packers in the wild-card round in which they eliminated cold weather as a factor that could throw them off track.
The Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games and they defeated the Niners in San Francisco in Week 10, but the Niners did not have wide receiver Michael Crabtree or pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith available in that game. Additionally, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s lack of accuracy on short- and medium-range passes could be the telling factor in this game.