(AP) It’s hardly a stretch to conjure up four road victories in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Saints are hefty favorites at Seattle, which is the first division winner with a losing record in, well, forever.
Green Bay already has won at Philadelphia, in the season opener. Baltimore (12-4) also is a road favorite at Kansas City (10-6). And the New York Jets (11-5) have a better record than Indianapolis (10-6).
Picking a sweep by the lower-seeded teams isn’t as gutsy as it might be in previous years. Still, we don’t quite have the guts to do that.
The only mismatch of opening weekend, and a reason there will be strong offseason talk about revamping the playoffs so an 11-5 team doesn’t have to travel more than halfway across the country to face a 7-9 club.
New Orleans romped past Seattle 34-19 in November and the Saints have improved since then. The Seahawks have not.
Sure, Pete Carroll’s crew should get a spark from the win-or-go-home performance last Sunday against St. Louis that gave it the NFC West crown. But the Seahawks not only have a questionable quarterbacking situation because of Matt Hasselbeck’s hip, they don’t match up in the back seven against the Saints’ formidable passing game, particularly in the secondary.
New Orleans is getting healthy at the right time, although RB Pierre Thomas’s left ankle is worrisome. Facing the Seahawks should not be.
BEST BET: SAINTS, 30-10
Way back in September, when weather concerns were about heat and humidity, not ice and wind — and Kevin Kolb was Philadelphia’s starting quarterback — the Packers won 27-20 at the Linc.
Green Bay has had a roller coaster season in which 15 players went on injured reserve, including two primary options on offense, TE Jermichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant, and six key defenders.
QB Aaron Rodgers is healthy now after a late-season concussion, and eager to take advantage of Philly’s mediocre linebacking and to test the Eagles’ secondary with deep throws to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones.
The key here is Michael Vick’s condition and whether the Packers can keep him enough under wraps to control the game. If Vick isn’t his freewheeling self because of a gimpy leg, the Eagles’ big-play offense might not get on track.
UPSET SPECIAL: PACKERS, 23-20
It’s a rematch of last January’s AFC championship game in which the Jets led at halftime, and neither team is quite the same.
New York has more offensive weapons, yet its running game is unpredictable. The dominant defense from 2009 has disappeared minus a relevant pass rush. The Jets have to blitz to get to quarterbacks, a dangerous way to live.
The Colts needed to win their final four games to take the AFC South, a year after starting 14-0. Peyton Manning has had a strong season that was sidetracked by a three-game stretch in which he threw 11 interceptions. Indianapolis has been plagued by injuries, too, especially at wide receiver and running back, and in the secondary.
Then again, Manning eventually made his supporting cast better. And trusting the blitz to fool or discomfort him is not wise.
If the NFL ever has had a stronger wild-card team than the Ravens, it would have to be the 2007 Giants, 2005 Steelers or 2000 Ravens — all Super Bowl winners.
Yes, Baltimore is capable of going all the way if — and this is a rare observation when it comes to the Ravens — the defense holds up. Too many times this season, such as against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England and Buffalo, the D has not been dynamic enough.
The Ravens’ offense is balanced, although the most impressive back quarterback and running back in this matchup are Kansas City’s Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles.
Still, the experience factor, the versatility and the recent history of success in road playoff games all favor the Ravens.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)