In what has to rate as an all-time oddity, the teams holding home-field advantage on wild-card weekend do not compare favourably to the club visiting.
In plain speak: the visitors are a bit better than the guys hosting. Some (hello Atlanta) are quite a bit better.
The experts tend to agree, and just to give you an idea how much they trumpet the road favourites: CBSSportsline.com’s crew (there are five of them) is projecting, at a rate of 85 per cent, that the visitors will triumph; ESPN’s gang (seven experts) supports 82 per cent of the visiting clubs.
As pointed out earlier this week, this is a bizarre circumstance — only four road playoff teams in total have been favourites since 2001.
• Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7) (+2.5) — Not only is Falcons pivot Matt Ryan a favourite for rookie-of-the-year honours, pencil him in as a potential league MVP, too. Ryan isn’t the only aspect worthy of our admiration on the Falcons. The young star is surrounded by quality — from an underrated defence that allowed 100 points less this season than the Cardinals, to a dominating run attack led by former LaDainian Tomlinson understudy Michael Turner. The Falcons are susceptible against the run, but considering Arizona’s jellied rushing attack, that shouldn’t be a problem here. The Cards hobbled down the stretch — they finished on a 2-4 stumble — and most concerning must be the fading play of Kurt Warner. Once considered an MVP threat, Warner’s looked fatigued and ineffective. The Falcons won their final three to cement their positioning, and the NFL’s most-improved club (with Miami) wins again in round one. Take Atlanta.
• Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-8) (+1) — You can hiss and toss shame toward the AFC West champs all you want, but know this — the Chargers busted their tails getting the besmirched pennant. Once considered deader than Corey Feldman’s career (any of you seen Lost Boys: The Tribe?), San Diego captured its final four to get in. The Chargers’ strength, once faded, is back. San Diego’s fluid offence put up 93 points in its last two games. Heading in as a ‘dome’ team, Indianapolis won’t have to be worried about wintry weather. Plus, the Colts have already been in San Diego this year … and won. Indy capped off a nine-game win streak with a pasting of AFC South champion Tennessee last Sunday. Peyton Manning’s in fine form and the Colts’ D is a heck of a lot better than San Diego’s. Take Indianapolis.
• Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at Minnesota Vikings (10-6) (+3) — If momentum counts heading into the playoffs, count on the Eagles to run up a huge score and register a dominating win here. Philly’s won four of its last five games and none bigger than the 44-6 guzzling of the Cowboys in that must-win match last weekend. Donovan McNabb has gone from trade-bait to Pro Bowl calibre during the Eagles’ run. The Vikings’ run game is terrific, but the pass game is inconsistent. Defensively, even if run-stuffer Pat Williams (broken shoulder) plays, you wonder about his effectiveness. Take Philadelphia.
• Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Miami Dolphins (11-5) (+3) — Probably the closest to call of this weekend’s four games. The Dolphins remarkable turnaround after a 1-15 season is a credit to Bill Parcells, a rejuvenated Chad Pennington, a two-pronged, dangerous run game, and a recharged Joey Porter and his 17.5 sacks. It’s a nice story — nice they made the playoffs and nice for the above-mentioned individuals. There’s not a lot of nice in Baltimore. The nastiest, toughest team in the NFL again sports a voracious defence, but what’s changed is the Ravens now have a capable offence led by University of Delaware first-rounder Joe Flacco. Experience in big games favours the Ravens. Take Baltimore.