How fair is the NFL playoff format when a team, New Orleans, a wild-card team with a superior record (11-5), has to play at NFC East champion Philadelphia (10-6)?
That’s a question being asked by some this week leading up to the start of the National Football League postseason.
Also, on Sunday, the wild-card San Francisco 49ers (12-4) must travel to NFC North champion Green Bay (8-7-1).
Since the NFL realigned into eight divisions in 2002, this scenario has occurred 15 times. Nine times the home team with the inferior record has won. The Saints were involved in the most famous upset when they took an 11-5 record to Seattle (7-9) in 2010 and lost, 41-36. Six times the wild-card team has won.
Three of the four home teams in this weekend’s wild-card round are favored, but it’s almost guaranteed that there will be at least one upset. Only three times since 1990, when a second wild-card playoff team was created, has the home team swept all four games in the first round of the playoffs. However, the visitors have never won all four wild cards but they’ve gone 3-1 twice and split 2-2 four times.
A look at today’s NFL playoff games in the wild-card round.
Chiefs (11-5) at Colts (11-5)
TV: Ch. 2, 4:35 p.m.
The line: Colts (-2½).
The scoop on the Colts: This is an interesting rematch because of the Colts’ last six victories, only one was over a team with a winning record – an impressive 23-7 handling of the Chiefs in Kansas City on Dec. 22. Otherwise, Indy was not impressive down the stretch, winning twice over hapless Houston, once over lowly Jacksonville and twice over middling Tennessee. What was impressive was that Indy’s defense allowed only 20 points total in the last three games of the regular season. … Indy has reached the postseason 11 times in the last 12 seasons. The exception was in 2011 when the Colts went 2-14 to gain the first pick in the draft and selected quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck is especially effective at home in Lucas Oil Stadium, where he has won 13 games as a starter in two seasons. ... The Indy running game is ordinary with trade acquisition Trent Richardson leading the team with 563 yards, but only a 3.0 average per carry. He shares the running back duty with durable, steady Donald Brown. ... The leading offensive weapon is WR T.Y. Hilton, who has 82 catches for a 13.5 average and five TDs. Tight end Toby Fleener has 52 receptions. ... What makes the Indy defense dangerous is the pass rushing of Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19½ sacks in the regular season.
The scoop on the Chiefs: Kansas City slumped down the stretch when the schedule got tougher, losing twice to the Broncos and Chargers and to the Colts. After starting 9-0, the Chiefs’ only wins were over the Redskins and Raiders on the road. ... The loss to Indy at Arrowhead last month was uncharacteristic of the Chiefs. They turned the ball over four times (three fumbles). K.C. had only 15 turnovers all season. ... QB Alex Smith threw only seven interceptions compared to 23 TD passes. ... Jamaal Charles, who may have been the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year, led the Chiefs with 1,287 rushing yards and 12 TDs and in pass receptions (70 for a 9.9 average) and seven TDs. Charles is especially effective on screen passes and circle patterns out of the backfield. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry in the December game against the Colts. ... Little slot receiver Dexter McCluster is another threat on screens as well as punt returns. The Chiefs rely on Dwayne Bowe as the receiver they target most. ... Linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston split 22 sacks during the season.
Outlook: Andy Reid, who took over an underachieving 2-14 team and turned it around, is an experienced playoff coach, although not all of it with the Eagles was good experience. ... Looking for Charles to have a big day against Indy defense, which is still suspect despite the late season surge. Kansas City, 30-27.
Saints (11-5) at Eagles (9-7)
TV: Ch. 2, 8 p.m.
The line: Eagles (-2½)
The scoop on the Saints: The knock against quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints is that they are not nearly as fearsome on the road (3-5), in the elements and without the boisterous and well-trained-to-disrupt New Orleans crowd behind them. ... They have five Pro Bowlers, including Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham, easily the NFL’s best with Rob Gronkowski out of commission. Brees led the NFC with 5,162 passing yards and threw for 39 touchdowns with just 12 interceptions. Graham caught 86 passes for a 14.1 avearge and a league-leading 16 touchdowns. In addition Brees has a deep corps of receivers to throw to including veteran Marques Colston, one of the NFL’s last players from Hofstra, who had 75 catches for a 12.6 average. ... The Saints, however, averaged only 3.8 per rushing attempt as a team. They were led by Pierre Thomas, who had only 549 yards. However, veteran Darren Sproles is a threat as a receiver out of the backfield and on returns. ... Late in the season New Orleans signed veteran journeyman kicker Shayne Graham to replace Garrett Hartley. ... The Saints were outrushed by nearly 20 yards a game by their opponents. However, they produced 49 sacks with Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan having 12 each. New Orleans also intercepted 19 passes.
The scoop on the Eagles: The Philadelphia Story was very interesting all season. First there was the debut of new head coach Chip Kelly, who had great success at Oregon. He brought some different conditioning ideas with him and a fast-paced spread offense. The Eagles made an impressive debut with Kelly Ball, but there were some snickers after losses to Dallas (17-3) and the New York Giants (15-7) produced only 10 points combined. That was about the time when Nick Foles took over for Michael Vick at quarterback and produced some amazing numbers – 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions and a 119.2 passer rating. Of course, Foles has some great weapons at his disposal – NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy, who ran for 1,607 yards and a 5.1 average. WR DeSean Jackson had 82 receptions (16.2 average, 9 TDs). WR Riley Cooper shook off the furor caused by some intemperate comments he made in preseason, and caught 47 passes. TE Brent Celek has always been an effective playoff performer. The defense is led by former Houston Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans. ... Philadelphia had a long home losing streak that included the first four games of this season, but has won the last four at The Linc and the last seven of eight overall. The exception was a strange 48-30 upset at Minnesota in mid-December, ending a five-game win streak. ... Former Bills OT Jason Peters returned from an Achilles injury to make the Pro Bowl again this year.
Outlook: Playing at night in Philadelphia in arctic conditions doesn’t seem ideal for a dome team like the Saints. The hunch here is Brees and Co. will handle it and turn their advantage in playoff experience into a minor upset. Saints, 33-30.
Last week’s results: 9-7 outright, 11-5 versus spread. Season’s record: 134-103-1 outright, 115-116-7 versus spread.