In postseason, what a difference a week makes
NEW YORK (AP) -- When the wild-card round began a week ago, a lot of people thought this might be the first season when a pair of No. 6 seeds meet in the Super Bowl.
That was before both St. Louis and Indianapolis lost, and the seedings and home-field advantage held.
It's still possible that New Orleans, 3-13 a year ago, or Philadelphia, 5-11 in 1999, can get to the Super Bowl. After all, the four NFC semifinalists were a combined 25-39 a year ago.
"I'm just glad to be in this game, to be honest with you," says Saints head coach Jim Haslett, who took over from Mike Ditka, lost eight starters to injury and still managed to beat defending-champion St. Louis in the NFC East and again in the wild-card round.
New Orleans opens the playoffs Saturday at Minnesota, followed by Miami at Oakland. The two Sunday games are between divisional rivals who already have played twice: Baltimore at Tennessee followed by the Eagles at the New York Giants.
The Titans are the only team left from the six consensus preseason favorites -- St. Louis, Washington, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Jacksonville were the others.
"Tennessee is the No. 1 seed. If you beat the No. 1 seed, long live the king -- until somebody comes and knocks you off," says Ravens head coach Brian Billick.
But this is no gimme for the Titans, who allowed the fewest yards -- just ahead of the Ravens.
And Baltimore's 24-23 win at Adelphia Coliseum on Nov. 12 is the only game the Titans have lost in the 17 they've played there. Defense counts in the playoffs and the Ravens, who set a record for fewest points allowed in a season, have not let a back to rush for 100 yards in 34 games.
That includes Tennessee's Eddie George, who had 1,509 yards for the season but just 32 yards on 13 carries in two games against the Ravens. He had 28 yards on 12 carries in the loss and carried just one time for 4 yards before leaving with a knee injury in a 14-6 victory three weeks earlier in Baltimore.
The defensive stats may be skewed because both the Titans and Ravens played in a division with three poor offensive teams -- Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. But look for a low score regardless.
The Giants, an unlikely top seed, beat the Eagles 33-18 and 24-7, two of the best games New York played this season and the two worst for the Eagles, who were in every other loss right to the end.
Fuggehtaboutit, says Jim Fassel, a Californian who really talks in CoachSpeak, not Brooklynese.
"Those games are history," says the Giants head coach. "They're a much better football team now and we're a better football team."
The problem for the Eagles is matchups -- they don't have the receivers to exploit New York's one defensive weakness, a problem with offenses that go deep. The Giants also have been able to run against the somewhat undersized Philadelphia defensive line.
But Donovan McNabb is the X factor. He was just 10 of 31 for 129 yards on his last visit to the Meadowlands. That was Oct. 29 with an unseasonable wind blowing.
Colder wind is likely this time, but McNabb has improved markedly over the last two months.
So has Kerry Collins, whose 3,610 passing yards are the third most in Giants history.
The Dolphins went to Oakland in 1997, '98, and '99 and won all three games.
Is that relevant? It might be if the wrong Oakland defense shows up -- it's been remarkably inconsistent this season.
"We can feel some confidence going in," Miami defensive end Jason Taylor says . "But we know it's not going to be easy. There'll probably be about 58 Dolphins fans out there, and all of them will come on the bus with us."
The Raiders are one of the few teams to enjoy their home field this season -- they were 7-1 there. And visitors feel it as soon as they drive through what looks like a Hell's Angels convention in the stadium parking lots.
"The fans are into that whole mystique, the commitment to excellence, black and silver," says Miami guard Kevin Donnalley.
But there's more than that to the home-field advantage.
The Dolphins used every ounce of their energy beating the Colts in overtime, then had to fly 3,000 miles. The question is how much they will have left.
New Orleans (11-6) at Minnesota (11-5)
You can argue that both these teams have negative momentum -- the Vikings because they lost their last three games and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; the Saints because they came close to blowing a 31-7 fourth-quarter lead against the Rams.
But something strange is going on for the Saints, who keep coming up with improbable heroes. Remember that Jake Delhomme, who had a career game against the Cowboys last season as a first-time starter, is always available if something should happen to Aaron Brooks.
Because the Vikings played so well for the first 13 weeks, it's easy to forget that they're also a surprise playoff entry, having started the season with Daunte Culpepper, who didn't throw a pass his rookie season, at quarterback.
Now they face one of those precedents: No team that lost its last three games ever won a Super Bowl. The Vikings insist they can become the first.
"We don't think anyone has momentum now," says head coach Dennis Green says. "We think everyone is starting fresh, just like we are."