New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) loosens up during a stretching session before practice begins at team’s facility in Foxborough, Mass., on Wednesday. The Patriots will host the Indianapolis Colts on Foxborough Saturday night.
The oddsmakers weren’t fazed by three road teams winning in the wild-card round. They’ve made two of those winners, the Saints and Chargers, big underdogs on Saturday in the divisional round.
Recent history has shown that home field usually is meaningful in these four games, with only one visitor winning in each of the past two seasons. Only twice since 2002, when the current setup began, has there been a sweep by the four hosts, though; never have all visiting clubs won in the divisional round.
Such numbers should make everyone search for that one or two road squads who might pull off another win. We think we’ve found the right one: the thawed-out 49ers (13-4).
“I haven’t found anything that makes you feel more like a man than to go, not only beat your opponent, but you’re beating their crowd, and then, the elements, in a playoff game,” says coach Jim Harbaugh, whose 49ers (No. 3, AP Pro32) won on the final play at frigid Green Bay in the opening round and are 2-point choices Sunday at Carolina (No. 4, AP Pro32).
The Panthers (12-4) had one of their most impressive victories in a turnaround season when they won at San Francisco 10-9 on Nov. 10. Neither side has forgotten that defensive battle in which the 49ers lost tight end Vernon Davis and rookie safety Eric Reid to concussions.
Plus, wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. He’s back, as are Davis and Reid.
“More dangerous,” Harbaugh said of his team. “Michael was not there for that game and Vernon was out of the game early with a concussion.”
Dangerous — and headed for the NFC title game.
BEST BET: 49ers, 23-16
No. 7 New Orleans (plus 8)
at No. 1 Seattle, Saturday
Now that they have the first road playoff win in franchise history, can the Saints (12-5) start a winning streak away from New Orleans. That’s not exactly a Big Easy for them in Seattle, where the Seahawks routed the Saints 34-7 on Dec. 2.
Yes, the Seahawks lost their invincibility at CenturyLink Field by losing to Arizona three weeks ago. Contrary to the widespread opinion that it was an especially damaging defeat, we think it helped the Seahawks (13-3) recognize their vulnerability. They won’t slip up again, although this won’t be anything close to that previous romp.
No. 8 Indianapolis (plus 7 1-2)
at No. 5 New England, Saturday
The stats might not show it, the reality does: This has been one terrific year for Tom Brady.
Despite almost an entirely new crew of receivers, few of them proven, and with his favorite targets, Wes Welker (free agent signed by Denver) and Rob Gronkowski (injuries) not around, Brady guided the Patriots to a 12-4 record and yet another AFC East crown.
The new guy in town will be Andrew Luck, who has that same look of stardom and indefatigability that Brady always has worn. Luck engineered that stunning comeback from a 28-point deficit against Kansas City last weekend. He’s in his second pro season. All Brady did was win a Super Bowl as an NFL sophomore.
For Luck and the Colts (12-5) to replicate that feat, they can’t afford another slow start. Even if they start fast, though, Brady has shown this season that he is still the master of the rally to victory.
No. 3 San Diego (plus 10)
at No. 2 Denver
San Diego’s last road game during the season was a Thursday night win at Denver (13-3). That was a key to the run the Chargers (10-7) have staged to not only sneak off with the final wild-card spot in the AFC, but go into Cincinnati and win.
A repeat performance will likely require controlling the ball to keep Peyton Manning and the record-setting Denver offense on the sideline. It will require another huge defensive performance by a team that has stepped up on that side of the ball in the last month.
It also might require another meltdown (or freeze out) late in the match by the Broncos, similar to what happened against Baltimore a year ago.
2013 RECORD: Against spread: 2-2 (115-124-7). Straight up: 3-1 (159-98-1).
Best Bet: 9-9 against spread, 15-3 straight up.
Upset special: 8-10 against spread, 5-13 straight up.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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