Wild-card weekend could be just that

The opening weekend of the NFL Playoffs is upon us, with one of the more intriguing wild-card quartets in recent memory.

Two road favorites, one team hosting a game with a losing record, the comeback quarterback of the year, a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship, both defending conference champs in action and even more storylines destined to play out as the games kick off.

The Seahawks and Saints get things started today in a bizarre encounter between the defending Super Bowl champions on the road to take on a team that was two games under .500 for the season.

New Orleans Saints (11-5)

at Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

11:30 a.m., NBC

Seattle is the first team in the history of the league to win a division with a losing record, but it still gets to play in front of its home fans in one of the few true home-field advantage stadiums in the NFL, Qwest Field.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will get the start for the ‘Hawks, after sitting the team’s Week 17 game with a hip injury. That game, a 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams, was started by backup Charlie Whitehurst and put the Seahawks in this precarious position.

The Saints, after a slow start to the season, began to look much like the team that ran the table in last year’s playoffs to give New Orleans its improbable championship.

After starting the year 4-3, the Saints won six straight (including a 34-19 win over the Seahawks), but lost two of their final three games.

New Orleans ranks third in the NFL in passing yards per game with quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns on the season.

Everything about the matchup seems to be bad news for Seattle, which was 27th in the league against the pass for the year, giving up just under 250 yards a game through the air.

Brees threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns in the teams’ previous meeting.

The obvious counter to such an attack would be to have an offense that could maintain drives and keep Brees and his numerous weapons off the field. Unfortunately, Seattle is not well-equipped to pull off that game plan. It was 31st in the league in rush yards per game (89.0).

A glimmer of hope for the Seahawks is that the Saints’ top two running backs — Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas — were both placed on Injured Reserve this week, meaning they are inactive for the rest of the playoffs.

Ivory led New Orleans with 716 yards and 5 TDs, while Thomas had 269 yards in addition to catching 29 passes.

But the Saints were just 28th in the league in rushing, so there was little reliance on the ground game.

When the Seahawks lost this season, it was by an average of 21 points. Last week’s win over the Rams seemed to be their Super Bowl, so this week could be a complete dud from a below-average, outmatched football team.



New York Jets (11-5)

at Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

3 p.m., NBC

The Jets made an improbable run to last season’s AFC Championship game, but had their dream run ended by Peyton Manning and the Colts, who dissected New York’s stout defense and ran away with a one-sided win.

This time around, nobody is surprised to see the Jets in the position they are in, least of all, the Jets themselves. After beginning the season on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series and beating their chests as a Super Bowl favorite, the Jets had an up-and-down year that brings them back to where it all ended last time around.

The Colts have been questioned and scrutinized all season, many wondering if the team’s days as a perennial power are coming to an end.

Though they won the division yet again and made the postseason for the ninth straight year.

One stat that has been thrown around quite a bit this week is that Manning is 5-1 against Rex Ryan-led defenses. That number is significant, because it shows that heavy blitzing may not be the way to deal with the Colts. That played itself out last season when the Jets took an 11-point, second-quarter lead before Manning appeared to have the light bulb switch on. He figured out exactly where the blitzes were coming from and torched the New York secondary the rest of the day for a 30-17 win.

Ryan probably won’t be able to help himself from continuing to bring the pressure. It’s who he is and much of the reason his team has reached the point it has.

Now the question is whether Manning, who is without tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Austin Collie, each of whom became security blankets for the QB, can deliver a performance we are used to seeing with limited options.

If Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis can handle Reggie Wayne on his own, the league’s top passing game will become very reliant on wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Jacob Tamme. Garcon lit up the Jets last season, but now will have to go against Antonio Cromartie, a much more capable corner than the Jets had last time around.

Mark Sanchez has been Jekyll and Hyde for much of the year, but was very good in his previous playoff games and won’t have to deal with bad weather in the dome. He’s developed a good rapport with wideouts Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, as well as tight end Dustin Keller.

The Colts run defense is dreadful more often than not, so Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson could have solid games. For them to be contained, the Indy secondary will have to play on its heels, creating chances for Sanchez through the air.

Both teams have played close games all year and today should be no different.



Previews of the Ravens-Chiefs and Packers-Eagles coming in Sunday’s edition.


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