by Jim Feist
As the playoffs begin, those who earned the top two seeds in each conference have a key edge, as they get a bye the first week while watching the others duke it out. Sitting at home this past weekend were the Patriots, Broncos, Packers and Falcons. Why is that significant? A year ago the 4 bye teams were the Ravens, Patriots, Packers and 49ers. The Pats made the Super Bowl and the 49ers made it to the NFC title game and nearly won.
This season the Falcons 18-to-1 and the surprising Seahawks (there's one in every crowd) 50-to-1. The Broncos were also 50-to-1 -- before Peyton Manning signed with them.
Gaining the bye is an advantage for teams to not only rest injured players, but to have two weeks to put together a game plan. Since 1990, 33 first and second round seeds have filled 44 Super Bowl slots and the No. 1 and 2 seeds, rested after the bye, have gone 60-20 in their first games in the divisional round.
A year ago the rested teams went 3-1 SU/2-2 ATS. The Patriots blew out Denver (45-10) while the 15-1 Packers got upset by the Giants. Two years ago the rested teams were 2-2 SU/ATS, and three years ago the rested teams went 3-1 SU/ATS, with blowout wins by three teams. Only the Chargers (17-14 loss to the Jets) fell apart. Four years ago was one of the unusual seasons, with three of the four bye teams losing that first game (Giants, Panthers, Titans). The Steelers, though, not only won and advanced but ended up winning the Super Bowl.
The No. 1 seeded team in four of the last eight years in the NFC (Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Saints) wound up in the Super Bowl. In the AFC it's been a different story, as the only recent No. 1 seeds to make it were the 2003, '07, '11 Patriots and the '09 Colts. Two years ago the Pats lost to the NY Jets. In 2001 and '04 the Steelers were the No. 1 AFC seed and fell short, along with the 14-2 Colts and Chargers, plus the 13-3 Titans in three of the previous four years. Here's a look at the four teams that come into this weekend's playoff games rested with home field.
Broncos (13-3 SU, 10-5-1 ATS): Denver has been a great story, with Peyton Manning (37 TDs, 11 INTs) upgrading the offense, No. 5 in the NFL in passing with 283 yards per game, 16th in rushing. The comeback Player of the Year award is between him and Adrian Peterson. What's even more amazing about Denver, though, is the defense. They've been soft against the run the last few years, but improved remarkably in 2012, ranked 3rd against the pass, No. 3 against the run.
Is that because Manning has built up leads and the opposition has had to abandon the run more? We'll see in the postseason. Denver hasn't lost since October 7, a 31-21 defeat at New England. They lost in September to Atlanta (27-21) and Houston (31-25). The Broncos are 18-35-2 ATS in their last 55 home games and they are on a 37-18 run over the total.
Patriots (12-4 SU, 9-7 ATS): The Pats blew four games they could have one, but still squeezed out a first round bye only because the Texans lost their final two. QB Tom Brady (34 TDs, 8 INTs) leads another powerhouse, no-huddle offense with young RB Stevan Ridley and targets WR Wes Welker, newcomer Brandon Lloyd and TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez has been slowed by an ankle injury the last month and Gronkowski (broken bone in arm) just came back.
They have much better balance on offense than last season, but the young defense is a concern, struggling (again) in the secondary, which was the main reason they traded for CB Aqib Talib in midseason. The young defense gave up 503 yards (382 passing) to Baltimore, 438 to Buffalo and 41 points to run-oriented San Francisco. The over is 21-9 in the Patriots last 30 home games.
Falcons: (13-3 SU, 9-6-1 ATS): There are a lot of non-believers with this No. 1 seed. Atlanta has some weaknesses, ranked 29th in rushing the football with a defense in the bottom 12 in both defending the run and the pass. They've won four games by four points or less and lost to the Saints (31-27), Bucs (22-17) and Panthers (30-20) in the second half of the year.
But they are more than lucky, with a pass-first attack behind first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and QB Matt Ryan (32 TDs, 14 INTs) and a pair of 1,000+ yard WRs in Julio Jones and Roddy White, plus veteran TE Tony Gonzalez not far behind. But can they win a big game in January? Last year they were one-and-done losing to the Giants (24-2) and two years ago as a No. 1 seed they lost at home to the Packers (48-21).
49ers: (11-4-1 SU, 9-7 ATS): San Francisco surprised everyone last year under first-year Coach Jim Harbaugh. They surprised everyone again, not by making the playoffs but by making a QB change in midseason, benching Alex Smith (13 TDs, 5 INTS) for rookie Colin Kaepernick (10 TDs, 3 INTS). It's no secret how they got here: run the football on offense and play a rough, physical defense, ranked fourth against the pass and the run. The conservative offense has RB Frank Gore (1,214 yards), WR Mike Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. They impressed with road wins at the Packers (30-22) and Patriots (41-34). Let the games begin!