Home field matters. Usually. Right?
Certainly, the Cincinnati Bengals might disagree; they were 8-0 in their home stadium before being run out of it in a 27-10 first-round loss Sunday.
As might the Philadelphia Eagles, who have had one of the worst home-field advantages over the past two seasons, and it continued with the last-second wild-card loss to the New Orleans Saints, who had acted as if they were allergic to plane travel before it.
What about the Green Bay Packers and their precious Lambeau edge? Oh, sure, it was cold out there, really cold even, but the weather or the surroundings didn’t appear to have a huge effect on the outcome of a classic battle and a San Francisco 49ers win.
The Kansas City Chiefs sure didn’t think much of the Indianapolis Colts’ indoor home advantage in building a 38-10 third-quarter lead, although to be fair the Colts probably don’t win that game if they are on the road.
Still … the wild-card weekend featured a bizarre set of circumstances that appeared to diminish the home-field edge and briefly quiet talk about teams with better records having to go on the road. Both ones that did won their games.
So will there be a tilt in the divisional round now that the top four teams are back in the mix?
The Seattle Seahawks were not invincible at home this season — they just acted that way. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost took them down at CenturyLink Field in early November and then lost to the Arizona Cardinals there in Week 16.
The Seahawks did, however, paste this weekend’s opponents, the Saints, by 27 there a mere six weeks ago. But will the Saints be more ready for that environment this time around? You’d have to think the shock factor will be minimized somewhat.
Up in New England, the Patriots went 8-0 in Foxborough, and they face a Colts team they walloped by 32 there a year ago. But no one expects that kind of game with Andrew Luck playing and the Patriots possessing far fewer weapons than they had last season.
Four of the Patriots’ home victories were by one score, and two of them — the ones over the Saints and Cleveland Browns — were incredible, last-minute affairs. So the Patriots are far from unbeatable there, even with the week off.
The Denver Broncos only lost once this season at home, but it was to … guess who. The Chargers, not so long ago on Dec. 12. We don’t need to ask if the six-seed Chargers can win a game there; we already have our answer on that. And that was before Von Miller got hurt, and he made a lot of plays that night around the line of scrimmage.
The Carolina Panthers can’t feel like they have a huge edge in a matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, who have been in a lot of playoff games the past three seasons now and appear willing to go anywhere to play anyone. The Panthers nipped the 49ers, 10-9, at Candlestick in Week 10, but they were without Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree for that game.
Yes, the Panthers are an impressive 7-1 at home this season, and their one loss was quite understandable: a 12-7 Week 1 setback to the Seahawks, before the Panthers really got rolling. But a lot of their home victories were one-possession games late into those contests, and they don’t know if they’ll have a healthy Steve Smith or Jonathan Stewart this weekend.
Will home field be a big edge in the playoffs? So far it really has not.
There are a number of major-factor injuries for this weekend’s games to track.
Smith is expected to play for the Panthers. But will he be 100 percent? Not likely. He ran pain-free this past weekend for the first time since spraining his knee, but setbacks do happen with these things.
The Panthers are an offensively limited team that must create possessions and opportunities with the defense and special teams with Smith fully healthy, so having him contribute will be a necessity. He has a history of some big playoff games, and yet the Panthers have been rather dormant offensively lately.
The Seahawks hope that Percy Harvin can go this weekend after he practiced fully on Friday. Will they be crushed if he cannot or if he reinjures himself? No, but he gave them a spark in the win over the Minnesota Vikings and can contribute as a returner and a receiver for a team that has had to scratch for offensive points the past month.
Ryan Mathews has been a quiet assassin this season, and yet his nagging ankle injury is a concern. He was held to 13 carries against the Bengals because of it after being a workhorse previously, and the Chargers are likely going to need more than that against the Broncos.
In the win in Denver, Mathews was a force, rushing 29 times for 127 yards and a sideline-tapping touchdown. He also scored in the first matchup in San Diego and had a 35-yard run in that one.
Speaking of the Broncos, they are confident that Wes Welker, who was injured for that Chargers victory, will be back and in fine form following a concussion that kept him out down the stretch. It’s not stunning that the Broncos scored their lowest point total in that Chargers loss with Welker out. He helps make the engine hum.
Run, run, run
As much as things change in the NFL, they always seem to cycle full circle, too.
The run game is as important now as it has been in a pass-heavy league the past few seasons. Even with the Philadelphia Eagles and their league-leading rushing attack out of the playoffs, the run game has been a crucial element to almost all eight remaining teams still standing.
All top four seeds have relied on the run game to varying degrees this season, but they all have leaned on it prominently of late.
The Broncos have found a more consistent formula of late, and in five of the six game starting with the loss to the Patriots, they have averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry and have done it very well with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball leading the way.
The Patriots have switched runners often, but of late it has been LeGarrette Blount who has been the surprise star. They also can rely heavily on Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to help control the clock. Beating up the Colts’ defense with a barrage of offensive plays is high on their wish list.
The Seahawks (fourth in rushing yards) and Panthers (11th) have been run-dependent all season along, and that won’t change as things get tighter in the postseason.
The four wild-card round winners all can claim to be in favor of running it, too.
The 49ers made some plays through the air against the Packers, but it was Colin Kaepernick’s scrambling and Frank Gore tough inside force that was the final undoing for Green Bay.
Philip Rivers threw six first-half passes as the Chargers turned to power football in Cincinnati. Mathews, Danny Woodhead and even Ronnie Brown were very effective at moving the chains and falling forward on nearly every possession. Even though they had only one run longer than 11 yards in the game, they won in part because of 40 carries and 4.9 yards per attempt.
The Saints might have been the biggest surprise. Without Pierre Thomas, they ran exceptionally hard with Mark Ingram (97 yards, touchdown) and Khiry Robinson perhaps having their finest hours as the Eagles couldn’t wrap up and bring them or Darren Sproles down on first contact often.
And yes, the Colts won because Andrew Luck was exception. On top of that, Trent Richardson fumbled once and never saw the ball again. But Donald Brown helped fuel the comeback with a 10-yard dash up the middle for a score, and he and Luck were able to catch the Chiefs off guard quite a few times. The Colts averaged more than five yards per carry on the ground.
So for as much quarterback greatness as there is left in the playoff field, don’t forget about the run games. They’ll be pivotal elements of the divisional rounds, as well.
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