All 4 road teams favored in playoffs

The wild-card round of the NFL playoffs this weekend has all four road teams as favorites. That's about the same number of road favorites there have been in playoff games this decade.

The odds reflect what a strange season it's been.

There are wild-card teams clearly better than the winners of weak divisions, and even non-playoff teams in that category: New England is only the second 11-5 team to miss the postseason.

That's because of the odd way the divisions broke down this season. The NFC East and NFC South, for example, didn't have a team finish under .500; the AFC West was won at 8-8; and the NFC West by an Arizona team that was 6-0 inside the division, but 3-7 outside it.

Despite that, the most interesting game involves a team from the AFC West, San Diego, which won its last four to squeeze out the division title over Denver, which lost its last three, costing Mike Shanahan his job. Considering the Chargers were one of the preseason favorites to represent the AFC in Tampa on Feb. 1, it probably makes them the most dangerous of those home dogs.

Indianapolis (minus 1½) at San Diego

"This almost feels like a division game. We play them every year," says Tony Dungy, whose Colts have a nine-game winning streak entering the playoffs. That followed a 3-4 start that killed any hope of winning their sixth straight AFC South title.

So now they go against a San Diego team that had won three straight against Indy until the Colts edged the Chargers 23-20 on Nov. 23. One of those was in the second round of last season's playoffs, when San Diego won in Indianapolis 28-24.

In its four straight wins that ended the season, San Diego finally looked like the team that was so highly regarded in August. But Indianapolis was one of the favorites, too, its slow start due mostly to the knee problems that kept Peyton Manning out of training camp and rendered him relatively inefficient during the first part of the season.

But without star linebacker Shawne Merriman, a huge factor in those San Diego wins, the Chargers probably won't get the pressure on Manning they've had in the past.

COLTS, 28-24

Atlanta (minus 2½) at Arizona

The only thing the Cardinals have going for them is home field. It's the franchise's first home playoff game since 1947, which tells you how bad the team's history is. The Cardinals' stretch run was almost as bad - they lost four of six and allowed an average of more than 40 points a game in the four losses.

Those games were against the Giants, Patriots, Eagles and Vikings, demonstrating that they are over their head against winning teams. Maybe they can win on QB experience: Matt Ryan is a rookie and Kurt Warner is not, the MVP of the 2000 Super Bowl and a two-time league MVP.

But who protects Warner from John Abraham? FALCONS, 34-27

Philadelphia (minus 3) at Minnesota

Watching the Vikings beat the Giants' JV on a 50-yard field goal on the final play hardly inspires confidence in Minnesota. But the Vikings do have a couple of advantages beyond the home dome: Brad Childress was the Eagles' offensive coordinator and knows what they do. And last week, the Vikings saw Steve Spagnuolo's defense, which is the same as the defense run by Spagnuolo's mentor, the Eagles' Jim Johnson.

The Vikings may have Pat Williams back in the middle of the DL, but it's hard to see them stopping Brian Westbrook from breaking loose a few times. And it's hard to see Tarvaris Jackson standing up to Johnson's blitzes without a couple of turnovers or more - the Eagles got two TDs returning fumbles in the win over Dallas that put them in the tournament.

OK, the Eagles have been up-and-down - notably in their tie in Cincinnati and a bad loss in Washington in Week 16. Time to be up.

EAGLES, 23-13

Baltimore (minus 3) at Miami

The Dolphins exude the "just glad to be here" vibe and why not? A team that went 1-15 a year ago finished 11-5 and won the AFC East.

Miami certainly won't take the field Sunday without some zest in its step. But it's also difficult to envision the Dolphins moving the Baltimore defense very much. As with Atlanta-Arizona, it's a rookie QB, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, against a veteran with playoff experience: Chad Pennington, the AP Comeback Player of the Year for the second time in three seasons.

The Ravens won 27-13 in Miami in October.


RAVENS, 27-13.

LAST WEEK: 8-7-1 (spread); 14-2 (straight up)

SEASON: 121-128-7 (spread); 162-91-1(straight up)

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