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Divisional playoffs often produce upsets

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

Welcome to the divisional playoffs, aka the upset round of the NFL postseason.

The top two teams from each conference make their appearance in this year’s playoffs after a week off and the four have earned the right to host the conference semifinals. The bye week and home-field advantage in the postseason are something all the 32 NFL teams fight for during the 17-week regular season, but it is not always a guaranteed path to the Super Bowl.

Actually, the No. 1 seeds have rarely won the Super Bowl in recent years. Since 2002, when the current eight-division format was set, only two top seeds — the 2003 Patriots and the 2009 Saints — have won the NFL championship game. On the other hand, six of last eight Super Bowl champions came from the wild-card round.

There have been 44 divisional games since 2002, and 16 home teams (36.4 percent) have suffered upset losses. At least one home team failed to advance to the next stage in each of the last seven years.

You can see a higher percentage (43.8 percent) of home team losses in the wild-card round (21 of 48 games including last weekend when three division champions were sent home), but that is understandable because the wild-card teams often have a better record than some division champions. For example, this season the No. 6 seed Saints (11-5) beat the NFC East champion Eagles (10-6) 26-24 in their wild-card playoff last weekend.

In the divisional round, however, many expect the top two seeds come up strong like they did in the regular season and fight each other for the conference championship a week later. But this is not always the case.

Many factors work as causes for the upsets. One of them is the momentum the lower-seeded teams have.

Like the 49ers, No. 5 seed in the NFC, some teams enter the playoffs with momentum. The Niners ended the regular season with a six-game winning streak and have now extended it to seven, longer than any of the other playoff teams, by beating the Packers in the wild-card round.

The streaking force often helps team record upset wins. This is why many head coaches want their teams to peak in December and January (and of course in February).

The 2005 Steelers entered the playoffs with a four-game winning streak — all of them were elimination games — to earn some momentum and upset the No. 3 Bengals, the top-seeded Colts and the No. 2 Broncos en route to becoming the first No. 6 seed in history to win the Super Bowl.

Another factor is playoff experience. Players and coaches feel more pressure and stress that could keep them from performing normally in the win-or-go-home playoffs. That is something Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has never overcome. But the experience of a playoff game can help players gain confidence.

The players of the four road teams in the divisional playoffs have at least one playoff game under their belts and can get into the game faster and more easily than the counterparts who should be healthy but could be a little rusty after a week off.

Over this weekend, the Saints visit the Seahawks while the Colts are at the Patriots on Saturday, and the 49ers travel to the Panthers, followed by the Chargers at the Broncos.

The Seahawks have a 15-1 record at home the past two seasons and get the help of the infamous crowd noise from “the 12th man,” the enthusiastic fans. The Saints want to avenge a 41-36 wild-card defeat to the 7-9 Seahawks three years ago.

The Patriots have the advantage of the cold weather that could be an issue to the dome-based Cots. But Indianapolis has the momentum after a comeback win from a 28-point deficit over the Chiefs.

Both Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and Cam Newton of the Panthers entered the NFL in 2011 and have had success as mobile quarterbacks. But Kaepernick already has four playoff games on his resume (including a Super Bowl loss) while Newton, the AFC offensive rookie of the year two seasons ago, makes his playoff debut.

The victory over the Broncos in Denver four weeks ago will give the streaking Chargers some confidence to play another road playoff game. The Broncos will do their best to avoid an early exit from the playoffs despite owning the top-seeded position for the second straight year.