A good year to be a wild card in NFL playoffs
It looks like it's a good year to be a wild card in the NFL playoffs.
The oddsmakers certainly think so, making Kansas City (3 points), Pittsburgh (2 1-2), and Seattle (5 1-2) favorites on the road in the opening round of the postseason. The only wild card that is an underdog is slumping Green Bay, and by only a point at Washington.
Those wise guys also have made the sixth-seeded Seahawks the third choice to win the NFC at 9-4, behind Arizona and Carolina, each at 2-1 odds. The AFC's sixth seed, the Steelers, also are the third choice behind division winners Denver and New England.
Indeed, much of the talk the past few weeks around the league was about which opponent was a must to avoid, with the Seahawks, Chiefs and Steelers the front-runners in that race.
''You know what, I could honestly care less about what anybody says outside of this locker room,'' Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said. ''We know that we line up against anybody that we're confident that we're going to get the job done.''
They have done what's necessary in 10 straight games for one of the great turnarounds in NFL history. The Chiefs rank first in the AFC with a plus-14 turnover margin. The defense is formidable and might get back its best player, linebacker Justin Houston (knee). They're 5-3 on the road and already have won at the Texans, in the season opener, when KC wasn't nearly so strong.
''First of all they have a lot of good players and they have a really good coaching staff. That combination is tough,'' Texans coach Bill O'Brien said.
''On defense they've got really good pass rushers with (Tamba) Hali and Houston and they've got a good secondary playing at a high level, their linebackers fly around, their front seven is really, really good.
''Offensively Alex Smith's had a good year, receivers, (Jeremy) Maclin. I know Jamaal Charles is on IR now, but they've still got running backs, Kelce the tight end, a really good offensive line. So it's a big challenge.''
Although Pittsburgh stumbled badly in Week 16 with its loss at the Ravens, it got another chance when the moment proved too big for the Jets in Buffalo. Considering how the Steelers can ring up points on anyone, plus their strong postseason pedigree with leaders such as Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Cam Heyward, revitalized James Harrison and coach Mike Tomlin, the Bengals can't be thrilled with Saturday night's matchup.
Also remember the Steelers won in Cincinnati 33-20 a month ago, are 18-7 overall against their AFC North rivals since 2004, have won 21 of 26 at Riverfront or Paul Brown stadiums, and Cincy hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
''The postseason is a different season,'' Roethlisberger said. ''You're going to have to do your best, throw out all of the records, throw out where you are playing. Everybody has to step up and be ready to go.''
Steelers fans expect their team to be ready: Saturday's prime-time affair is sold out and you can bet plenty of Terrible Towels will be waving in Cincinnati.
Considering how Minnesota has closed the schedule, winning three straight to grab the NFC North and also with a close defeat at Arizona before that, some might be surprised to see the Seahawks so heavily favored. If so, those folks have forgotten the shellacking Seattle handed the Vikings in Minneapolis in early December.
For further emphasis, this is a more balanced Seahawks team than the squads that reached the past two Super Bowls. Its defense might not be quite as dynamic, but its offense is vastly superior to 2013 and `14.
And there is this: Seattle fears no one.
''I think people can sometimes forget who we are,'' star cornerback Richard Sherman said. ''We let a few penalties, weird calls or miscues change their perception, and then we come back and remind them.''
Only the Packers among the wild cards don't seem fearsome, mainly because their offense has frozen. Yet they play the perceived weakest of the division champions, so no one is counting out Aaron Rodgers and company. Also the Redskins (9-7) didn't beat a team that finished with a winning record.
This could be one of those years when being on the road in January matters little. Visitors went 118-138 this season, and the wild cards were a collective 19-13 away from home.
Plus, it's not as if non-division champions can't win Super Bowls. Indeed, the Steelers, Chiefs and Packers all have done it.
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