NEW YORK (WFAN) — This road thing seems to agree with wild-card teams. Now, can the Ravens, Jets and Packers keep it going next weekend?
Three wins by the visitors to open the playoffs should not have been a surprise this year. Since the 2004 season, it’s happened three times. In the AFC, the home team was beaten in both wild-card games last year and this year, with the Jets getting two of those victories.
“You have to play these games without worrying where you play them,” Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.
Where doesn’t seem to matter in the opening round as much as what the matchup is. A road team has won at least one wild-card game in all but three years since the NFL went to a six-team format in 1990. Overall, visitors are 12-30 in the AFC, but since 1996 they are 12-18. And since 2004 they are 8-6.
The Jets came up with anything but their best on Dec. 6 in Foxborough, a 45-3 whipping at the hands of the NFL’s best team during the regular season. New York must start quickly on offense and upset Tom Brady’s rhythm with a defense that managed exactly that against Peyton Manning on Sunday.
New York relies heavily on the blitz to get pressure on quarterbacks, and on the coverage skills of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Both will need to be at their stingiest against Wes Welker and Deion Branch, in particular, and someone must clamp down on rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. That has not been a strength for the Jets this season.
They also can’t be intimidated by the situation, and with a 3-1 road record in the playoffs under Rex Ryan, they likely won’t be — in spite of that 45-3 shellacking.
“If we win this one, we’ll be right back to where we always are,” Ryan said. “Same old Jets, right in the AFC championship game.”
In the NFC, visitors are 17-25, including 7-7 since 2004.
Now, though, it gets more difficult — much tougher for NFC teams, where home-field advantage has held for two decades in the divisional round. Hosts are 33-7 in that span, though the Packers and Seahawks can take heart from two years ago, when the Eagles and Cardinals both made the title game by winning on the road. Green Bay is at top-seeded Atlanta on Saturday night, and Seattle visits No. 2 Chicago on Sunday.
“This is the way it’s going to be,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re on the road. You play uphill when you get off the bus. You have to overcome the atmosphere that you’re playing in, particularly the communication challenge.”
The AFC numbers are a bit more encouraging for visitors: 14-26 since ’90, including 6-4 in the last five years.
Also, for the first time since the league went to 32 teams in 2002, both divisional-round games in a conference are, well, divisional games: Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh (AFC North) and New England vs. the Jets (AFC East).
“That’s poetic justice,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s the way it should be.”
So what do the visitors need to accomplish to keep enjoying the road?
For the Ravens and Seahawks, that’s pretty simple: repeat what they did during the regular season. Baltimore won at Pittsburgh 17-14 on Oct. 3, the last game of Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension. Seattle came out of Soldier Field on Oct. 17 with a 23-20 victory.
The Steelers got back at the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 5 with a 13-10 win in a defensive classic decided on Steelers safety Troy Polamalu’s star turn: a forced fumble that led to the winning TD.
Figuring that both sides will impose their defensive prowess, the key for the Ravens is making those infrequent big plays against the Steel Curtain that can turn a tight game. They have the manpower in running back Ray Rice, tight end Todd Heap and wide receivers Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason.
Considering how dynamic these defenses can be, however, neither team should expect to light up the scoreboard. But the Ravens should remember that the Steelers are just 10-6 in home playoff games since 1990, though Baltimore has never won a postseason game in Pittsburgh.
“This is the NFL at its best,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “This is what the world wants to see. We’ll give it to them.”
Seattle can’t expect to face a leaky defense in Chicago the way it did at home in the upset of the Saints last Saturday. The Seahawks haven’t been a good road squad this season, but they do have that victory against Da Bears in October to build on.
And their special teams can be nearly as dangerous as Chicago’s.
Seattle should be loose considering nobody outside the Pacific Northwest — and few people out there — have high expectations for the only division winner in NFL history with a losing record (7-9).
“I think what’s clear to me is that we have a bunch of guys that are really together on how we think and how we approach our opportunities,” coach Pete Carroll said, “and they realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s outside. It has to do with what we do.”
Green Bay is a scary opponent for the Falcons. If not for several gaffes in their 20-17 loss at Atlanta in late November, the Packers really could be brimming with confidence heading to the Georgia Dome.
“The season has been up and down,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said, “and we are coming together at the right time. We are dangerous right now.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.