After nearly two weeks of waiting, the Seattle Seahawks finally get a chance to prove they were worthy of the No 1 seed they earned in the NFC.
After winning on the road in the first round of the NFL playoffs last week, the New Orleans Saints no longer have that stigma clouding their history.
Less than six weeks after Seattle made a resounding claim to NFC supremacy with a rout of New Orleans, the Seahawks and Saints collide again on Sunday (NZ time) in the divisional playoffs. Since that December 2 matchup where the Seahawks all but wrapped up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs with a 34-7 win, both teams have seen some of their definitions changed.
Seattle has lost some of its home invincibility after losing to Arizona on December 22 to end a 14-game home win streak. And the Saints are no longer seeking a validating victory away from New Orleans after knocking off Philadelphia 26-24 last week in an NFC wild-card game, the first road playoff win in team history.
"They're going to know what to expect from our crowd, they're going to know what to expect from us, and we're going to know what to expect from them," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. "It's almost like a division game in that sense because we've just seen each other and you understand what the game is going to be and what it's going to come down to."
Also on Sunday (NZ time), the New England Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts, then on Monday (NZ time), the Carolina Panthers meet the San Francisco 49ers, and the Denver Broncos face the San Diego Chargers. The Panthers and Chargers both had road victories in the regular season at their upcoming opponent.
The Patriots and Colts have overcome big deficits this season, but the Colts arrive in Foxborough with the second biggest comeback in NFL postseason history. They outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild-card game 45-44 after trailing 38-10 early in the third quarter.
The Colts had other impressive comebacks in the regular season - beating Houston after trailing by 18 in the third quarter and overcoming fourth-quarter deficits to win three other games.
But easing up with a big lead on the Patriots also can be dangerous.
They erased a 24-point halftime deficit to beat Denver in overtime, topped New Orleans on a touchdown pass with five seconds left and scored two touchdowns in the last 61 seconds to beat Cleveland by one.
Over the last decade, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has led them to 41 wins in games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. Colts counterpart Andrew Luck has 11 of those, the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons since 1970.
Carolina went to Candlestick Park in November and beat the 49ers 10-9. Both teams are capable of such defensive exploits again.
Carolina won its final seven home games after an opening loss to Seattle. After seeing how 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wrecked Green Bay last week with his running and passing, the league's second-ranked defense know what it must do.
The Panthers limited him to 91 yards passing, 16 yards rushing and no touchdowns in that one-point road win which defensive end Greg Hardy said "proved we were a contender."
The 49ers are the bookies' one-point favorites, making the Panthers only the third home underdog in the divisional playoffs in the past 20 years.
This is the third straight season San Francisco has been to the playoffs under coach Jim Harbaugh. The Panthers will make their first playoff appearance since 2008 under third-year coach Ron Rivera. That doesn't seem to bother Rivera.
"No, because two years ago (the 49ers) didn't have any playoff experience and they did pretty well," Rivera said.
Harbaugh, who was teammates with Rivera with the Chicago Bears, also downplayed the experience factor.
"I've always really felt that where you're going is a heck of a lot more important than where you've come from," he said.
San Diego stunned Denver 27-20 five weeks ago, making Peyton Manning look average and claiming a road victory that was part of a late-season surge that helped sweep the Chargers into the playoffs. Then last Sunday the Chargers put a 27-10 decision on Cincinnati, which had been 8-0 at home this season.
Denver was 7-1, it's only home loss also to the Chargers.
"It's tough to say you're confident knowing what you're going against. You don't want to take that the wrong way," San Diego's Pro Bowl safety, Eric Weddle, said of the most prolific offense in NFL history, led by Manning. "Do we believe we can win? Yes. Do we know what a tough challenge it is and how great we have to play? Yeah."
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