The Seattle Seahawks are back in the playoffs after failing to make the grade last year. SIPA USA/PA Images

Long shots, road warriors, and your NFL wild card weekend preview

Playing this weekend and going on to win the Super Bowl is not easy, writes Steve O’Rourke.

I WOULDN’T CONSIDER myself to be a big gambler. I still have too many nightmares about Annie Power falling at the last to go through those emotions regularly.

 But I enjoy watching horse racing even when there’s no financial incentive.

Part of it is the language used around racing; a lexicon so ingrained that just hearing someone say “ah, he was off the bridle early” makes them sound like an expert even if it’s their first race meeting. 

The other side of it I enjoy is watching no hopers having their moment in the sun. Sure, the bookies love it when a long shot comes home, but give me a Mon Mome over a Faugheen (or, at least, the old Faugheen) any day.

In fact, I’m old enough to remember another 100/1 shot, Norton’s Coin, coming from nowhere to beat the odds-on favourite, Desert Orchid, in the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

That win came just three months after Norton’s Coin finished 39 lengths behind the grey superstar in the King George at Kempton. 

But that’s why they run the race and don’t just decide the result on the odds preceding it. 

Likewise, the four wild card teams getting ready to start their run at the Super Bowl this weekend — the Colts, Seahawks, Chargers, and Eagles — will have to defy long odds, and history, in order to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy on the first Sunday in February.

Since the merger in 1970, just 10 wild card teams have made the Super Bowl, with six winning it.

It’s even more difficult to win it as a road warrior with just the 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers winning three games away from home in the playoffs before taking victory in the Super Bowl itself.

And while the Chargers or Seahawks lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy would not be an upset of the Mon Mome or Norton’s Coin variety, in the past five years the top seeds in the AFC and NFC have failed to meet in the Super Bowl just once — thanks to the 2016 Cowboys — so the odds are very much stacked against all teams playing this weekend.

Still, nobody is ready to hand the title to the Saints or Chiefs just yet.

Wild card weekend picks (season record 164-90-2) 

Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans

Saturday, 9.35pm

Perhaps the closest of the four games this weekend, these teams couldn’t be separated during their divisional encounters, with the road team prevailing by three points on both occasions.

As it happens, the Texans win in Indy put a halt to their three-loss start to the season, while the Colts’ victory in Houston ended a run of nine wins on the spin for Bill O’Brien’s team. 

That victory came just three weeks ago and gives the visitors a blueprint for winning this weekend. The Colts’ offensive line knows how to protect Andrew Luck who was only sacked 18 times this season, a league low.

Compare that to Deshaun Watson, whose offensive line allowed him to be sacked a league-high 62 times, including five the last time these teams met.

With both running backs held to under 35 yards last month, the passing game will be key and if the Colts young defence can hold DeAndre Hopkins to four catches for 36 yards again, that might just be the winning of this game.

Pick: Colts

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's protection has been solid this year. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys

Sunday, 1.15am

Compare and contrast the last Sunday of the regular season for these two teams.

As the Cowboys staged a dramatic late win in a game that meant absolutely nothing, the Seahawks struggled to secure the victory they required against the worst team in football to definitely avoid the Chicago Bears.

After a season of much improvement, Seattle’s offensive line allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked six times, and looked like Tom Cable was coaching them again. They were, at least, marginally better in the ground game with Chris Carson and Mike Davis combining for 166 yards on 26 carries.

In fact, Seattle had the number one rushing attack in the NFL this year with 160 yards per game on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, won the individual rushing title with 1,434 yards.

This marks just the third time in the Super Bowl era that a playoff game features the best rushing team versus the best individual running back. In the first two, Earl Campbell (1978) and Emmitt Smith (1993) helped their team to victories.

Yet, despite this and their inferior defence, I still don’t see how Seattle loses this game.

Pick: Seahawks

LA Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens

Sunday, 6.05pm

Of the four quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft, Phillip Rivers and JP Losman have failed to win a Super Bowl, while Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have four between them.

While the less said about Losman’s career the better, Rivers has the sixth most career touchdown passes (374) and eighth highest passing yardage (54,656) in NFL history. He has also taken his team to the postseason six times and was selected for the Pro Bowl on eight occasions.

By any metric he deserves to be part of the conversation when we discuss the 10 best quarterbacks of all time. But he’s also in danger of becoming this generation’s Dan Marino, a statistically valuable but, ultimately, title-deprived quarterback.

Across the field in this game will be Lamar Jackson, a quarterback whose unique skill set has befuddled NFL defences to date and who really should be getting more Rookie of the Year love than he’s currently receiving.

But this game hinges on the Ravens’ defence, an outfit that has already proven too good for LA once this year. They played just about as well as could be expected in that game, and came out on top at the end. Can they reach similar heights in this one? I’m not so sure.

Pick: Chargers

NFL: DEC 13 Chargers at Chiefs Philip Rivers was the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, where Eli Manning was the number one overall pick. William Purnell William Purnell

Philadelphia Eagles @ Chicago Bears

Sunday, 9.40pm

Philly’s quest to become the first Super Bowl champions to retain their title since the 2003/04 New England Patriots takes them to Chicago for the final game of wild card weekend.

While the Bears are the favourites, it’s worth noting that Eagles’ head coach Doug Pederson has a 100% record against Chicago (2-0) and has never lost a playoff game (3-0). Coupled with the fact that Nick Foles is apparently unbeatable as the Philly backup quarterback, and many are tipping the Eagles to cause an upset in this one.

From an Xs and Os point of view, they can definitely do it. Philadelphia’s weakness on defence is in their injury-depleted secondary but the Bears are not the kind of team built to burn teams deep down field.

However, the Philly offence is slightly lopsided as they are one of just two teams in the NFL this season — the other being the Jags — to fail to have a 100-yard rusher in a game. Relying on the passing game against a Bears defence that ranks first in the air is far from ideal.

This could be close, coming down to the final drive, or it could be a game where the Bears’ defence smothers all hope of another Eagles’ fairytale from the off. Either way, Chicago wins.

Pick: Bears

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a the latest round of inter-pro action.

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