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NFL Playoff Time!

   by Jim Feist - 01/10/2011

As the playoffs begin, those who earned the top two seeds in each conference have a key edge, as they get a bye the first week while watching the others duke it out. Sitting at home this past weekend were the Steelers, Patriots, Falcons and Bears. A year ago the favorites to win the 2011 Super Bowl were the Colts at 4-to-1, the Patriots at 8-to-1, the Chargers at 8-to-1 and the Saints at 8-to-1. Only one got a bye and one didn't even make the playoffs. The Bears were 30-to-1 and the Falcons 22-to-1. Gaining the bye is an advantage for teams to not only rest injured players, but to have two weeks to put together a game plan. Since 1990, 31 first and second round seeds have filled 40 Super Bowl slots and the No. 1 and 2 seeds, rested after the bye, have gone 60-20 in their first games in the divisional round. A year ago the rested teams went 3-1 SU/ATS, with blowout wins by three teams. Only the Chargers (17-14 loss to the Jets) fell apart. Two years ago was one of the unusual seasons, with three of the four bye teams losing that first game (Giants, Panthers, Titans). The Steelers, though, not only won and advanced but ended up winning the Super Bowl. The No. 1 seeded team in four of the last six years in the NFC (Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Saints) wound up in the Super Bowl. In the AFC it's been a different story, as the only recent No. 1 seeds to make it were the 2003 and '07 Patriots and the '09 Colts. In 2001 and '04 the Steelers were the No. 1 AFC seed and fell short, along with the 14-2 Colts and Chargers, plus the 13-3 Titans in three of the previous four years. Here's a look at the four teams that come into this weekend's playoff games rested with home field. Steelers: (12-4 SU, 10-6 ATS): As usual, the Steelers got here with defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed and tops in points, just 14.5 ppg. 12 wins is impressive when you realize they opened the season with QB Ben Roethlisberger (17 TDs, 5 INTS) suspended the first four games. The addition of rookie center Maurkice Pouncey helped upgrade the ground game, ranking 11th with 120 yards per game. Still, their QBs were sacked 43 times as injuries hit the line in midseason. WR Mike Wallace filled Santana Moss's shoes by leading the team with 1,257 yards, 10 TDs averaging 21 yards per reception. They have home field for their first playoff game, but note the Steelers are also 7-1 SU, 5-3 ATS on the road. They entered the 2008 playoffs as the No. 2 seed and won three in a row to claim their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. Patriots (14-2 SU, 10-5-1 ATS): The top-seeded Patriots had a stunning season. They lost DE Ty Warren and a starting cornerback in preseason, traded star WR Randy Moss after Week 4, lost RB Kevin Faulk and All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostowski to season-ending injuries, and didn't have All-Pro guard Logan Mankins (holdout) for the first eight games. On top of that they were rebuilding with five rookies on defense. So how did they do it? QB Tom Brady (36 TDs, 4 INTs) and Bill Belichick led the way, while unknown players like RB Danny Woodhead, rookie CB Devin McCourty and TEs Rob Gradkowski and Aaron Hernandez filled voids and excelled. The offense has topped 30 points in an incredible eight straight games (6-2 ATS run, 7-1 over the total). There are flaws, as the defense struggled often, ranked 25th in yards (30th in pass ‘D'), and Green Bay and Cleveland showed you can run up the middle on them. Bears: (11-5 SU, 9-6-1 ATS): The lumbering miracle out of Chicago copped the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Bears are 30th in total offense with a poor offensive line giving up a league leading 56 sacks. The wide receivers aren't great, though QB Jay Cutler (23 TDs, 16 INTs) and RB Matt Forte (1,069 yards, 4.5 ypc) carried the load. Chicago won as if George Halas was still roaming the sideline: 9th in the NFL defensively and fourth in points allowed (17.9 ppg). This D-line is tough, second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, with LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, plus the addition of DE Julius Peppers (8 sacks). As we saw against the Jets, a red-hot hot Cutler gives the Bears a chance to beat the best defenses, but against the Packers, a hot-headed Cutler created just as much inconsistency. Falcons (13-3 SU, 11-5 ATS): No. 1 seeded Atlanta is about balance on offense behind QB Matt Ryan (28 TDs, 9 INTs) and RB Michael Turner (1,371 yards, 4.1 ypc). They are fifth in the NFL in points (25.9 ppg) and Ryan has great targets in WR Roddy White (1,389 yards) and veteran TE Tony Gonzalez (656). They take a 7-3-1 run over the total into the playoffs. But that about this defense? They are 16th in yards allowed, though fifth in points (18 ppg), and the secondary, a weak spot last year, ranks 22nd in yards. The Falcons didn't play a tough schedule and got shut down by strong defensive teams, losing to the Steelers (15-9), the Eagles (31-17) and Saints (17-14). Let the games begin!

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