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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Saints and Colts are getting the hang of this

Both of last year's Super Bowl participants are back in the playoffs, the first time that's happened in 10 years. But both face a difficult road back to the championship game.

January 02, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Quarterbacks Drew Brees of the Saints and Peyton Manning of the Colts guided their teams back into the playoffs this season.
Quarterbacks Drew Brees of the Saints and Peyton Manning of the Colts guided… (Photos by US Presswire )

Now that they've put the Super Bowl hangover on hiatus, New Orleans and Indianapolis just want to hang around.

For the first time since 2000, both of the Super Bowl participants from the previous season have qualified for the playoffs. But neither the Saints nor the Colts are shoo-ins to get past the opening round.

The Saints have to do something the franchise has never done: win a playoff game on the road.

The Colts, meanwhile, will open the postseason at home Saturday night against the New York Jets — a rematch of last season's AFC championship game — but this season they didn't have the luxury of coasting down the stretch.

They staggered into the "fourth quarter" of their schedule at 6-6, and had to win four in a row to keep their postseason hopes alive. They did win those — capped Sunday by a 23-20 victory over Tennessee — and came away with their seventh AFC South title in eight seasons.

"We know what they were up against and how difficult it was," said Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose team has 17 players on injured reserve. "And to overcome all that and win the division, it's extra special."

The Saints kick off the four-game weekend at Seattle, a team they defeated by 15 points in November. With a 16-6 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Seahawks (7-9) became the first team in the modern era to make the playoffs with a losing record.

New Orleans lost its regular-season finale to Tampa Bay, 23-13, but had already clinched the No. 5 seeding by virtue of top-seeded Atlanta's victory over Carolina. Several Saints starters watched the fourth quarter from the sideline.

"We did the right thing, the smart thing," quarterback Drew Brees said. "And that's part of the reason why some guys didn't play today when they probably could have. You're thinking about, 'How can we put ourselves in the best position to succeed over this next week?' "

That worked for the Saints last year, when they took their foot off the gas at the end of the regular season, then went on to win the Lombardi Trophy.

In the Sunday games, Baltimore plays at Kansas City, and Philadelphia plays host to Green Bay.

That will be a familiar feeling for the Packers, who beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in a season opener. Green Bay knocked quarterback Kevin Kolb out of that game, and then-backup Michael Vick nearly rallied the Eagles to victory.

In Sunday's 14-13 home loss to Dallas — a game that had no bearing on playoff seedings —the Eagles took care to rest their regulars. They started only two members from their first-team offense (receiver Jeremy Maclin and guard Max Jean-Gilles) and two from their first-team defense (cornerback Dimitri Patterson and linebacker Moise Fokou).

If history is a guide, Baltimore caught a break when Oakland beat Kansas City. Why? Because that ensured the Ravens would open against the Chiefs, and not the Colts.

The Ravens haven't beaten Manning since 2001, and Indianapolis has knocked them out of two of the last four postseasons.

Swept away

With their 31-10 stomping of Kansas City, the Raiders staked a claim to an NFL record — but it's one they'd rather not have. Oakland is the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win every division game yet miss the playoffs.

What's more, the Raiders became the first visiting team to win at Arrowhead Stadium this season, and they did so with two of their best players — running back Darren McFadden and defensive tackle Richard Seymour — inactive because of injuries.

The Raiders finished 8-8, their best record since their Super Bowl season of 2002. In each of the seven seasons that followed, they had lost at least 11 games.

"We're not losers anymore. We're 8 and 8," Coach Tom Cable said. "That's not what we wanted. We wanted to be a playoff team. We came here to get the sixth win, which means we went 6-0 in the division and most importantly, we are done with that losing. We are not losers anymore."

Regular Joe

A former USC standout had a big finale for the Jets — and it wasn't Mark Sanchez.

Third-string running back Joe McKnight, who played for the Trojans with Sanchez, gained 158 yards in 32 carries in 38-7 victory over Buffalo, basically a glorified exhibition game.

Both teams rested starters, and McKnight got the call because the Jets deactivated Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. They didn't sit Sanchez, who's nursing a sore shoulder, but they didn't ask a lot of him, either. He handed off nine times to McKnight and called it a day.

"I was keeping the streak alive," the quarterback joked afterward. "Look out, Brett."

Speaking of Favre . . .

The Minnesota quarterback delivered his annual "I'm done" news conference after Sunday's loss at Detroit, a game he sat out because he's still recovering from a concussion.

"It's been a wonderful experience for me," Favre told reporters. "This year did not work out the way we would have hoped, but that's football. I don't regret coming back. I enjoyed my experience here."

Tom Terrific

Not that he needed to, but New England's Tom Brady wrapped up his case for a second most-valuable-player award in convincing fashion.

He finished with the following league records:

•28 consecutive regular-season wins at home as a starter.

335 consecutive passes without an interception.

Nine games this season with at least two touchdown passes and no interceptions.

As for the Patriots, who are a league-best 14-2, they set an NFL record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season (10) and tied the mark for fewest interceptions (five) — four by Brady and one by Brian Hoyer.

Stat of the day

CNBC's Darren Rovell noted on Twitter that Reggie Bush was paid about $8 million this season, 25 times the $310,000 salary of Houston's Arian Foster, who won the league rushing title with 1,616 yards, the highest single-season total for an undrafted player.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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