The long and winding road to the Meadowlands already has had some unexpected twists and turns.
The Saints, 49ers and Chargers are grateful for that. They hope to continue on it this weekend.
No one has it tougher than New Orleans. Then again, the Saints had never won a playoff game away from the Big Easy before taking down the Eagles in the wild-card round.
Seattle is a different challenge.
“It is deafening,” coach Sean Payton says of CenturyLink Field, where fans set a noise record earlier this season. “They do a great job. Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured the noise stays in.
“We’ve experienced it a handful of times now, and you just try to simulate it as best as you can.”
Obviously the Saints didn’t do that particularly well in a 34-7 loss on Dec. 2.
“The last game didn’t matter, and who you played and how they played and all that doesn’t matter,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says. “And this certainly applies to somebody that we’ve played before in the season. It was like the first thing I had addressed in our team meeting when we came back together was: What has happened in the past doesn’t tell the story of what’s going to happen in the future one way or the other.’ ”
New Orleans and Seattle kick off the action Saturday, followed by Indianapolis, the only home winner last weekend, at New England.
On Sunday, it’s San Francisco at Carolina, then San Diego at Denver. The Panthers and Chargers both had road victories in the regular season at their upcoming opponent.
New Orleans (12-5)
at Seattle (13-3)
The Saints’ improved defense and running game makes them confident they can compete with Seattle, which hadn’t lost a home game with Russell Wilson since he took over at quarterback in 2012. That is until Arizona beat the Seahawks in Week 16, raising some vulnerability questions.
“If we want to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, then we better find a way to go there and win,” says Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who will face the league’s stingiest defense (231 points allowed). “I was just hoping we have another opportunity and here we are with that opportunity.”
at New England (12-4)
The Colts needed a stunning comeback from a 28-point deficit in the second half to beat Kansas City, 45-44. They understand how unlikely another big rally would be against the playoff-tested Patriots.
Still, they’re game for anything, and with New England’s defense banged-up, the Colts could score a lot of points. Maybe not 45, but they might not need so many.
“We know it’s going to be a dogfight, that’s what the playoffs are about,” says Andrew Luck, whose work against the Chiefs was reminiscent of, well, Tom Brady.
And Luck will try to outscore Brady in this prime-time match.
“He has definitely set the standard for success,” Luck says of the three-time Super Bowl winner. “The way he handles himself, watching from afar, the competitive nature and basically all the right things he does. Yeah, I guess he is a barometer and he is the standard.”
San Francisco (13-4)
at Carolina (12-4)
The Panthers went to Candlestick Park in November and won 10-9. Both teams are capable of such defensive exploits again.
At least the 49ers won’t have to risk frostbite to advance, as they did in beating Green Bay last Sunday.
“Whew, I don’t want to go back to that,” San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis says. “This is going to be great, this is our element. Just like San Francisco, it’s going to be, what, 50 degrees? Sixty? Ah, that’s even better. We’re ready for any occasion, any environment. We’re going to step up and play, defensively, offensively, it doesn’t really matter. All the guys know you only get one shot. If you miss on the opportunity, we’re going home.”
Carolina won its final seven home games after an opening loss to Seattle. After seeing how 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wrecked the Packers with his running and passing, the league’s second-ranked defense knows what it must do.
The Panthers limited him to 91 yards passing, 16 yards rushing and no touchdowns in that one-point road win.
“All you have to do is watch the way he has played down the stretch,” coach Ron Rivera says.
“We caught them at a good time and it turned out in our benefit.”
San Diego (10-7)
at Denver (13-3)
The Chargers can say the same thing about their 27-20 victory on a Thursday night in December; San Diego lost by eight points to the Broncos in a home game.
San Diego has won five in a row and six of seven. The latest was a 27-10 decision at Cincinnati, which went 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,” Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle says of the most prolific offense in NFL history, led by Peyton 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.”