The road hardly was daunting in the wild-card round, and it might be just as kind when the NFL playoffs reach the final eight.
Even teams that rarely lose at home during the regular schedule — that would be the Patriots (8-0) and the Falcons (7-1) this season — could be vulnerable this weekend. And the Steelers are not all that strong at home in the postseason, going 10-6 since 1990.
Plus, the Seahawks’ best game in 2010 was their win at Soldier Field in October.
So, which hosts will be generous and which will be stingy in the divisional round?
New York Jets (plus 9) at New England
If this playoff edition of the nasty AFC East rivalry was decided by verbiage, the Jets (12-5) already would be headed to the AFC title game for the second straight year. Bill Belichick and his Patriots (14-2) are no match in the war of words.
Where they are a tough matchup is at Gillette Stadium. The last time the Jets came calling, they left battered and silenced, 45-3 losers on Dec. 6.
“We moved past that game,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said, “but we’ll certainly look at it and try to improve on it. When you’re down 100 points, you’ll probably make mistakes.”
New England is a 9-point favorite for its first playoff game since the Ravens came into Foxborough and routed them 33-14 in the first round a year ago. Hard to believe that Tom Brady has won 28 consecutive regular-season home games, but hasn’t won a postseason contest at Gillette in three years after going 8-0 in home playoff games since becoming a starter in 2001.
He’s raring to go Sunday.
“Not that you need any more satisfaction to win a game like this because it’s the biggest game we’ve played all season,” Brady said.
The Jets won the first meeting, back in Week 2, 28-14, befuddling Brady with blitzes and pressure in the second half. These Patriots are a much different and improved team from the one that visited the Meadowlands in September.
Yes, the Jets are better, too. Not nearly enough, though. ... BEST BET, PATRIOTS 28-17
Green Bay (plus 1½) at Atlanta — If Green Bay (11-6) had been able to run the ball in the 20-17 loss at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28, it likely would have won. But the Packers were held to 77 yards rushing, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers the leader with 51. That’s never a good thing on a pass-oriented team.
Rodgers also was 26 of 35 for 344 yards with one TD and no interceptions in that game. He did have a key fumble near the Atlanta goal line in the second quarter.
“That’s definitely something I remember from that game,” he said.
The Falcons had a few games like that this season, close affairs that they won with clutch defense or timely scoring. In going 13-3 for home-field advantage in the NFC, they ranked just 16th on offense and 16th on defense, but the Falcons led the NFC with a plus-14 turnover margin, including a conference-low 17 giveaways.
Green Bay should have plenty of impetus from winning three straight when one loss would have ended their season. The Pack is capable of building on the wild-card victory at Philadelphia. ... UPSET SPECIAL: PACKERS, 23-20
Baltimore (plus 3½) at Pittsburgh — If every AFC North meeting between the Ravens and Steelers is smashmouth, what is a playoff game between the bitter foes? Mega-smashmouth? Super-smashmouth?
“We both finished 12-4,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “That’s why, I think, the stakes are so much higher, the two best teams in the NFL. You can argue Atlanta and New England ... but anyone can argue the winner of this game will most likely to go on to win the Super Bowl.”
Perhaps. But first there is the spiciest matchup of this weekend, at Heinz Field, where the Ravens have never won in the postseason. They did edge the Steelers there 17-14 on Oct. 3, but Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger still was serving his four-game suspension.
Pittsburgh won the rematch in December, 13-10 in a classic defensive battle. This one also should be low-scoring, physical and, at times, brutal. With Baltimore’s upgraded offense capable of moving the ball through the air, Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu’s contributions become even more important.
Suggs and company take one more step toward that Super Bowl. ... RAVENS, 17-16
Seattle (plus 9½) at Chicago — Yes, the Seahawks (8-9) have the momentum after becoming the first team with a losing record to win a playoff game, a 41-36 stunner over the defending champion Saints. Seattle can’t take the 12th Man with it to Chicago, where the elements will be more of a factor than in their regular-season victory.
Awaiting the Seahawks is a Bears team that has improved throughout the year, particularly in the final two months of the schedule. Chicago’s 11-5 record is no fluke, while Seattle’s advancement probably was. ...BEARS, 22-10
Versus spread, 2-2 (overall 130-104-19); Straight up, 2-2 (overall 167-100)
Best Bet: 8-10 against spread, 11-7 straight up.
Upset Special: 10-8 against spread, 10-8 straight up.