Greg Cote: Looking ahead to AFC title game is perfectly acceptable

01/11/2013 12:01 AM

01/11/2013 2:58 AM

Athletes in general and especially coaches do not look ahead past their next opponent, or admit to it, anyway. That seems particularly so in football, where to look ahead would be a sign of great disrespect and perhaps a harbinger of bad luck. Coaches in this weekend’s divisional round of the NFL playoffs are all but wearing equine blinders — so focused are they at the task directly at hand.

But I’m not! I’m not focused in the least. I’m distracted, and happily so. I’m looking ahead, and unabashedly.

I am already anticipating New England at Denver in the following weekend’s AFC Championship Game — more particularly, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning — and I can barely endure this weekend’s perfunctory nuisance of the Broncos first brushing aside Baltimore and the Patriots then dispatching Houston.

Top-seeded teams haven’t been much of a faithful predictor since the current 12-team playoff format was installed in 1990, but Denver has the look and feel of a No. 1 you might saddle up all the way. Less so with Atlanta, the NFC’s shakier top dog.

That’s a reversal of the usual. NFC top seeds have been a reliable 18-4 in this round since 1990 — the postseason debut of the No. 1s, because of byes — whereas AFC top seeds have been only 13-9 in this round. Neither has been even that reliable lately. Both conference’s top seeds are only 3-4 during this weekend since 2004, and it was 2009 when both last advanced past this weekend.

In fact, less than half of all No. 1 seeds (21 of 44, or 47.7 percent) have reached the Super Bowl since 1990, and only nine top seeds (20.5 percent) have won it.

Into this year’s final eight, Denver leads what seems a foregone AFC playoff picture, whereas Atlanta tops a far-more-muddled NFC joust.

The Broncos and second-seeded Patriots seem clearly the best teams in their conference, and likely the league. That is why they are 1-2 as Super Bowl betting favorites right now, and why the AFC team already is at the moment an opening-line 2 1/2-point Super Bowl favorite.

The NFC counters mostly with uncertainty.

Atlanta has the burden of its 0-3 playoff record under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, making for an unusually mistrusted top seed. I cannot recall another time when a No. 1 seed has been less than a three-point home favorite over the wild card in its playoff opener, as the Falcons are.

And second-seeded San Francisco, perhaps because Colin Kaepernick is playoff-untested, is a shaky favorite to the point few would be surprised in the least if the Niners were ousted by Green Bay.

The NFC, then, offers the intrigue this weekend, the unpredictability.

But the AFC offers the promise that tantalizes:

Patriots-Broncos. Brady-Manning. Best vs. best.

Look ahead all you want. I am.

Scatter-shooting the league:

• NFL games were 31 of the 32 top-rated TV shows since Labor Day entering these playoffs, the only exception being the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Top-draw regular-season game was the Dec. 30 Cowboys-Redskins winner-take-all with 30.3 million viewers. No Dolphins game made the most-watched list.
• These playoffs were only the fifth since the 1978 advent of the 16-game schedule, and the first since 2005, in which all 12 teams had at least 10 wins.
• The Texans’ Arian Foster, with 425 yards rushing in his first three career playoff games including 140 last week, has a good shot Sunday to top the four-game mark of 515 set by Terrell Davis in 1997-98.
• The Patriots’ Bill Belichick is a big favorite Sunday to win his 17th playoff game. Only Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19) have won more. No other still-in-it coach has more than six postseason wins.
• NFL championships (Super Bowl or pre-) won by the surviving teams: Packers (13); 49ers (5); Patriots (3); Broncos (2); Ravens (1); Falcons, Seahawks and Texans (0).
• Five players still alive in the final eight have been a Super Bowl MVP. The gimmies are Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. The semi-gimmie is Ray Lewis. If you knew the fifth was receiver Deion Branch, you probably are a Patriots fan or a member of the Branch family.

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