Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Carolina is the underdog exception among big boys in NFL playoffs

Picture eight men standing in a line facing you. Seven are imposingly big with muscles bulging; they look like linebackers or UFC fighters. The other is a rail-thin nerd who looks like he might strain himself lifting a cup of coffee.

Welcome to the NFL playoffs entering this weekend’s Divisional Round. The final eight teams are seven heavyweights and a flyweight. Seven teams make up a who’s-who; the other is a who’s-that? I don’t mean to disparage the Carolina Panthers, but they are the outlier here by every measure, including record, likelihood of advancing and general heft of résumé in terms of league history.

Especially comparatively.

Appreciate the championship pedigree that’s left, in order of titles:

The Green Bay Packers have won more NFL titles than anyone, 13, the most recent in 2010. They have the likely league MVP in Aaron Rodgers. The mystique of Lambeau Field and its frozen tundra are synonymous with playoff football and the sport’s machismo.

Five-time champion Dallas and ubiquitous owner Jerry Jones yearn to end a 19-year title drought and shake the dust off the “America’s Team” brand. But make no mistake, that designation still applies. The Cowboys back in the playoffs (for the first time since 2009) is money for the NFL in much the same way Yankees in the playoffs is good business for baseball. Example: Last week’s Dallas win over Detroit drew an average of 42.3 million viewers — 14 million more than any of the other three playoff games. (No wonder the conspiracy theorists were out when that officiating reversal of a critical call against Dallas helped the Cowboys advance.)

Indianapolis has made the playoffs an extraordinary 12 of the past 13 seasons, its four championships as recent as 2006, and the Colts’ run figures to continue with Andrew Luck at the vanguard of elite young quarterbacks.

New England and its legendary coach/QB combo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady angle for the Patriots’ fourth league championship and first since 2004.

The Baltimore Ravens’ two championships include one the season before last, 2012.

Denver’s most recent of two titles was 1998, but Peyton Manning strives to be one win better after last year’s Broncos Super Bowl loss.

Seattle has only one championship, but it was last year, and the reigning Seahawks are the betting favorite to be the league’s first back-to-back winner since New England in 2003-04.

And then there’s Carolina.

The Panthers eked into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record thanks to a weak division and seek to win their first Super Bowl in their 20th franchise year. You’d have to canvass downtown Charlotte for fans with their faces painted Carolina blue to find anybody who thinks that might happen.

Incredibly, no reigning Super Bowl champion has won a playoff game the following season since 2005, but Seattle figures to end that odd streak at Carolina’s expense.

The Panthers are the only remaining team you’d cast as carrying a slingshot or fit for a glass slipper this weekend, but they are hardly the only longshot. There is an unusually top-heavy feel to the Divisional Round, with the four No.1- or No.2-seeded home teams coming off bye weeks all positioned as clear favorites.

Being top-seeded hardly comes with a guarantee, historically. Since 1990 realignment, when the current playoff format kicked in, 70.8 percent of No.1 seeds (34 of 48) have won in this Divisional Round, but only 47.9 percent of No.1s (23 of 48) have gone on to reach the Super Bowl.

Those numbers could climb this year. The combined betting spread of 301/2 points for this weekend’s four games and no game being closer than a six-point line represents unusual disparity that we can quantify via research done at our request by our friends at OddsShark.com.

They say only four Divisional Rounds in the past 33 seasons (since 1983) have had a combined point spread greater than this weekend’s 301/2. And only two seasons have seen the lowest of the four point spreads higher than this weekend’s six-point low.

Any neutral fans tending to gravitate to and adopt the underdog has their team in the Panthers. But not for long, of course.

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