- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2008

The Indianapolis Colts cleared the first hurdle simply by getting back to the playoffs, something half of the previous eight Super Bowl champions failed to do.

The Colts also managed to secure a first-round bye and dodge the threat of an upset by virtue of their strong record, the second best in the AFC.

They also are universally expected to beat the San Diego Chargers at home Sunday to set up an anticipated repeat of last year’s AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.

Still, the Colts are living dangerously — just ask Washington Redskins linebacker Randall Godfrey.

Now a 12-year veteran, Godfrey was a rookie on the 1996 Dallas Cowboys, who were defending their title and had won three Super Bowls in four years.

But the mighty Cowboys slipped to 10-6 in 1996. After walloping the Minnesota Vikings in a wild card game, they saw their reign end with a 26-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers, a second-year franchise.

“Anytime, you’ve got Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, there’s pressure,” Godfrey said. “We didn’t produce, especially on offense, that game, and the newspapers tore us up the next day. It was an eye-opener for the young guys to realize how hard it is to win in this league no matter what type of talent you have. And once you’re in the playoffs, it’s totally different.”

Godfrey said that even though the Colts now are in the same position as the Cowboys were they’re not facing the same degree of scrutiny and pressure.

“Nobody’s talking about them, which is good,” Godfrey said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they repeat. The pressure’s on New England this year. Everybody wants to see New England in the Super Bowl.”

That might be the case, but the divisional playoffs are where the true action is.

Aside from New England’s three Super Bowl victories (all by three points), football’s biggest game hasn’t produced many thrillers lately. Considering the Patriots’ dominance this season, another New England appearance likely would add to the list of one-sided results.

But look at the divisional round. Last year’s average margin of victory was a mere 4.5 points, compared to 14.5 in the championship games and 10.0 in the wild card round. In 2005, the numbers were 8.8 points in the divisional round, 18.5 in the championship games and 17.3 in the wild card games.

The wild card games usually include 8-8 and 9-7 teams that qualified for the postseason on the final weekend and the top two seeds in each conference get that weekend off.

By the divisional round, that chaff usually has been swept aside.

The explanation for the scoring disparity in conference title games isn’t as clear, but nerves are a factor for teams that are one step from the Super Bowl for the first time.

Following the 2003 season, Indianapolis lost by 10 points in its first AFC Championship game in eight years. Pittsburgh, with 14 new starters since its AFC title game loss three years earlier, lost by 14 points in 2004. Denver, which hadn’t been so close in seven years, lost by 17 in 2005. But last year, the Colts and Patriots, both experienced at that stage, played a 38-34 game.

Philadelphia lost three straight NFC Championship games by an average of 11 points before finally breaking through in 2004, beating Atlanta in its first such game in six years by 17 points.

So sit back and enjoy this weekend as the NFL’s best go at it.

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