Past failures put added pressure on Schottenheimer
Will the No. 1 seed be a blessing or curse for the Chargers? John Clayton breaks down this weekend's divisional playoff games.
Being a No. 1 seed is a blessing and a curse.
Home-field advantage comes with great pressure. Although it's better to have the home-field advantage than not, fans and critics of the home team can't accept anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl. Bill Cowher endured the criticism of three No. 1 seeds that didn't produce Super Bowls. He finally silenced critics by winning the Super Bowl last season.
Marty Schottenheimer had the AFC's No. 1 seed in Kansas City in 1995 and 1997. The Chiefs lost in the divisional playoffs each year, and the label of not winning the big one has stuck with him. Thanks to a 14-2 season in which the Chargers were the class of the league, Schottenheimer once again has home-field advantage as he prepares for Sunday's game (4:30 ET) against the Patriots.
But is it a curse?
Like Cowher last season, Schottenheimer has done more delegating to his assistants in terms of devising a game plan. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron calls the plays and is considered one of the hottest assistants up for head coaching jobs. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leads the Chargers' 3-4 defense, which has been one of the most physical for the past three seasons.
The Chargers appear to have all the advantages. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson was the league's MVP. Quarterback Philip Rivers didn't make Chargers fans forget about Drew Brees, but he matched Brees' success by having a Pro Bowl season. From nose tackle Jamal Williams to defensive end Luis Castillo to linebacker Shawne Merriman, the Chargers have three of the most dominating front-seven defensive players in football.
Nine Chargers were selected for the Pro Bowl (with five alternates). Rookie offensive tackle Marcus McNeill was one of the best offensive rookies this year. The Chargers were blessed.
But the matchup against the Patriots could be a scary one. First, New England head coach Bill Belichick is a master of finding the right defenses to frustrate an offense. Rivers is the only quarterback in the AFC's final four without playoff experience. He has to show he can compete and succeed in the company of fellow QBs Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair.
Having a Pro Bowl season is one thing. Winning in the playoffs is another. Belichick will try different ways to disrupt Rivers' timing routes. Plus, Brady will try to spread the field with receivers and neutralize the Chargers' dominance in the middle of the field.
Despite the losses of receivers Deion Branch and David Givens, the Patriots have evolved into more of a three-receiver team that also relies heavily on the pass-catching abilities of whichever tight end is on the field.
The temptation will be there for Schottenheimer to play "Martyball" and just run Tomlinson until the Patriots stop him. Going too conservative cost the Chargers a loss to Baltimore earlier this season and allowed a bad Raiders team to stay in the game too long in Week 1.
Expect Schottenheimer to let Cameron call his offense and mix the passes with the runs. Still, Tomlinson is the key to the game. Cameron knows he needs to find ways to get Tomlinson past the Patriots' talented defensive line so the talented back can make his moves on the linebackers and defensive backs.
Sanders' pressure is real. Schottenheimer carries a bigger load, though. He wouldn't have it any other way.
• Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens (Saturday, 4:30 ET): The Colts' 3-4 finish turned them into underdogs. After starting 9-0 this season and 13-0 last year, it's a different role for the Colts, but it's one they don't fear.
Like the Steelers a year ago, maybe the Colts are better off trying it the hard way. Saturday's game against the Ravens will be tough. Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has assembled a defense that relies more on athleticism than the dominating D of 2000. Instead of pounding offensive lines with big defensive tackles, Ryan dazzles blockers with mobility. He keeps them guessing.
In games such as these, Manning knows he's going to get hit more than normal as he throws. If Baltimore's cornerbacks can be physical with receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Manning will struggle to work his many timing routes.
The Colts usually count on getting three touchdown drives and two field-goal drives, but those are high expectations against a team such as the Ravens. On the flip side, though, the Ravens have to score touchdowns, and that may not be as easy as you would think.
At 22.1 points a game, the Ravens are the lowest-scoring team remaining in the AFC playoffs. McNair drove them to 32 touchdowns in 192 possessions while Matt Stover added 28 field goals (in 32 attempts). Two touchdown drives and two field goals might not be good enough for the Ravens because it will keep Manning in the game for a possible last-minute drive.
Playing the Colts requires different thinking. Manning tries to control the clock even though he runs a no-huddle offense and usually gets 10 possessions a game. The Ravens average 12, so if they don't convert possessions to touchdowns, the Colts have a chance to stay in the game until the fourth quarter.
• Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints (Saturday, 8 ET): The Saints' 27-24 victory over the Eagles earlier in the season put the Saints on the playoff map. At the time, the Eagles were 4-1. Donovan McNabb was the quarterback and putting up 300 yards a game. The Eagles were hot, but so were the Saints and no one believed it.
Now, everyone believes.
Sean Payton was the coach of the year and QB Drew Brees would have been the MVP if not for Tomlinson's record-breaking accomplishments.
Although the Eagles found a way to rally around Jeff Garcia after McNabb blew out a knee, they will have to find a way to make up for the loss of another Pro Bowler, cornerback Lito Sheppard. Sheppard's dislocated elbow couldn't have come at a worse time. Payton is calling plays with the aggressiveness of Mike Martz, so he will challenge Sheppard's replacement, Roderick Hood.
New Orleans Saints
Bush finished his rookie season with 88 catches for 742 yards. McAllister wore down defenses by running for 1,057 yards, not bad for a running back coming off ACL surgery in 2005.
The Superdome has been rocking all season thanks to the excitement created by the Saints. Still, the Eagles can't be taken for granted. They've won six in a row, and their locker room is as together as any in football.
Eagles coach Andy Reid has done a masterful job. In the second half of the season, he mixed the run better with the pass to produce a more balanced offense. Garcia has been the feisty leader who has rallied the offense. Running back Brian Westbrook is doing the exciting things Tiki Barber has been doing the past two seasons and is coming into his own as a star.
The Saints have been the NFL's Cinderella team this season. The Eagles have been the hottest team down the stretch, making for a great matchup.
• Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1 ET): Inwardly, the Seahawks must be stewing. They are the defending NFC champs but head to Chicago as a nine-point underdog.
The Seahawks certainly earned their underdog status. They won only nine games in a relatively easy NFC West. If not for a dropped hold on a field goal by Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in the final seconds of Saturday's playoff game, the Seahawks probably wouldn't be playing the Bears.
Plus, when the Seahawks played the Bears in Week 4, they lost 37-6. Despite the inconsistencies of QB Rex Grossman, the Bears earned their No. 1 status in the NFC with their defense and their 13-win season. The crowd will be loud.
The other problem is Grossman. He's been criticized for games in which his quarterback rating has been 1.3 and 0.0. Early mistakes could cause Bears fans to turn on him. Lovie Smith says he won't give Grossman a quick hook (and go with Brian Griese), but the Bears' coach will be judged by how he monitors his quarterback's play.
Grossman isn't making it easy for himself. He explained his poor Week 17 performance by saying he didn't prepare properly. He sounds like a quarterback who is under the gun.
Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner will have to decide how aggressively he wants to attack a Seahawks defense that is down three cornerbacks. Dallas coach Bill Parcells was too passive Saturday versus Seattle. The Cowboys threw only six passes apiece to Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens, even though the Seahawks' secondary was so depleted. He didn't challenge rookie Kelly Jennings, converted safety Jordan Babineaux or third corner Pete Hunter as much as everyone anticipated.
Turner has to determine the balance of mixing the run with aggressive passing. He has to decide how aggressive he can be with Grossman, whose confidence is obviously fragile.
Thanks to the weird ending against the Cowboys, the Seahawks may not feel as pressured. They were lucky last week. They have the experience of winning in the playoffs and know they have enough talent to get hot.
They could be a dangerous team for the Bears, even though the Bears handled them so easily earlier this season.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
• Colts-Ravens (Sat., 4:30 ET)
• Eagles-Saints (Sat., 8 ET)
• Seahawks-Bears (Sun., 1 ET)
• Patriots-Chargers (Sun., 4:30 ET)