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Stories add spice to playoff games

There is no lack of story lines for today's NFL divisional round playoff games.

It starts with the Indianapolis Irsays returning to Baltimore to face the Modells (nee Browns, now Ravens). Quarterback Peyton Manning of the Colts brings a record of playoff disappointment against Baltimore's No. 1 ranked defense.

Today's NFC game, Philadelphia at New Orleans, matches the No. 1 (Saints) and No. 2 (Eagles) offenses in the league. While Philadelphia is the NFC's hottest team, New Orleans has become a sentimental favorite for many across the nation because of the city's attempt to come back from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Besides home field, the Ravens and Saints have the advantage of the bye week. They were relaxing while the Colts and Eagles had to deal with the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants, respectively.

Since 1990, the home team with the bye the week before has won 51 of 64 games. Of the 13 road winners, three went on to win the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh last year, Baltimore in 2000 and Denver in 1997), and three others went on to win a conference championship (Carolina in 2003, Tennessee in 1999 and Buffalo in 1993).

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in the dead of night maneuver, but there is still a great deal of bitterness in the city for the late owner Robert Irsay. Of course, Baltimore regained a franchise when Art Modell moved the storied Cleveland Browns to that city. Modell, who has since sold controlling interest in the Ravens, still is vilified in Cleveland.

Led by AP Coach of the Year Sean Payton, New Orleans led the league in offense with 391.5 yards per game in the regular season. Newcomer Drew Brees quarterbacked the Saints all the way in a resurgent season after a 3-13 record in 2005. Jeff Garcia replaced the injured Donovan McNabb at quarterback for Philadelphia in the middle of the season, but the Eagles still ended up second in offense at 381.4 yards per game.

Colts (13-4) at Ravens (13-3)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:30 p.m.

The line: Ravens (-4)

The scoop: Colts coach Tony Dungy is 3-0 in his career against Baltimore. Last time the teams met was early in 2005, when Indy won, 24-7. . . . Manning is 4-6 as a starting quarterback with a 16-11 TD-INT ratio in the postseason. After a 1 TD-3 INT game against K.C., Manning faces a Ravens secondary that topped the league with 28 interceptions, led by CB Chris McAlister (6) and safeties Ed Reed (5) and rookie Dawan Landry (5). . . . The Ravens' defense forced 40 turnovers, the same number as the Chicago Bears, and limited opponents to 75.9 yards on the ground. . . .

Indy got a big lift with the return of TE Dallas Clark, who had nine catches against the Chiefs, six for first downs. Running backs Joseph Addai (122 yards) and Dominic Rhodes (68) dominated the Chiefs last week. . . . Biggest surprise of playoffs so far was the Colts holding Chiefs to 126 yards and just 44 yards on the ground. Expect Ravens coach Brian Billick to come up with a more imaginative offensive game plan than the Chiefs did, however. . . . Despite modest statistics (16 TDS, 12 INTs and 82.5 rating), veteran QB Steve McNair brought winning intangibles that the Ravens were lacking.

Outlook: If Colts have an offensive breakthrough, Ravens might have problem keeping up. Indy, 21-13.


Eagles (11-6) at Saints (10-6)

TV: Ch. 29, 8 p.m.

The line: Saints (-5)

The scoop: Rematch of regular-season game won by Saints, 27-24, on John Carney field goal as time expired. . . . The Eagles have won six in a row including a 23-20 wild-card win over the Giants on David Akers' FG. . . . Saints have won only once in six postseason games in their history. Saints are 1-3 at home in playoff games, but this is the first time New Orleans has been home this late in the playoffs. . . . Philadelphia will miss Pro Bowl CB Lito Sheppard (dislocated elbow). . . . Garcia rescued the Eagles season, taking team to 6-1 record -- including a playoff victory -- after replacing McNabb. Eagles' offense revolves around Brian Westbrook (1,217 rushing yards and 77 receptions).

Brees of the Saints was the NFC's top offensive performer. He led the league in passing yards (4,418) and threw for 26 TDs with 11 INTs. . . . RB Deuce McAlister does the heavy-duty ball carrying while the Saints look for ways to get rookie RB Reggie Bush in the open field. Bush ran for 565 yards but averaged only 3.6 with a long run of just 18 and one TD. However, he had 84 receptions, six for touchdowns and returned a punt for a score.

Outlook: Eagles are the only hot team in the NFC right now. Superdome crowd noise should not faze Garcia. Eagles, 27-20.


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