By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
The road was kind in the wild-card round. The next challenge might be more daunting for the Saints, 49ers and Chargers.
Not to mention the Colts, the only team to win at home this weekend.
Not that any of the first-round playoff winners are shying away from the next test. Rather, their attitude is “Bring it on.”
“They got us the first time,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of the Carolina Panthers, who won at San Francisco two months ago. “What’s on our minds is to get them now. It’s the playoffs, win or go home.”
Going ahead were the 49ers after a 23-20 victory at frigid Green Bay; New Orleans, which finally got a postseason win away from the Big Easy by beating Philadelphia 26-24; San Diego, a 27-10 winner at Cincinnati, which had not lost at home all season; and Indianapolis, a 45-44 victor against Kansas City thanks to a stunning comeback from a 28-point deficit.
Next Saturday, it’s New Orleans (12-5) at Seattle (13-3) on Saturday, followed by Indianapolis (12-5) at New England (12-4). Sunday’s matchups are San Francisco (13-4) at Carolina (12-4), then San Diego (10-7) at Denver (13-3).
All but Colts-Patriots are rematches of a regular-season meeting. In addition to the Panthers’ 10-9 win on Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park, the Seahawks routed the Saints 34-7 in Seattle, and the Chargers won 27-20 at Denver last month.
“We’re loose, we’re confident, we’re peaking at the right time,” said safety Eric Weddle, who spearheaded a stingy Chargers defense against the Bengals. “We are a team to be dealt with. We’re a confident bunch, especially in the second half, in the fourth quarter. We feel we’re ready for those situations. The pressure is not going to get to us.”
What’s ahead in the playoffs:
Saints at Seahawks
New Orleans played its worst game of the season on Dec. 2 at Seattle, which seemed invincible at home back then. But the Seahawks showed some vulnerability at noisy CenturyLink Field by losing their next home game to Arizona.
That should encourage the Saints, but only if they can replicate the pressure the Cardinals’ defense put on quarterback Russell Wilson. The Saints shut down the league’s top rushing team in Philadelphia, and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has not been very dynamic the last six weeks.
But there’s also the theory that the Seahawks were helped by sustaining their first home loss with second-year QB Wilson at the helm, and they won’t be slipping up again.
“When you face an opponent previously in the season, you have a better idea of what you’re going against,” New Orleans defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley said. “It helps you prepare for it a little bit better.”
Colts at Patriots
Here’s a juicy one: Andrew Luck, the new comeback king among quarterbacks, against three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.
“There’s no question he’s a complete football player and one of the top quarterbacks in this league already,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Sunday. He meant Luck.
For that matchup to matter, though, the Colts must avoid the slow starts that plagued them this season. Does anyone believe they can fall behind by four touchdowns or so against the Patriots and then win?
New England’s once sieve-like defense has improved recently, and witnessing what the Chiefs did to Indy’s defense even without Jamaal Charles should make Colts fans shudder.
49ers at Panthers
San Francisco’s versatility and experience showed at Green Bay. Teams that win in the worst of conditions while not playing close to their best are particularly dangerous.
The Niners won’t need to worry about wind chills at Carolina. They will need to find a way to move the ball against a Panthers defense that shut them down two months ago.
This has the look of a low-scoring contest, but with San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Carolina’s Cam Newton bringing so much creativity and energy at quarterback, the scoreboard might get lit up.
“Colin Kaepernick, I think we can all agree, is a clutch performer,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Chargers at Broncos
These two original AFL franchises have met 108 times, but never in the postseason.
Denver won at San Diego in November by eight points, then lost at home a month later to the Chargers by seven. San Diego has won five in a row, barely sneaking into the playoffs, but then handling the Bengals relatively easily Sunday.
For the Chargers to stay close to the Broncos’ record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning, they will need their own quarterback, Philip Rivers, to make lots of big plays. Plus, Denver is not going to forget how it posted the AFC’s best record a year ago, then flopped against Baltimore in its first postseason chance.
“We will be confident,” said Rivers, who was 12 of 16 for 128 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions on a rainy, 40-degree afternoon in Cincinnati. “We’ve got to be careful we’re not overconfident, which we won’t be.”