Marty Schottenheimer carries the ponderous weight of expectation into the NFL playoffs.
His San Diego Chargers have the best record in the league and home-field advantage for the tournament. They have the NFL's sack king on one side of the ball and the rushing champ on the other.
In Schottenheimer, however, they have a veteran coach who has never been able to transfer regular-season success into postseason profit.
Therein lies the rub for the 14-2 Chargers. They have the No. 1 seed with a coach who has failed miserably three times before with the No. 1 seed, a coach who has not reached the Super Bowl in 12 playoffs and 20 full seasons of trying.
Schottenheimer's 5-12 playoff record is easily the worst of any coach in this year's tournament. He has a personal five-game losing streak that goes back to Kansas City, where his Chiefs twice lost their first playoff game as a No. 1 seed. (Schottenheimer also lost as a top seed while coaching the Cleveland Browns in the 1986 AFC championship game.)
Much like Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts a year ago, Schottenheimer may never get a better chance to end his Super Bowl drought. He has the Most Valuable Player of the league in running back LaDainian Tomlinson to anchor his offense, and pass-rushing linebacker Shawne Merriman, a Maryland alumnus, to spearhead the defense.
Will it be enough to offset the image of Martyball and negate Schottenheimer's reputation for choking under pressure? Time will tell. At the least, it will add intrigue to the postseason, when anything goes.
Every team appears to have a critical flaw and neither No. 1 seed -- the Chargers or the Chicago Bears -- looks unbeatable. The NFC bracket is so weak the Philadelphia Eagles might be the best team playing there now. Four of the six AFC teams win with defense, always a good barometer this time of year.
Below are some of the key factors that will determine which team survives the crucible of the postseason.
The six NFC coaches have directed 60 playoff games and seven Super Bowls, compared to the AFC's 55 and four. The NFC's edge is due to the Seattle Seahawks' Mike Holmgren (20 games) and Dallas Cowboys' Bill Parcells (18). But the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick has the best record (11-2) in the postseason and the most Super Bowl victories (three). Parcells, Holmgren and the Ravens' Brian Billick also have won Super Bowls. The advantage lies with winning experience. That doesn't bode well for first-timers Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints or Eric Mangini of the New York Jets, or coaches with losing records -- Tony Dungy of the Colts, Herm Edwards of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lovie Smith of the Bears and Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants.
Once again, the Patriots lead the way with Tom Brady, whose playoff record of 10-1 is unmatched, far outdistancing that of Peyton Manning (3-6). The Ravens' Steve McNair is the only other quarterback with a winning record in the postseason at 5-4, all with the Tennessee Titans. The Chargers will rely on first-year starter Philip Rivers, who struggled in December. While Rivers played well enough in the regular season to warrant a Pro Bowl invitation, he is untested in the playoffs. Coupled with a coach prone to tighten up, that might be tough to overcome. The collection of quarterbacks in the NFC is modest at best. The erratic performance of Rex Grossman in the second half of the season raises serious issues for the Bears. The Giants' Eli Manning has wilted under pressure and the Cowboys' Tony Romo looks more and more shaky. The Saints' Drew Brees is clearly the best quarterback in that bracket.
The three best road teams in the playoffs -- excluding the Chargers and Bears -- are the Patriots (7-1), Ravens (6-2) and Saints (6-2). Any of the three is capable of knocking off the top seed. Home-field advantage probably means more to San Diego than Chicago, at that. The Chargers went 8-0 at home, the Bears 6-2.
The Ravens and Patriots appear to be playing the best defense coming into the tournament. Those two teams and the Chargers can pressure the quarterback and dictate terms. The Bears had been playing well, but have been reeling since losing defensive tackle Tommie Harris to a knee injury. The Cowboys gave up 33 points and 425 yards per game the last four weeks when they couldn't stop the pass. The Colts are the only team to surrender at least 100 rush yards every week this season. In tomorrow's wild-card round, they face the Chiefs' Larry Johnson. Defense wins championships? Curiously, only four top-10 defenses (Ravens, Bears, Patriots, Chargers) made the playoffs.
No team appears in worse shape with respect to injuries than the Seahawks, especially in the secondary. They lost cornerback Marcus Trufant two weeks ago to a high ankle sprain. Last week the other starter, Kelly Herndon, broke his ankle and went on injured reserve. The Seahawks could start No. 1 pick Kelly Jennings at one corner and Jordan Babineaux at the other tomorrow night against the Cowboys. Babineaux had been starting at safety. Injuries took a heavy toll on the Giants in their second-half slide, and the Bears have struggled in the secondary without safety Mike Brown. In the AFC, the Patriots have put 12 players on injured reserve -- the most of any team in the playoffs. They lost safety Eugene Wilson for the year and won't have safety Rodney Harrison for Sunday's game against the New York Jets. The Chargers and Ravens are among the healthiest teams in the playoffs; the bye week will help them stay that way.
San Diego has won 10 games in a row, the Ravens four and the Patriots and Jets three apiece in the AFC. Only Indianapolis, which went 3-4 after opening 9-0, is stuck in neutral. Every team except the Eagles and Saints in the NFC is in reverse. The Cowboys and Seahawks have both lost three of their past four, and the Giants went 2-6 in the second half.