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Sunday, January 1, 2006
Updated: January 2, 2:37 PM ET
Wild cards have a shot in deep playoff field

By Michael Smith
ESPN.com

The road to Super Bowl XL begins Saturday and Sunday, wild-card weekend. For the postseason's four wild-card entries, not only is that road long, in a travel sense, it's more literal.

Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Washington secured playoff berths on the final Sunday of the season; the Steelers and Redskins had to win four and five games in a row, respectively, to get in. Now, along with Jacksonville, they all get to hit the road for -- they hope -- the next several weeks.

Each will have to win at least two, and more than likely three, road games to make it to Detroit.

If one of the wild cards were to pull off the road trifecta, that team would make history. The 1985 New England Patriots, who were blown out by the Bears in Super Bowl XX, are the only team to win three road playoff games. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger (including pre-2002 expansion, when one wild card from each conference got to host a playoff game), the road record of wild card teams is 58-116, a winning percentage of .333.

Since the merger, 11 teams have won two road games in a single postseason. And overall, just seven wild-card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl. Three -- the 1980 Raiders, 1997 Broncos, and 2000 Ravens -- won the title.

In the three seasons since the league went to eight divisions (eliminating a home game for a wild-card team) five wild cards have gone on the road and won their playoff opener. None have advanced beyond the divisional round.

From wild card to the Super Bowl: Definitely the road less traveled.

Then again, it's better than being one of 20 teams that have gone home for the winter.

"If they tell us to come out and play on the moon," Panthers defensive end Brentson Buckner told reporters after Carolina's 44-11 rout of the Falcons at Atlanta, "we'll play on the moon."

Neither Carolina nor the other wild cards will be forced to travel that far, thankfully. But given the group's strength, each nonetheless has a chance to turn the playoffs into a long trip.

Thanks to a season of haves and have-nots, 13 teams won at least 10 games, tied for the most in league history (2003). As a result, the playoff field includes three 11-win wild-card teams for just the third time (2000 and 2001 were the others). The deepest field was that of 1980, when all four wild cards -- Houston, Oakland, Dallas and the Los Angeles Rams -- all won at least 11 games.

So which of the wild cards have what it takes to win three road games? The Jags, the AFC's fifth seed, who begin their playoff journey at New England on Saturday night? The sixth-seeded Steelers, who visit AFC North rival Cincinnati on Sunday? The fifth-seeded Panthers, who play at the NFC East champion New York Giants on Saturday? The red-hot Redskins, the NFC's sixth seed, who get Tampa Bay on Sunday? Which dark horse is capable of going on a run?

If you place the emphasis on the word "run," the answer is all of the above.

Entering Week 17, Pittsburgh (third), Carolina (fourth), Jacksonville (sixth) and Washington (seventh) all ranked among the league's top 10 in total defense. The Steelers and Panthers came into the weekend second and fifth, respectively, against the run. The Redskins had the fifth-best and the Steelers have the sixth-best rushing attacks in football. The Jaguars were No. 11 in rushing offense.

To win in the playoffs, especially on the road, a team usually has to be able to run and to stop the run, controlling the clock and making the opponent one-dimensional. The Panthers, despite tearing apart the Falcons' defense Sunday, haven't been able to run the football consistently and effectively this season, but at least head coach John Fox wants to play ball control. We all know by now what Steelers football looks like, and the Redskins' Clinton Portis has averaged almost 115 yards per game during Washington's five-game winning streak. And whether it's Fred Taylor, Greg Jones or LaBrandon Toefield, Jacksonville is still able to play its power game.

All of which should make for some interesting games in the next few weeks. Wins by the wild cards shouldn't be considered upsets, though. After all, the Jags won two more games than their hosts for round one, the Patriots (10-6). The Steelers and Bengals each won at the other's place this year, and the Steelers have been hoping for another shot at Cincinnati ever since their season-closing winning streak began.

"We play them twice a year, and we know them," Steelers wideout Hines Ward told reporters after Sunday's win over Detroit. "We'll take our chances going to Cincinnati."

"I think if any team could [win three road games], it's this team," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said.

The Bucs, remember, beat the Skins 36-35 in Week 10 on Mike Alstott's two-point conversion dive in the final minute. The Panthers won the same number of games as the Giants, and had Carolina gotten help from New Orleans against Tampa, the Panthers would have won the NFC South and would be hosting a first-round game.

"We match up with anybody," Buckner said.

Indeed, there is little discernable difference between the seeds in this year's playoffs.

Said Jags safety Deon Grant of Jacksonville's matchup with the defending champion Patriots, "We can go up there and shut a lot of people's mouths. If we go up there and [focus] and play our game, we'll come out and take care of them boys."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.