The NFL will have two new conference champions.
Both Super Bowl teams from last year lost Saturday on the first day of the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks silenced their critics and stunned the defending champion New Orleans Saints 41-36 to open the postseason. The New York Jets ended the night with a last-second 17-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Nick Folk kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired after Mark Sanchez led the Jets down the field and into range for the winning kick.
“No one believed in us. We believed in ourselves,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “We felt like we could come here and win, and we did that today.”
New York (12-5) will face the New England Patriots for the third time this season.
Peyton Manning and Adam Vinatieri looked as though they had combined for another comeback win when the famously clutch kicker made a 50-yarder to put the Colts (10-7) up 16-14 with 53 seconds remaining.
Seattle, the first division winner with a losing record, advanced behind four touchdown passes by Matt Hasselbeck and a brilliant 67-yard run by Marshawn Lynch on which he broke six tackles.
The Seahawks (8-9) will visit either top-seeded Atlanta next Saturday night or second-seeded Chicago on Sunday.
It was a shocking way for the Saints’ season to end. They led 17-7 early before their defense was decimated by Hasselbeck’s arm and, finally, Lynch’s run. A season after their first NFL championship, the Saints (11-6) couldn’t match up with an opponent they beat 34-19 in November.
“We did it with our crowd and we fit together so beautifully,” said coach Pete Carroll, who in his first season with the Seahawks led one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. “We kind of expected to win. I know that sounds crazy, but we did expect to win. The fact that it happened, it’s just kind of like, we want to take it in stride and go to the next one.”
On Sunday, Baltimore is at Kansas City and Green Bay visits Philadelphia.
Hasselbeck, who wasn’t cleared to return from a hip injury until Thursday, threw for 272 yards and a career playoff best four scores, two to tight end John Carlson. He outdueled Drew Brees, the Super Bowl MVP last February, who had a playoff record 39 completions, throwing 60 times for 404 yards and two scores.
It wasn’t enough, and he didn’t have the running game NFC West champion Seattle got – especially on Lynch’s TD.
Lynch took a second-down carry up the middle and a half-dozen Saints got their hands on him. None could bring him down, and Lynch tossed in a massive stiff arm that sent cornerback Tracy Porter to the turf as he completed the longest touchdown run of his career.
“That was the most unbelievable, unrealistic play I’ve ever seen in the history of football,” Seattle linebacker Aaron Curry said. “It was just unreal. It seems just like a routine football play, then he takes it to another level.”
Lynch finished with 131 yards on 19 carries, the first Seattle back to top 100 yards all season.
“We respect the heck out of the Saints,” Hasselbeck said, “but I think we felt something special all week and today, and we’ll see. It’s a good start for us.”
An unprecedented one, actually: No NFL team with a losing record had won a postseason game.
Ravens (12-4) at Chiefs (10-6)
Kansas City has not won a playoff game since Joe Montana was the quarterback and led the Chiefs to the AFC title game in 1994, a loss to Buffalo. The Chiefs are making their first postseason appearance since 2003.
“It’s priceless what they can pass on,” coach Todd Haley said of his players who have been to the playoffs, including right guard Ryan Lilja and linebacker Mike Vrabel, who have won Super Bowls. “We’ve got 21 guys that have some experience in the playoffs. Now, a lot of it is coming from a select few, but the good thing is those guys are all really strong leaders for us that aren’t afraid to let these guys know that everything is about one thing, and that’s trying to be at our best for this Sunday. It’s not about anything else.”
No, it’s not, Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis agreed. And Lewis gets to the postseason almost every year.
“Talent is one thing,” Lewis said. “Your first, second, third quarter, talent is doing great. But then that fourth quarter, experience and playoff knowledge on what you do in these tight situations and what you do against this or against that, that’s where it all clicks in at.”
Packers (10-6) at Eagles (10-6)
Green Bay surged into the playoffs, routing the Giants, its main competition for a wild card, then beating the NFC North champion Bears 10-3 in the finale. Philadelphia, meanwhile, was upset by lowly Minnesota in its 15th game. Because they already owned the NFC East title, the Eagles also rested key players in the finale against Dallas, another loss.
Do those divergent results matter for Sunday’s game?
“I think in here there’s a lot of confidence,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Yeah, we have to go on the road and that makes it tough, but we’re just happy to be able to have played well the last couple of weeks and keep that momentum going as we go into a tough environment this weekend.”
Not all that tough this year: Philly is 4-4 at home.
“It’s a playoff game, man. It’s huge for us,” Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. “We know what’s out there on the line for us, and this has kind of been our goal all season, to make it through the regular season and put us in the best position to get to the playoffs. Now we’re finally here, so we just got to put it together and make some things happen.”