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New guys jump into NFL playoff mix

New guys jump into NFL playoff mix
Melvin Gordon and Philip Rivers lead the Chargers into the playoffs. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

With every season, churn, churn, churn …

The NFL prides itself on competitive balance among its 32 teams, and it’s hard to argue against that this season.

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Of the eight clubs preparing for the first round of the playoffs, only one reached the postseason last season — and it’s the Philadelphia Eagles, who narrowly sneaked in Sunday as the NFC’s sixth seed.

Indianapolis, Houston, Seattle, Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, and the Chargers were all watching from the couch at this point last year. Now, they’re in the mix, along with the four teams that earned a first-round bye: Kansas City, New England, New Orleans, and the Rams.

“There will be eight teams practicing this week in the league and there are 20 that are home,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said Sunday. “We’ve been part of that 20 a handful of times, many times, so I think we’re excited to be going into January and have a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”

The postseason opens Saturday with the weekend’s only divisional matchup, the Colts at Texans, followed by Seahawks at Cowboys in the marquee slot Saturday night. Sunday, it’s the Chargers at Ravens, then Eagles at Bears.

There’s a familiar feel of redemption in this field, with both the Bears and Texans going from worst to first from one year to the next, to win their respective divisions and earn home playoff games. In 15 of the past 16 seasons, at least one team has made that bottom-to-top turnaround.

According to ESPN, the Texans are the sixth team in the Super Bowl era to make the playoffs after an 0-3 start. The only one of those previous five teams to win a postseason game was the 1992 San Diego Chargers.

The Colts and Texans each won three-point games on each other’s fields this season, with Houston posting a 37-34 victory at Indianapolis in Week 4, and the Colts returning the favor at the Texans, 24-21, in Week 14.

Happy as they are about winning the AFC South, which they clinched Sunday with a 20-3 rout of Jacksonville, the Texans know they have to do a better job of protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson was sacked six times in the finale, bringing his season total to 62. The last quarterback to reach the 60 mark was Detroit’s Jon Kitna in 2006. Then again, Houston is sack city, seeing as David Carr was dragged down an NFL-record 76 times in 2002, the Texans’ inaugural season.

“We’ve got to figure it out,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said of all the Watson wallops. “He’s getting hit too much.”

Speaking of pack-a-punch defenses, both Seattle and Dallas are on a roll. The Seahawks have won six of seven, and the Cowboys have won seven of eight. They met in Week 3, with Seattle posting a 24-13 victory at home.

“We have a tough task,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters Sunday. “Dallas has been playing great. Honestly, they have been one of the best teams in the NFL the past… six, seven, eight weeks, across the board.”

Wilson threw two touchdown passes in the first meeting, and Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott was picked off twice by Seattle safety Earl Thomas. Prescott was also sacked five times.

Just two weeks ago, the Ravens beat the Chargers, 22-10, at StubHub Center in a game that was more lopsided than the score suggests. Not surprisingly, the league’s No. 1 defense led the way for the Ravens, holding the Chargers to 198 yards and scoring on a 62-yard fumble return. The Baltimore offense accounted for 16 points.

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“I think when the other team scores 16, at least offensively, we should never lose, ever,” Rivers said Sunday. “That has been the case throughout my whole career, that’s how I’ve always thought… So I definitely feel like we’re [the offense] responsible for that one a few weeks ago.”

The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles stood at the edge of irrelevance at midseason before winning five times in six weeks, once again helped by the hot hand of replacement quarterback Nick Foles. They secured a playoff spot Sunday with a 24-0 rout of Washington, and thanks to Chicago’s victory at Minnesota.

Foles left Sunday’s game with a chest injury and was replaced by Nate Sudfeld. Before he was hurt, Foles tied an NFL record with 25 consecutive completions. (Rivers set that mark earlier this season.)

Foles, who said he suffered a ribs injury, is due to undergo more tests Monday.

“My plan is to get ready to roll,” he told reporters. “Obviously, we’ve still got to look into a lot of different things tomorrow but it’s unfortunate I couldn’t finish the game today. I’m ready, I want to get this thing going. I want to wear that jersey one more time — and hopefully more — but all we have guaranteed is this week.”

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