AP Sports Columnist
OK, so they’re not who we thought they were.
Every time you see that big snowflake in the middle of this year’s Super Bowl logo, it suggests the easiest way to pick the last team standing is to draw a line through teams from warm-weather climes and then round up the usual cold-weather suspects.
The NFL’s opening playoff weekend changed that.
Neither New Orleans nor San Francisco had won a game in the cold since 2000 -- applying the 32-degree benchmark -- and San Diego hadn’t even played the minimum 10 games in those conditions required to make the list. They not only managed to win; all three did so on the road against teams -- Philadelphia, Green Bay and Cincinnati, respectively -- that ranked Nos. 2-4 on that same list, and trailed only always-formidable New England, which wins in bad weather an eye-popping 80 percent of the time.
The biggest weather challenge, though not the biggest upset, came in Green Bay, where the mercury registered 5 degrees at kickoff, with a wind chill of minus-10. The 49ers were expected to lean heavily on their ground game, if only to hold mistakes to a minimum. Instead, they wound up throwing the ball as many times as they ran it, 30 each.
After Phil Dawson’s game-winning kick as time expired gave San Francisco the win, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh seemed almost bothered at questions about throwing the ball around.
Toughness, Harbaugh said finally, wasn’t about where you grew up or played before.
"People talk about cold weather and it would be tough to catch balls ... Michael Crabtree catches everything, It’s unbelievable." Harbaugh began. "In the northern snowlands, down to the tropics’ sunny scenes, he’s catching the football.
"If my life depended on it," he added a moment later, "and somebody had to catch the ball, I’d enlist Michael Crabtree to do it."
And until this weekend, if Harbaugh and most others had to choose someone to throw it in similar conditions, the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers likely wouldn’t be the first names that come to mind. And to be honest, neither did more with his arm than was necessary.
Brees handed the ball off plenty in Philadelphia, and the 10-minute edge in time of possession, coupled with a last-gasp field goal by Shayne Graham proved decisive in sealing New Orleans’ first-ever playoff win on the road. Rivers threw even less, just 16 passes in all, and let his defense capitalize on turnovers by Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton. He admitted afterward playing that conservatively didn’t sit well, but also that he learned playing in lousy weather demanded it.
"The way our defense was playing, as long as we didn’t have a disaster and we made plays when they were there," he admitted afterward, "we were going to win this game."
If nothing else, it should prepare the brash quarterback and his teammates heading to Denver next week, where the weather could be fierce and the temptation to get into a shootout with the Broncos’ Peyton Manning will be even fiercer. Manning is 0-3 in playoff games in the cold, so he, too, is likely to be tempted.
"We will be confident," Rivers said. "We’ve got to be careful we’re not overconfident."
That won’t be a problem for Brees. His Saints head to Seattle, where they figure to get a relative break from the weather, but not from memories of a devastating playoff loss there three years ago, plus a 34-7 beating by the Seahawks less than a month ago.
"It’s loud, it’s crazy, they’ve got a good thing going there," Brees said. "Obviously, they’ve only lost one game there in the last two years. But having been there less than a month ago, I think that serves us well, what to expect, how to prepare for it.
"But we’re going to need our best game, that’s for sure."
Ditto for the Colts, who leave the comfort of their dome behind and travel to New England. Quarterback Andrew Luck brought Indianapolis back from a 28-point, third-quarter deficit to beat Kansas City, a trick that won plenty of praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"I think they’ve shown a lot of mental toughness. That game was about as good as it gets. To be that far behind in the third quarter, it didn’t look too good for them and all (of) the sudden, in a hurry, you could feel them coming back, or at least I could."
Yet for all the surprises, mild and otherwise, over the weekend, New England and Denver figure to play for the AFC Championship. On the NFC side, look for Seattle, which plays well in all kinds of weather. And the best guess here is that if you run into fans buying up as many gloves and hats as they can, they’ll be from San Francisco.