Having week off can prove costly

Although every head coach in the NFL will tell you that having a first round bye in the play-offs is a significant advantage the facts just do not bear this out.

Although every head coach in the NFL will tell you that having a first round bye in the play-offs is a significant advantage the facts just do not bear this out. One would think the odds of reaching the Super Bowl would be greatly improved by having to win one less game than a wild-card team. But since 2000, the top seeds in each conference have both reached the Super Bowl just twice, and three of the last nine Super Bowl winners have been wild-card teams.

So, while rest may be important at this time of year, the most significant factor is which teams peak at the right time of the season. "More than any particular seed, what is important is to be playing your best football late in the year," said the ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer. If that is the case, the No 1 seeds in both conferences - the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts - have plenty to worry about.

The Saints host the Dallas Cowboys, a team that dominated the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend in the wild-card round and have won four games on the bounce. The Saints have lost three in a row since opening the season 13-0. Historically this is a familiar situation and one that looms ominously for the Saints, a fact the Colts know something about. Indianapolis lost their last two regular season games after starting the year 14-0.

They host the sixth-seeded Ravens, who battered the New England Patriots 33-14 on Sunday. This is the same route to the AFC Championship game the Ravens took a year ago. They were again the sixth-seed but went to Tennessee in the divisional play-off round and beat the Titans, who had the best record in the NFL (13-3) just as the Colts do this year (14-2). That is enough to make a Colts fan sweat and the team's past history only makes it worse. In 2005, Indianapolis were 14-2 and had a first round bye - they lost their first play-off game after losing two of their final three regular-season games.

In fact, the Colts are 0-3 in play-off games after a first-round bye. The AFC's second seed, the San Diego Chargers, are in an entirely different situation. They host the high-flying New York Jets, who have won six of their last seven and on Saturday dominated the Cincinnati Bengals. But the Chargers enter the play-offs playing perhaps the best football in the league. San Diego won their last 11 games so the bye week was merely a time to rest injured players rather than heal mental wounds born from limping down the home stretch.

The Minnesota Vikings are the NFC's No 2 seed and finished the year 12-4, but they too struggled at the end of the season. They lost three of their last five and both their 40-year-old quarterback Brett Favre and star running back Adrian Peterson seemed to be showing the effects of a long season as their production slipped markedly. The one upside was they battered the New York Giants, 44-7, in the regular-season finale with Favre passing for 318 yards and four touchdowns.

This weekend they face the Arizona Cardinals, the defending NFC champions , who will be on a high after eliminating the Green Bay Packers 51-45 in overtime on Sunday. Yet despite that decade of statistics favouring momentum over a week off, Brad Childress, the Vikings' coach, insisted he is glad his team got to put their feet up for a week. "It's nice if you take advantage of it. If you make it serve you from the standpoint of freshness and preparation and if, in the end, you win the game," he said. That, of course, will be the hard part.