A preview of Saturday and Sunday's matchups
The beauty of the first two rounds of the NFL playoffs is that games take place on both Saturday and Sunday, meaning your duties as a husband, wife, parent, or student will now be neglected for two days and not just one. The games are spread out - two on Saturday, two on Sunday - because the NFL is simply too popular to allow its playoff games to overlap. Fans of the Packers, Patriots, Niners, and Ravens can breathe easy this weekend, because their teams have byes and will await the winners of wild-card weekend. Here are the key storylines to those four matchups.
Cincinnati (6 seed, AFC) at Houston (3 seed, AFC), 4:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC
This is a game of several noteworthy firsts. Not only is this the first playoff game for the Texans (10-6) in the team's 10-year history, but it's the first playoff game featuring two rookie quarterbacks (Andy Dalton of the Bengals and T.J. Yates of the Texans) since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. It also offers the Bengals (9-7) the opportunity to win their first playoff game since 1990. Yes, the history of losing runs deep for both of these franchises, but rules stipulate that one of them has to win on Saturday. For the Bengals to succeed, Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green (a Pro Bowler as a rookie this year) will have to challenge a Texans defense that was outstanding for most of the season (285.7 yards per game, second behind the Steelers), but which allowed an average of 332 yards in the team's last three games—all losses.
Yates is Houston's third-string quarterback, following injuries to starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, and he led the Texans to an impressive 20-19 come-from-behind victory over the Bengals on Dec. 11 in Cincinnati—orchestrating an 80-yard drive with no timeouts, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass with just two seconds left. On the whole, though, he has been average in his five starts, and the Texans will rely heavily on running back Arian Foster (fifth in the NFL with 1,224 rushing yards) to challenge a Bengals defense that was middle of the pack against the run (10 th in the NFL in yards allowed per game) and the pass (9th). The Bengals are 0-7 against playoff teams this year, so a win over the Texans would be a fitting first in a matchup defined by firsts. On paper, at least, this figures to be the closest contest of the weekend.
Detroit (6 seed, NFC) at New Orleans (3 seed, NFC), 8 p.m. Saturday on NBC
Detroit's loss to the Packers last week—a game that meant nothing to Green Bay and yet featured a 6-touchdown performance by Packers' backup quarterback Matt Flynn—handed the Lions (10-6) the unenviable assignment of having to travel to New Orleans (13-3) for their opening-round matchup. Detroit is a 10 ½ point underdog to Drew Brees and the Saints, and this wide point spread is both a reflection of the Lions' inability to beat good teams (0-5 against clubs with winning records) and the Saints' juggernaut offense, led by MVP candidate Drew Brees, who shattered Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season (5,084) and finished the year with 5,476. The Lions have a strong passing offense themselves, as quarterback Matthew Stafford and Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson helped the team post the fourth-highest points per game in the NFL (29.6). But this is the team's first playoff game since 1999 (they haven't won a postseason game since 1991), and they've done little as yet to prove they are ready to run with the NFL's big boys. In meeting Brees and the Saints, who won the Super Bowl just two years ago and have won eight games in a row, the Lions couldn't have asked for a more challenging first-round matchup. Even if this young Detroit group falls short in its playoff debut, Stafford, Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh figure to have the Lions in playoff contention for years to come.
Atlanta (5th seed, NFC) at New York Giants (4 seed, NFC), 1 p.m. Sunday on Fox
New York had arguably the toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and from week nine through week 14 ran a gauntlet of tough opponents (New England, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, and Dallas), winning the bookend games while losing the middle four. They beat New England on the road and almost beat the then-undefeated Packers at home: both impressive outings. Not so impressive about this year's Giants were two losses to the 5-11 Redskins and an ugly early-season loss to the Seahawks, when Eli Manning threw a late-game interception that was returned 94 yards for a game-sealing touchdown. Which Manning will show up in this game? The one who claims he's among the elite quarterbacks in the league, or the one who threw four interceptions and no touchdowns in two games against the Redskins? The answer to that question will go a long way towards determining the winner of this game, because the Giants have the league's worst running game (89.2 yards per game) and will be leaning heavily on Manning and the passing game, including breakout star and deep threat Victor Cruz.