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.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are still searching for their first postseason victory of the Matt Ryan era. One year after earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC and flaming out badly against the eventual Super Bowl-winning Packers in a 48-21 divisional loss, the Falcons return a team that has largely flown under the radar this season, outshined by the Packers' quest for perfection, the Saints' record-setting offense, and the Falcons' own inability to post any season-defining victories. They lost to the Packers and they lost both their games to the Saints. Their only quality road win (defined as a victory over a team with a winning record) was against the youthful Detroit Lions. Going into New York this weekend and beating a team that has Super Bowl-winning experience -- at quarterback, head coach, and throughout its roster -- will be a daunting task. But Ryan and the Falcons' offense have more than enough weapons to keep up, especially against a Giants defense that was 27th in the NFL overall. Running back Michael Turner was third in the NFL in rushing yards, and Atlanta's passing game includes three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White, rookie standout wide receiver Julio Jones, and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The x-factor in this game will probably be the Giants' pass rush. New York posted the third-most sacks (48) in the NFL, and their success on the line can help compensate for a mediocre overall defense.
Pittsburgh (5 seed, AFC) at Denver (4 seed, AFC), 4:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS
Pittsburgh finished the season 12-4, but they lost the tiebreaker with Baltimore for first place in the AFC North, so the Steelers ended up with the top wild card spot and the No. 5 seed. That earned them a cross-country date with Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos, who are the only home underdogs (8 ½ points) in the first round of the playoffs. You can take issue with the NFL's seeding format, but playing on the road isn't a playoff killer, especially for the Steelers, who became the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl in 2006. Oddly enough, no No. 5 seed has ever advanced to the Super Bowl from the AFC, so Pittsburgh will once again be chasing a first. But first they'll spend a lot of time chasing Tebow, the feel-good (or feel hate, depending on your take) story of this year's NFL season.
The book on Tebow is pretty well established by now. He can hurt you with his legs, occasionally surprise you with his arm, and stun you with his fourth-quarter heroics - provided his inability to move the ball with consistency hasn't put his team in a deep hole. If the Broncos fall behind by a comfortable margin, Tebow simply hasn't proven that he can throw them back into a game. The odds that he has a breakout passing performance against the No. 1 pass defense of the Steelers (172 yards per game) are rather long, even if the Steelers will be without starting safety Ryan Clark, who is missing this game because of a sickle-cell condition that is exacerbated by playing at high altitudes.
The Broncos' defense has been excellent in spurts this season, and many would argue it was the key to the team's thrilling six-game winning streak in the middle of the year, when Tebow received a lot of credit; some of it deserved, some of it not. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Denver, which has lost three straight and backed into the playoffs, wins this game without creating multiple turnovers on defense. The potential is definitely there, as Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been hampered by a sprained ankle and robbed of his much-needed strength and elusiveness, while starting running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL last week and is out for the season. He'll be replaced by Isaac Redman, who lost two fumbles against the Browns last week.
The Broncos are heavy underdogs at home for a reason, but it won't take a miracle for Denver to upset the Steelers. It'll just take a great game from their defense, great ball protection from Tebow, and a little fourth-quarter magic. Anyone who thinks that's impossible hasn't been watching.