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Peek at the Week: Falcons, Lions face tough wild-card road tests

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

Atlanta at N.Y. Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Giants by 3½

The story: The Giants have the worst record among teams in the NFC playoffs, were the last team to qualify, yet they're favored by 3½. Reason: First of all, they won three of their final four, including the past two over the Jets and Cowboys. Second, Atlanta is a dome team going outside. Third, the Falcons are 0-2 in the playoffs with Matt Ryan. Last, and most important, the Giants' defense is pulling together at just the right time.

It's that last item that's a potential deal-breaker for Atlanta. The Falcons can beat you with the run or the pass, but not if the Giants' rush is burying Michael Turner and pressuring Ryan into hurried throws. Ryan has weapons galore in Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. But he'll need time to get them the ball -- and time is not what Mark Sanchez or Tony Romo had the past two weeks. They were sacked 11 times, intercepted three times, fumbled twice and called for a safety.

"We're only going to go as far as our quarterback and defensive line take us," said defensive end Justin Tuck.

Precisely.

If Atlanta is going to win, it must win on that side of the ball. The Falcons can be explosive -- especially with White and Jones on the outside -- and jumping to an early lead is pivotal here. Otherwise, you put the Giants in a position to dictate the pace, and with defensive end Osi Umenyiora back in the lineup that may be too much for Ryan to handle.

If so, consider it no surprise. Ryan has fizzled in two previous playoff appearances, with three touchdowns, four interceptions, a passer rating of 71.2 and two defeats. He's also 17-15 on the road against 26-4 at home. But it took Peyton Manning four starts and six seasons to win a playoff game, so maybe Ryan's just a late bloomer. We're about to find out.

Of course, we already know about Eli Manning. He has won a Super Bowl and made big plays to get the Giants there. He's making big plays again, setting a league record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and ranking behind only Aaron Rodgers in fourth-quarter rating.

One problem: You're never really sure which Manning is going to show up. One week he throws like Peyton; the next he throws like Danieal. He's 4-4 at home with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. If you include the defeat of the Jets -- at MetLife Stadium -- he's 5-4 there, with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Peek at the Week: Wild cards
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The Giants' rushing game has improved lately, but let's be honest: Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs aren't going to win this one. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks could. Cruz has been the catalyst to the Giants' late-season rush, and Atlanta has the league's sixth-ranked pass defense. If Manning has the time, he'll find him -- and the Giants will salsa to the next round.

Something to consider: The Giants' Tom Coughlin is 8-7 in the playoffs, including three championship-game appearances and one Super Bowl victory. Atlanta's Mike Smith is 0-2.

Three games we're all going to see

Cincinnati at Houston, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Texans by 3½

The story: Houston linebacker Brian Cushing guaranteed the Texans will give us their best effort of the year, and I hope so. I mean, they haven't been to the playoffs ... ever ... so you think they would dial up an A effort now that they have arrived.

Only one problem: They have a rookie quarterback, and he's coming off a hip injury. Yes, T.J. Yates says it's no big deal, but I'll tell you what is: T.J. Yates. He's not just a rookie; he's a rookie third-string QB, forced to start because Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were lost for the season.

Of course, Cincinnati's quarterback is a rookie, too, except there's one difference: Andy Dalton wasn't pressed into duty. He started from the beginning of the season and has 16 games of experience. Not only has he played well; he played so superbly that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger nominated him for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

I don't worry too much about Dalton, but I do worry about his health. He went to the hospital this week with the flu, and I don't care how you slice it; that's not good. The Bengals say he'll be OK, and he practiced Thursday. But I don't know anyone who recovers from the flu overnight.

Yates and the Texans have the edge here for a number of reasons. First of all, they beat Cincinnati this season, and they beat them at Paul Brown Stadium. Second, they're home. Third, they have the league's second-ranked defense and Wade Phillips running it. Fourth, nobody really trusts the Bengals in the playoffs -- with Cincinnati 0-2 there under Marvin Lewis.

Of course, this is unknown territory for Houston.

Anyway, the Texans will do what they can to take the load off Yates' shoulders. That means they'll feature running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate and try to pressure Dalton into mistakes with a defense that was third vs. the pass. If that works, it's on to next week.

Something to consider: The Bengals were 0-7 vs. playoff teams this season.

Detroit at New Orleans, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Saints by 10½

The story: If you want to know what football looks like when there's no defense, you could rewind videotape to the 2012 Rose Bowl ... or you can tune in here. Both clubs can and will throw, and both can and will score a zillion points.

The total here is 59, and give me the over. In fact, let's go one step farther: The first team to make a stop moves on to the next round. That should be New Orleans, which not only hasn't lost at home, but five times scored 40 or more points there -- including a 62-point outburst vs. Indianapolis.

The Saints have a ton of weapons, with Drew Brees looking at a lineup that includes five players with 50 or more catches each -- including tight end Jimmy Graham, with 99 catches and 11 TDs. But the Saints can run, too. Not only do they have four credible backs; they have the league's sixth-best rushing attack.

In short, they're a blitzkrieg waiting to happen, and if Detroit couldn't stop Matt Flynn and Green Bay's backups, how is it going to shut down Brees ... especially here? Answer: They're not. I can see them making this competitive for, oh, say, two to three quarters, then the avalanche of New Orleans points becomes too much, and opponents cave in.

Yeah, I know, Matt Stafford is one of three quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards this season. I also know he uncorked a franchise-record 41 touchdown passes. But this is his first playoff appearance, and it's the Lions' first since 1999. That could mean nerves, and nerves mean mistakes.

But nerves aren't the issue here. It's Brees. He has playoff experience, and he threw for 5,000 yards, too. In fact, he set the NFL's single-season record. It's not that I don't like Stafford in a shootout. It's just that I like Brees more.

Something to consider: The Lions led the league with 139 points off takeaways, including an NFL-best seven touchdowns off interception or fumble returns.

Pittsburgh at Denver, Sunday 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Steelers by 8½

The story: Most people assume this is a walkover; that defending AFC champion Pittsburgh crushes these guys because ... well, because the Broncos didn't play all that well in their final three games, all losses, and because Tim Tebow is in a funk.

A gimpy Ben Roethlisberger is better than the alternative for the Steelers. (Getty Images)  
A gimpy Ben Roethlisberger is better than the alternative for the Steelers. (Getty Images)  
What they're not telling you, of course, is that Pittsburgh didn't play all that well down the stretch, either, getting buried by San Francisco and just nosing out Cleveland. Plus, the Steelers won't have safety Ryan Clark or running back Rashard Mendenhall, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is complaining about that injured ankle again.

No matter. The expectation is that Denver won't score, and if you can't score, you can't win. Maybe, but I would be careful. The last time I remember a playoff game that was supposed to be a dead-bolt cinch, defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans got whacked by a Seattle team that was 7-9.

Upsets happen, and the Steelers aren't exactly peaking.

Nevertheless, they're a better team than Denver, and their run defense could force Tebow and the Broncos out of their comfort zone, which is another way of saying it could make them throw. I heard Denver exec John Elway this week remind Tebow to "pull the trigger," which is great if you're John Elway. But Tebow isn't and never will be. Nope, the best advice for Tebow is to be just who he is -- a guy who can make the right plays at the right time, usually with his legs.

Of course, if the Broncos fall behind ... and turnovers are the issue here ... he is forced to pull the trigger. Then Denver is in trouble. But if the Broncos control the ball with effective running and timely passes, they can take this one to the wire.

I know, Pittsburgh won an AFC Championship Game here as a wild card in the 2005 playoffs by making the Broncos play from behind and forcing Jake Plummer into mistakes. But that team was stronger than this, and Roethlisberger wasn't complaining about an ankle injury.

Nevertheless, the Steelers should win for three reasons: 1) They have the defense to shut down the league's top-ranked running game; 2) They have Ben Roethlisberger; and 3) They have big-game experience that Denver does not. But remember: They're also missing two key starters, which could make this game closer than it is supposed to be.

Something to consider: Roethlisberger is 80-33 as a starter in the regular season and 10-3 in the playoffs.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil: He has three sacks and two forced fumbles in two games vs. Pittsburgh.

2. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees: Not only hasn't he lost at the Superdome this season; he has 29 touchdown passes and six interceptions there. He also has three or more touchdown passes in all but one of his eight home starts and four or more in four of his past six.

3. Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley: He has at least one sack in every playoff game of his career, and he has played in seven of them.

4. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: The Steelers led the league in scoring defense, allowing an average of 14.2 points per game. The Broncos were 25th in scoring offense and produced only 17 points their past two games.

5. N.Y. Giants quarterback Eli Manning: He has won his past three starts vs. Atlanta and threw for over 300 yards in each of his past two.

Five best matchups

1. N.Y. Giants linebacker Michael Boley vs. Atlanta: Boley was angry when he faced his ex-teammates in 2009, with the veteran linebacker still seething after Atlanta failed to re-sign him. Now, apparently, he's angry no more. He likes it with the Giants. "Looking back now," he said, "I can't think of a place I'd rather be."

2. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans vs. Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: Suh wasn't there when the Lions met the Saints last month, but Evans watched enough of the guy on film to know what to expect."I think some things he does are dirty, after the whistle," Evans said. "He needs to put a cap on that, but he's a phenomenal player."

3. Detroit vs. stupid penalties: The Lions' biggest problem when they met New Orleans earlier this season wasn't controlling Drew Brees; it was controlling their tempers. They were called for 11 penalties for 107 yards, including three personal fouls, all after the whistle.

4. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow vs. the clock: In his past 12 games Tebow has led Denver on 18 scoring drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

5. Pittsburgh running back Isaac Redman vs. his first playoff start: Redman averaged 4.4 yards per carry this season and converted nine of 11 chances on third-and-2 or less. He also lost two fumbles. "Any chance I get I want to showcase my talents," he said. He'll get his chance. He's the only healthy running back on Pittsburgh's roster with significant pro experience.

Five quotes to remember

1. "I have guys that couldn't catch a cold butt naked in a rain storm right now." -- New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on the Saints' failure to have more interceptions.

Fan Poll

What will be the best wild-card game?

Bengals at Texans
10%
Lions at Saints
48%
Falcons at Giants
30%
Steelers at Broncos
11%

Total Votes: 53,783

2. "I have to find out the Wikipedia definition of dirtbag. Maybe we should make T-shirts and start branding this, you know? We could make a profit in the New York market. It's an opportunity." -- Atlanta tackle Will Svitek.

3. "The key thing for [Tim Tebow] is to go out, put everything behind him, go through his progressions and pull the trigger." -- Denver executive vice president John Elway.

4. "I don't plan on anybody shooting our defense out." -- Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

5. "This is definitely a Super Bowl team. We just have to get it done." -- New York Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka.

Five things that may interest only me

1. Baltimore and Cincinnati were the only two defenses to rank in the NFL's top 5 in total defense, run defense and pass defense.

2. Denver has just two takeaways the past four games, including no interceptions. Opponents have 11.

3. The Steelers and Broncos have met six times in the playoffs, with each winning three. So what? So five of those times the winner advanced to the Super Bowl, and three times it won it.

4. Wild-card winners have seven Super Bowl victories, and at least one team that won during Wild Card Weekend has reached five of the past six Super Bowls -- including the defending champion, Green Bay.

5. The combined passing yardage of Eli Manning (4,933) and Matt Ryan (4,177) is the second most in NFL history by opposing quarterbacks in a playoff game. And the most? That would be Stafford and Brees in the other NFC wild-card contest.

Numbers that may mean something

4: Super Bowl MVPs in playoffs
7: Willis McGahee 100-yard rushing games this season
12-4: Pittsburgh's record in its last 16 road games
13: Drew Brees 300-yard passing games
18-1: Las Vegas odds on Super Bowl XLII rematch between Giants and Pats
44.36: Average points per game this season, the highest in 46 years
1991: Last time Cincinnati won a playoff game

Weekend weather

 Houston (Saturday): Partly cloudy, high of 70 (retractable roof)
 New Orleans (Saturday): Dome
 East Rutherford, N.J. (Sunday): Mostly cloudy, high of 44
 Denver (Sunday): Mostly sunny, high of 45

Where we will be

 I'll be at MetLife Stadium to collect soil samples in Atlanta "dirtbags."
 Pete Prisco will be in New Orleans to renew his run for mayor.
 Mike Freeman will be in Houston to audition as T.J. Yates' understudy.
 Gregg Doyel will be in Denver to "pull the trigger" on whoever loses.

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