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NFL playoffs a quarterback's party
The Green Bay Packers may be 15-1 and the favorite to repeat as champion, but never in the 45-year history of the Super Bowl has a team that allowed the most yards (6,585) during the regular season advanced to the big game. The Packers, not the Patriots, ended up dead last in defense. The Patriots finished next-to-last.
And these guys are supposedly the two best teams in the playoffs.
But that's what the NFL is all about these days — offense, offense and even more offense. The league had three 5,000-yard quarterbacks this season, and two of them — the new record-holder Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford — will be facing each other tonight in the Superdome. A total of 10 quarterbacks passed for more than 4,000 yards, including No. 1 pick Cam Newton for the 6-10 Carolina Panthers.
At the other end of the spectrum are the San Francisco 49ers, who lost only three games by playing tremendous team defense, running the ball and being judicious with Alex Smith's passing game. The 49ers won eight games while scoring 25 points or fewer this season. They allowed 1,655 yards and 130 points less during the season than the Packers surrendered. Yes, San Francisco did it the old-fashioned way, like teams did 40 years ago.
Then there is Denver, a team that squeaked into the AFC playoffs while losing three straight with its quarterback, Tim Tebow, being a 45-percent passer over his final four starts. He committed seven turnovers during the losing streak.
There could be some wild playoff situations in the next few weeks, because so many of the teams have radical styles like great offense and horrible defense or great defense with a so-so passing game like Baltimore employs.
But for the most part, the playoffs should mirror the wild passing and scoring of the regular season. May the best quarterback win, so to speak.
SATURDAY'S WILD-CARD GAMES
Cincinnati at Houston, 4:30 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This might be an ugly offensive game, considering it's the first time two rookie starting quarterbacks — and both are ailing — have faced each other in the playoffs since the 1970 merger. Houston's T.J. Yates rallied his team for a one-point win in Cincinnati in Week 14, but now he has a separated left shoulder, one that can't absorb a lot of hits. Veteran Jake Delhomme is the backup. His Bengals counterpart, Andy Dalton, was so sick with the flu this week he missed the bulk of two practices and needed to be hospitalized.
Both teams want to generate a running game, but the Bengals limited Arian Foster to 41 yards on 15 carries in that December game and are capable of repeating that performance. Foster, though, has scored an NFL-high 30 touchdowns over the last two seasons. If the Bengals can limit Foster, expect Yates to roll out and look for WR Andre Johnson as much as possible. Johnson, who has had hamstring woes all season, is jacked up for the playoffs and the Bengals need to jam him at the line of scrimmage.
Yates also has two reliable tight ends in Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen, who combined for nine TD receptions. The Texans had 44 sacks on the season, so look for them to come with a varied blitz plan in order to rattle Dalton as much as possible and take away his deep ball to rookie WR A.J. Green. Dalton is very accurate deep, plus he has alternate weapons in WR Jerome Simpson and TE Jermaine Gresham. Dalton will attack LCB Kareem Jackson.
CZAR'S SCOOP: You can bet that Bengals owner Mike Brown will receive a lot of votes for Executive of the Year after many positive 2011 decisions. First, he kept coach Marvin Lewis, who is in his ninth season and coached the NFL's third-youngest team to the playoffs. After sitting on QB holdout Carson Palmer, Brown traded him to the Raiders for first- and second-round draft choices, plus the draft selections of Green and Dalton have given the franchise two solid building blocks. ... Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will coach from the press box. Phillips, who will be coaching in his 26th career playoff game, is still recovering from kidney and gall bladder surgery. This is his second game back. ... This is Houston's first playoff game since Jan. 16, 1994, when the Oilers lost to Kansas City and Joe Montana, who passed for three touchdowns. The Bengals have lost their last three playoff appearances while Houston averaged only 17 points during their three-game losing streak at the end of the season.
Detroit at New Orleans, 8 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints beat the Lions — who are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 — by two touchdowns on Dec. 4, and the only way Detroit can turn the tables is to limit Drew Brees' opportunities and also create some turnovers.
Even though Brees has thrown 14 TD passes in his last three starts, he's also been intercepted three times over his last two — plus Brees was picked two or more times in five games this season. Detroit's nickel defense should be improved with the return of safety Louis Delmas and CB Aaron Berry, and that means the defense will have the same starting roster Saturday as it had in Week 1.
No defensive coordinator blitzes more than New Orleans' Gregg Williams (51 percent on all drop backs), but he only blitzed Matthew Stafford 40 percent of the time in Week 13 and his defense collected two sacks and an interception. Stafford can expect more of the same because the Saints are worried about WR Calvin Johnson, who rested his sore Achilles' again during the week. But Johnson did have 244 receiving yards against the Packers in a game with the same injury.
Despite the loss of former Heisman winner Mark Ingram, the Saints still have a potent running attack in multi-faceted Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. The Saints have averaged 4.9 yards a carry, while no NFL team ran less than the Lions this season. This is why Stafford prefers a two tight-end look with RB Kevin Smith and two receivers. Despite the absence of WR Lance Moore, Brees still has his main weapons — Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham — plus Marques Colston to stretch the field. It's imperative for the Lions not to miss any tackles in order to prevent big gains. Graham and Sproles combined for 18 receptions and caught 18 of Brees' 46 touchdown passes.
CZAR'S SCOOP: One thing to remember is that Stafford threw nine of his 14 interceptions when he was dealing with a broken index finger and wearing a glove on this throwing hand. ... San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh upset some of the Lions when he said on a radio show that his team was spending a "greater share" of their preparation work on the Saints for next Saturday's divisional playoff game. Besides, if the Lions win, they'll be traveling to Green Bay. ... The Saints will have a busy offseason. Besides getting Brees to agree to a long-term contract, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks — who played for $2.61 million this season — and receivers Colston and Robert Meachem are unrestricted free agents. Nicks and Colston will have big value on the open market. ... The Lions want to re-sign LB Stephen Tulloch and backup quarterback Shaun Hill, but pass rusher Cliff Avril, who led the Lions in sacks with 11, will command big money on the open market. ... Lions RB Kevin Smith and TE Tony Scheffler collided during separate passing drills during Wednesday's practice and Smith was particularly dazed.