Those roads that wind through Foxborough and Green Bay on the path to Super Bowl XLVI?
They’re actually speedways.
The New England Patriots landed the No. 1 AFC’s playoff seed Sunday with a 49-21 home win over Buffalo. Green Bay, which had already secured that NFC standing in Week 16, was involved in its own wild postseason dress rehearsal: a 45-41 victory against visiting Detroit.
Those outcomes reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the conference Super Bowl favorites. Both teams have scored gobs of points while standouts such as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski set NFL records along the way. However, every bit of offense is likely needed in the postseason because the Patriots and Packers field the NFL’s 31st- and 32nd-ranked defenses, respectively.
Like against Miami last weekend, New England (13-3) needed a major comeback Sunday to best a non-playoff opponent. The Patriots trailed Buffalo 21-0 before rebounding with seven unanswered touchdowns.
While that speaks well of the Tom Brady-led offense, New England may not be able to weather another slow start in the playoffs when facing better teams. The Patriots have lost in the first round the past two seasons.
The Packers (15-1) enter the postseason having just surrendered 520 passing yards and five touchdowns to Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford at Lambeau Field. But while not nearly as dominant as during last year’s postseason run, Green Bay’s defense did lead the NFL with 31 interceptions.
The last-minute loss to Green Bay combined with Atlanta’s 45-24 home rout of Tampa Bay relegated Detroit (10-6) to the NFC’s No. 6 seed and a first-round playoff game against an offense even more prolific than the one fielded by the Packers and Patriots. New Orleans set an NFL single-season record with 7,081 yards during Sunday’s 45-17 thumping of Carolina.
That romp, though, wasn’t enough to lift New Orleans (13-3) into the No. 2 playoff seed. Because of a better conference record, San Francisco (13-3) now has the luxury of a bye and second-round home game by virtue of Sunday’s 34-27 victory at St. Louis.
The Falcons (10-6) will play at the New York Giants (9-7), who defeated the Dallas Cowboys 31-14 on Sunday night to win the NFC East.
Two AFC division winners (Baltimore and Denver) and both wild cards (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) were finalized Sunday. The Ravens (12-4) clinched the AFC North with a 24-16 victory at Cincinnati, relegating the Steelers (12-4) to wild-card status. Baltimore won the head-to-head tiebreaker because of a regular-season sweep of Pittsburgh.
The Bengals (9-7) qualified as the No. 6 seed after the Broncos lost 7-3 to visiting Kansas City. The Jets (8-8) were eliminated earlier Sunday after a 19-17 loss at Miami.
The Raiders (8-8) would have won the AFC West with a victory over San Diego but suffered a 38-26 home defeat. Denver (8-8) held the advantage over Oakland in the common-opponents tiebreaker.
Here is an early look at next weekend’s playoff matchups:
Detroit at New Orleans
Not only are they unbeaten at the Superdome, the Saints set a single-season NFL home scoring record with 329 points. New Orleans also has outscored the opposition by an average margin of 41-18. The Lions were one of the eight teams to fall with a 31-17 loss in Week 13.
Detroit has the offensive firepower to hang with the Saints but must do better defensively against red-hot quarterback Drew Brees than they fared Sunday against a backup making only his second career start. As Aaron Rodgers rested on the sideline, Packers backup Matt Flynn blistered Detroit for 460 yards and a franchise-record six touchdown passes.
Atlanta at N.Y. Giants
The day couldn’t have unfolded much better for the Falcons. Atlanta was able to rest starters early after taking a 42-0 lead midway through the second quarter (so long, Bucs coach Raheem Morris). And thanks to the Lions’ loss, the Falcons will now avoid a first-round rematch against New Orleans. The Saints swept Atlanta this season, including last Monday night’s 45-16 whipping at the Superdome.
That’s not to say that East Rutherford, N.J. is a desirable destination considering the Falcons’ results when playing outside and New York’s recently improved play. But even the forecast — temperatures in the low-to-mid 40s at kickoff under partly cloudy skies — is far better than what it could be for this time of year. The next key: Cooling down New York’s pass rush, quarterback Eli Manning and ultimate overachiever Victor Cruz, the undrafted-free-agent-turned-NFL-receiving-leader.
Cincinnati at Houston
The Texans were forced to field to their fourth quarterback of the season Sunday when Jake Delhomme replaced T.J. Yates, who was knocked out with a left shoulder injury. Yates — a rookie pressed into action because of injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart — is expected to face the Bengals. Yates orchestrated a 20-19 comeback victory at Cincinnati in Week 14 to clinch the first playoff appearance in Texans history.
The Bengals also start a rookie in Andy Dalton, whose quick development makes Cincinnati one of the playoff’s most surprising entries.
Pittsburgh at Denver
Tim Tebow’s slide continues. The Broncos quarterback was 6 of 22 passing for 60 yards with two turnovers in Sunday’s 7-3 loss to Kansas City. Next up are the Steelers, which field the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
While Tebow is being thrown to the wolves, Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t found its rhythm under Ben Roethlisberger since the quarterback suffered a sprained ankle in Week 14 against Cleveland. It won’t help if Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is likely out because of a knee injury suffered in Sunday’s 13-9 win over Cleveland.