By Don Banks
January 08, 2012

DENVER -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a wild-card weekend in the NFL that obviously saved the best for last, Denver's stunning Tebow-led overtime upset of Pittsburgh at a delirious Sports Authority Field...

• In Atlanta, coming up short is getting to be the Falcons' specialty. Whether it's 4th-and-1 or another playoff appearance prematurely done, the Falcons can't quite get there, can they? And this one was the worst failure of all, a 24-2 first-round postseason debacle against a gritty New York Giants team that became the first NFC East champ to not win at least 10 games.

This isn't what Atlanta bargained for when it boldly traded up for the chance to draft receiver Julio Jones in the top 10 of last April's first round and then paid handsomely to sign defensive end Ray Edwards in free agency. The Falcons were aiming high and looking to finally erase the goose egg from their playoff win column. But now this, a 22-point playoff rout on the road, dropping the tandem of Falcons head coach Mike Smith and starting quarterback Matt Ryan to 0-3 in the postseason over their four-year tenure in Atlanta.

So close, and yet so far should be the title of the 2011 Falcons highlight film, because the loss to the Giants turned on a pair of 4th-and-inches calls that Smith went for, with Ryan being stuffed for no gain both times -- once at the New York 24 on the first play of the second quarter, and even more disastrously at the Giants 21 with 4:16 remaining in the third quarter and New York leading 10-2.

Atlanta (10-7) eschewed makeable field goal attempts in both situations, and paid for its displays of daring. Three plays after Ryan's second no gain -- where was powerful running back Michael Turner in those situations? -- the Giants (10-7) broke the game open for good on a 72-yard Eli Manning-to-Hakeem Nicks touchdown pass, taking a 17-2 lead over the dispirited Falcons.

When you factor in the controversial 4th-and-1 call that Smith went for and missed in Atlanta territory in overtime of his team's Week 10's home loss to New Orleans, a defeat that wound up costing the Falcons any shot at winning the NFC South, the theme of Atlanta's disappointing season is clear. The Falcons hoped the acquisition of Jones would help transform their offense into an explosive force, but instead it was the collective distance of about one foot that wound up keeping them from where they wanted to go in 2011.

The pressure will now really bear down on Smith and Ryan next season. I don't think either is in jeopardy of being replaced in Atlanta, but eventually the blame for the Falcons' inability to take the next step will be assigned, and a team's head coach and quarterback are always the first two figures in the firing line. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank is fairly patient, but with the size of the financial investment he has made, and the level of expectation that existed in Atlanta this season, Sunday's playoff blowout will have ramifications of some sort. Count on it.

As deflating as Atlanta's fourth-down failures were, they only underlined the Falcons' offensive struggles against the Giants. Atlanta's so-called Ferrari offense sputtered and stalled all day long, gaining just 247 yards overall, going a combined 4 of 17 on third and fourth downs.

The Falcons' on-again, off-again identity crisis on offense returned at the most inopportune time Sunday, with Atlanta looking neither like a power running team (just 64 yards on 21 carries, for a 3.0 average, with all those short-yardage issues) or a stretch-the-field passing-first attack (183 net yards passing on 24 of 41 attempts, a meager 4.3 average gain per pass play). As for Atlanta's offensive line, it got manhandled by a Giants defensive line that got stronger as the game went on.

So the Falcons' playoff drought continues, with Atlanta last winning in the postseason in 2004 under rookie head coach Jim Mora. Atlanta rolled the dice big-time last offseason on the personnel front, but came up short once again in 2011. The Falcons remain a good, but far from great team, and Sunday's loss makes us reconsider how close they really are to true Super Bowl contention. On that front in Atlanta, it's anything but 4th-and-short.

• You know the Giants won't be intimidated going into Lambeau Field Sunday to take on the No. 1 seeded Packers (15-1). New York knows it can play with the Packers, having lost only 38-35 to them in Week 13 at MetLife Stadium, holding the lead inside of the final minute before Aaron Rodgers and Co. mounted a comeback. And then there's the little memory of having gone into Lambeau to win the 2007 NFC title game in overtime, in the most recent Packers home playoff game before this week's.

But history aside, the best news for New York is that its defensive front and running game appear to be playing the best ball of the season, and that has always been a huge part of any Giants blueprint to playoff success. New York dominated the Falcons up front, stuffing the Atlanta game and making life miserable for quarterback Ryan. The Giants ranked last in the NFL in rushing this season with just 89.2 yards per game, but against the Falcons they rumbled for a season-best 172 yards on 31 carries (5.5), led by Brandon Jacobs' 92-yard showing.

Throw in another strong performance by Giants quarterback Eli Manning (277 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions), who's having his career-best year, and New York suddenly looks formidable after an ultra inconsistent regular season. The Giants match up well against the Packers, and the Packers know it.

Maybe those 2007 comparisons in New York aren't so far-fetched after all.

• So much for the wisdom of the Steelers daring Tim Tebow to beat them with his passing arm. Tebow did just that, carving up the NFL's No. 1-ranked pass defense in a remarkable and critical second quarter in Denver.

Tebow went 0 of 2 in the first quarter, then caught fire in the next 15 minutes, completing five of his nine passes in the quarter, for a staggering 185 yards. That's 37 yards per completion, and Tebow had connections of 58, 51, 40 and 30 yards in that streak -- all against a defense that had given up an NFL-best two completions of 40 yards or more in the regular season.

And try wrapping your mind around this stat: The Steelers entered the game allowing just 171.9 passing yards per game, but Tebow threw for more than that in his 185-yard second quarter alone.

• The Broncos' win means for a second consecutive first round of the playoffs, a division champ with four fewer regular-season wins than its wild-card visitor has pulled a shocking upset. It's sure to re-ignite the debate of whether the NFL should grant an automatic home game to any team winning its division, even if its record is far worse than a wild-card team.

Last year, the 11-5 wild-card qualifying Saints were the No. 5 seed in the NFC, making them play at No. 4 NFC West champion Seattle (7-9) in the first round. The Seahawks won 41-36, despite being a 10-point home underdog.

This year it was Pittsburgh's turn to be heavily favored and yet on the short end of the homefield advantage issue. The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season, but finished as the AFC's No. 5 seed because Baltimore (12-4) won the AFC North via its two-game series sweep of Pittsburgh. Denver went 8-8, lost its final three games in the regular season and still won the AFC West via tiebreakers over Oakland and San Diego (each went 8-8). Thus, the Broncos got the home game in the first round, and the Steelers hit the road.

• Home teams went 4-0 over the weekend, with the Texans, Saints, Giants and Broncos all advancing into the divisional round. The last time that happened was 2000, when Baltimore, Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans all earned first-round home wins and survived into the league's elite eight. None of those teams -- except the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens -- won the following week and made their conference title games.

• Lions head coach Jim Schwartz saw the same game I saw Saturday night in the Superdome. Detroit probably needed to play a near flawless game to have a shot to upset the Saints, but the Lions did themselves no favors whatsoever with three dropped interceptions, shoddy tackling, and allowing New Orleans to convert three fourth-down situations. Those were signs of a young team not yet quite up to the task of playing in the postseason spotlight.

I love a lot of what Detroit now has in place and we should see the Lions in the playoffs several more times in the coming years, but Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham have to get some help for safety Louis Delmas in the secondary. Detroit gave up an NFL playoff record 626 yards of offense to the Saints, with Brees throwing for 466 of those yards, with three touchdowns on 33 of 43 passing. When you put that together with the Lions' slugfest 45-41 loss to the Packers last week, Detroit's D surrendered an almost unfathomable 90 points and 1,176 yards in running the deadly gauntlet of at Green Bay and at New Orleans.

Yes, the Packers and Saints offenses are state of the art in the NFL. But that's ridiculous. The pass defense has to get fixed in Detroit.

• The Lions defense allowed the Saints to score 35 of their 45 points in the second half, and simply didn't take away any of New Orleans' many playmakers. Brees got everyone involved in the attack, with three Saints running backs gaining at least 47 yards or more (167 yards rushing for the team) and eight New Orleans pass-catchers doing their thing, seven of them with multiple receptions.

New Orleans never punted, and Brees' 466 yards passing was the most ever in an NFL playoff game that didn't go to overtime. The Saints scored on their first five possessions of the second half and ran a whopping 81 offensive snaps in the game.

But now comes a test at San Francisco, which features easily the best defense the Saints have faced this season. I'm not buying the notion that New Orleans' offense won't translate well outdoors, but if it is a slow or slippery field at Candlestick Park on Saturday, the video-game quality that the Saints offense attains in the Superdome isn't going to be possible. And don't forget that San Francisco led the league in takeaways this season, so New Orleans needs to re-emphasize ball security after losing a pair of fumbles against the Lions (after setting a league record with just six fumbles lost all season).

• The Lions weren't the only road underdogs on Saturday who can blame missed opportunities for their defeat. The Bengals had some chances at Houston in the first half, but didn't maximize them and effectively take the crowd out of the game at Reliant Stadium.

Cincinnati just couldn't overcome that game-turning play produced by Texans rookie defensive end J.J. Watt, who looked every bit the one-time Central Michigan tight end when he went up and plucked Andy Dalton's pass out of the air and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute before the half, giving Houston a 17-10 it would never relinquish.

I watched Watt play his last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, where he pulled off some amazingly athletic moves as a pass-rusher, but there's not three other NFL defensive ends who could have executed that picture-perfect interception against the Bengals. Houston's first-round pick in 2011, Watt paid huge dividends in the franchise's biggest game ever.

• Well, I suppose you could say Pacman Jones made it "rain'' footballs for a change. At least after watching him get toasted for that 40-yard, third-quarter touchdown bomb on a double move by Texans receiver Andre Johnson.

• Between Bengals safety Chris Crocker and Lions cornerback Aaron Berry, Saturday's wild-card losers featured a couple of defensive backs who dropped two of the easiest and potentially game-turning interceptions you'll ever see.

At least Crocker owned up to his flub in the postgame. Berry just took to Twitter to rip any and all of his critics, telling them they could go back to being "broke and miserable'' now. Apparently Berry can drop the ball in almost any setting.

• Kind of a quiet night for Ndamukong Suh against the Saints. The Lions second-year defensive tackle had just a half-sack and three assisted tackles on the stat sheet. Not to mention that Detroit couldn't stop the New Orleans running game, which rumbled for 167 yards, with Pierre Thomas breaking tackles left and right in the process.

All and all, we did not see anywhere near the same level of impact out of Suh this season (4.5 sacks in 15 total games, playoffs included) as we did in his monster 10-sack rookie year of 2010. I put him on my all-underachievement team at midseason and drew some flak for that move, but that choice is looking pretty solid in the span of time.

• A penny for A.J. Smith's thoughts as he watched the Saints demolish the Lions Saturday night in the Superdome thanks once again to the ridiculous contributions of former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees and former Chargers running back/return man Darren Sproles.

What exactly did Smith decide he didn't like about Sproles' playmaking skills any more, electing to let him go via free agency last offseason, and when will Smith's decision to go with Philip Rivers over Brees at quarterback in 2006 rightly go down as one of the worst personnel calls in league history?

Rivers is supremely talented, but Brees is playing at a record-breaking elite level in recent years, and has a Super Bowl ring on his finger. Until Rivers matches that piece of jewelry in San Diego, it's not even a debate regarding's Smith's faulty judgment.

• It's going to be fun to see how fast always-cocky Raiders head coach Hue Jackson changes his Alexander Haig-like "I'm in charge here'' act now that Oakland has hired long-time Packers front office executive Reggie McKenzie as its new general manager.

McKenzie may wind up retaining Jackson despite this year's disappointing late-season meltdown in Oakland, but the power grab phase of Jackson's tenure is clearly over. He's the head coach, and that's the extent of his jurisdiction. Credit should go to team owner Mark Davis for listening to the likes of Ron Wolf and John Madden and hiring McKenzie to front the team's operation, rather than paying any attention to Jackson's pleas for increased authority.

As we learned this season, Jackson talks a big game, but until he delivers the playoff berth that was easily within Oakland's grasp, he's just another Raiders head coach trying to turn around one of the least successful franchises in recent NFL history.

• Wow, listening to Mark Sanchez get beat up far and wide this past week made me wonder how long until someone reports that the third-year Jets quarterback was seen drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the New York locker room -- but only on days between starts.

Hell hath no fury like the scorned fans/media contingent of a supposed playoff-bound club. And I remember the days when an 8-8 finish was cause for celebration among the Jets faithful.

• Good to see Donovan McNabb waking up and smelling the coffee Sunday morning, and doing it from the ESPN NFL Countdown set in Bristol. Given up on by three teams in the past 20 months or so, it's about time the former Eagles, Redskins and Vikings quarterback made the pivot to a TV career. At least nobody's going to pick apart his conditioning or his ability to grasp the gameplan in ESPN-land.

• Looking ahead to Saturday's Saints-49ers glamour NFC divisional-round pairing in San Francisco, get ready to hear more than a little bit about the teams' somewhat testy meeting in New Orleans in Week 1 of the preseason, when Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams surprised the 49ers and rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh by calling for a bevy of first-half blitzes -- which is not routinely done in the relatively meaningless environment of the preseason.

The reason, in case you've forgotten, was a curious one. According to Saints radio announcer Jim Henderson, New Orleans came after 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and Co. because Harbaugh failed to contact Saints head coach Sean Payton the week of the game to discuss how the game would be approached in terms of blitzing. The result was Williams called 18 blitzes in the first half, sacking the 49ers quarterbacks five times and forcing two fumbles in the 24-3 New Orleans win.

"From what I heard from some people, Sean Payton sort of expected Harbaugh to call him throughout the week and kind of figure out a gentlemen's agreement as to how the game would be played,'' Henderson was reported to have said. "When that didn't occur, Sean just said to Gregg, 'Let the dogs out.' And they did.''

That should add a little spice to Saints-49ers, and I'm pretty sure Payton and Harbaugh won't be talking on the phone this week either.

• It's a bit of a stretch to call the Saints-49ers a true rematch, but the rest of the divisional round will feature rematches from the regular season. Houston lost 29-14 at Baltimore in Week 6, New England beat Denver on the road 41-23 in Week 15 and the Giants lost narrowly, 38-35, at home to Green Bay in Week 13. But with the exception of the Saints at 49ers, I like all the home teams next weekend.

• Quirky little statistic in advance of the Patriots' playoff opener Saturday night against Denver in the AFC divisional round: New England somehow did not defeat a team this season that finished with a winning record. Remarkably, the Patriots beat six teams that wound up 8-8, including two wins over the Jets. Other New England wins over .500 teams came against San Diego, Oakland, Dallas, Philadelphia and Denver.

Of the Patriots' three losses, two came against teams that finished with winning records: Pittsburgh (12-4) and the Giants (9-7).

• They'll never admit it in Houston, but the Texans' first-round playoff win at home against Cincinnati validates their entire season to a great degree. It's all gravy from here on out in Houston.

That said, you have to give the Texans a decent shot next week against the Ravens, even if Baltimore went 8-0 at home this season, beat Houston by 15 at home in Week 6, and is 5-0 against the Texans all-time. The teams have a lot of similarities, led as they are by their top-five-ranked 3-4 defenses, their deep and productive running games (Arian Foster and Ben Tate for Houston; Ray Rice and Ricky Williams for Baltimore) and their quarterbacks who are not necessarily asked to carry too much of the offensive burden in every game (T.J. Yates and Joe Flacco).

• Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips already has been part of as many playoff victories with the Texans (one) as he was during his 3 1/2-year head coaching stint in Dallas. The Cowboys went 1-2 in the postseason under Phillips, losing their opener to the Giants as the NFC's No. 1 seed in 2007, before beating Philadelphia and then losing at Minnesota in 2009.

That's got to frost Jerry Jones's hind quarters a bit, I would think.

• The rest of the NFL playoff field must be ecstatic that New Orleans took care of the Lions and sent Calvin Johnson home for the rest of the festivities. Johnson is the most dominant force in the game at his position, and has been virtually uncoverable in recent weeks.

Johnson had 12 catches for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Saints, after posting 11 receptions for 244 yards and one score in Detroit's Week 17 loss at Green Bay. Johnson and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford are simply the most potent passer-receiver tandem in today's NFL, Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski and Drew Brees-Jimmy Graham included.

• It always bores me when players fall back on the old tried and true, 'Nobody believed in us' routine. Lions center Dominic Raiola went that route after the loss in New Orleans, saying he was stunned by Detroit's one-and-done playoff appearance.

"I feel good about what we have coming back, but this is a hard one to swallow right now,'' Raiola said. "Yeah, it was a successful season, I think. I don't think anyone predicted us to go to the playoffs.''

Um, yeah, someone did. I had the Lions winning the NFC's second wild-card berth in my preseason picks, and I was far from the only one to make that call among SI's NFL experts. And when Detroit was 2-9 last season, I wrote that Jim Schwartz's team would finish strong in 2010 and parlay that into turnaround team status in 2011.

Just give it a Google, Dom, and see for yourself. There were those of us who believed a playoff trip was possible for the Lions this season. Maybe not many. But a few.

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