Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap our brains around the new realities that the divisional playoffs have wrought: The Giants and 49ers move on, and the Packers and Saints don't. There's nothing like the plot twists you get in the NFL's postseason....
• Here's maybe the most astounding thing about the New York Giants knocking off the top-seeded Green Bay Packers 37-20 in Sunday's stunning conclusion to NFL Divisional Round weekend: Twice now in the span of five seasons the Giants have done the unthinkable, beating both the 18-0 juggernaut that was the 2007 Patriots and the 15-1 machine-like Packers of 2011. No other team but Tom Coughlin's gritty, gutty Giants can claim two such monumental and unprecedented upsets in NFL history.
New England, of course, was the first 18-0 team in history when the Giants knocked them off 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII, considered one of the NFL's two most celebrated upsets of all time, along with Jets over Colts in Super Bowl III. And then came Sunday's monstrous upset, making Green Bay the first 15-1 team to ever get beaten in its playoff opener.
Put them together and the Giants' twin feats are made even more mind-boggling by the fact that New York went a modest 10-6 in 2007, earning only a wild-card berth, and an even more lowly 9-7 this season, winning a weak NFC East to get into the playoffs. And from such humble origins sprang two of the greatest upsets in NFL history.
If you were already weary of reading about the similarities between this year's Giants and the surprise Super Bowl champions of 2007, you haven't heard anything yet. Get ready for a whole new wave of 2007 retrospectives, because it's unavoidable. Just like they did four years ago, the Giants seemingly got their spark this season when they narrowly lost to the league's supposedly best team late in the year. That 38-35 defeat at the hands of Green Bay in Week 13 at MetLife Stadium served the same purpose as New York's 38-35 "moral victory of a loss'' to visiting New England in Week 17 of 2007.
Remarkably, these Giants are traveling the same basic path as the 2007 champs, and while they won't be favored to win in next Sunday night's NFC Championship Game at No. 2-seeded San Francisco (14-3), how could anyone who's paying attention possibly discount their chances? We really have seen this movie, and have a pretty good idea of how it ends.
• I think we can score another one for the impact of rust over rest in terms of the Packers' shocking meltdown against the Giants. Any way you cut it, the NFC's top seed looked like it lost its mojo while taking its first-round playoff bye last week. The Packers dropped eight passes, lost three fumbles and tackled sloppily all day long. In stark juxtaposition, the Giants, who played last week and had virtual back-to-back playoff-type games in Weeks 16 and 17, were sharp in terms of their execution. They were more physical than the Packers, and they dictated the momentum and flow of the game.
The NFC top seed again proved to not be worth the trouble it takes to win it. This was the fourth time in the past five seasons that the NFC's No. 1 seed lost in the divisional round, after earning a first-round bye. That list includes the 2007 Cowboys, the 2008 Giants, the 2010 Falcons and now the 2011 Packers. Only the 2009 Saints, who won the Super Bowl, bucked that trend.
• Maybe it's high time we all admit Eli Manning was right and everyone else was wrong when he called himself a top-five quarterback last offseason. Manning was fantastic against Green Bay, picking apart the porous Packers pass defense en route to finishing with 330 yards and three touchdowns and just one interception in completing 21 of 33.
Manning is supremely confident at this point in his career, and he keeps firing, even if he doesn't start off a game as strongly as he would like. The Giants would never have made the playoffs this season without Manning's career year, but now that New York's defense is on a roll, and its 32nd-ranked running game is making significant contributions each week, Manning doesn't have to do it all the way he did for most of 2011.
• Only the loss by the vaunted Packers kept the NFL from seeing the home teams go 8-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs for the first time since the league expanded the postseason to 12 teams and started seeding the field in 1990.
Green Bay was the most unlikely loser in the divisional round, given that it had won 19 consecutive home games, dating to an October 2010 loss to Miami at Lambeau Field. (Green Bay saw its overall 19-game winning streak ended at Kansas City in Week 15 -- which was its only loss of the regular season.)
The four home teams in the divisional round have not all survived unscathed in the same year since 2004, when Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NFC and Pittsburgh and New England in the AFC made good use of their No. 1 and 2 seeds and first-round byes.
• We talked about a Saints-Packers rematch in the NFC title game all season long -- I even voiced the opinion that it would be the "real'' Super Bowl this season -- so naturally it's the Giants and 49ers who will be having the rematch next Sunday night in San Francisco. The Giants were 6-2 and coming off their huge upset of New England when they played and lost in San Francisco in Week 10, which started a four-game losing streak for New York.
• Just wondering, but with Aaron Rodgers playing a somewhat sub-par game and Green Bay losing big to the Giants at Lambeau in the postseason, is Brett Favre off the hook to a certain degree for his 2007 NFC title game showing against New York? I mean, at least Favre got the Packers into overtime against the visiting Giants, before his interception to Corey Webster turned the game New York's way.
• The years come and go, but the story really never seems to change in Baltimore: The Ravens win with defense, and make the best of it on offense. Baltimore survived at home against Houston on Sunday, and that's the name of the game in the NFL playoffs: Win and move on. But it's going to take a far better offensive effort than the unimpressive one we just saw for the Ravens to get out of Foxboro alive in the AFC Championship Game.
Three points in the final three quarters just won't cut it against the high-octane Patriots. Baltimore raced to a 17-3 first-quarter lead against Houston, taking advantage of two costly Texans turnovers, and then got very little accomplished the rest of the game.
The Ravens gained just 227 yards of offense, produced a mere 11 first downs, and couldn't put together a scoring drive of longer than 45 yards. From the start of the second quarter until inside of three minutes remaining, Baltimore went seven consecutive possessions without scoring, the most glaring of which was its failure to punch it in on 4th-and-goal from the half-yard line late in the third quarter.
There's no way the Ravens will match scores with Tom Brady and Co. if they can't get more out of Flacco and the passing game in New England. Flacco picked the wrong time to speak up on his own behalf last week, because he's had perhaps the least impressive season so far of his four-year NFL career. For much of the game against Houston he looked painfully slow in his decision-making and struggled against the intensity of the Texans' pass rush. Houston sacked him five times, and Flacco isn't adept at getting rid of the ball quickly or accurately when he's under pressure.
The best part of Flacco's game was his ball security: He threw no interceptions and fumbled only once, which Baltimore was fortunate to recover. But his meager 14 of 27 passing for 176 yards paled in comparison to the production turned in this weekend by his fellow playoff quarterbacks like Brady, Alex Smith and Drew Brees. Even Baltimore's Ray Rice-led running game didn't pull its share of the weight against Houston, gaining just 87 yards on 31 rushes, a paltry 2.8-yard average.
The Ravens won big in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium just two years ago, upsetting the Patriots in the first round. But they'll need much more from Flacco, Rice and their receiving corps if they're to have any chance to pull a repeat. It's one thing to rely on Baltimore's defense against the likes of Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, but that same approach likely won't be enough to get it done against New England's offense. As the Patriots proved in the first half of their win over Denver Saturday night, they can score so fast and so often that a defense appears to be just hanging on for dear life.
• Houston's defense has a ridiculously bright future with rookies like defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed to build around, and don't forget the Texans get a healthy Mario Williams back and ready to resume his impact play from outside linebacker in 2012.
Watt and Reed had 2.5 sacks each of Flacco, and their emergence in Houston's two-game postseason run makes you think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of their potential to wreck havoc. If the Texans can indeed keep defensive coordinator Wade Phillips around for another few seasons, there should be more playoff runs to come in Houston.
• If the Texans (11-7) had taken care of the ball better, they could have beaten Baltimore and kept their storybook season going for at least another week. But four turnovers doomed Houston's chances. In reality, Yates threw three interceptions, but easily could have had a couple more if not for drops by the Ravens.
But in terms of the big picture, it was all gravy for Houston after last week's win over Cincinnati in the franchise's first postseason game ever. The Texans accomplished plenty this season, winning its division and a playoff game despite having to deal with the season-ending loss of its top two quarterbacks in November. You can't be unhappy or unimpressed with how far Houston wound up going despite having to rely on a rookie quarterback who started the year as the No. 3 guy on the depth chart.
• I don't know how you had it scored, but I'll take Ravens receiver Lee Evans' third-down, one-handed grab with Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson draped all over him slightly ahead of the third-down, one-handed catch turned in by Houston running back Arian Foster earlier in the game.
But they were both things of beauty.
• I know it was only against Denver, with the on-again, off-again struggles of Tim Tebow and the Broncos passing game, but where has that New England defense been all season? It has been a while since we've seen an effort like that out of the Patriots' 31st-ranked defense: New England allowed just 10 points, sacked Tebow five times and turned in a whopping 14 negative plays.
These Patriots aren't going to morph into the 1985 Bears on defense any time soon, but they are at least healthier than they've been for months and finally have some of their depth back. The return of injured safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes has noticeably helped New England's defense, and the Patriots are at least playing their best on that side of the ball at the perfect time of the year.
• After all that has been said and written regarding Tebow's future starting viability in Denver, Saturday night's fiasco in Foxboro underlined one inescapable conclusion: The Broncos offense as it's currently constructed can't play from behind with a deficit of more than two scores, and even that may be giving it too much credit.
In the pass-first NFL, you need a quarterback who can play catch-up ball, and do it in a hurry. Just think of the difference that Matthew Stafford's comeback skills meant to Detroit's 2011 season. More than anything, that's the part of Denver's Tebow experiment that still doesn't lend itself to being a successful long-term proposition.
• The 49ers' epic upset of New Orleans on Saturday somehow was the first time all season that I had seen them play in person, and what a revelation in terms of San Francisco's defense.
The 49ers defenders are all solid tacklers who will lower their shoulders and hit, and still manage to wrap up the ball-carrier almost every time. And no one tackles in the NFL any more, with every game replete with defenders who whiff regularly or arm tackles almost exclusively (see the Packers against the Giants on Sunday).
But not these 49ers. They are physical, never seem to be caught back on their heels, and run to the ball, almost always knocking the ball-carrier backward in the process. Nobody ever seems to get an extra three or four yards once a San Francisco defender arrives. The 49ers punished Drew Brees and the Saints repeatedly, and never seemed to tire in regards to their physical style of play.
I voted for Terrell Suggs as NFL Defensive Player of the Year on my AP ballot at the close of the regular season, but if I had it to do over again, I might go with 49ers defensive end-tackle Justin Smith. He was simply dominating against a Saints offensive line that is considered the best in the league, and linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith weren't too shabby either against New Orleans.
Consider this: New Orleans went scoreless in only five of its 64 regular-season quarters this year, but the 49ers defense blanked them in both the first and the third quarters on Saturday.
• And while I'm at it, that 49ers offense is way better than we thought it was. The Saints certainly didn't know San Francisco had that kind of quick-strike firepower. The 49ers were supposedly not in the same class offensively as teams like the Saints and Packers, but they can score with anyone when Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore have it going.
• The NFL playoffs are down to its final four, but we've still got the same number of Harbaughs as we started the tournament with. Once again, Jim's and John's sibling rivalry seemingly extends to everything. The coaching brothers compete in everything, and now they've both got their No. 2-seeded teams to a conference title game, on the strength of home wins that were a long time coming.
San Francisco hadn't won a playoff game at home since 2002's first round, and Baltimore had waited even longer, with its last home win in the postseason coming on New Year's Eve of 2000, also in the first round.
• You knew the Saints-49ers thriller was playoff drama at its best, but here's how rare that fantastic finish was: According to STATS LLC, the 49ers were the first team in NFL history to tally two lead-changing touchdowns in the final three minutes to win a playoff game.
Calling it an instant classic doesn't even seem to do it justice.
• Forget about fixing Tebow's troubles in Denver, what about the upgrade the Broncos defense could use? Denver got torched for 40 points or more three times in its last five games, and the Broncos secondary is the league's oldest. I would expect John Elway to make Denver's draft heavy on the defensive side in late April. The unit that carried the Broncos for much of the season did not end the year on a high note.
• The Giants-49ers NFC title-game matchup certainly isn't the one we expected, but it will be an intriguing showdown between the quarterback picked first overall in 2004 (Eli Manning) and the quarterback picked first overall in 2005 (Alex Smith).
And we thought we were going to get Smith versus Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, which would have pitted passers who both went in the first round in 2005, and were in contention for the No. 1 spot for most of the months-long pre-draft buildup. Rodgers went 24th overall to Green Bay, but after growing up a 49ers fan in northern California, he couldn't have been happy that San Francisco and then 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy passed on him in favor of Smith.
• NFL commissioner Roger Goodell Sunday said the league will investigate having as many as 10 full-time game officials in the near future, and that's a move that's long overdue. The goal is to have games officiated more consistently, Goodell said, and perhaps moving away from employing part-time officials will improve the quality of their performance.
Ironically, Goodell said all this in Baltimore, just hours before referee Bill Leavy's crew blew a crucial call in the Giants-Packers playoff game. Packers receiver Greg Jennings clearly fumbled after making a catch in the first quarter, and ultimately Leavy didn't reverse the non-fumble call on replay review, even though the sight of the ball coming loose before Jennings was down seemed obvious. The Packers went on to score a touchdown on that drive, tying the game at 10-10 early in the second quarter.
I don't know if having some full-time refs will make a difference or not. But it certainly can't hurt, and might help.
• That wasn't exactly a great resume-brandishing performance for Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on Saturday in San Francisco, if he indeed is headed to St. Louis to join the staff of new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. New Orleans' defense played superbly in the middle two quarters of the game, but the Saints secondary did nothing to distinguish itself in the final frantic moments, when the 49ers orchestrated two long go-ahead touchdown drives.