The most extraordinary thing about the NFL’s first-round playoff games this year is that the presence of the Detroit Lions is not one of the most extraordinary things.
This weekend’s games include a duel between two quarterbacks who passed for 5,000 yards, neither of whom is the league’s Most Valuable Player and one of whom is not even a Pro Bowler. A 12-4 team from a great division is on the road against an 8-8 team from a terrible one. A division champion on a three-game losing streak faces a wild-card team that was 1-5 against opponents that finished with winning records.
Two playoff participants were outscored by their opponents for the season: the New York Giants by 6 points and the Denver Broncos by 81. Two of the teams have not won a playoff game in two decades. Another is in the playoffs for the first time.
Here is an early look at what to expect this weekend, though because almost nothing has happened as expected so far this season, it may be of dubious worth.
BENGALS AT TEXANS
Each team should get a participation trophy, the kind Little Leaguers throw away when they reach adolescence. The Cincinnati Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1990. The Houston Texans are in the playoffs for the first time, and fans in Houston have not seen a playoff win since 1991, when Warren Moon of the Oilers beat Ken O’Brien and the New York Jets. (Even when we go back in time 20 years, the Jets manage to lose.) The Detroit Lions last won a playoff game after the 1991 season, so there will be fans drinking beer in taverns this weekend who were drinking infant formula the last time any of these three cities were represented in the playoffs.
The race among the Tennessee Titans, the Jets, the Oakland Raiders, the Denver Broncos and the Bengals for the final AFC playoff spots was like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers trying to get a job by listing each other as character references. The Bengals pointed to their win over the Titans for credibility, the Titans to their win over the Broncos, the Broncos to their wins over the Raiders and the Jets, the Raiders to their win over the Jets, and the Jets to their ability to call more attention to themselves than anyone else. It was an M.C. Escher illusion, a stairway stacked on top of itself, and it collapsed in Week 17.
At one point, the Jets’ playoff hopes rested on Mark Sanchez and the Texans backup Jake Delhomme simultaneously playing well, which is like hoping that all of the planets in the solar system align and the resulting gravitational force generates some kind of megatidal wave. That did not happen, and the Titans were the only one of the five teams in question to win their final game, though the victory was irrelevant because of an early-season loss to the Bengals. Do not worry if you are confused; neither of these teams is going to reach the AFC championship game.
LIONS AT SAINTS
Lions games are like the coliseum uprising scenes in gladiator movies. There is mayhem, posturing, confusion and violence, some of it disturbing, some of it choreographed and slapstick. All that is missing is Ndamukong Suh overturning a chariot after recording a sack. Going 10-6 is probably akin to throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, so you can forgive the Lions’ over-exuberance, even if you cannot picture Matt Millen as Commodus.
The Lions’ 45-41 loss to the Green Bay Packers, while thrilling, contained some trademark moments of cartoon violence, including coach Jim Schwartz whirling his headset like nunchaku and bonking himself on the back while arguing a call. At one point, a confused Suh sacked the Packers backup Matt Flynn and celebrated by imitating Aaron Rodgers’ “wrestling belt” move.
In December, the New Orleans Saints beat the Lions, 31-17, while Suh was serving a two-game suspension for self-parody. Without Suh, the Lions committed only two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, one unnecessary roughness penalty and one face-mask penalty, in addition to various encroachments.
This game is Suh’s first appearance in the Superdome since he became a Chrysler pitchman who works for the Ford family and gets into auto accidents while driving a classic Chevrolet. The Superdome is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, naturally.
FALCONS AT GIANTS
The most frightening development of Week 17 for the Giants was Eli Manning’s new spin move. Perhaps he has been watching too much tape of Michael Vick, but Manning suddenly thinks he can evade pass rushers with his uncanny agility. Manning pirouettes like a rusty weather vane, and the effect is more mesmerizing than elusive. Cowboys pass rushers did freeze, transfixed as if watching a koala ride a turtle, so the ballet routine briefly worked in its counterintuitive way. The ultimate Giants offensive play would involve Manning spinning creakily out of harm’s way and flicking a 6-yard pass to Victor Cruz, who then runs so far that he ends by lighting the Olympic torch.
The Atlanta Falcons have replaced the Philadelphia Eagles as the intermittently impressive team destined to make the playoffs and lose each season. They defeated the Tampa Bay Empty Practice Facility (formerly the Buccaneers) on Sunday, but their blowout loss to the Saints the previous week demonstrated that they are not nearly as good when not facing an opponent that would have stayed on the charter bus if it kept it running with the heat on.
This may be Tony Gonzalez’s last chance to win a playoff game. Gonzalez has played 238 games and caught 1,149 passes, but he is 0-4 in the postseason. If he were a quarterback, Gonzalez would be unfairly criticized for his inability to win postseason games. But he is a tight end, so he is unfairly criticized for his blocking.
STEELERS AT BRONCOS
It turns out that completing four passes for 43 yards in the first 59 minutes of a game in the hope of inspiring a magical last-second comeback is a less-than-viable strategy for winning. The television producers cued up the Tebow Comeback Montage when the Broncos got the ball Sunday, trailing the Kansas City Chiefs, 7-3, with less than four minutes to play.
Unfortunately, the comeback montage has increasingly become a substitute for the actual comeback. The laws of probability can be a harsh mistress, but not harsh enough to spare us the sight of Tim Tebow trying to beat the blitzing Steelers defense merely by really wanting to.
The great thing about Tebow is that he turns low-scoring games into high drama, while Pittsburgh turns such games into drudgery. The Steelers won two 13-9 games this season, with 14-3 and 17-13 wins and a 17-10 loss.With Rashard Mendenhall out, Ben Roethlisberger hobbling around the pocket like Long John Silver and the Broncos all too happy to cavort around in a low-scoring brier patch, “touchdown” is sure to be a singular noun in this game.
That favours the Broncos. If you need one play to win a game, Tebow will get you one play; if you need five plays, he will also get you one play. Feel free to tune in at the two-minute warning; you will not have missed much.
The New York Times News Service