The wild-card games on Sunday, Jan. 8, could be called "survivor series" as each team was thought to be left for dead at one point of the season. Now, as it usually is though the playoffs, it is about momentum and who is standing strongest at the right time. These are quick, brief previews; we'll have advanced stat studies and tape breakdowns for all the games later in the week.
"Good evening, NFC East champions. That is a great thing to hear and I won't get tired of hearing that over and over again." -- New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin
Of all the teams in the first playoff round, the Giants and Falcons are built most similarly. They are led by questionable offensive lines, dynamic rushing attacks nonetheless, and secretly efficient quarterbacks. On defense, the two teams rely on different types of blitzes from their front fours to get things going. Atlanta uses a spacing defense and zone blitzes in an attempt to overcome the fact that it doesn't have a pure pass rusher outside of John Abraham, and its defensive tackles stop the run as well as any. The Giants come straight at the quarterback with the most ferocious front four in the NFL, led by end Jason Pierre-Paul and hybrid nightmare Justin Tuck. New York's defense will threaten Atlanta's Matt Ryan at every turn.
Each team has great receivers to challenge iffy secondaries. Just as Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White will stretch the Giants' questionable intermediate coverage concepts, the Giants' Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz will stretch the Falcons' secondary all day. The difference might be Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez; New York has no such weapon underneath.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (4:30 PM ET, CBS)
"We're AFC West champs. It doesn't matter how you do it. Once you get into the dance, they can't kick you out, so what we do with it we will be determined here next weekend. We're excited about it. The team is excited about it. Obviously we didn't want to get into it without winning tonight, and I can answer questions on the game tonight. It was unfortunate. I thought it was a great effort. We just came up a little short." — Denver Broncos head coach John Fox
That's all well and good, coach, but backing into the playoffs after winning the worst division on football by default and losing your last three regular-season games in the process is no way to go about this. After Tim Tebow's 7-1 miracle beginning as the projected starter, the second-year quarterback has looked all too common in recent games. The primary defensive emphasis for teams playing the Broncos has been to press the offense and offset the timing of the first-read schemes required of Tebow. The New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and now the Kansas City Chiefs have stacked up against Denver's receivers very well.
That's a real problem for the Broncos in this game, because few teams play press-man all across the formation more adeptly than the Steelers, though their primary defensive look is to zone behind a series of complex blitzes. Tebow will see more complex defenses than he's ever seen, perhaps leading to a more basic series of zone read concepts that rely more on the run game.
For the Steelers, the challenge will be to get their speed receivers — Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown — past a Broncos defense that has held up rather well against serious passing targets this season. And Ben Roethlisberger will have to be at his best from a mobility perspective. Pittsburgh's average line isn't equipped to deal with the dual pass rush threat of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. This one rests on Tebow's ability to shake out of his funk; anything less than his best and the Steelers' defense will eat him alive.
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