NFL Playoffs 2012: Wild-card weekend schedule, previews

January 5, 2012

Washington Post NFL reporter Mark Maske took a closer look at each of the four wild-card weekend matchups in advance of the first week of the NFL playoffs. The first round features a pair of tantalizing matchups featuring the high-octane New Orleans Saints hosting the resurgent Detroit Lions and Tim Tebow leading the Denver Broncos against banged-up Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s what each team must do to advance to the second round.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Reliant Stadium, NBC (WRC-4)

How the Bengals can win… They went 5-3 on the road during the regular season and are facing the Texans at the right time, with Houston on a three-game losing streak. The Bengals were winless in four games against the Steelers and Ravens but went 9-3 against the rest of their schedule. They lost by a point to the Texans on Dec. 11. The Bengals ranked seventh in the league in total defense and ninth in scoring defense during the regular season. Rookie QB Andy Dalton faces his first playoff game but has been unusually poised all season. Dalton needs to get rookie WR A.J. Green re-involved in the offense after Green totaled only four catches in the final two regular season games.

How the Texans can win… The Texans play the first postseason game in franchise history but limp into the playoffs after a 10-3 start became a 10-6 final regular season record. Rookie QB T.J. Yates suffered a bruised non-throwing shoulder during Sunday’s loss to the Titans but is on track to start. For the Texans to right themselves, they might need to rely on Arian Foster the league’s second-ranked running game and second-ranked defense.

More on this matchup:

Early Lead: Rookie quarterbacks Andy Dalton, T.J. Yates take center stage

Early Lead: Bengals QB Andy Dalton returns to practice after intestinal virus

Fifth-round pick T.J. Yates not feeling like a rookie as he guides Texans into first-ever playoff game

Texans make playoff debut against Bengals, who last won in postseason in 1990

Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Saturday, 8 p.m., Superdome, NBC (WRC-4)

How the Lions can win… Detroit has a chance because of its offensive firepower with QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. Stafford joined the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Patriots’ Tom Brady in topping 5,000 passing yards during the regular season, getting there with a 520-yard performance in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. Johnson led the league in receiving yards. The Lions will be familiar with the environment, having lost at New Orleans in early December. But they certainly need their defense to play better than it did Sunday at Lambeau Field when the Lions lost to the Packers, 45-41. Detroit had no answers for Green Bay’s backup QB Matt Flynn, who threw for 480 yards and six TDs. The Lions will need a few stops against Brees and the Saints.

How the Saints can win… The Saints enter the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak and a 13-3 record, and they were 8-0 at home during the regular season. They have the league’s top-ranked offense built around Brees, who set NFL single-season records for passing yards and completion percentage. The Saints’ plan is simple: turn Brees loose and let him outscore any opponent. Few teams can keep up. TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles create major matchup problems for virtually any defense. The question is whether the Saints can continue to get by with a defense that ranked 30th against the pass and 24th overall during the regular season. New Orleans did fare better in scoring defense, ranking 13th in the league.

More on this matchup:

Saints, Packers and Patriots will test ‘defense wins Super Bowls’ approach this postseason

Lions Ndamukong Suh on Saints: ‘I don’t plan on anybody shooting our defense out’

Saints welcome Lions to Superdome after going 8-0 at home this season

Running by committee, Saints’ ground game has quietly been among NFL’s best

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)

Sunday, 1 p.m., MetLife Stadium, FOX (WTTG-5)

How the Falcons can win… The Falcons are a relatively balanced team, at least by the standards of some of this year’s top playoff contenders. They ranked 10th in the league in total offense and 12th in total defense during the regular season. The Atlanta defense ranked sixth against the run, and seems likely to shut down a Giants’ running game, which struggled all year. The Falcons rediscovered RB Michael Turner when he ran for 172 yards Sunday, and QB Matt Ryan has the receivers — in WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones and TE Tony Gonzalez — to exploit the Giants’ 29th-ranked pass defense.

How the Giants can win… The Giants enter the playoffs feeling good about themselves after beating the Jets and Cowboys on the final two weekends of the regular season to win the NFC East. They get to play at MetLife Stadium again, and they’re talking about re-creating the magic of their postseason run to a Super Bowl title after the 2007 season. QB Eli Manning has been one of the league’s most dependable players all season, leading the Giants to five victories with fourth-quarter comebacks. The defense played well against the Cowboys, sacking QB Tony Romo six times. DE Jason Pierre-Paul has become the most disruptive of the Giants’ pass rushers; he had 16-1/2 sacks during the regular season.

More on this matchup:

Sally Jenkins: Eli Manning belongs among NFL’s elite quarterbacks

Matt Ryan says he’s ‘more mature,’ better prepared for third chance to win in NFL playoffs

Early Lead: Giants’ DE Justin Tuck calls out Atlanta’s offensive line for being ‘dirtbags’

Battle up front between Giants’ pass rush and Atlanta O-Line could decide playoff game

Strong finish has Giants channeling 2007 Super Bowl run as they prepare to host Falcons

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8)

Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Mile High Stadium, CBS (WUSA-9)

How the Steelers can win… They won four more games than the Broncos during the regular season, and their defense probably will find a way to contain QB Tim Tebow and the Denver offense. But the Steelers managed only 13 points in Sunday’s win at Cleveland in the regular season finale, and they lost RB Rashard Mendenhall to a knee injury. The defense will be without S Ryan Clark, who has sickle cell trait and faces possible health risks if he plays in the high altitude at Denver.

How the Broncos can win… The Broncos need Tebow to recapture the magic of the 7-1 run after he took over as starter following the team’s 1-4 start. The Broncos made the playoffs thanks to the Raiders’ defeat Sunday despite losing their final three regular season games to finish 8-8. Tebow threw only two interceptions and lost three fumbles during his eight-game run. He had four interceptions and lost three fumbles during the three-game losing streak at the end of the season. For the Broncos to have any chance, they’ll have to get back to playing mistake-free football and rely on their defense while running the ball effectively and mixing in a big play or two.

More on this matchup:

Steelers’ Ryan Clark accepts decision to keep him out against Broncos due to sickle cell trait

Road Show: Steelers fans feel right at home in any NFL stadium

Early Lead: John Elway to Tim Tebow: ‘Just pull the trigger’

Ben Roethlisberger limited in practice after experiencing ‘setback’ against Browns

Defenses have decoded Tebow puzzle, taking away the run and forcing the Broncos to throw

Photo Gallery: Tim Tebow and his faith

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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