“We’re playing smart football,” Manning said late last Sunday night. “We’re not making many mistakes . . . and we have the big-play potential with our players.”
Former Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman said he expects Green Bay or New Orleans to emerge from the NFC playoff field. But he also said, “I look at the Giants and see the Packers of last year.”
The Lions are cut from the same mold as this season’s Packers, Patriots and Saints. Matthew Stafford, Detroit’s quarterback, joined Brees and New England’s Tom Brady in surpassing 5,000 passing yards during the regular season.
The sixth-seeded Lions ranked fifth in the league in total offense but 23rd in total defense, and lost their regular season finale at Green Bay, 45-41, even with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sitting out. But if an offense-first team is going to win the Super Bowl in this season of record passing, the Lions might have a chance, even with their opening game coming against the Saints in the Superdome.
“The Lions definitely have an opportunity to win,” Freeman said. “They’re in their element, playing in a dome.”
Dark-horse candidates seem tougher to come by in the AFC. The third-seeded Houston Texans, who host the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, and the fourth-seeded Broncos each enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The Bengals and Broncos lost their way into the playoffs last weekend, getting help with losses by other teams.
Cincinnati, with Andy Dalton, and Houston, with T.J. Yates, must rely on rookie quarterbacks. The Broncos, meantime, hope that second-year pro Tim Tebow recaptures the magic from his 7-1 run in his first eight starts of the season before the 0-3 finish. The Broncos, playing at home, face a Pittsburgh offense that’s without tailback Rashard Mendenhall because of a knee injury.
“I think Pittsburgh will probably squeak by, but I would give Denver an outside shot,” Freeman said. “Mendenhall being out is huge.”
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