Atlanta 2, NY Giants 24
Key Player: Eli Manning. Standing as one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league, Manning worried the New York fans. Many didn’t know what they would see from the one-time Super Bowl Champion. The Giants go as Manning goes – for better or for worse. On Sunday, Manning came up huge for the Giants, connecting on 71.8% of his passes, racking up 277 passing yards, and completing three touchdowns. He played very efficient football, putting the ball right where his receivers wanted the football. It is difficult not to notice the similarities with Manning’s current play compared to his play during his 2007 championship run.
Key Play: Giants hold the Falcons on a 4th-down attempt – twice. Both of these stops epitomize what it means to make a big play. With the score still at 0-0 after the 1st quarter, the Falcons faced a 4th and 1 at the Giants 24-yard-line. They could have kicked a reasonable field goal and taken the first lead of the game. Instead, the Falcons called Matt Ryan’s number and called him to run a QB sneak, which the Falcons stuffed right at the line. Midway through the 3rd quarter, the Falcons had Deja Vu as they faced a 4th and 1 at the New York 21-yard-line. With the deficit standing at 10-2, a field goal would still keep the Falcons a touchdown away from taking the lead; however, a game in which points were scarce (since a safety put the team’s only points on the board) suggested to the Falcons coaching staff that a field goal should be attempted. Mike Smith didn’t think this way and went for it again. The finally healthy front line for the Giants stopped the Falcons yet again and established themselves as one of the strongest defenses in this year’s playoffs. Pierre-Paul and Umenyiora will both play a crucial role as the Giants try to recapture the magic that led them to a Super Bowl victory against the undefeated Patriots.
Pittsburgh 23, Denver 29 (OT)
Key Player: …Do I even need to say his name? Even though he completed less than half of his passes, the throws he did complete were huge. Ginormous. Averaging 15 yards per throw, he racked up 316 yards, 2 touchdowns, and had a 125.6 passer rating. During regulation time, Tebow ran for one touchdown and passed for another. Both of these touchdowns came within 3 minutes of each other in the second quarter, but it was enough to push this game to an eventual overtime. Once the Broncos won the toss, Tebow decided to toss the football for an 80-yard winning touchdown. Wow. It doesn’t what happens the rest of these playoffs, Tebow should (for now) not be considered an unconventional quarterback. He should be considered a clutch quarterback. No matter whether you like the kid, the way the media reacts to his play, or think it is odd that he had 316 passing yards – the number he writes under his eyes – Tebow’s will to win cannot be denied.
Key Player (Honorable Mention): Ike Taylor. This 9-year veteran looked like a Dallas Cowboys secondary player with all the chasing he went threw. Taylor’s face being posterized as he was stiff armed by Thomas on the game-winning touchdown gives a good picture of how his (and the rest of the Steelers secondary) entire night went. This slant route wasn’t intended to be a big time play for the Broncos, but because of Taylor’s inability to keep up with the Denver wide receiver(s), he gave the Broncos their destined victory.
Key Play: John Fox’s challenge in the 2nd quarter. Yes, I know – how could I not choose the play that will be plastered on televisions for the next week? I believe the less flashy challenge on Big Ben’s 52-yard bomb played a huge part in the Broncos win. If this play had not been challenged, the Steelers would have gone all the way to the Broncos’ 28-yard-line with the deficit only being 7-6. A field goal or touchdown seemed very likely after this pass. Momentum obviously would have been in favor of the 2011 NFL Champions. However, Fox and his staff made a great decision to challenge the Mike Wallace catch and reverse the play. The Steelers went on to go three-and-out, punt the ball, and eventually fall behind 20-6. Pittsburgh did find a way to tie the game up by the end of the game, leading to Tebow Time in overtime, but without this challenge, the clock might have struck twelve before Tebow even had a chance to step up for his moment.
Cincinnati 10, Houston 31
Key Player: Arian Foster. With Matt Schaub’s Lisfranc injury placing him on the injured reserve after Week 10, Foster immediately became even more vital to the Texans success from there on out. Because of a nagging hamstring injury, the 25-year-old fantasy football beast was inactive for the last game of the regular season against the Titans – which they lost, giving them a three-game losing streak to finish the season. How would Foster respond after all this in the Texans first playoff game? He provided Houston with 153 big-time rushing yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yard touchdown run that showed off both his quickness and strength. Having a prolific running game eases the quarterback pressure from the defense, and with T.J. Yates’s recent subpar play, including against the Bengals, the rookie quarterback will need Foster’s excellent play as they moved on to the next round.
Key Play: J.J. Watt’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown. In a fairly back and forth game up to this point in the game, the 6-5 rookie leapt up at the line for a athletic interception. (Elias Sports Bureau made this interception even bigger by informing the NFL fandom that Watt became only the fifth defensive lineman in the last 30 seasons to return an interception for a touchdown.) After this play, the Texans never looked back, scoring the rest of the game’s points. When lineman can make huge plays such as this interception, it adds another dimension to the defense that puts the entire team on a different level. The Texans will need solid defensive production next week when they travel to face Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens.
Detroit 28, New Orleans 45
Key Player(s): Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. This match-up consisted of two quarterbacks that collected over 5,000 passing yards during the 2011 NFL season. Everybody knew bombs would be thrown and points would be put up. The way the Saints got an edge came with their running backs on the ground and through the air. Other than Kevin Smith’s 21 rushing yards, no Lion had double-digit rushing yards. Thomas, Sproles, and Ivory provided the Saints with 164 combined rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Thomas, specifically, averaged a whopping 8.3 yards per carry, including a 31-yard burst in the first quarter. Already having an abundance of wide receivers to throw to, Brees connected with Thomas and Sproles 10 times through the air for 89 yards. If the New Orleans Saints can get this kind of versatile production from their running game throughout the playoffs, I see them as a very difficult team to take down – no matter if they’re in the Superdome or not.
Key Play: Darren Sproles 3-yard run on 4th down. With the Saints holding a slim 24-21 to start the fourth quarter, it was still either team’s game. Sean Payton faced a difficult decision sitting at the Lions 40-yard-line. Punting doesn’t really do much good and a 57-yard-field goal is a little bit out of reach. So, as Payton has shown year in and year out, he took a risk and called on Sproles. Sproles pushed the ball outside and as blocking did effectively their job, Payton looked like a genius yet again as the 5-6 running back picked up the vital first down. If New Orleans had been unable to convert this 4th down, there could have been a completely different finish to this game and Calvin Johnson might be receiving a little more attention for his monster game (211 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns). The Saints would go on to score, putting the lead at 31-21 – a hole too much for the Lions to climb out of. For the Saints to be successful for the rest of January and possibly February, New Orleans will need more of these risky, but crucial calls from Sean Payton.
*Every single divisional winner won this weekend, marking only the third time for this ever to occur.
*The Atlanta Falcons became the first team in NFL history to score only 2 points.
*Tim Tebow’s 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas is the longest overtime touchdown the NFL record books have ever recorded.
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