Long-suffering teams make playoff returns
NEW YORK - Agence France-Presse
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates after his team defeated the Atlanta Falcons in their NFL football game in New Orleans. The Saints will host the Detroit Lions in the first round of the NFL playoffs. REUTERS photoAmerican football teams in Detroit, Houston, and Denver end long playoff droughts this weekend, but whether any of them can make the achievement last more than one game is a major question.
The National Football League playoffs kick off on Saturday with the Cincinnati Bengals visiting the Houston Texans and the Detroit Lions at the New Orleans Saints in opening-round matchups.
Sunday’s playoff games find the Atlanta Falcons at the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver in the first playoff game for the Broncos after a six-season hiatus.
The weekend’s four winners advance to second-round games on January 14-15 that will be hosted by San Francisco, New England, Baltimore and the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, who led the NFL with a 15-1 season mark.
The Lions, who had not reached the playoffs in 12 seasons, are coming off the worst campaign in NFL history, going 0-16 three seasons ago. Detroit has won only one playoff game, in 1991, since taking the 1957 NFL title.
“It has been a long time coming,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “This is the chance to win the championship and that’s the only thing that’s important. I think that it’s what you do with it and that’s the way we’ll look at it.”
Detroit offers a passing attack powered by quarterback Matthew Stafford, who completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, and Calvin Jackson, who had an NFL-best 1,681 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches.
The Lions won four times this season after trailing by 13 or more points in the second half.
But they are matched against the Saints, who won the 2010 Super Bowl behind Drew Brees, the quarterback who set NFL single season passing records with 5,476 yards, 468 completions and a 71.2 percent completion rate in 2011.
The Saints enter the playoffs on an eight-game win streak, matching New England for the hottest run to close the season, and joined Baltimore and Green Bay as the only clubs to win every home game this season.
At Houston, the injury-hit Texans have reached the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s 10-year history despite dropping their final three games of the season.
“We’re a team of destiny,” Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said.
Injuries ended the season for quarterback Matt Schaub and defensive end Mario Williams and sidelined 2010 NFL rushing leader Arian Foster and star receiver Andre Johnson.
The Bengals went 9-0 against teams that missed the playoffs but winless in seven games against playoff clubs. With rookie quarterback Andy Dalton shining and rusher Cedric Benson grounding out yards, Cincinnati looks to avenge a 20-19 loss to Houston last month, the last time the Texans won a game.
Denver struggled to an 8-8 season and the Broncos are nine-point underdogs at home to six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, but Denver southpaw quarterback Tim Tebow has defied the odds all season to get his team this far.
The Broncos started 1-4 with Kyle Orton at quarterback, but Tebow took over midway into an October loss at San Diego and the team went 7-1, winning six games in a row at one stage.
Defenses began pressuring Tebow late in the season and Denver staggered to the finish to reach the playoffs on tie-breakers. With Pittsburgh known for tenacious defense, led by Troy Polamalu, Tebow could face another rough day.
The Falcons were top seeds in last season’s playoffs but lost their playoff opener for the second year in a row.
Atlanta is led by Matt Ryan, who threw for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns, receiver Roddy White, who caught 100 passes for 1,296 yards, and star tight end Tony Gonzalez, who grabbed 80 passes for 875 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Giants come off a tense victory over Dallas just to reach the playoffs that has left them prepared, New York coach Tom Coughlin said.
“We are battle-tested in a lot of ways,” he said.
The Giants have lost their past two home playoff games, last winning on home turf in the playoffs in 2001.
While New York’s defense struggled much of the season, the Giants finished with 48 sacks, third-best in the NFL, and improved late in the season when top talent returned from injuries.
“We can be the best defense in the playoffs,” Giants safety Deon Grant said. “It’s just us coming together and being on the same page.”