AFC playoff Q&A: Shock value
The wild-card round produced surprises; what's in store for the divisional playoffs?
DENVER -- Even though four home teams won in the wild-card round for the first time since 2006, the AFC version of wild-card weekend went against the odds.
How about Tim Tebow beating the franchise that gave us the Immaculate Reception with an 80-yard TD pass on the first play of overtime under the new rules? Odds of teams such as the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos winning opening-rounds games after finishing the season with three-game losing streaks weren't good, but the Texans beat the Bengals and the Broncos stunned the Steelers.
Since the AFC-NFL merger in 1970, the only team that entered the playoffs with a three-game losing streak and won a postseason game was the 2009 New Orleans Saints, and they were a 13-0 team with Drew Brees at quarterback.
It happened twice this year, with a rookie quarterback (T.J. Yates of the Texans) and Tebow, who is in only his second season.
In the divisional round, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will be heavily favored. Each could be a double-digit favorite because each beat its upcoming opponent in the regular season. The Patriots host the Broncos on Saturday. The Ravens host the Texans on Sunday.
Here's what we might see in the divisional round:
1. What can we expect from Joe Flacco? Despite being 4-3 as a playoff quarterback and being 44-20 as a regular-season starter, the Ravens' Flacco is in a tough spot against the Texans. Fans and critics have ganged up on Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Too often, the Ravens shied away from a running attack featuring Ray Rice and went to a Flacco passing offense. Flacco has a chance to go to his second AFC title game with a victory, but it almost seems as though he needs to win a Super Bowl to win respect.
He completed only 57.6 percent of his passes this season, his first sub-60 percent season in four years as the Ravens' quarterback. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will challenge Baltimore's passing offense with man-to-man coverage, which could take away the long pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens' main deep threat.
2. What's the injury situation? The Broncos suffered the most significant injury of the weekend when wide receiver Eric Decker was injured on a James Harrison helmet hit to his knee. All Denver coach John Fox would say after the game was that Decker's injury is "fairly significant." It could be an ACL, but that won't be known until Monday. For the Broncos, it's the second big injury in two weeks. In Week 17, they lost starting right guard Chris Kuper, who is a leader on the team. Kuper broke his leg and went on injured reserve. Safety Brian Dawkins remains out with a neck injury.
Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who was already bothered by a knee injury, reportedly broke a bone in his hand Saturday and is listed as questionable. Because the injury wasn't a compound fracture, Daniels isn't being ruled out for the Ravens game. Guard Mike Brisiel has recovered from an ankle injury and played Saturday, but the secondary is banged up with injuries to backup cornerback Jason Allen (back) and safety Troy Nolan (ankle).
The Ravens will have wide receiver Anquan Boldin back after missing two games because of knee surgery. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff finished the regular season with a nagging calf injury, but he healed up enough for the Ravens to release veteran Shayne Graham. The bye week should have allowed defensive end Cory Redding's ankle injury to heal. Guard Marshal Yanda should be fine despite a chest injury.
The Patriots should be healthier along the offensive line. Guard Logan Mankins had an extra week to recover from a knee injury. They might even have tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has been fighting back problems for the past couple months. Safety Patrick Chung (foot) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) will be available for the defense.
3. Do the Patriots have a hidden advantage? While the Rams may be celebrating the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels after a horrible season of play-calling, his signing with the Patriots as an offensive assistant creates some interesting controversies. One team labeled his hiring with New England as a loophole in the coaching rules that allows him to go to another team during the playoffs. McDaniels knows the Broncos better than anyone. He put them together in 2009 and 2010 and ended up losing his job as coach in the process. Now he gets to go up against many of the players he selected in the draft and in free agency, including Tebow.
"That's going to be strange," Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas said. "He drafted me and Tim."
Knowing Bill Belichick is big on knowledge, though, the Patriots will have a significant advantage in preparation. With offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien leaving for Penn State after the playoffs, McDaniels' input during the week of preparation could help out. His presence lessens the pressure on O'Brien, who will be calling the plays but might have some time to make calls for Penn State assistants and recruits knowing McDaniels can help out with the game plan.
4. What did we learn from the teams' previous meetings this season? In Week 6, the Texans lost in Baltimore 29-14. What makes things ominous is that they lost with Matt Schaub at quarterback. Flacco was able to move the ball on the Texans' defense. He completed 20 of 33 passes for 305 yards, but the Texans were tough to score on in the red zone. The Ravens had to settle for five Cundiff field goals. The Ravens were able to contain Texans halfback Arian Foster, who was limited to 49 yards on 15 carries.
In Week 15, the Patriots went to Denver and whipped the Broncos 41-23. Tebow completed 11 of 22 passes for 194 yards, but he was sacked four times and lost a fumble. The Broncos lost two fumbles in the second quarter that opened the door for a 20-point Patriots scoring surge that turned a 16-7 Broncos lead into a 27-16 Patriots advantage. Tom Brady threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Brady met Tebow at the 50-yard line after the game and said, "We'll see you again." Said Tebow after the victory over the Steelers, "I guess he's a prophet."
5. Can the Texans rush against the Ravens? Sunday's Baltimore-Houston game will be a test of wills. The Texans were second in the league rushing. The Ravens were second in run defense. The Texans were successful running to the outside against the Bengals. Foster bounced outside the tackles for two touchdown runs and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, averaged 10.1 yards a carry outside the tackles.
Outside the tackles is about the only place you can run on the Ravens. During the regular season, the Ravens allowed 5.97 yards a carry when runners went around left end, third-worst in the league. Backs averaged 4.0 yards a carry off right end. Running inside, though, is futile. The Ravens were the best at stopping plays off left tackle at 2.4 yards an attempt and allowed 3.2. and 3.8 yards a carry off right guard and right tackle.
6. Will T.J. Yates be intimidated? Ben Roethlisberger made a name for himself early in his career by taking the Steelers to an AFC title game as a rookie in 2004. Flacco and Mark Sanchez went to title games as rookies. Could Houston's Yates be the next? Yates managed the game effectively against the Bengals. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. Expect the Ravens to press him with the blitz. The Ravens blitzed on 211 pass plays this season, limiting quarterbacks to a 57.1 completion percentage and recording 20 sacks.
Yates completed three of 10 passes Saturday when the Bengals rushed more than four defenders, but what helped was going 3-for-4 in the second half for 64 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. Yates completed five of nine attempts to Johnson, who will draw double coverage from the Ravens.
7. Will man-to-man defenses slow the Patriots and Ravens? The Patriots and Ravens each have difficulties when they face man-to-man press coverage. Expect both home teams to see plenty of man coverage next weekend. One of the reasons the Patriots have problems with man-to-man is they lack speed. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are matchup problems, but neither has blistering speed. Wes Welker is great, but he's a slot receiver. Deion Branch has lost a lot of his speed and is more of a slot threat. Chad Ochocinco isn't fast anymore and can be covered.
The Broncos go into the game knowing they can match up well on the outside using cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman. They will have problems at safety, though. Dawkins probably won't play, so David Bruton and Quinton Carter must contain Gronkowski and Hernandez.
One of the keys to the turnaround of the Texans' defense was signing cornerback Johnathan Joseph so the team could play man. Expect Houston to play plenty of it against the Ravens. It will be interesting to see if Joseph covers Smith, who has speed, or Boldin, who is the team's best receiver but isn't exceptionally fast.
8. Did the new overtime rules alter strategies? In 2010, after years of controversy about the overtime rule, the NFL decided to try out a different type of overtime for the playoffs. Because the games are sudden death in the postseason and are played until a winner is determined, the NFL created a two-possession overtime unless a touchdown is scored on the first possession.
Last year, it wasn't used. Sunday it was. The Steelers and Broncos were tied 23-23. The Broncos won the coin toss and elected to receive the kickoff. Many thought the coin-toss winner would kick off, trying to determine what was needed in order to win the game, figuring a field goal drive by the opponents could be matched by a field goal or topped by a touchdown.
The Broncos went for it, electing to receive, and then went for the throat on the first play. Thomas drew single coverage from Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Because the Steelers gave a Cover Zero look in which the safeties crashed the middle of the field, all Thomas had to do was beat Taylor to win the game. He and Tebow connected on an 80-yard TD catch and run and the game was over.
Tebow said Fox and the coaching staff went over the rules during a Thursday meeting. Fox said he never really thought of letting the Steelers or another team get the ball first.
What was the Steelers' reaction to the touchdown? "Shock," Roethlisberger said. "It's tough."
9. How has the kickoff rule impacted games? The one thing we saw from the first round of the playoffs -- both AFC and NFC -- was the impact of the kickoff rules. Returns were minimal with kickoffs coming from the 35-yard line. In the four games played over the weekend, 29 of 41 kickoffs were touchbacks and 37 kickoffs went into the end zone. There were only 11 returns in four games for 164 yards. Thanks to the kickoff rule, teams are forced to drive 80 or more yards to produce touchdowns.
10. So, what will happen? Home teams had the edge in the wild-card round. That trend should continue during the AFC divisional round. The Patriots and Ravens, who have home games, have already won against their divisional-round opponents. Both should be double-digit favorites. The Broncos will go in without Kuper and Decker. The Pats should be healthy. The Ravens won by 15 in the first meeting with the Texans, who go in with a rookie quarterback.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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