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2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for Wildcard Weekend

Every Tuesday throughout the NFL season I’ll discuss five of the biggest questions surrounding that week’s slate of action. This week it’s Wildcard Weekend in the NFL, as the playoffs kick off on Saturday. Can the Lions and Broncos pull off major upsets? Which team will show up in East Rutherford? Will the Texans have T.J. Yates at quarterback versus Cincinnati? Let’s dive in.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford congratulates New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (R) after the Saints beat the Lions 31-17 in their NFL football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana December 4, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Lions slay the Saints?
Eight opponents walked into the Superdome this year with high hopes of pulling off an upset and all eight walked out with red bottoms after being spanked by a Saints team that has been unbeatable at home this season. Seeing as how the Lions were among the eight opponents who the Saints carved up this season, they seemingly don’t have a shot this Saturday when they travel back to New Orleans in the opening round of the playoffs. (Oddsmakers certainly don’t think the Lions have much of a shot, as Detroit opened as a 10.5-point underdog.) That said, the Lions do posses a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in football in Calvin Johnson, and a front four that’s capable of getting after Drew Brees. Remember, due to his two-game suspension for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions were without Ndamukong Suh the first time these two teams met. The only tried and true method to beating an elite quarterback like Brees is to pressure him with your front four. Blitzing doesn’t work, because he’s so comfortable in Sean Payton’s offense that he’ll beat one-on-one coverage or quickly find holes in the defense. While there’s no doubt the Lions have their hands full this weekend, they’re a damn good football team when they don’t beat themselves (which, unfortunately, is rare). In fact, if it weren’t for a couple of costly penalties and big drops by Lion receivers, Detroit may have come back against the Saints earlier this year in New Orleans. We’ll see if the boys from Motown can keep their composure and pull off the biggest upset of the weekend.

2 & 3. Can Tebow prove his critics wrong/Can the Steelers shake out of their offensive funk?
This will be a two-parter. When your quarterback can’t complete more than six passes when a division title and a trip to the postseason are on the line, critics will come out in droves. Tim Tebow was simply brutal in the Broncos’ Week 17 loss to the Chiefs, leaving even his staunchest supporters to leap off his bandwagon. But let’s keep in mind that Denver’s defense continues to play at a high level and kicker Matt Prater is almost a guarantee from all distances. Plus, it’s not like the Steelers are pictures of perfect health. Long before Rashard Mendenhall tore up his knee in the final regular season game of the year, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain that he hasn’t fully recovered from. It’s clear that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a major funk and while its defense shouldn’t have much trouble shutting down Tebow this weekend, it’s not like the Broncos don’t have the capabilities of pulling off an upset if they keep things close. Champ Bailey had his hands full with Dwayne Bowe last Sunday and Pittsburgh’s speedy receiving corps highlighted by Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is a mismatch for Denver’s secondary. But will the offensive line give Big Ben time to throw? The Broncos’ strength defensively is in their ability to rush the passer. It won’t matter if Wallace and Brown shake loose in Denver’s secondary if Roethlisberger is constantly under pressure. That said, if Kansas City was able to hold Denver to just three points on the road, Pittsburgh’s defense is liable to pitch a shut out. That wasn’t meant to be a knock on Romeo Crennel’s defense, which is highly underrated, but Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme could have Tebow’s head spinning. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, it’ll be interesting to see if Denver’s defense can come up big one more time and if Tebow has any magic left in those legs of his.

4. Which teams will show up in East Rutherford?
While there are obvious differences between the two teams, the Falcons and Giants mirror each other in many ways. First and foremost, they’re both highly inconsistent. The Giants proved that they have the weapons to upset the Patriots in Foxboro and sweep the Cowboys to make the postseason, but this is the same team that also lost to Seattle and Washington at home. The Falcons, meanwhile, beat the Lions in Detroit and nearly defeated the Saints at home, but managed just 13 points in a Week 3 loss to the Buccaneers and almost blew double-digit leads against Seattle, Tennessee and Minnesota. Both coaching staffs tend to play things too conservatively when they have a lead or are playing in tight games. Where Green Bay and New Orleans don’t stop attacking you until the final seconds tick off the clock, Atlanta and New York have a habit of taking their foot off the gas. In the case of the Giants, they have often fallen behind and had to play catch up in the fourth quarter. As for the Falcons, they like to build a lead and slowly give it away in the second half. But both teams also have fast defenses, good running games, weapons in the receiving corps, and are led by solid quarterbacks in Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. In other words, both teams have the capability of taking it to an opponent if they happen to be firing on all cylinders that day. But the key words in that previous sentence are “happen to,” because you just never know which team will bother show up.

5. Will the Texans be able to overcome injuries yet again?
It’s a marvel the Texans have made it this far. It truly is. They lost their starting quarterback in Matt Schaub, his backup in Matt Leinart, their top defender in Mario Williams, and they’ve had to go much of the season without leading receiver Andre Johnson, too. Now T.J. Yates is hurt. Has a team ever hosted a playoff game after its top three quarterbacks all went down with injuries during the regular season? Furthermore, has a team ever advanced in the postseason without its top three quarterbacks? While the Texans insist that Yates (separated shoulder) will play this Saturday versus Cincinnati, there are reports out of Houston that suggest he may be done for the year. If that’s the case, then it’s Jake Delhomme time, which is scary if you’re a Texans fan. I don’t care if he did nearly bring Houston back last week against Tennessee: Delhomme is a turnover waiting to happen. If the Texans can’t control the game with Arian Foster and Ben Tate, then there’s a good chance that the Bengals will be advancing to the Divisional Round next week. It’s going to be an interesting afternoon in Houston this Saturday, to say the least.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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