THE FIFTH DOWN; Defenses Give Edge to the Giants and the Steelers

Lions (10-6) at Saints (13-3)

Saturday, 8 p.m.

Line: Saints by 10.5

From the birth of the N.F.L. until 1960, no quarterback ever threw for more than 3,000 yards. As recently as 1997, it was still possible for Jeff George to lead the league with less than 4,000 yards passing: 3,917, to be exact. For most of football’s history, a 3,000-yard season was an accomplishment, 4,000 yards were a feat and 5,000 yards marked the distance from home to the nearest hardware store, not an attainable passing goal.

Saturday will mark the first time that two quarterbacks who threw for over 5,000 yards in a season will face each other. While Drew Brees – who broke Dan Marino’s single-season record by throwing for 5,476 yards – is getting his due as one of the league’s best passers, Matthew Stafford (5,038) could not even muster a Pro Bowl selection. Stafford’s numbers are partially a reflection of passing inflation, but he has also been unfairly overshadowed this season, not just by Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to be the N.F.L.’s most valuable player, but by his own team’s tortuous climb out of a decade-long funk, the acrobatic excellence of his best receiver and his defense’s attempt to jump-start the economy by increasing the demand for yellow penalty flags.

When the Lions have the ball The Lions use shotgun formations on 68 percent of all offensive plays, the highest percentage in the N.F.L. (the league average is 40.1 percent). Stafford’s primary weapon, Calvin Johnson, was the third-most targeted receiver in the league with 158 passes. (Atlanta’s Roddy White and New England’s Wes Welker finished first and second.) Johnson compensates for the Lions’ poor running game by doubling as the team’s top threat in the red zone: he has caught nine touchdowns passes on plays that start inside the 20-yard line. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler also make great short-yardage options (10 combined red-zone targets), and they work underneath so the rookie receiver Titus Young can supplement Johnson as a deep threat. The Lions have running backs, but they ignore them, and you can, too.

Gregg Williams’s blitz-heavy defense yielded just 33 sacks and 16 takeaways this season. Only the Patriots and the Packers allowed more passing yards than the Saints, and they compensated by producing 31 and 23 interceptions to the Saints’ nine. Many of those passing yards were the result of opponents trying to keep pace with the Saints’ offense, but Williams does not have the same manpower he had when the Saints reached the Super Bowl two years ago.

When the Saints have the ball Whole articles can be filled with impressive Brees statistics, but we will settle for one: his completion percentage over the last three seasons is 69.9, better than all but three quarterbacks have ever mustered in a single season. Sean Payton’s offense makes the most of Brees’s accuracy and ability to distribute the ball to legions of potential targets. Nine different players have caught at least 10 passes for the Saints this season, led by Jimmy Graham, a college basketball forward turned mismatch nightmare at tight end. Despite their reputation as a pass-happy team, the Saints often line up in the I-formation and pound the ball. Saints running backs combined for 2,127 yards, and Brees’s long touchdown throws are often set up by play-fakes.

The Lions’ notorious defensive line recorded just 36 sacks this season, though they committed 43 penalties in the process. The Lions rarely blitz, so while their sack totals are low, Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and their linemates provide enough pressure for Jim Schwartz to keep seven defenders back in coverage, minimizing the risk of breakdowns.

Pick In what will probably be a shootout, the Lions’ inability to run the football and their tendency to spot opponents 100 penalty yards will matter much more than their lack of postseason experience. Saints

Bengals (9-7) at Texans (10-6)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

Line: Texans by 3

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Giants Beat Falcons in N.F.C. Wild-Card Game

This week, though, it will be difficult for even the most resistant Giants not to consider the good old days. Four years ago, the Giants rode a late-season surge to an unlikely championship, and now — after , in an N.F.C. wild-card game on Sunday at MetLife Stadium — the Giants are three victories from a title that would surely be even more surprising.

Try as Coughlin might, the parallels are becoming impossible to ignore. The 2007 Giants lumbered through a roller-coaster regular season but were buoyed by in Week 17. They then ) before going to Green Bay two weeks later and stunning the Packers in the N.F.C. championship game.

This season, the Giants — who started 6-2 only to fall into a four-game losing streak — found a jump start after by the score of … 38-35. They then won their final two games to secure the N.F.C. East title and set up Sunday’s matchup with the Falcons, who outdid the Buccaneers when it came to playing the fall guy. Atlanta’s anemic offense, which finished with just 247 total yards, rendered much of the second half meaningless as the crowd celebrated.

Not surprisingly, the attention turned quickly to next Sunday’s return to Lambeau Field for the Giants. Defensive end Justin Tuck laughed when he was asked for his memories from the , which came in typical Wisconsin conditions.

“Cold,” Tuck said, mentioning . “I remember David Diehl’s sweat had frozen on his hair, so he had icicles on his hair.”

Tuck then added: “What else? I remember us winning.”

indicate potential snow showers with a temperature in the 20s — “tropical,” in Tuck’s estimation — though the Giants will also have to contend with Aaron Rodgers, a favorite to be the league’s most valuable player. Against the Giants in December, Rodgers passed for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, including four completions on a quick drive at the end of the game to set up the winning field goal.

The Giants, however, will be confident in their own quarterback, as Manning continued his career year Sunday by throwing for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns. Hakeem Nicks, , re-emerged, catching two of the scoring passes, including a 72-yarder in the third quarter to break open the game.

Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw also bolstered the Giants, combining for 155 rushing yards. The Giants finished the regular season (averaging just 89.2), but Jacobs and Bradshaw each ripped off a run of 30 or more yards, and the Giants limited Atlanta’s lead back, Michael Turner, to 41 yards on 15 carries.

That was only one of the many highlights for the Giants’ defense. Osi Umenyiora sacked Matt Ryan with just over a minute remaining to provide a fitting coda against an offense that did not score. In addition to limiting Turner, the Giants held the Falcons’ top receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, to 116 yards combined.

“They can’t run the ball on us,” Jason Pierre-Paul said, adding later that the Giants “are going to walk away with a win” against the Packers.

Asked if he was sure, Pierre-Paul grinned. “We’re sure,” he said.

While Coughlin and the Giants reveled in victory, the Falcons’ loss ensured another round of criticism for Ryan and Atlanta Coach Mike Smith. Smith, in particular, will face scrutiny for several debatable decisions, most notably after his team failed on two short fourth-down plays.

The second of those calls stung the most. With the Giants leading, 10-2, late in the third quarter, Smith opted to bypass a 38-yard field-goal attempt, instead sending Ryan on a sneak up the middle on fourth-and-inches. As it did on a similar play in the first half, however, the Giants’ defense steeled itself for an important stop, with Pierre-Paul tackling Ryan short of a first down.

Three plays later, Manning hit Nicks for his long touchdown pass — Nicks did the heavy lifting by sprinting between two would-be tacklers — to allow the comparisons to 2007 to begin in earnest.

Of course, players from that team like David Tyree, the former receiver who was an honorary captain Sunday, might point out an interesting discrepancy. Those players won three road games before reaching the Super Bowl. In fact, home playoff games under Coughlin had been a bugaboo for the Giants, who lost in two previous opportunities with him and last won a postseason game at home in 2001.

Those defeats — to Carolina in 2006 and to Philadelphia in 2009 — were demoralizing, and early on Sunday, there was a sluggishness to the Giants’ play that felt foreboding.

On the Giants’ first four possessions, they punted three times and yielded a safety when Manning was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone.

That sequence hushed the fans, who had been waving their white towels excitedly after the Giants stymied Atlanta on a fourth-and-1 moments earlier. Indeed, for much of the first half, both offenses looked discombobulated.

But the Giants finally broke the offensive deadlock late in the second quarter, when they succeeded where the Falcons could not. Faced with his own fourth-and-inches on the Atlanta 6, Coughlin eschewed a short field goal and sent Jacobs into the line for a 2-yard gain. On the next play, Manning found Nicks in the back of the end zone to give the Giants a lead they did not relinquish.

Now it is on to Green Bay for the Giants — with no doubt a quick stopover in the pleasant past along the way.

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Falcons’ Matt Ryan Doesn’t Want Playoff Rerun

, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, chafed from an 0-2 record in the playoffs, is well aware of the magnitude and finality of such games without the continual reminders. And he does not need to hear the seemingly endless loop that points out how quarterbacks are judged ultimately on whether their teams prosper in the postseason.

“Just not let all the outside things affect your preparation,” he said of the fresh approach. “Anybody who says they never hear or see this stuff to a certain degree is lying. You don’t think you are affected by it.”

In hindsight, Ryan, a perfectionist, realized he was unduly affected. So he has switched to alternate programming on the home screen, probably video of himself at work. In the off-season, Ryan endured an estimated 15 replays of the from the Green Bay Packers, in which he was intercepted twice and lost a fumble.

Two years before, against the Arizona Cardinals, there was the same personal turnover count — two picks, one fumble. And a similar result.

Beginning his third tournament go-round, Ryan aspires to approximate the leap made by Giants quarterback Eli Manning after he was 0-2 in win-or-else games.

“I think he won a ,” Ryan said knowingly at the team’s training complex. “I think he did play well.”

Any quarterback drafted as early as No. 3 over all, as he was, arrives with the bar placed neck-craning high. It is raised higher now that Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and a select few others dissect defenses with robotic efficiency, earning them the common identifier that all passers crave: elite.

Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, attempting to tamp down unreasonable expectations for Ryan, was quoted recently saying teams could contend for the Super Bowl with quarterbacks “on very valid levels below that elite level.”

Ryan wields neither remarkable maneuverability nor a howitzer-like arm. His skills include a capacity to lead and a firm grasp on how the position should be played.

“He commanded the huddle as soon as he got here” in 2008, center Todd McClure said.

During the lockout, it was Ryan who organized player practices.

Dimitroff has afforded Ryan sufficient receivers, signing the likely Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez in 2009 and nearly emptying the vault of future draft picks last year to draft Julio Jones. With the longtime Falcon Roddy White, who has had 100 or more receptions in consecutive seasons, they form a menacing threesome that can hand-deliver a quarterback to elite status.

Ryan’s passer rating, according to the N.F.L. formula, surged to . Twice before in a four-year career, he was 11th. A statistical evaluation called . (Last season, he was behind only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.)

Ryan’s lofty ranking comes despite 37 dropped passes by teammates, tied for second most, and excessive breakdowns in pass protection. He has absorbed nearly all of the team’s 73 quarterback hits, tied for fifth highest.

“I love that quarterback,” Gonzalez said after Ryan’s decision to sign a one-year deal for 2012 was announced last weekend. “Matt Ryan was a big part of that.”

Ryan’s acuity was so ripened as a rookie that Coach Mike Smith went to a no-huddle offense in Week 2. Now the tactic is deployed in every game, to varying degrees, and has become Ryan’s calling card.

“He’s been very masterful at it this year,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. “How well he has managed our no-huddle — it’s a lot for one person.”

The Falcons’ no-huddle has multiple purposes: sometimes with the conventional goal of accelerating the pace, other times to moderate it by running down the play clock while hindering situation substitution by the defense.

Ryan, ever modest, nonetheless takes pride in his competence with the no-huddle. At the line of scrimmage, he can summon any of a few dozen plays from a mental file, conveying the selection audibly at home games and with hand signals on the road to combat the din.

“I’ve done a lot better at putting guys in position to make plays,” he said. “It’s rewarding. It’s satisfying.”

Those feel-good sensations would heighten with a victory against the Giants on Sunday. Gonzalez, the team’s elder statesman, said of the playoffs: “Eventually, you’ve got to start performing, get your team wins. It’s not just on him.”

Even the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, does not shy away from Ryan’s current oh-fer. During a speech to a civic group last week, he said, “You judge a quarterback on how he does in the fourth quarter and the postseason.”

The consensus in the locker room holds that Ryan, who has engineered 16 fourth-quarter comebacks in the N.F.L., needs no January or February victories to validate his worth.

“To me, a quarterback is either good or not,” McClure said. “It doesn’t have to be about postseason wins.”

White said, “Matt’s doing a good job of getting us there and getting us an opportunity.”

To running back Michael Turner, the pair of playoff defeats belong in the distant past.

“That was the young Matt,” Turner said. “He’s been on fire the past couple of weeks.”

A lesson culled by Ryan from those losses, in which he completed two of every three throws, is that outcomes often hinge on the execution of three or four plays. The allusion to his turnovers was unmistakable.

“You have to be smart as a quarterback and make plays when they are presented; take what’s there,” he said, hoping that such an approach will keep sports shows off the TVs at home for another week or two.

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