THE FIFTH DOWN; Wild-Card Matchups: N.F.C.

3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, South)

6. DETROIT LIONS (10-6, wild card)

The Saints are the team nobody wants to play, particularly at the Superdome, where they have rewritten large sections of the offensive record book this season. The Lions have the battle scars to prove it. On Dec. 4, Detroit ventured into New Orleans and fell behind, 17-0, and trailed at halftime, 24-7, on the way to a 31-17 New Orleans victory. It’s no secret why. The Saints, with the top passing offense, have more weapons than any other team in the N.F.L. The 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham is practically uncoverable, and when teams try to double-team him, they leave somebody like Marques Colston alone. When the Carolina Panthers tried to blanket Graham on Sunday, Colston had 145 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Drew Brees merely set the single-season mark for passing yards and broke his own record for completion percentage.

Expect more of the same in this game, which should be a shootout. In the teams’ regular-season game, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 408 yards, outgunning Brees (342). Both teams can rush the passer, but that does not seem to matter to either quarterback. What foiled the Lions last time was an inability to finish drives – for all that yardage, they scored just two touchdowns.

The Lions’ defense is a wild card. The pass rush has been formidable – Cliff Avril is the sack star this season – but Detroit was scorched by Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Matt Flynn, in the regular-season finale in a game that did not matter for the Packers. Consider that a warning.

KEY TO THE GAME The Lions should hope that Brees decides to retire this week. Short of that, a fast start by the Lions’ offense is essential because no coach has a better killer instinct when he gets a lead than the Saints’ Sean Payton.

4. GIANTS (East winner)

5. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, wild card)

The Falcons got a lucky break in the final game. If the Lions had beaten the Packers, the Falcons would have had to return to New Orleans, where the Saints humiliated them last Monday, 45-16. Instead, Matt Ryan will face the Giants’ explosive offense, but exploitable defense, far more vulnerable to the pass than the Saints’ defense is.

The Falcons have been a bit of an enigma, beating middling or worse teams (Jaguars, Panthers, Seahawks, Vikings) and losing to most of the playoff-caliber ones (Saints, Texans, Packers). The second loss to the Saints highlighted their biggest problem: they struggle against the pass. Discount the blowout of the Buccaneers on Sunday – that says more about how Tampa Bay quit than it does about how the Falcons stack up with other playoff teams. Still, the Falcons badly needed a big win to feel better heading into the playoffs, and they got it. Running back Michael Turner had been struggling with a groin injury, but he broke out with 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries.

But keep an eye on the rookie receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons’ offense might not have been able to keep up with the Saints, but that does not make them unique. Jones could bedevil defenses that rank near the bottom of the league against the pass, and that makes the Falcons a dangerous playoff team. The pressure will be on Ryan to beat the relentless pressure that the Cowboys or the Giants can bring – the Falcons allowed just 26 sacks this season – and to try to keep pace with the offense on the other side.

KEY TO THE GAME The Falcons will have to protect Ryan from some of the best pass rushers in the N.F.L. to give the offense a chance to keep up with a quarterback who is having a superb season.

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-1, North)

The Packers lost some steam down the stretch, their defense hurt by the run (199 yards by Chicago on Dec. 25) and the pass defense woeful throughout the season. But the bye will serve its intended purpose: everybody can get healthy before the divisional round, especially receiver Greg Jennings (knee), defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) and several offensive linemen.

2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3, West)

They entered the final Sunday with the league’s best scoring defense (they did not give up a rushing touchdown in their first 14 games), which has allowed them to play a conservative, virtually error-free offensive style. That formula will get an extreme test if the seeds hold up and their divisional round opponent is the Saints.

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

PHOTOS: Saints receiver Marques Colston (PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL HABER/ASSOCIATED PRESS); Wide receiver Julio Jones of the Falcons (PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES)


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Bobby Petrino Likes What He Sees in Arkansas

He has a new seven-year contract with Arkansas in hand, and his eighth-ranked Razorbacks are capping a strong season with a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where they will play No. 6 on Tuesday.

Why not address lingering questions about his much-criticized exit from the Atlanta Falcons?

Petrino insists the only time that matters is now. Three years after his sudden departure from the , Petrino is hugely popular in Arkansas and prefers to let the wins speak for themselves.

“This is the place I want to be, I’m very happy,” Petrino said last month. “I like what we’re building here. It’s a place I’m very excited about what we’re building, what our staff has done and how we’re competing at the highest level possible in football.”

Petrino arrived at Arkansas with what seemed a career’s worth of battle scars from less than a full season in Atlanta. After being hired from Louisville in January 2007, Petrino took over a Falcons team that was supposed to be led by .

The Petrino-Vick marriage never materialized because the quarterback came under investigation for his involvement in a operation. Vick was sentenced to prison without ever taking a snap for Petrino, who resigned from the Falcons after just 13 games.

His late-night departure, 3-10 record and four-sentence farewell note posted on players’ lockers brought an onslaught of criticism — including attacks from former assistants and players.

Petrino turned down an interview request, and Arkansas said he preferred not to discuss his time in Atlanta or his departure.

South Carolina Coach , who left Florida and spent two seasons with the before returning to the college game, watched Petrino’s experience from afar.

“When he went to the Falcons, I originally gave him two years,” Spurrier said. “He didn’t last two. I lasted at least two and found out that league wasn’t for me. I think he found out in less than one year that league wasn’t for him, either.”

Spurrier said the N.F.L. coaching lifestyle was difficult for many college coaches to adjust to, saying “it’s just not as much fun.” He also called the N.F.L. “more of a players’ league” and noted that college coaches had more control over their teams than their professional brethren.

“I just think in college when you know you’re pretty much running the show, if it doesn’t work out, well, at least I did it my way,” Spurrier said. “If it doesn’t work, then O.K. You expect to be fired and move on.”

The N.F.L. experience is considered a stain on Petrino’s career, but he brought an impeccable college résumé with him to Arkansas. After successful stints as an assistant, Petrino engineered a four-year run at Louisville that resulted in a 41-9 record and a 2007 Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.

That success did not carry over immediately with the Razorbacks, who finished 5-7 in 2008, Petrino’s first season. But led by quarterback Ryan Mallett, Arkansas improved to 8-5 last season and won the Liberty Bowl over East Carolina.

With Mallett and an array of talent returning, expectations were high for the Razorbacks before this season. They overcame losses to Auburn and Alabama to win six straight games to finish the season.

The result was a 10-2 record and the program’s first trip to a game. Petrino’s success does not seem to surprise the former coach John L. Smith, who has worked with Petrino on four different staffs and has coached Arkansas’s special teams the past two seasons.

“He cares about the kids, No. 1,” Smith said. “He’s going to kick them in the tail and he’s going to force them to be the best they can be, and demand the right things out of them and that all comes along with being a football coach. But at the same time, I think they definitely understand that he loves and cares about them and is going to do what is best for them.”

The Arkansas senior tight end D. J. Williams said the criticism surrounding Petrino when he arrived at Arkansas was a rallying point for the team. Williams also said Petrino had been willing to discuss problems after being criticized for not being personable enough in Atlanta.

“I’d say he has gotten comfortable with being here,” Williams said. “He’ll crack jokes now and then, and I’ll even crack a joke with him once in a while. He’s turned into that player’s coach, but also kept a business attitude.

“It’s exactly what you need in college football if you want to be successful, and Coach Petrino is doing it.”

Petrino agreed to the new contract earlier this month, a deal worth $3.56 million annually with a mutual buyout clause that begins at $18 million should the university fire Petrino or he leaves.

For a coach who had 15 jobs with 11 teams in 14 years before arriving at Arkansas, the contract was as much as about making a statement as it was about security.

“The reason that we have such a big buyout is next December at this time we don’t want to have to hear names come up in conversations about other jobs being open,” Petrino said after signing his contract. “Everybody understands that this is where I’m going to be, this is the job I want and next year, we don’t have to worry about anything.”

Petrino said other programs have used his frequent job changes against him in recruiting, and there was brief speculation that he was a candidate at Florida after Urban Meyer’s resignation. But his new contract includes a noncompete clause for Southeastern Conference teams.

It is one more sign the eternal wanderer has found a home in Arkansas, where he has made a point of meeting people, learning about the university and enjoying the weekly SEC battles.

“Certainly, the competition that you have week in and week out, it’s very, very tough, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

And that makes it easy to not look back.

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