THE FIFTH DOWN; Analysis: Curiosities Abound in the Playoffs’ First Round

The most extraordinary thing about the N.F.L.’s first-round playoff games this year is that the presence of the Detroit Lions is not one of the most extraordinary things.

This weekend’s games include a duel between two quarterbacks who passed for 5,000 yards, neither of whom is the league’s most valuable player and one of whom is not even a Pro Bowler. A 12-4 team from a great division is on the road against an 8-8 team from a terrible one. A division champion on a three-game losing streak faces a wild-card team that was 1-5 against opponents that finished with winning records. Two playoff participants were outscored by their opponents for the season: the Giants by 6 points and the Broncos by 81. Two of the teams have not won a playoff game in two decades. Another is in the playoffs for the first time.

Here is an early look at what to expect this weekend, though because almost nothing has happened as expected so far this season, it may be of dubious worth.

Bengals at Texans

Each team should get a participation trophy, the kind Little Leaguers throw away when they reach adolescence. The Cincinnati Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1990. The Texans are in the playoffs for the first time, and fans in Houston have not seen a playoff win since 1991, when Warren Moon of the Oilers beat Ken O’Brien and the Jets. (Even when we go back in time 20 years, the Jets manage to lose.) The Lions last won a playoff game after the 1991 season, so there will be fans drinking beer in taverns this weekend who were drinking infant formula the last time any of these three cities were represented in the playoffs.

The race among the Tennessee Titans, the Jets, the Oakland Raiders, the Denver Broncos and the Bengals for the final A.F.C. playoff spots was like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers trying to get a job by listing each other as character references. The Bengals pointed to their win over the Titans for credibility, the Titans to their win over the Broncos, the Broncos to their wins over the Raiders and the Jets, the Raiders to their win over the Jets, and the Jets to their ability to call more attention to themselves than anyone else. It was an M. C. Escher illusion, a stairway stacked on top of itself, and it collapsed in Week 17.

At one point, the Jets’ playoff hopes rested on Mark Sanchez and the Texans backup Jake Delhomme simultaneously playing well, which is like hoping that all of the planets in the solar system align and the resulting gravitational force generates some kind of megatidal wave. That did not happen, and the Titans were the only one of the five teams in question to win their final game, though the victory was irrelevant because of an early-season loss to the Bengals. Do not worry if you are confused; neither of these teams is going to reach the A.F.C. championship game.

Lions at Saints

Lions games are like the coliseum uprising scenes in gladiator movies. There is mayhem, posturing, confusion and violence, some of it disturbing, some of it choreographed and slapstick. All that is missing is Ndamukong Suh overturning a chariot after recording a sack. Going 10-6 is probably akin to throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, so you can forgive the Lions’ over-exuberance, even if you cannot picture Matt Millen as Commodus.

The Lions’ 45-41 loss to the Green Bay Packers, while thrilling, contained some trademark moments of cartoon violence, including Coach Jim Schwartz whirling his headset like nunchaku and bonking himself on the back while arguing a call. At one point, a confused Suh sacked the Packers backup Matt Flynn and celebrated by imitating Aaron Rodgers’s ”wrestling belt” move.

In December, the New Orleans Saints beat the Lions, 31-17, while Suh was serving a two-game suspension for self-parody. Without Suh, the Lions committed only two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, one unnecessary roughness penalty and one face-mask penalty, in addition to various encroachments.

This game is Suh’s first appearance in the Superdome since he became a Chrysler pitchman who works for the Ford family and gets into auto accidents while driving a classic Chevrolet. The Superdome is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, naturally.

Falcons at Giants

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Saints and Colts Not Certain of Return to Playoffs

This has been the most unpredictable of N.F.L. seasons. Call it parity or mediocrity, but only the , the Atlanta Falcons and the have secured playoff spots in the 12-team field. The and the must wonder if they have fallen into a fever dream. They probably still remember what it felt like to cruise toward the Super Bowl. It was just a year ago, after all, that their division opponents put up little fight, that their playoff position was guaranteed, that they were already well into their meticulous plans to rest their most critical players.

But Super Bowl hangovers can linger, especially when compounded by ennui and injuries. On Sunday, during the most critical slate of games of a topsy-turvy N.F.L. season, the Colts and the Saints found themselves in oddly unfamiliar territory, playing must-win games in December.

When it was over, their paths had diverged as surely as they did on that Sunday night in February. The Colts won, the Saints lost, the playoff picture remaining muddled.

Two weeks ago, the Colts were on the brink of dropping out of the playoffs for the first time in nine years. But on Sunday, they kept alive their hopes of winning the A.F.C. South and going to the playoffs for the ninth straight season with a 34-24 victory over Jacksonville. The Jaguars would have won the division with a victory.

Instead, if the Colts beat Oakland and Tennessee in the final two weeks of the season, they will win the division and the Jaguars will once again remain home. Jacksonville Coach Jack Del Rio said he fully expected to leave Indianapolis as the division champion.

“We knew our backs have been against the wall for a couple of weeks now,” Colts Coach Jim Caldwell said. “We’re still just giving ourselves another opportunity down the road. We have another game, just like this game, with the same thing at stake. It’s not like anything has changed for us.”

For the Saints, though, something definitely changed. The oddly timed mistakes and unevenness that marked the early part of their season resurfaced in a 30-24 loss to Baltimore. On Sunday, the defense allowed 208 yards rushing.

The Saints had won six games in a row, but, just like the Colts, they went the way of their quarterback. ’s three-game interception-a-thon seems to have ended at the right time. He completed 29 of 39 passes for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions as the Colts also got 155 yards rushing. Brees helped the Saints roar back from a 21-7 deficit to tie the in the fourth quarter only to throw a tipped-ball interception that ended the Saints’ final drive.

If the Saints are to return to the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to do it as a wild-card team. Their loss, combined with Atlanta’s victory over Seattle, leaves the Saints two games behind Atlanta, who are the likely top seed in the N.F.C.

“We control our destiny,” quarterback said. “It’s too early to look at the playoff picture right now, but if we are a wild-card team, the road to the Super Bowl will be on the road. We can handle that.”

The may not have to. Their victory over the , on the strength of their running game, gave them a one-game lead over the in the A.F.C. West, with home games against Tennessee and Oakland remaining. San Diego’s playoff chances were further imperiled when beat the Steelers, because the Jets and Chargers are vying for one of two A.F.C. wild-card spots.

But the Steelers’ loss gave renewed life to the Ravens. Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot based on the strength-of-schedule tie breaker. But the Steelers and the Ravens are tied for the A.F.C. North lead, although Pittsburgh currently leads the tie breakers for the division title, too.

Baltimore, as it turned out, may best symbolize the utter chaos of this season. Its victory over New Orleans was the ninth game this season in which the Ravens let a fourth-quarter lead slip away, an indication that perhaps one of the most vaunted defenses of the last decade could finally be wearing down. But with the Saints rolling and the Ravens’ division hopes fading, the defense suddenly righted itself, stopping New Orleans on two straight fourth-quarter drives and keeping Baltimore’s division hopes alive.

Linebacker , the sage of the Ravens’ defense, said that when the Saints tied the score, he thought nothing of the team’s recent history.

“As long as it’s a tie score, we can’t lose,” he said. “And that’s what I was walking on the sideline telling the guys: ‘Let’s go finish it now. Let’s finish it.’ ”

Now they and the multitude of teams still alive must finish the season.

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