Sixth Seeds of N.F.L. Playoffs Again Illustrate League’s Parity

When the Atlanta Falcons and the lost in the divisional round over the weekend, they proved.

While the won the N.F.C. West with a sub-.500 record, the rest of the playoff field was stacked with top-tier teams. In the A.F.C., the wild-card teams had 11 regular-season victories () and 12 (). In the N.F.C., the wild-card teams had 10 () and 11 ().

“These teams with double-digit wins, they’re pretty close,” said Herm Edwards, the former Jets and coach, who was one of the few analysts who picked the Jets to upset the Patriots on Sunday. “This team won 12, this team won 10 — it’s who you play on the day you play.”

It is also about how the quarterbacks play. Although the final four teams have some of the best defenses in the N.F.L. — the and the Packers allowed the fewest points (232 and 240) and had the most sacks (48 and 47) during the regular season; the are ranked fourth over all and second to the Steelers against the run; and the Jets (third against the run) just shut down the N.F.L.’s top-scoring team — the outcomes were decided by quarterbacks.

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers , drilling the shell-shocked Falcons from inside and outside the pocket for 366 yards, 3 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing. His 86.1 completion percentage Saturday is a record for a franchise that has also had Bart Starr and at quarterback.

“This probably was my best performance,” Rodgers told reporters. “The stage that we were on, the importance of this game.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan made an awful throw to the sideline on the most important play of his game, leading to an interception that for a touchdown just before halftime.

nailed a 58-yard pass down the deep right side on third-and-19 that landed on receiver Antonio Brown’s shoulder with two minutes to play, setting up the Steelers’ winning touchdown against the Ravens.

“He has a no-blink mentality,” Coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Bears’ Jay Cutler, in his first playoff appearance since high school, was nearly perfect against the Seahawks, and running for two.

And finally, in what appeared to be the most lopsided of quarterback matchups before the game, the Jets used the same formula the Giants employed in the Super Bowl three years ago to batter and frustrate .

The Jets mixed up coverages to confuse him; they pressured him, often without the benefit of a blitz; and they bottled up receivers exceptionally well, leaving Brady to grow jumpy while he waited for something to open up.

In his regular appearance on Boston radio station WEEI, Brady said he wondered what he could have done differently to avoid an interception on the most conservative play in the Patriots’ playbook: a screen pass.

“Brady is a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he made some errors early and then he got hit and he was very uncomfortable,” Edwards said. “Every time Brady couldn’t convert a third down, they were sitting on the sideline for 10 minutes.”

The Packers and the Jets have blown a hole in the seedings. The last time both sixth seeds beat top seeds was the 2008 season, when the and the Ravens did it, only to lose in the conference championship games.

Only 10 nondivision winners have advanced to the Super Bowl since 1969, but six of them won it, the most recent being in the 2007 season with the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots.

The good news for the Packers and the Jets is that one of those 10 teams was a sixth seed: the 2005 Steelers. And they won the Lombardi Trophy.

Now What?

The Patriots underwent an overhaul after last season’s home playoff loss, which made them the best team in the 2010 regular season. Nothing that drastic is expected this year — the Patriots are loaded with young, talented players who got plenty of playing time — but there are a few significant decisions to be made.

Left tackle Matt Light, who has spent 10 years with the Patriots, is a free agent. Late Sunday night, in an indication of just how quickly things shift in the N.F.L., Light was contemplating what might happen this off-season. He said he hoped to play for the Patriots next year and “continue to do what I have done.”

Light’s contract, like that of so many others, will most likely have to wait until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

The Patriots have two picks in each of the first three rounds of the April draft, giving Coach wide latitude to fill key spots or to accumulate even more draft picks. The Patriots were thin this year on the defensive line, and the absence of a big, field-stretching wide receiver hurt them against the Jets.

Expect More Seahawks Moves

For the Seahawks, the rebuilding will be more profound after a season that ended with a losing record (8-10) despite a playoff appearance. Coach Pete Carroll made more than 200 roster moves in his first season, but there will be more to come.

The most significant decision will be at quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck is 35 and last week, after he threw four touchdown passes against the Saints, Carroll said he wanted him back. But Carroll also traded away a third-round draft pick, and moved down in the second round, to acquire the backup Charlie Whitehurst.

Favre Retires, Part III

Brett Favre has filed his retirement papers with the N.F.L. office. That move, , would seem to indicate the expected end of his career after an injury- and scandal-marred final season. Favre said repeatedly during the season that 2010 would be his last, and his consecutive starts streak was ended by a shoulder injury he sustained this season.

But wait. Favre has filed papers before, in Green Bay in early 2008. Then, in the summer of 2008, he requested reinstatement, which allowed the Packers to trade him to the Jets.

After one season with the Jets, Favre again said he was retiring. The Jets released him, and he signed with the as a free agent.

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Throw Toward Falcons CB Grimes at Your Own Risk

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.. Brent Grimes is easy to pick out, even though he’s usually the shortest guy on the field.

He’s the guy every opposing quarterback tries to pick on.

The Atlanta Falcons cornerback is only 5-foot-9 — “five-foot-nine-and-a-half,” he’ll quickly correct, making sure one doesn’t forget that extra half-inch — and his resume is hardly the kind one expects from an NFL starter.

Grimes went to a Division II school, Shippensburg State. He was overlooked in the NFL draft. He spent time playing in Europe. He’s been cut or waived at least three times.

He just kept coming back for more.

Now, Grimes is an established starter in the Falcons secondary, a guy with a short memory and a knack for making big plays. Throw his way at your own risk.

“You have to be careful when you go at him. I’ve learned from experience in practice,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. “You’re thinking you can fit some things in. He’s not the tallest guy. But his athleticism is impressive. He can jump and make plays.”

Grimes said he doesn’t think teams pass at him anymore than they do the rest of the secondary, but the statistics tell a different story. He’s got three interceptions, broken up another 11 passes and made 45 solo tackles, many of them after giving up the inevitable completion here and there.

The other corner is Dunta Robinson, the Falcons’ major free-agent signing during the last offseason and considered one of the league’s best at his position. With teams rarely throwing in his direction, he’s broken up just three passes, has yet to make an interception and has 28 solo tackles.

“I don’t think they target me anymore than they do anyone else,” Grimes said. “But if that’s what it is, fine. It just gives me a chance to make plays.”

He’s made plenty of big plays for the first-place Falcons (8-2), such as knocking down a season-high three passes in last week’s 34-17 victory over the .

Not bad for a guy no one gave much a chance to ever make it to the NFL.

“Of course, I heard that I was from a small school, that I was too small to play in the pros,” Grimes recalled. “I could make plays, but they didn’t really believe in me because I was from a small school.”

A native of Philadelphia, he wound up at Shippensburg State because no major school even bothered to offer him a scholarship. He set a school record with 27 interceptions, which only made it more obvious to Grimes that he was capable of playing at the highest level.

“I feel like I could’ve played somewhere else. I could’ve played at one of the bigger schools,” he said. “But I was at a D-2 school and I made the best of it.”

Coming out of college, he earned a look from the Falcons in 2006 but failed to make the team. He re-signed the following year and was assigned to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europa, which got him another shot in training camp. This time, he made the practice squad.

Grimes finally made his NFL debut for the final two games of the 2007 season, and the next year he started six games for a team that went to the playoffs as a wild card. He also began to impress his teammates with his prolific feats in the weight room and other tests measuring various athletic skills.

His determination wasn’t too bad, either.

“He’s feisty, there’s no question about that,” Falcons receiver Brian Finneran said. “With all the bigger receivers in the league these days, they’re going to try to attack him because of his size. But what he lacks in height, he more than makes up for with his athleticism, his ability to jump, his quickness, his ball skills. He’s fun to watch.”

Other teams have taken note, and not just because they think he’s an easy mark.

“He’s pretty short,” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said a couple of weeks ago, before the lost to the Falcons, with Grimes making his third pick of the season. “But he can go out and play. He can be a little aggravating, too.”

On Sunday, Grimes will be facing ‘s Aaron Rodgers, coming off a 301-yard, four-touchdown performance, and the Packers’ deep, talented groups of receivers.

Like Flacco, Rodgers went out of his way to bring up Grimes.

“He’s very impressive,” the quarterback said Wednesday. “Obviously, bringing in Robinson was a big addition. … But I’ve got to give Grimes his props. He’s the kind of guy you pull for. He’s been released a couple of times and been a practice squad guy. He’s paid his dues. Now, he’s playing very well.”

Just don’t forget that other half-inch.

He’s 5-foot-9 — and a half.

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