THE FIFTH DOWN; Rex. Rob. Matt.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – By the end of the day Sunday, the Giants will have faced a number of notable opponents on their quest for a Super Bowl: the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers and three guys named Ryan.

On Dec. 24, the Giants beat the Jets and their portly, outspoken coach, Rex Ryan, to win the unofficial city championship. Last Sunday, they defeated the Dallas Cowboys and their portly, outspoken defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, to clinch a playoff berth. So perhaps it is only fitting that they open the postseason Sunday against Atlanta and the steely, sure-armed Matt Ryan.

”Why not?” Giants offensive lineman Kevin Boothe said. ”Let’s go for three.”

That the Giants finished the regular season with consecutive games against the Ryan coaching twins was an N.F.L. scheduling quirk. That they would face an unrelated quarterback with the same last name and an entirely different demeanor in the playoffs is a funny coincidence.

In any event, the Falcons’ Ryan could not be more different from the two coaches with whom he shares a last name.

”Well, Rob has a great head of hair on him,” Boothe said of the differences between the three. ”Other than that, one’s playing and the other two are coaching. One is offense and two are defense, too.”

The Ryan brothers both predicted, at varying points before or during the season, that their teams would end up in the playoffs. So much for that. The Jets descended into chaos as they made an ignominious early retreat home for the winter. And the Cowboys were on the wrong end of a 31-14 loss to the Giants that kept them out of the playoffs.

Matt Ryan, in contrast, has a plain-spoken manner and a cool demeanor that earned him the nickname Matty Ice, though he has a total of four interceptions in his two career playoff games, both of which the Falcons lost.

He surely hopes that he differs from the other Ryans in another crucial regard: by being able to beat the Giants.

N.F.L. PLAYOFFS: WILD-CARD ROUND: ATLANTA at GIANTS: 1 p.m. Sunday TV: FoxnThis is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

PHOTOS: COACH RYAN: For all of Rex’s brash talk, it was Tom Coughlin who prevailed in the showdown.; COORDINATOR RYAN: Rex’s twin, Rob, did no better a week later. His Dallas defense derailed.; QUARTERBACK RYAN: Not related to Rob or Rex. He’s half their age, maybe half their weight.(PHOTOGRAPHS BY, FROM LEFT, MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES; SHARON ELLMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS; CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES)

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Patriots Take the Air Out of Jets’ Season

It was comforting to realize the frauds we had to deal with Sunday were merely of the professional football variety. It required no soul-searching to watch the Jets’ being exposed as 90 percent hot air, the Lions unmasked as unthreatening bullies, or the Chiefs as … gee, I’m not even sure what analogy fits there but for some reason they evoke the image of squashed Bubble Wrap. Sure, you could comb the injury bin and start to feel queasy about the real toll the N.F.L. takes, but for a day, gosh, it sure beat contemplating college football’s full-scale ethical seizure.

The Jets-Patriots game got full entertainment billing Sunday night with its story line of good versus evil, upstart versus faltering powerhouse or loud versus smarmily annoying — depending on your point of view. It ended with Rex Ryan looking like a Macy’s parade float someone had let half the air out of, and while the Patriots hardly looked like their old selves, they were gritty enough to swat away the Jets, . By the end, with fans draining out of MetLife Stadium like green Kool-Aid from a leaky pitcher, the usual order of the American Football Conference East had been restored, , New England fans were relishing the humbling of Ryan, and the Jets maintained their trend of always seeming one game away from glory, .

And there were plenty of other purely football matters decided Sunday, with the other New York metropolitan area team, the Giants, becoming the latest reason for 49ers fans to marvel at the turnaround perpetrated by Coach Jim Harbaugh, . The Lions were clobbered by the Bears — oh my — while having their bully act look more and more pathetic, . The Lions may have started the fight, , but the Bears finished it. The Eagles showed again that they have exactly zero fight in the fourth quarter, , and that’s why this season is spelling the end for Coach Andy Reid, .

The coaching head-scratchers of the weekend came in two different varieties. that Falcons Coach Mike Smith’s decision to go for it on fourth down deep in his own end in overtime was a gaffe of ridiculous proportions. Denver Coach John Fox gets the opposite reaction for his new love affair that creates victory out of a 2-for-8 passing game from Tim Tebow. While at the idea that the Broncos could make the playoffs this way, the Chiefs have to explain how they could be bad enough to let that happen,

Baseball interrupted football season for a few minutes with the Cardinals’ hiring of . He could not be more different from Tony La Russa, . And the rescue of the kidnapped Washington Nationals player Wilson Ramos in Venezuela was followed by his startling this winter anyway.

Still, any good news seemed welcome after a week of absorbing the Penn State scandal, which will reverberate long after Saturday’s game pitting not only the Nittany Lions against Nebraska, but the usual celebratory atmosphere of a college football game against the reality of a sexual abuse scandal few could get their arms around. It highlighted the warped world of sports broadcasting, , and tempted people to think of the ousted Joe Paterno as some sort of victim in all this, urges people to resist. We hope the news media resist the knee-jerk use of the word redemption (of course, already failed at that with ) because unless Penn State suddenly becomes the leader in a massive movement to fight sexual abuse of children, there will be no redemption here.

What we are left with is questions, about why the investigation of Jerry Sandusky took so long — a topic tackled — and about how deeply this rocks the country’s views of college sports. that it should shake people’s faith, and

Sure makes you nostalgic for the days when p or whether Ohio State players paid for their tattoos were our biggest concerns. The questions are so much larger now. And they all make the N.F.L. feel like something of a relief.

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American Football Conference

6. JETS (Wild Card) at1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (East)

This is the first time in N.F.L. history that both divisional-round games in a conference feature matchups ofdivision rivals. But Jets versus Patriots is the N.F.L.’snastiest current feud, and its third installment this seasonis a fitting reprise.The Jets say they wanted this game. They shouldprobably be careful what they wish for. They were humiliatedby the Patriots a month ago, 45-3, a demolitionthat Jets Coach Rex Ryan will need all of his motivationalskills to get his players to erase from their memories.The problem for the Jets is that the Patriots’ multifacetedoffense has not slowed since then, and the Jets’ offense is stillstruggling to score. The Patriots have not scored fewer than 31points since Nov. 7, slicing up the vaunted defenses of the Jets,the Packers and the Bears in that stretch. Danny Woodheadand the Patriots’ tight ends present tough matchups for theJets’ defense.Given Mark Sanchez’s shaky passing for much of the Coltsgame, it is reasonable to assume the Jets will try to runthrough the Patriots. They rushed for 169 yards against theColts and they averaged 4.9 yards a carry against the Patriotsin December. But the Patriots held three of their last four regular-season opponents under 4 yards a carry, and if they getout to a quick lead, the game will be forced into Sanchez’shands — exactly where the big-play Patriots defense wants it.Ryan got the hype started last week with a swipe at Bradywhen he unfavorably compared his study habits with PeytonManning’s. The Jets will need their most complete game –balanced offense, a defense that forces turnovers — to staywith the Patriots.PLAYER TO WATCH Don’t overthink this. Watch Brady, whoprobably heard about Ryan’s slight within minutes of its utterance.His passing has been staggeringly accurate (no interceptionssince Oct. 17, four over all). The Patriots go as Bradygoes, and for most of the last two months it has looked as if that would be to the A.F.C. championship game.


Can they please stage this game inside a steel cage? Themost bruising rivalry in football is played by two teams builtaround pounding defenses and a preference for the runninggame. The fascinating thing, as in the Jets-Patriotsgame, is how the teams will change their approachesbecause they are so familiar with each other.The Ravens came out throwing against the Chiefson Sunday, before leaning on Ray Rice. They will probablyhave to try to throw against the Steelers, too, becauseif the Steelers’ defense has a weakness, it’s atthe corners. Much about the Steelers will depend onthe health of safety Troy Polamalu. In the final twomonths of the regular season, the Steelers allowed anopponent to score more than 16 points only once — theJets, in a game that Polamalu did not play.The Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall rushed for morethan 1,200 yards this season, but his yards per attemptwas just 3.9, and he will have little running room againstthe Ravens. So it will fall to Ben Roethlisberger to attackthe Ravens’ secondary — also their weakness, exceptfor safety Ed Reed. The Ravens will have to be vigilantbecause Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays by scramblingout of the pocket, and by avoiding interceptions (just fivethis season), makes him dangerous.But the Ravens forced five turnovers against the Chiefs, andthe Steelers will have to guard against that, too. These teamssplit their season series, although the Ravens’ victory came inSeptember, when Roethlisberger was suspended. When theyplayed in December, it was exactly what is expected now: alow-scoring, penalty-laden affair. The Ravens have won five ina row since.PLAYER TO WATCH Make it players — Polamalu and JamesHarrison. Joe Flacco was poised and accurate against theChiefs, but these two have a way of unnerving quarterbackswith their relentless pressure and speed.DIVISIONAL MATCHUPSBy JUDY BATTISTAAmerican Football Conference National Football Conference

National Football Conference


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