The NFC Wild Card games are set. Do the Falcons and Lions have what it takes to pull off road upsets of the Giants and Saints? Let's take a closer look.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)
With the Giants, it's an ongoing case of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Which team is going to show up? The one that nearly knocked off the undefeated Packers in Week 13 and followed with three stirring victories in their final four games (two over Dallas and one over the Jets)? Or the one that got flattened by the Redskins in a critical Week 15 tilt?
Anyone who is able to properly diagnose the Giants can predict how this game will play out. The Falcons couldn’t be any different than New York, in that you know what you’re getting from them. According to the number-crunchers at FootballOutsiders.com, Atlanta is the most consistent team ever measured by its DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system.
The Falcons play at a similar level week in and week out, a level that was good enough to knock off the likes of Detroit, Tennessee and Carolina, but not the Saints, Packers or Texans.
Looking at the Giants, it’s easy to finger the Redskins loss as evidence of a similar performance looming in the playoffs. But the Redskins also handily beat the Giants in Week 1, which suggests they may have simply had their number this year. The ebbs and flows of divisional rivalries can be tough to quantify sometimes.
The Giants fell victim to the most brutal of stretches from Weeks 9-13, during which they faced, in succession, the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints, and Packers, arguably five of the best teams in the NFL.
The Falcons are consistently decent but never spectacular. The Giants are better than their record and playing at home. A primary strength of both teams is their ability to throw the football. Eli Manning has a Super Bowl MVP; Matt Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs.
Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Winners of eight straight, the Saints are blistering hot. Drew Brees has thrown 27 touchdowns and four interceptions throughout the win streak, during which New Orleans has averaged nearly 37 points per game, including back-to-back 45-point eruptions against the Falcons and Panthers at the Superdome to close out the regular season.
To underscore just how unstoppable the Saints have been, consider the following: They had 10 drives apiece in those games. Against Atlanta, those drives went touchdown, touchdown, interception, touchdown, interception, touchdown, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown. One of Brees’ picks came in the end zone and the pair of punts didn’t come until New Orleans had a 38-16 lead in the fourth quarter and had taken its foot off the pedal.
The Saints’ efficiency against Carolina was even more ruthless: touchdown, touchdown, interception, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, downs. Brees was picked at the Panthers’ 11-yard line and the Saints had driven 63 yards to the Carolina 13 before Chase Daniel took a knee four times to conclude the game.
If any team stands a chance of hanging with the Saints in the dome, it’s the Lions. Led by a white-hot Matthew Stafford, Detroit finished the season with wins in three of its last four games. Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns in a wild Week 17, 45-41 loss to Matt Flynn and the Packers. He has averaged nearly 378 yards per game in that span, throwing 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Lions have made a habit of getting down big early before surging back. Detroit has overcome deficits of 13, 17, 20 and 24 points to win. Stafford has been at his best in the second halves of those big comebacks against the Raiders, Panthers, Vikings and Cowboys.
The problem with that formula is that it requires the other team to either have a quarterback prone to making multiple huge mistakes (Tony Romo, Cam Newton) or an offense that can be stopped for consecutive drives (Vikings, Raiders).
Brees won’t be gift-wrapping any turnovers and the Saints’ last 20 drives don’t bode well for a Lions defense that has allowed an average of 26.5 points and 455 yards per game over the last four, and a Stafford-led offense that tends not to get its wheels turning until the second quarter. Brees will be motoring toward San Francisco by that time if Detroit stalls out of the gate Saturday night.