Tim Tebow, Broncos
There aren’t many things that Sunday’s two NFL playoff games have in common.
The New York Giants are playing at home against the Atlanta Falcons in the first game, and they are 3.5-point favorites over Atlanta.
The Denver Broncos are playing at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late game, and they are heavy underdogs, Pittsburgh being an eight-point choice.
What both games do have are intriguing matchups and quirky facets.
Here are some of our favorites:
Tom Coughlin, Giants
If there is one constant for coach Tom Coughlin’s Giants, it’s that they start the season fast and tend to fade.
New York won six of its first eight games, but just three of its final eight. That means that for the first time since the NFL and the AFL put their differences aside in 1970, the NFC East winner had fewer than 10 wins.
That being said, after a four-game losing streak, the Giants won three of their last four, including beating the Cowboys twice in a rivalry that seems to go back to biblical times. And that means that the 10-win Falcons and not the 13-win Saints provide the first test in the playoffs.
Willis McGahee, Broncos
Denver is in this game because of its ability to run the ball.
The Broncos got 1,199 regular season yards from Willis McGahee and had an NFL-best 2,632 yards on the ground overall.
The second runner, Lance Ball added 402 yards and a 4.2 average, but the guy who made it work was quarterback Tim Tebow, who ran 122 times for 660 yards and a team-best six touchdowns.
Part of that success was predicated on an offensive line that used the same five starters all season.
Right guard Chris Kuper fractured his tibia last week, however, and the Broncos don’t know how that is going to impact the running game. They’ll move Russ Hochstein in and just-signed Ryan Harris could see limited time as well.
More than that, starting fullback Spencer Larsen suffered a knee injury last week, and if he can’t go, then Austin Sylvester, who was signed off the practice squad this week, could debut as the starting fullback.
Matt Ryan, Falcons
One season after finishing with the best record in the NFC, the Falcons had reason to worry heading into 2011-12.
Why? No Atlanta team had ever gone to the NFL playoffs in consecutive seasons.
And with a 2-3 start to the season, it seemed as if history was going to hold true. But a mid-season surge of five wins in six games led by quarterback Matt Ryan put the Falcons back on the right road.
Now the Falcons have to play on the road, which isn’t that big a deal considering they were at home last year when eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay came crashing into the Falcons’ dreams.
Von Miller, Broncos
For the first dozen games of the season, Von Miller was one of the big stories among NFL rookies.
The Denver linebacker made a habit of busting into the backfield and chasing down one hapless quarterback after another. He had 10.5 sacks at that point and seemed unstoppable.
But in Week 13 Miller tore ligaments in his thumb. He’s continued to play, but a large cast has turned him into a different player. He has just one sack since the injury.
Opponents have averaged 7.6 yards per attempt in the six games since the injury; in the six games before that, the average was just 6.6.
For the Broncos to win, Miller is going to have to play back to form.
Corey Webster, Giants
New York finished sixth in the NFC in turnovers forced this year, picking off 20 passes and recovering 11 fumbles.
But they are up against it with the Falcons, who had just 21 turnovers all season, one of the best marks in the NFC.
If cornerback the Giants' Corey Webster can add to a six-interception regular season, it could be the difference in the game.
One thing that the Broncos have going for them is their ability, under the guidance of quarterback Tim Tebow, to pull out close games.
Denver has played 11 games decided by seven points or less, and they’ve won seven of those. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, does most of its winning in blowoutsseven wins of eight or more points and four of at least 21 points.
If the Broncos, despite their underdog status, can keep the game close heading into the fourth quarter, they are going to be able to rely on their close-game experience.
Eli Manning, Giants
This was a year when quarterbacks were able to shine and 5,000 yards became the new norm for excellence. That being the case, the 4,933 yards turned in by Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning is almost able to be overlooked.
Even so, Manning is coming off his best season with a QB Rating of 92.9, and he comes into this game with all his weapons alive and kicking.
Most of the Giants’ running backs and receivers have missed a game or two this season, but that’s in the past, which could make Manning ready for a signature post-season game.
Victor Cruz, with 82 catches good for 1,536 yards is important, and if running back Ahmad Bradshaw who played in just 12 games, seems fully recovered from his foot injury, can provide some balance, big things can be expected from the Giants.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
One of the Broncos’ strengths this season has been the Von Miller-led pass rush that has produced 41 sacks, the 10th-best total in the NFL this season. The Steelers came up with 35 sacks, which is middle of the pack.
Both teams gave up 42 sacks this year, which is, in a couple of words, not good.
For Denver to win this game, it’s likely they’re going to have to pressure sore-footed Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into some sacks.
Miller, a rising star at linebacker, will be focused on Roethlisberger all 60 minutes.
Michael Turner, Falcons
There have been a couple of games this year where Atlanta has struggled with converting third downs.
For the most part, however, the Falcons have been one of the best teams in the league at getting the job done.
With quarterback Matt Ryan (4,177 passing yards) and Michael Turner (1,340 rushing yards) leading the way, the Falcons have managed to convert 44.39 percent of their third downs, which is the sixth-best mark in the NFL.
More than that, the Falcons are almost as good in third down situations on the road (44.17) as they have been at home (44.66).
John Fox, Broncos
There isn’t much of a history of a .500 or less team beating an obviously better team in the playoffs, but it has happened.
It happened just last year, in fact, when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks got a home game to open the playoffs and stunned an 11-5 Saints team that should have walked (or passed) all over them.
Coach John Fox's Broncos are 8-8 while the Steelers are 12-4.
Three of Pittsburgh’s four losses have come on the road, however, and even their road wins haven’t been dominant.
The home field advantage could be a huge factor in this one.
Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons
Atlanta’s defense has been at its best this year with its back to the wall.
The Sean Weatherspoon-led Falcon defense has a red zone efficiency percentage of 56.9, which puts an otherwise troubled Atlanta defense among the best in football—fourth overall to be exact.
For their part, the Giants have been good, not great, in the red zone when New York has the ball with a percentage of 66.8.
If the Giants are going to win, they are going to either have to get better in the red zone or mix in some long gainers for scores.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
The Steelers would look like a much better pick if they were clicking on all cylinders, but that’s far from the case.
First and foremost, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had to deal with a high angle sprain that won’t get much better until he can get some rest, and this is no time of the season to think about rest.
He’s going to have to play with pain, and he won’t be alone.
The Steelers’ center, Maurkice Pouncey, also has a high ankle sprain and could miss the game. If he does, his replacement would likely be Doug Legursky, who missed the season’s final game with injury issues.
And, of course, Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall had his season end with a torn ACL last week, meaning that the running game will rely on the inexperienced, if highly talented, Isaac Redman.