There have been some common themes in these National Football League playoffs so far: the home teams have been exceptional, the bye week hasn’t hurt momentum and No. 1 and 2 seeds are set to meet up on Championship Weekend.
While that’s all true, there is just one exception: the New York Giants, who are defying the odds.
49ers 36, Saints 32: In the classic bout between offensive and defensive juggernauts, the defense prevailed. And for the 49ers, who, in spite of the doubt still shed upon them despite owning the second-best record in the NFC, outshined the Saints in the fourth quarter behind much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith.
There were four lead changes in the final quarter, three in the final 2:11 of the game. Smith’s bootleg run put San Fran up by a point before Drew Brees and the Saints marched right down the field to regain the lead. With 97 seconds left, the game was in Smith’s hands.
Smith completed five passes on the final drive, none more important than the 14-yard strike he threw to tight end Vernon Davis in a play now being heralded as “The Catch III,” a close third to Montana-to-Clark and Young-to-Owens.
New Orleans’ road record in the playoffs fell to 0-5, and for a second straight season it’s a feeling of disappointment heading into the offseason. But for the Niners, it’s as rewarding a victory as the team could have ever imagined. Smith and Davis are among the many 49ers whom had never had a sniff of the postseason, but proved to be clutch in the franchise’s first playoff game since 2003.
Patriots 45, Broncos 10: The clock struck midnight on Tebow Time, at least for this season, as Tom Brady and his Patriots distanced themselves from the Broncos early so the rest of the nation could tune into the Miss America Pageant.
Brady threw an NFL-record five first-half touchdown passes, three to his touchdown machine Rob Gronkowski, en route to a thrashing of the Broncos. Marking their signature performance of the season, the Pats defense knocked Tim Tebow down to reality.
Tebow completed nine passes for 136 yards, rushed for just 13 yards and was harassed all night. New England hit the Mile High Messiah eight times and sacked him five times. The Cinderella season in Denver came to a halting end, and the speculation about the future of the quarterback can resume.
The blowout marked the Patriots’ first win after a string of three straight playoff losses. Owners of an NFL-best nine-game winning streak, the Pats, after arguably their best overall performance of the season, will host the AFC Championship Game.
Ravens 20, Texans 13: It’s a daunting task to face the Baltimore defense. It’s even more difficult when you’re a rookie in the not-so-friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium.
The first quarter essentially decided the outcome of this matchup. The Ravens scored 17 points in the quarter and picked off Texans quarterback T.J. Yates twice. And Yates’ teammates didn’t help him out.
The Ravens forced four turnovers and committed none themselves, won the time of possession battle and didn’t account for a single penalty – quality-control football, if you will. Safety Ed Reed, who finished the game by intercepting Yates and ending all hopes of a Houston comeback, called it “winning by any means necessary.”
Giants 37, Packers 20: It’s starting to feel eerily similar to 2007, when, like Sunday, the road-tested Giants overcame the Packers in Lambeau en route to the Super Bowl.
The Giants defense stifled a Packers offense that had been dominant throughout the regular season, but they did so in atypical Giants fashion. On 80 percent of Aaron Rodgers’ dropbacks, the G-Men sent four of fewer pass rushers, leaving the linebackers and secondary to remain in pass coverage.
At the same time, Green Bay didn’t do themselves any favors. After a week off, the wide receivers looked rusty, dropping six passes, tied for the most by any team this season. The Pack turned the ball over a season- high four times, including three lost fumbles and an interception.
But the momentum shifted after a Hail Mary heave at the end of the first half. Reminiscent of the David Tyree catch in the 2007 Super Bowl, Hakeem Nicks snatched a 37-yard offering from Eli Manning in the end zone that gave the Giants a 20-10 halftime lead. Manning finished the game with 330 yards and three touchdowns and outshined the presumed MVP wearing green and yellow.
Rodgers and the Packers’ early dismissal marks yet another year the reigning Super Bowl champs will not repeat. Meanwhile, the Giants’ journey to the Super Bowl will continue, on the road, as they face the Niners who won, 27-20 in Candlestick Week 10.