Although we had just one game with a single-digit margin during Wild Card Weekend, there was plenty of intrigue and great play. The four home teams marched on which will make for some interesting matchups next weekend.
Texans 31, Bengals 10
What happened? The Texans defense took away the Bengals rushing attack and forced rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to beat them. The result was three interceptions by the rookie. Meanwhile, T.J. Yates played the role of game manager to near perfection and Arian Foster ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
The big play- With the game tied at 10 with 1:48 before halftime, Texans rookie defensive end J.J. Watt plucked an Andy Dalton pass out of the sky with his monstrous hands and returned it 29 yards to pay-dirt. It started a run of 21 unanswered points for Houston.
Could the outcome have been different? Watt’s pick-six was the turning point in the game, but safety Chris Crocker had a potential interception bounce off his chest which he could have took to the house. That would have tied the game and shifted momentum at a key point in the game.
Where do they go from here? Houston: They head to Baltimore for a matchup with the Ravens. Baltimore handled them 29-14 earlier this season while the Texans still had quarterback Matt Schaub.
Cincinnati: The Bengals have had good seasons under Marvin Lewis in 2005 and 2009 but both were followed by 4-win campaigns. Cincy needs to find a rushing attack and Andy Dalton will need to get better in his second season.
Saints 45, Lions 28
What happened? Brees happens. The Saints signal caller was his usual excellent self as he set a playoff record by throwing for 466 yards with three touchdowns. New Orleans was an offensive machine and the Lions simply couldn’t keep up as the Saints scored touchdowns on all five second half possessions before running out the clock.
The big play- On the Saints first second-half possession, Drew Brees found Devery Henderson on a 41-yard bomb for a touchdown giving New Orleans its first lead at 17-14. They would never trail again.
Could the outcome have been different? Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw two “50-50” balls that could have easily been intercepted. Instead the Lions secondary didn’t make the plays and New Orleans ended up with touchdowns.
Where do they go from here? New Orleans: The Saints will travel to San Francisco where they are currently 3 point favorites against a 13-3 49ers team. The Saints offense hasn’t been as effective on grass, and they will be facing one of the best defenses in football.
Detroit: It was a great season for the Lions but if they’re going to take the next step they must improve the secondary and running game. The return of Jahvid Best and Mikel LeShoure next season will help.
Giants 24, Falcons 2
What happened? The Giants defense stifled the Falcons for much of the day and Eli Manning was near-flawless as he went 23 for 32, 277 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The big play- The Falcons went for a 4th-and-1 on the New York 21-yard line in the third period began and were stifled on a quarterback sneak by Matt Ryan. The score was 10-2 and the Giants seized momentum and scored just three plays later as Manning found Hakeem Nicks who split the defense and went 72 yards for a touchdown to effectively put the game away.
Could the outcome have been different? The Giants were the better team, but if Atlanta could have converted their two 4th down situations perhaps they could have made it a game.
Where do they go from here? New York: The Giants travel to play defending Super Bowl champ Green Bay in a regular season rematch. The Packers edged the Giants, 38-35 in a game played at the Meadowlands. New York is playing much better football now and this will likely be the toughest test the Packers will have all season.
Atlanta: The Falcons, believing that they were one player away traded much of their 2010 and 2011 draft for wide receiver Julio Jones. Armed without a first-round pick, the Falcons need to get better in their secondary and on the offensive line. Former Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner needs to find some fresh legs as he looked gassed at the end of the season.
Broncos 29, Steelers 23
What happened? The injured Steelers were no match for the Tim Tebow aerial attack as the Broncos hit on big play after big play to burn the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers played far too much Cover-1 and Cover-0 and the Broncos made them pay time after time.
The big play- On the first play of overtime, Tim Tebow hit DeMaryius Thomas in stride and Thomas stiff-armed Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and took it to the house 80 yards.
Could the outcome have been different? The Steelers had a key drop early on by Jerrico Cotchery which could have been a touchdown, instead Pittsburgh had to punt. Just before halftime, Steelers center Doug Legursky snapped the ball over Ben Roethlisberger’s head, keeping Pittsburgh from attempting a make-able field goal. Big plays in a game which went to overtime.
Where do they go from here? Denver: The Broncos will travel to New England for a rematch with Tom Brady and the Patriots. New England was the first team to erase the “Tebow magic” with a 41-23 victory in December after falling behind 16-7 early on.
Pittsburgh The Steelers suffered too many injuries to overcome at the end of the season. They are very young on offense and should be very good again assuming Ben Roethlisberger can stay healthy. The defensive line has a poor mixture of older veterans who can’t stay on the field and younger players without enough experience. Pittsburgh has to get better on the back end of their defense as reigning Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu has not been the same player as in years past.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie