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The First Fifteen: Wild-card edition

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By Eric Edholm

As the Patriots, Steelers, Packers and 49ers spend the week on bye, we take a look at the 15 biggest story lines heading into wild-card weekend:

1. We start, chronologically in Wild-card Weekend, with the Bengals, who backed their way into the sixth and final spot of the AFC playoff field to set up a familiar foe and, for rookie QB Andy Dalton, a familiar locale. Dalton, who played in high school at nearby Katy, Texas (a straight shot west on I-10 about 30 miles from Houston), was outshone by fellow rookie QB T.J. Yates after the teams' Week 14 matchup in Cincinnati. Yates drove the Texans to the 20-19 win with the game-winning TD pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds left. Dalton was no slouch, but Yates was better. Funny thing, though: The Texans went 0-3 since then; the Bengals won two of their final three. But what cropped up Sunday for the Bengals was a suddenly spotty run defense. They did a pretty good job in the first Texans game; Ben Tate ripped off a 44-yarder, but Houston averaged only 3.7 yards on its other 27 carries, with a long of 17. But Ray Rice absolutely gashed them in Week 17. With all due respect to Yates, the Texans have to test this run defense right away. They have the horses, Arian Foster and Tate, to do so.

2. Whereas the Bengals had to offer two-for-one ticket deals to sell out their final home game of the season, the Texans sold out the game in 11 minutes. That's because it's the first playoff game in franchise history and the first in the city of Houston since the 1993 season (Chorus that day: "Damn you, Joe Montana!"). And their hopes will rest, it appears, on the shoulders — one healthy, one not — of Yates. He separated his left one Sunday against the Titans and gave way to Jake Delhomme but appears to be well enough to start against the Bengals. Also looking good enough to start are Foster, Johnathan Joseph and Owen Daniels, all of whom sat vs. Tennessee. Without Foster, Tate and the Texans rushed for 152 yards, one yard off of their weekly average. Even if Yates is full strength, you have to think the Texans will be running the ball plentifully. One, because it's their bread and butter and, two, because it would be unfair to ask Yates to win the game (again).

3. The Saints tried their best to earn the No. 2 seed and the bye that would have come with it, but margin of victory was not one of the NFL's playoff tiebreakers. Too bad: They have beaten the Vikings, Falcons and Panthers by a combined 79 points the past three weeks, although with that kind of offensive efficiency, who wants to stop playing? Especially when you consider the opponent. The Lions come to town fresh off allowing a backup quarterback to throw for 480 yards and six touchdowns. Not saying that Matt Flynn isn't Drew Brees, but, well, you know. Brees and Co. now have won eight in a row, one of which was a 31-17 victory over the same Lions that will come into the Superdome again on Sunday. Had the Saints not incredibly lost to the Rams back on Oct. 30, it would be 10 straight. And the Saints have not lost in eight tries at home this season, the first time in franchise history they achieved that. Many people think Brees, not Aaron Rodgers, should be the league MVP and that this Saints team, and not the Packers, might be the favorites in the NFC field. But one warning: The Lions have played their best offensive football since the Saints loss, winning three of four games, and seemed to have gained something from the last game. "I think anything you do you gain from experience," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said. "We played very well at times in that game, but we didn't respond the way we should have in other times in that game. I think there's definitely a learning experience that goes and I would expect to do anything better the second time around, including playing at New Orleans."

4. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh didn't play in the Week 14 game against the Saints, serving a suspension for his Thanksgiving stomping incident against the Packers. And Schwartz disagrees with what many people are saying now: that Suh hasn't played very well since. Regardless of your opinion, the Saints could use a lot of Suh — and Nick Fairley, who missed most of the Saints game with an injury — in trying to stop Brees. The secondary was carved up Sunday against the Packers without much of a consistent pass rush, and no matter what they tried, they couldn't find many solutions. Two touchdowns came on blitzes, one came against cover-3, another against cover-4. They'll have to figure out something quickly, perhaps revisiting the Chargers tape and tapping into what worked so well in that game in Week 16. Think about what this secondary has been through the in past seven weeks, facing the passing offenses of the Panthers (ranked 13th), Packers (third), Saints (first), Raiders (11th), Chargers (sixth) and Packers again. Now they get the Saints again. One more terrific note about this game: Lions PK Jason Hanson. In his second, third, fourth, sixth and eighth seasons, Hanson and the Lions made the playoffs. They lost each time. Oh for five. Saturday night will be the first time Hanson has been back in the postseason in one day short of 12 years. Hanson has had another fine season at age 41, missing only five FG attempts and nary an extra point. Here's hoping he gets a few quality attempts in this game.

5. It occurred to me late Sunday night as the Giants were finishing off the Cowboys that Falcons QB Matt Ryan is in the virtually same position Eli Manning was in 2007. The Giants were a five-seed that year, heading to Tampa to face a Bucs team that many people assumed would take care of business in that wild-card game. Now that the Giants have finished strong this season, the common consensus is that they should beat the fifth-seeded Falcons in a home contest. Eli was 0-2 in the playoffs then, just as Ryan is now. Eli was in his fourth season, just as Ryan is now. Don't count out the importance of this game in Ryan's career; these are defining moments. As it was said at the time in early 2008 that Manning needed to win a playoff game to prove his doubters wrong, Ryan finds himself with that same pressure. Another Falcon who has waited a lot longer to win a postseason game is TE Tony Gonzalez, who has played in 238 regular-season games (missing only two along the way) and yet has gone 0-4 in the playoffs with Atlanta and Kansas City. Although he signed a one-year extension last weekend, you know how badly this game means for a sure-fire Hall of Famer who has 1,149 catches (second-most in NFL history). He and his Falcons, who were smoked by the Packers at home last playoffs, will be putting everything on the line.

6. Not that the Giants will not. They have become a very good team down the stretch as the offense, defense and special teams all have fed into each other. Victor Cruz's incredible catches have fired up the defense, just as Jason Pierre-Paul's plays behind the line of scrimmage have inspired Manning and the offense. "I hope so," said head coach Tom Coughlin, when asked if the Giants were playing their best football, "and there are areas that we can get better," he said. "I wish we were rushing the ball a little bit better. Hopefully we are playing our best, and there is always room for improvement." And you can't count out a Coughlin-coached team in the postseason. They prepare as well as anyone. The Super Bowl run in 2007 has come up a few times this week, but it is worth noting that the team hasn't exactly been barn burners in the playoffs under Coughlin, despite his coaching prowess, otherwise. Outside of the 4-0 run to glory, Coughlin's Giants are — true story — 0-3 in the postseason under his watch. Still, spies in New York, win or lose, expect him to be approached about a contract extension in the offseason. And you have to admit: What he has done with this team has been pretty darned good.

7. The Steelers will travel to Denver without RB Rashard Mendenhall (torn ACL) and S Ryan Clark, who suffers from a rare sickle cell trait and nearly died after he played in Denver in 2007. They might also be without CBs Keenan Lewis (hamstring) and Cortez Allen (shoulder), their nickel and dime backs who have played key roles. And, of course, there is Ben Roethlisberger, who has looked a shell of his pre-ankle injury self his past two games, but nothing will stop him from playing; it's not even an issue. Nothing like a little adversity heading into the playoffs, eh? The interesting thing is that the Steelers might be able to survive this game without these missing players. The Patriots showed that spreading the Broncos out might be the best plan of attack, so replacement RB Isaac Redman might not be taxed any more than he's used to. He has games this season with 10, 15 and 19 carries (the latter of which came Sunday), although he'd best clean up his execution after those two lost fumbles against the Browns. As for the three important defensive backs, this could be the perfect team to face. The Broncos have thrown for more than 186 yards only once since Tim Tebow took over. They'll need help from the rest of the offense, the defense and special teams, which have not played well all together in the same game for some time. If Brian Dawkins (neck) can't go, the Broncos could have two rookie safeties starting. Will there be one last gasp of Tebow magic?

And now for a few teams not playing this weekend ...

8. Rams COO Kevin Demoff announced on Black Monday that head coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney had been deveined and that pretty much everyone not named Josh McDaniels would be asked to kindly leave. And it didn't take long for many to connect the dots: Demoff's father, noted sports agent Marvin Demoff, represents a certain out-of-work head coach by the name of Jeff Fisher. And the Rams just so happen to have a vacancy in that position. There are several questions here. One, could they get Fisher, even though the younger Demoff dismissed reports that he was interviewing the former Titans coach? If so, it would be a coup, but an expensive one. And they still would need a GM, as Fisher is not likely to demand a double role. Two, whither McDaniels? Would he consider staying and working more with Sam Bradford, who made an impassioned plea to continue that relationship on Monday? Yet to be determined. McDaniels' brief head-coaching career and the Rams' record notwithstanding, he's a hot name still. The Chiefs and Jets are said to be very interested in his services for coordination of their offenses. Others, too, likely will join that list. The third question is who the Rams might turn to if Fisher doesn't pan out or takes another job. Do they go young? Experienced? Venerable? And which order will they hire the GM and head coach? The early guess is that they want someone big as coach and will seek a rising star as GM. This is an interesting team with a lot of quality pieces that someone will be happy about getting.

9. The Buccaneers felt they had to make a move after 10 straight losses, and through a winding, meandering statement of fluff, Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer explained just why the team fired Raheem Morris, their golden boy of not too long ago (say, like, August). "In these things it is not just one thing, but I will point to just the progress of the team and where we're at," Glazer explained, ever so deftly. "Again, you can't point to one thing or another. You look at totality of the situation when making your decision." Now that we have that figured out, you can turn to the situation that is left behind. Yuck. Yes, there is Josh Freeman, and every prospective head coach who will look at the situation will see a gifted QB who turns 24 next week with sky-high potential. But there is the matter of the previous staff, and really the organization, that handed Freeman the moon and put him in a bubble this season, which surprisingly did not turn out too well. And what else is that there is a glaring lack of talent on this roster, one that the Glazer family appeared intent not to spend dutifully on. No better way to support a young coach coming off a 10-6 season than to cut his legs out from under him. Now the matter turns to who the next coach will be. Our own Dan Parr suggests Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would be an inspired choice, and at least one league insider agrees with Dan on Chud's qualifications. Oh, and they have been hotly rumored for Fisher, too. He was spotted at the Bucs' team hotel the night before their 45-24 loss (one in which they trailed 42-0 soon after the coin flip), a story that surely all the players caught wind of pre-kickoff. No stunner they played like they had just taken a three-month-long cold tub. Well played, Glazers, well played.

10. So the man who tweets sometimes cute, always random rock music lyrics has a lethal side, apparently. In Black Monday's most shocking move, Colts owner Jim Irsay thanked Bill Polian for 14 years of service and let him and his son, Chris Polian, go. It was nothing short of a boat rocker in the NFL, even though many people privately scoffed at the Polians' draft and free-agent record, previously noting that one day Peyton Manning would not be there to save their hinds and expose all the holes in the bottom two-thirds of the roster. Oops. On top of that, Irsay informed us that head coach Jim Caldwell and his staff remained in limbo. There are not enough characters on this page to explain the choices that face this Colts franchise right now. In an interesting twist of coincidence, Andrew Luck played his final collegiate game Monday night, losing in heartbreaking fashion. (Why Stanford was so conservative in overtime with a quarterback who had completed 26 of his 30 throws for 344 yards is anyone's guess.) So other than picking a GM, figuring out the coaching staff, making a call on Manning and his mega-contract, the Luck situation and a few other odds and ends, the Colts are pretty much just getting a head start on the 2012 season. My goodness.

11. We learned Tuesday that the Chargers will retain both Norv Turner and A.J. Smith, much to the dismay of the hundreds of ticket-buying Chargers fans out there and radio talk-show hosts everywhere. In three radio appearances Monday, I was asked some form of this: "Why in God's name does Norv Turner still draw a paycheck?" In speaking to someone close to the situation out there, this was no easy decision for Dean Spanos — and rest assured, it was his call. He likes Smith and Turner and wants badly to see this thing work with them at the helm. Others might not feel as enthusiastic about that. It is bad enough having watched Drew Brees do what he has done after leaving San Diego — although what was Smith to do about that? — but the Darren Sproles thing is just plain making Smith look bad. And they chide Turner for his coaching acumen, although you cannot argue that his team played very hard (and well) for him in Week 17. Philip Rivers reportedly lobbied hard for Turner to remain the coach. Spanos had a very tough choice here, but it's not completely shocking that he stuck with the status quo at the two most important non-player positions on the team. Now, what does Turner do with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who is a poor fit philosophically and personality-wise with this team? The guess here is he's gone.

And now for the four bye teams ...

12. The 13-win Patriots, bet you didn't realize, did not beat a single team with a record better than .500. Although they earned the No. 1 seed, the pressure is on with back-to-back playoff exits at home the past two seasons, to the Ravens and Jets, respectively. None of the top two seeds, including the Patriots, know their opponents yet, and they won't know until Saturday at the earliest. If the sixth-seeded Bengals beat the Texans in Houston, they would travel to New England. Until that point, says Bill Belichick, the Patriots will take care of in-house business as best they can. "There isn't too much we can do about that for a few days, so I think the most important thing is to focus on our team and what we can do to improve on our end," Belichick said. "Certainly, we're aware of the three potential teams we can play next, and will definitely do work on them and make sure we're prepared and get a little bit of a head start there, but the bigger picture for us right now is just trying to make sure we take advantage of our opportunities in practice and meetings and the time we have between now and our next game to do the best things we can do to help ourselves individually and help our team." It will be most interesting to see what combination they try in the secondary, and it most certainly will depend on the matchup. In Week 17, the Patriots started Devin McCourty at corner but quickly moved him to safety for the majority of the game, and Sterling Moore (two INTs, one run back for a TD vs. Buffalo) played ahead of Kyle Arrington, who tied for the NFL lead this season with seven picks, at right cornerback.

13. The other No. 1 seed, the Packers, will be happy to welcome back OLT Chad Clifton, who has been cleared medically and appears to be the starter going forward over Marshall Newhouse. "Chad Clifton is the starter," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "There won't be gray area for that. But in the same breath, Chad still has a little more work to do. We've got the time to get it done. I'm encouraged (by) the progress he's made." We're still not sure if Bryan Bulaga, the would-be right tackle, will join Clifton in the starting lineup. Bulaga apparently will practice this week and try to get ready for the divisional game. Other rehabbing players include WR Greg Jennings (knee sprain) and WR-RS Randall Cobb. The team will be happy to get both back, but the interesting development has been that Cobb's absence — in the short team, at least — has caused more problems than Jennings's has. Pat Lee botched his first two kickoff attempts against the Lions in Week 17 (one resulting in a bizarre safety), only to give way to rookie RB Brandon Saine, who only fared better in that he didn't cost his team points. Speaking of Saine, he had better be ready to go on offense if RB James Starks, who is still dealing with a painful ankle, isn't ready.

14. The Ravens don't have a ton of injury concerns and head into the postseason with a little momentum after some strange setbacks this season. The questions of Joe Flacco struggling a bit might be somewhat overblown, but it's clear that Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin are the key lynchpins offensively to make everything work. The defense has not been bulletproof since Ray Lewis returned to the lineup, but it has enough leadership and playmaking ability to key a run in what appears to be a watered-down AFC field. They know that they will face the Texans if they win against the Bengals but might have to wait until Sunday to find out their opponent if the Bengals win. That would leave a matchup against the winner of Steelers-Broncos, which could set up a seemingly inevitable third matchup against their hated AFC North rivals whom they beat twice this season to clinch the division and the first-round bye. Things are looking decent in Baltimore in the calm before the storm right now.

15. With success comes the inevitable coaching rumors involving the 49ers' coaching staff. Suddenly, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, QB coach Greg Roman, DL coach Jim Tomsula and special-teams coordinator Brad Seely have become in-demand coaches for head jobs or promotions elsewhere and NFL and college teams want to get a sip of what Jim Harbaugh is serving in San Fran. The Week 17 stasis in St. Louis is a tiny bit worrisome, but it doesn't necessarily portend bad things in the postseason. The Niners know that whichever team comes to town next weekend — it will be the Saints, Giants or Falcons — will have to deal with their tough defensive style, their grueling offensive system and their conditions. But this also is a huge few weeks for Alex Smith. His career, for the most part, has been a disappointment, but he has turned things around with a strong season. It's no shock that Harbaugh, who has been a master motivator this season, has openly discussed wanting Smith back. "I told Alex, 'Hey, we're going to want you to come back here next year.'" Harbaugh said Monday. "He's focused on the season, and that's where his mindset wants to be. And I totally respect that, and we'll talk about it and address it once the season is over. That's the way I understand it right now."

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