Posted: Tuesday January 10, 2012 12:51PM ; Updated: Thursday January 12, 2012 1:45PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

No shortage of storylines to watch among playoffs' elite eight

Story Highlights

The Patriots, Saints both have a lot to prove to doubters this weekend

This postseason is shaping up as redemption for oft-criticized players, coaches

Home won't likely be kind this weekend to the four teams that got byes

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Tom Brady
Three straight playoff losses, most recently a one-and-done defeat to the Jets after going a league-best 14-2 last year, has raised questions about the end of the Patriots dynasty.
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Sign me up for the notion that the NFL's divisional playoff round typically makes for the best weekend of the season, with the league's elite eight pairing off in four bursts of high-stakes elimination football. Here are eight of the best storylines that provide a backdrop of the action on tap:

1. Whatever happened to the Patriots' aura of invincibility in the playoffs?

Back in the day, New England in the playoffs meant you had better have your parade route at least sketched out for the Tuesday after the Super Bowl. But the dynasty has hit a drought of sorts, losing three consecutive postseason games since winning the 2007 AFC Championship at home against San Diego. That's more playoff losses than the Patriots incurred in the first 16 postseason games of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, when New England went 14-2 from 2001 through that 2007 AFC title-game victory over the Chargers.

To put it another way, by the time the Patriots and Broncos hit the field at Gillette Stadium Saturday night, there will have been 40 playoff games played in the NFL since New England last won in the postseason, and that three-year-plus gap ties for the longest barren stretch of the Kraft era in terms of postseason success.

And making it sting all the more, the Patriots have been upset by lower-seeded teams in all three of their recent playoff defeats: By the No. 5-seeded Giants in that epic Super Bowl XLII of February 2008; by the No. 6-seeded Ravens in Foxboro in 2009's first round; and by the No. 6-seeded Jets in Foxboro in 2010's divisional round. New England entered those games with a combined record of 42-8 (.840), and lost to teams that were a collective 34-18 (.654). Ouch.

The Patriots' one-and-done losses to Baltimore and the Jets represent their only two playoff defeats at home since Belichick and Brady arrived in 2000, and that's a trend that had best end this weekend against the 9-8, No. 4-seeded Broncos, or there will be panic in the streets from Falmouth to Bangor in New England.

2. Once widely dismissed, vindication is theirs.

There are at least four individuals who have more than proven their resiliency in getting to this year's elite eight; a pair of starting quarterbacks and a pair of head coaches: San Francisco's Alex Smith, Denver's Tim Tebow, Houston's Gary Kubiak and the Giants' Tom Coughlin. All have been either marginalized or counted out in recent years, but they're still standing, still alive and still getting their jobs done despite overcoming the widespread belief that their time was over.

New coaches in San Francisco and Denver were supposed to spell the end of Smith and Tebow as starting options. In Houston, last year's 6-10, last-place showing was thought to be a death knell for Kubiak, who just couldn't find a way to get his underachieving Texans to finish games and shed their tag as the NFL's biggest tease. And with Coughlin in New York, I've lost track of how many times he and his Giants have been down for the count, supposedly a match of man and team that no longer worked.

Umm, check that. Smith, Tebow, Kubiak and Coughlin, survivors all. Sure, they're underdogs again this weekend, and none of them are really expected to make it to a conference title game. But they're used to being in that position, and they've grown immune to the chatter and predictions of their demise. At this point, when it comes to being disregarded, they probably think it works for them, and wouldn't have it any other way.

3. Houston, we have a postseason.

Every postseason gives us a few sentimental favorites to pull for, but I'm taking a slightly different tack this year and elevating my sights beyond the mere quest of a veteran such as Jerome Bettis or Charles Woodson capturing that elusive first Super Bowl ring. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the city of Houston, a metropolis starving for a long overdue dose of football glory.

For starters, Houston is one of only four NFL cities to never put a team in the Super Bowl, joining Cleveland, Detroit and Jacksonville. With the Texans winning their first-ever playoff game last Saturday at home against Cincinnati, the victory marked the end of a 20-year drought. Houston's most recent playoff win had been in 1991's first round, when the AFC Central champion Oilers defeated the wild-card 8-8 Jets before losing to Denver in the divisional round.

Two decades is a long time to wait for a playoff run of at least two games, but that's what Houstonians just endured. Consider this: Every other team in this year's elite eight had won at least one Super Bowl since Houston last had a playoff victory to toast. That list includes New England (three Super Bowl wins and five Super Bowl appearances); Green Bay (two wins and three Super Bowls); Denver (two wins); the Giants (one win, two Super Bowls); San Francisco, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans (one win each).

So there's more to this postseason than just Tim Tebow's continuing magic carpet ride. Maybe Houston's turn and time has at last come.

4. A position of strength.

It's going to be difficult to keep track of all the good, young tight ends who have helped their teams advance to the league's elite eight. Every game this weekend has at least a couple standouts to watch. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham versus San Francisco's Vernon Davis gets things started on Saturday afternoon, and then we get a showdown between New England's dynamic duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and Denver's underrated Daniel Fells on Saturday night.

The last time the Patriots and Broncos got together, Week 15 in Denver, John Fox's team did a pretty good job of taking away Gronkowski in the first half. So New England quarterback Tom Brady instead turned to Hernandez, who absolutely abused the Broncos. At the end of the day, the Patriots had won comfortably and their tight end tandem had combined for 13 receptions, 182 yards and one touchdown.

In Sunday's games, it's Houston's Owen Daniels against Baltimore's talented second-year tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who have combined for 94 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Daniels reportedly broke a bone in his right hand last week against Cincinnati but is still expected to play against the Ravens. And in Green Bay, it'll be the play-making threat of Jermichael Finley for the Packers, and the emerging Jake Ballard for the Giants. Those two are among the favorite targets of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.

5. Who invited them?

In each of the past three postseasons, there's been an unexpected team who crashed the party and then stayed longer than anyone anticipated. In 2008, the sixth-seeded Eagles squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card at 9-6-1, but then won at Minnesota and the Giants before running out of gas at Arizona in the NFC title game.

In 2009, Jets head coach Rex Ryan declared his team's playoff chances finished after a Week 15 loss at home to Atlanta, but he was misinformed. The Jets (9-7) went on to win their last two games and make the playoff as the No. 6 seed in the AFC, thanks to some help from the starter-resting Colts in Week 17. New York took the gift and ran with it, knocking off the Bengals and Chargers on the road in the playoffs, before losing at Indy in the AFC title game.

Last year, the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks were the team no one saw coming. Seattle had to win at home against St. Louis in Week 17 just for the privilege of being the NFL's worst division champion ever (at least by record), but the Seahawks didn't let it discourage them. They shocked the 11-5 Saints in the first round, who were a double-digit favorite, and went on the road to give the No. 2 seeded Bears a scare before expiring, 35-24, in the NFC divisional round.

This year's upstart? That's easy. Denver won the AFC West despite going just 8-8 and losing its last three games of the regular season. None of which seemed to matter much last Sunday, when the Broncos and quarterback Tim Tebow stunned the NFL by beating the heavily favored Steelers 29-23 in overtime at Denver's Sports Authority Field. And now the Broncos get to take their magic act to New England, making for a fourth straight year in which a team with fewer than 10 regular-season wins has advanced to the divisional round.

6. Can the Saints take their fireworks outdoors?

New Orleans is hearing all the usual dome-team blather about now, but the Saints have got to prove it's just that if they're going to win at the 49ers this week and maybe at Green Bay in the NFC title game. The Saints went 3-2 outdoors this season, losing at Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and winning at Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee. The wins against the Panthers and Titans were narrow, as were the losses to the Packers and Bucs. Indoors, the Saints have gone 11-1 this year, losing only at St. Louis in Week 8.

In their five games outdoors, the Saints averaged almost 26 points per outing, but topped 30 points only once, in a 42-34 season-opening loss at Green Bay. They've been considerably more potent with a roof over their heads, averaging almost 39 points per game, and eight times topping the 30-point plateau. In their past three games, all at home, the Saints offense has been machine-like, scoring exactly 45 points in wins against the Falcons, Panthers and Lions and rolling up more than 600 yards of offense in the last two.

The 49ers pose the stiffest defensive challenge New Orleans has faced all season, and San Francisco's personnel on that side of the ball will do more to decide the outcome than the grass playing surface and weather conditions. The 49ers were second in the league in fewest points allowed (14.3 per game), and their No. 1-ranked run defense (77.3 yards) and tied-for-league-best 38 takeaways are reasons for hope to San Francisco's faithful.

7. There's no place like home.

With Houston, New Orleans, the Giants and Denver all advancing, the home teams went 4-0 in the wild-card round, the first time form has held in that regard since 2006. But history says we won't see a repeat in the divisional round, because since the NFL started the current seeding system and expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, there has never been a postseason when home teams went 8-0 in the first two rounds.

In fact, the last time all four divisional-round games were won by the home teams -- or the top two seeds in each conference -- was in 2004, when Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NFC, and Pittsburgh and New England in the AFC all made very good use of their first-round byes and their homefield advantages.

This year's top seeds have been very strong at home, with Baltimore and Green Bay going a perfect 8-0, and New England and San Francisco finishing 7-1. That combined 30-2 mark at home is ridiculous, but in the playoffs, it has been a different story of late for those teams. The Ravens haven't even had a home playoff game since 2006, and haven't won one since 2000 (the lone home postseason win in Ravens history). The Patriots have lost their past two home playoff games, and haven't won in the postseason since the 2007 AFC title game at Gillette Stadium.

In the NFC, Green Bay lost its most recent playoff home game, falling to New York in overtime in the 2007 NFC title game. The Packers won the week before at home against Seattle in the divisional round. San Francisco is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and in that year's first round, the 49ers came from way back to beat the Giants 39-38 at Candlestick. So, of the four home teams this weekend, two of them last won a playoff game in front of their fans in 2007, with another in 2002, and the other in 2000. Maybe we'll see some upsets after all.

8. What's up with the NFC playoff field and living in the past?

For weeks now we've heard that the Giants are in the process of waking up the echoes of 2007, and their improbable Super Bowl run of four years ago. It started with that narrow loss to undefeated Green Bay at home in Week 13, the one that reminded everyone of their narrow loss to undefeated New England at home in Week 17 of 2007, which seemed to jump-start New York's title run.

OK, we get it. There are certain similarities to be found. But it seems like everybody's got a little magic they're looking to re-create. Saints fans desperately want to believe it's 2009 all over again. San Francisco is fervently hoping this year is the first step in bringing back the 49ers' glory era of the 1980s and '90s. And in Green Bay, well, the Packers want to recapture the mojo that took them to last year's Super Bowl victory, and win back-to-back championships like those Lombardi-era Packers of 1966-67.

Alas, somebody's dreams of yesteryear aren't coming true. There can only be one champion a year, and it could even be a team from the AFC. And besides, I'm not sure all this living in the past is really that healthy anyway. They say the future is where it's at.

 
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