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Wild-card wins nice, but real playoffs begin in divisional round

US Presswire
(From left) Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Frank Gore and Ray Rice are all rested up for divisional weekend.

DENVER -- Maintaining a message of even-keeled confidence, Broncos coach John Fox on Monday didn't want to overstate Sunday's win. Nor did he want to pretend it boosted the team's swagger to unprecedented levels.

This, he said, is what Denver expected. This, as echoed by four of his players, is what he knew his team was capable of accomplishing. "Our message is to be the same guy," Fox said. "Don't get too high; don't get too low."

Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. It's the same sentiment shared by each of this weekend's three other wild-card winners -- the Texans, the Saints and the Giants -- each one treating their first win as nothing more than validation of their presence in the playoffs.

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Who can blame them? Houston won by 21 points, and New Orleans won by 17. Denver beat the league's top-ranked defense, while New York's defense posted a shutout. That's all enough to maintain hope without even having to remind each that four of the past six Super Bowl winners also had to first win a wild-card game.

"We understand what mission we have in front of us and we have to take care of that," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "So we just have to have another good week of preparation like we did, and this next one should be good."

It's well and good, all deservedly inspiring performances that will fuel each team -- whether they admit it or not -- as they move forward. But before any of these four teams gets their fingers fitted for rings, there are four reasons to chill out: The Packers, the Patriots, the Ravens and the 49ers.

Given the success of each squad this season, it remains difficult, no matter the history of the past six Super Bowls, to pick against any of them. After all, while the Packers were a sixth seed last season, they remain almost entirely intact as they prepare for another playoff run.

Are we not to assume they'll be even better prepared this time around?

Denver's success against Pittsburgh is obviously not going unnoticed, nor is it being disrespected. The Steelers' defense was the best in the NFL heading into that game, considered one of the teams most likely to make that run from a wild-card team to a Super Bowl winner, and Tim Tebow dismantled the unit with one pass after another.

Before any of the four wild-card teams get their fingers fitted for rings, there are four reasons to chill out: The Packers, the Patriots, the Ravens and the 49ers.

But how do we erase from our collective memories, especially given it was less than a month ago, when the Patriots defeated the Broncos, 41-23?

"We didn't do a good job of getting off the field on third down or holding them to three in the red zone," Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers said. "We know they're going to get their plays, but we can't give them gifts."

That's not to say things can't -- or won't -- change. The Giants, for instance, lost a 38-35 game to the Packers on Dec. 4. And although much closer in score than the Broncos' last shot against the Patriots, you're not going to convince either team that their fates can't change this time around.

Broncos running back Willis McGahee says his presence alone, since he tweaked his hamstring shortly into the team's loss to the Patriots, should help Denver's chances this time around.

"I was in there for the first couple of plays until I tweaked my hammy, then I was out," McGahee said Monday about that last game. "So it was really a difference-maker for us. I think that had a lot to do with (the loss)."

Maybe, maybe not. Surely, nobody is denying that any of the four winners from the Wild Card Weekend can march into this divisional round and pick up a win. Surely, each of the top-seeded teams will be a little apprehensive about making any guarantees after watching the magic orchestrated by Tebow on Sunday.

But before any of these wild-card winners convince themselves that they will become the next underdogs-turned-champions, they'll want to look what's in front of them. Four very solid teams have yet to show their stuff during this playoff run, instead spending their weekends at home watching three games decided by 17 points or more.

Four teams had special performances Saturday and Sunday, showing the rest of the league why they belong. Now, four teams await, with every intention and hope of showing them why they don't.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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