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As Giants rise to occasion, Packers shrink from spotlight

Every Sunday night, Around The League takes a closer look at four of the weekend's most interesting subplots. We call it The Filthy Four ... mostly for alliteration purposes.

Giants leap out of Lambeau

Many believed the Giants would put up a good fight against the Packers at Lambeau Field. Some believed New York could even win. But could anyone have predicted Green Bay laying a total egg?

In a divisional round marked by surprises, the Packers' performance in their 37-20 loss might have represented the biggest shock of all.

Green Bay was plagued by turnovers (four), dropped passes (eight), poor defensive execution (37 points allowed) and even some uncharacteristically poor throws from Aaron Rodgers, who had been nearly perfect over the Packers' first 16 games of the season.

But make no mistake: The Giants earned this win, overcoming both the defending Super Bowl champions and some brutal officiating that led to 14 Packers points. Eli Manning (21-of-33 passing, 330 yards, three TDs, one interception) is playing out of his mind right now. Throw in some wild pointing gestures and gibberish talk at the line of scrimmage, and you would've swore Peyton was playing for Big Blue.

Next stop is San Francisco, where the Giants meet the 49ers with the franchise's fifth trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The 49ersbeat the Giants 27-20 back in Week 10. These two teams last faced each other in the conference championship in Jan. 20, 1991, when Bill Parcells' Giants knocked off the heavily favored 49ers on Matt Bahr's last-second, 42-yard field goal.

The final score of that game was 15-13, the type of defensive struggle you'd expect next week. But then again, this postseason has showed us that past performance doesn't guarantee future results.

The Tebow conundrum

John Elway almost made it. He was so close. The Broncos' executive vice president of football operations rode the Tim Tebow roller-coaster for three months, his every word about the young quarterback endlessly dissected. Nobody regrets contractually obligated radio spots like ol' No. 7.

A six-game winning streak made it seem like Elway could confidently head into the future with Tebow at the controls. The three-game losing streak that followed produced doubts, but a stirring performance in the wild-card playoff round against the Steelers seemed to re-establish Tebow's footing.

Then came Saturday night's beatdown at Foxborough. It wasn't so much that the Broncos lost badly -- most people expected that. It was more how Tebow didn't seem to give his team a chance, submitting the type of performance (9-of-26 passing, 136 yards, one lost fumble, five sacks) that bolsters the argument we're dealing with a one-hit wonder on the level of the "Bad Day" guy.

So now put yourself in Elway's shoes for a moment. Are you any more confident in Tebow now than you were a month ago? Are you ready to hand the franchise keys to a guy who barely completed one-third of his passes against a Patriots defense ranked 31st?

Public sentiment will conclude Tebow -- who has become nothing short of a cultural phenomenon -- must return. Four dramatic wins during his run has put more than enough goodwill in the bank for many Broncos fans.

But Elway isn't being paid to promote goodwill. Feel free to step out of his shoes now -- it's clearly not a fun place to be.

Smith re-writes his story

Did anyone on Earth wake up Sunday in a better mood than Alex Smith?

In four hours -- four hours that seemed like a fever dream for anyone who knows Smith's back story -- the 49ers quarterback re-wrote his NFL legacy in a 36-32 win over the Saints. This surely made the Cheerios go down nice.

All that No. 1 pick disappointment stuff? Now it's only a chapter in Smith's story, not the whole book. More people will remember what he did against the Saints, matching Drew Brees throw-for-throw down the stretch in an outrageous playoff win. Smith finished 24-of-42 passing for 299 yards with a 103.2 rating, the type of production for which the 49ers waited seven years.

"It shows he's becoming an elite quarterback," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "I'm glad the world could see what he did today."

Ah, there it is again, that buzzword that's affixed itself to the quarterback position. Unofficially, The Elite Club is populated by Rodgers, Brady, Brees and both Mannings. Philip Rivers is knocking on the door. Tyler Palko also is knocking, but he's just dropping off some dry cleaning.

Smith isn't qualified to sit at the big boys table, but the 49ers don't need him to be. He successfully performed what was asked of him all season, and when the moment called for it Saturday, he raised his game to another level. Not bad for a first-round bust.

Ravens must be ready for the next challenge

Do you believe in the Ravens?

A compelling argument can be made either way. Yes, the Ravens took care of business Sunday with a 20-13 win over a feisty Texans team, but did they show enough to make you believe they can take down the Patriots on the road next weekend?

New England has scored at least 40 points in three of its last four games, including a 45-10 decimation of the Denver Tebows that could have been significantly worse had Bill Belichick decided to amp up his Evil Meter (it's surprising he didn't in retrospect).

Slowing down the Patriots' juggernaut offense represents the ultimate challenge for the Ravens. It also represents perhaps the last best chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to get back to the Super Bowl. You think those guys will be mentally prepared?

And then there's Joe Flacco, who now has the platform to prove he's not just along for a ride on the wings of the Ravens' defense. Flacco has been vocal this season about not receiving respect -- both from a personal and team standpoint -- and next Sunday, he'll have the chance to back up his talk.

As for the Texans, just making the playoffs was a blessing after nine consecutive dark Januarys to start their franchise history. They beat the Bengals last week and had a chance to steal a win in Baltimore. But four turnovers, three on interceptions by T.J. Yates, did them in.

"You can't turn the ball over, especially against a team that has the defense that they do," said Arian Foster, who carved up the Ravens for 132 rushing yards. "They're opportunistic, and they're very tough."

But with Matt Schaub back in the lineup next season, the future remains bright in Houston.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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