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Giants, Bengals become big surprises as opening round looms

It's unbelievable to think that the regular season has come and gone. Wasn't it just yesterday that we saw Jason La Canfora sweating out another three-hour lockout meeting?

Perhaps even less believable is that the Bengals -- a team almost no one gave any chance in August -- made the playoffs this season. But we start our first look at this weekend's first round with a look at a game that involves another big surprise: the New York football Giants, who went from an almost-hopeless 6-6 record to 9-7 and the NFC East title.

No. 5 Atlanta (10-6) at No. 4 New York (9-7)

When:Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, FOX

Last Meeting: Week 1, 2009 (Giants, 34-31 in OT)

Early Take: Atlanta must protect Matt Ryan. The G-Men's front four had Tony Romo running for his life much of the game Sunday night. The talented receiver duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones will never take off without their quarterback getting to the seventh step in his dropback.

One way to offset a fearsome rush is to get the running game going, which means a slumping Michael Turner must produce. It might be difficult for Ryan to succeed throwing 50 times on the road in a playoff environment and possible adverse weather.

Then again, a sometimes-suspect Giants secondary is on notice. Similarly, consider Atlanta corners Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes to be on storm watch. They must play the ball and make tackles, i.e., eliminate RAC yardage so as to neutralize Victor Cruz (if that can be done!). Eli Manning probably won't be able to rely on Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs against a solid Falcons run defense (eighth in NFL).

This and That…

» The Falcons could also have trouble rushing the football. Turner is averaging just 56 yards running per game with a poor 3.3 yards per carry average.

» The Giants' run defense has struggled this season, giving up 126.1 yards per game coming into Week 17. That said, they shut down the Dallas ground attack Sunday night (49 yards allowed).

» These two teams have never met in the postseason. The Giants lost the NFL's first NFL Championship game in 1933. The Falcons started play in 1966.

No. 6 Detroit (10-6) at No. 3 New Orleans (13-3)

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, NBC

Last Meeting: Week 13, 2011 (Saints, 31-17)

Early Take: In a regular-season rematch, the red-hot Saints will host the Lions in the first round. The first key, before anything else, is that Detroit doesn't beat itself with penalties. In their earlier meeting at the Superdome, the Lions gave the game away with 11 penalties for 107 yards.

Meanwhile, the Lions are often well-equipped with Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson to get into track meets, yet the Saints are one team Jim Schwartz's group would be wise not to engage in this kind of contest. The Lions must run the ball to keep the Saints' offense off the field and so Stafford won't press, like he did in Chicago earlier this season. Not forcing things also goes for wideout Nate Burleson, whose three offensive pass interference calls really hurt the team in the Week 13 tilt.

The Lions need to find some way to get pressure on Drew Brees and make him pay for dropping back 40-50 times. Otherwise, they'll be playing catch-up on the road in a very loud environment.

This and That…

» For all the ballyhoo regarding Ndamukong Suh, remember that New Orleans sent three offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl: Jermon Bushrod, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks

» …a trio that contributed to only allowing a sack for one out of Brees' every 26.9 dropbacks, the best rate in the league.

» Like the Giants and Falcons, these two franchises have also never met in the postseason. The Lions have been around since the playoffs were invented in 1933. The Saints initial season was 1967.

No. 5 Pittsburgh (12-4) at No. 4 Denver (8-8)

When:Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Last Meeting: Week 9, 2009 (Steelers, 28-10)

Early Take: The struggling Denver offense will have its hands full next weekend. After only gaining 285 yards and turning the ball over four times in Buffalo followed by a 266-yard and two-turnover performance versus the Chiefs, it's obvious Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has work to do.

The Steelers' defense has been outstanding following some early-season struggles against the run. Dick LeBeau's unit finished the season as the league's top-ranked unit, while the run defense came in at a very respectable ninth. That's more than relevant when juxtaposed with the Broncos' ground-heavy offense. Expect the Steelers to take away the outside scampers from Tim Tebow, and force him to throw from the pocket.

Switching sides, Ben Roethlisberger will have his hands full with crowd noise in Denver, but that's something he's effectively managed before. The 2005 AFC Championship win in Denver catapulted the Steelers to a Super Bowl XL berth (and a win). Of more concern is how he will fare evading the rush of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Roethlisberger's ankle is certainly not 100 percent.

This and That…

» Dumervil and Miller combined for 21 sacks this season

» The Steelers put up 161 yards rushing in Cleveland. Expect Isaac Redman (92 yards) to get the ball often with Rashard Mendenhall's knee injury.

» These two teams last met in the playoffs in the aforementioned 2005 AFC Championship. The Broncos were the two seed, but were bested by the sixth-seeded Steelers, 34-17.

No. 6 Cincinnati (9-7) at No. 3 Houston (10-6)

When: Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Last Meeting: Week 14, 2011 (Texans, 20-19)

Early Take:The most interesting storyline in a game that features two clubs backing into the playoffs: their previous meeting was the last game the Texans won.

T.J. Yates beat the Cincinnati defense late, delivering the game-winner to Kevin Walter with just seconds to go. The third-stringer was solid most of the game, going 26 of 44 for 300 yards. It was not a good afternoon for the Bengals' secondary, with key penalties and coverage breakdowns when the pass rush couldn't get there. Yates was sacked five times. One advantage he'll have this time around is a healthy Andre Johnson, who creates matchup problems against everyone not named Revis.

While the Bengals defense has to do a better job containing Yates, the game might rest on how rookie Andy Dalton deals with Wade Phillips' pressure-based 3-4 defense. Cincinnati's game plan in the first meeting was to utilize the ground game, calling 29 runs and 29 passes. Expect a similar mixture in a loud road environment.

This and That…

» To the last point, the Bengals have run for more than 100 yards as a team in nine straight games. For the most part, the Cedric Benson-Bernard Scott tandem has worked this season.

» Houston lost Sunday due to a bad snap, and has nine giveaways in its last four games, including a minus-five turnover ratio. Gary Kubiak's group can't afford turnovers in what should be the weekend's tightest contest.

» The biggest question mark is if the Bengals can beat a good team. Losses versus the 49ers, Ravens (twice), Steelers (twice), and Texans indicate they can't.

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