Pat Kirwan provides six observations from this weekend's wild-card action.
Houston earned the right to go to Baltimore
As Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston said to me early in the 2011 season, "We have a lot of things to accomplish as firsts this season on our way hopefully to a Super Bowl." The Texans had never posted a winning record, won a division title or played in the postseason -- all of which they can now cross off the list. Now it's time to hit the road to Baltimore for what should be a tough divisional-round matchup.
The Texans have another opportunity at a franchise first: beating Baltimore. Houston is 0-5 all time against the Ravens, with one of those losses coming back in Week 6 of this season, when Matt Schaub was under center. Schaub was sacked four times back in the Ravens' 29-14 win, but he didn't have Andre Johnson in that game. It's no secret the Texans intend to run their way to the Super Bowl, but Baltimore held Arian Foster and Ben Tate to 90 yards and no touchdowns on a combined 24 carries in October. The Ravens' defense has been brutal to opposing running games all year at home, giving up an average of 83 yards per game and just three total touchdowns in eight contests. Ideally, the Texans want to run the ball 40 times and pass 20 on Sunday. The Ravens want to flip that ratio and put the pressure on T.J. Yates.
When the Ravens have the ball, the Texans' priority is to stop Ray Rice, which they didn't do last time these two teams played. Rice touched the ball 28 times for 161 total yards against the Texans. Rice's production at home is a big reason why the Ravens went undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium this year. In eight home games, he had 210 touches for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns. If Rice hits his average, the Texans will lose. If they slow down the run, they have to deal with Joe Flacco, who has a 4-3 postseason record and is playing in his first home playoff game. The last time these teams met, Flacco threw for 305 yards, with Anquan Boldin hauling in eight receptions for 132 yards.
Warning signs for the winners
» The Saints looked unstoppable on offense, but their defense didn't get to Matthew Stafford even one time in 43 throws. I watched three- and four-man rushes and blitz schemes being employed all night -- none of which were effective. Two of Stafford's touchdown passes came against a three-man rush with eight in coverage.
» The Broncos' upset win over the Steelers was a great game to watch, but their run defense has to tighten up a bit after giving up 156 yards on the ground at 6.8 yards per carry. On the other side of the ball, Denver took great advantage of the Steelers overplaying the run with long passes from Tim Tebow. On the road, however, the Broncos will need Willis McGahee and Lance Ball to do better than 23 carries for 72 yards.
On the road again
Home field was a big factor this weekend. Now all four winners pack up and hit the road. Last week's winners have momentum on their side, but the home teams in the divisional round (New England, Baltimore, San Francisco and Green Bay) are all rested and ready. Or are they?
You have to go back to 2005 to find a year when all four home teams won on divisional weekend. Since 2006, the record of home teams in the divisional round is 12-12. The upcoming games this weekend are not easy to figure out, and history says there will be an upset or two.
Getting it done on third down
The Saturday games saw four teams with great third-down plans, as each team exceeded its average conversion rate. It might speak to the difficulty of playing defense in today's NFL, or it might just show us how these teams came ready to move the ball. What made the third-down conversions even more impressive was the fact that the four teams combined to convert 56.5 percent.
» The Houston Texans offensive line did a great job blocking for the run game, even though the Bengals knew it would be coming at them all day. The last time these teams met -- Houston's 20-19 win in Week 14 -- it wasn't a great run day for the Texans, and Yates was involved in 49 pass plays. This playoff game was won because the Texans ran the ball 35 times for 188 yards with two touchdowns. It still amazes me that neither right tackle Eric Winston nor left tackle Duane Brown made the Pro Bowl.
» The Saints wowed us with their unstoppable passing game, which overshadowed how dominant the running game was. Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory combined for 31 carries, 164 yards with three touchdowns. Guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans are both All-Pros, but the Saints tackles go unnoticed. Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief had a lot to do with opening up the running lanes against the Lions. In the fourth quarter, the Saints ran the ball 12 times for 45 yards and two touchdowns.
» The Giants had a few unsung heroes in their win. Left tackle David Diehl supposedly was done as a left tackle and was going to finish his career at guard. He spent most of his day battling Falcons defensive end John Abraham and did a better job than injured Will Beatty would have done. The Giants' defensive tackles also stopped a number of Falcon attempts to convert short-yardage situations. Special recognition also goes out to Chris Canty and Linval Joseph, who both made the big stops.
Letting them play
The wild-card weekend brought its share of controversial calls or non-calls by the officials, but there was little doubt in the Saturday games that officials had decided to let the teams play. In the Cincinnati-Houston game, the teams came in with a combined penalty average of 12 per game, though the matchup produced just eight total penalties. It was even more noticeable in the Lions-Saints tilt. There were just 10 flags thrown in a game featuring two teams that averaged a combined 15 penalties per game in the regular season. On Sunday, the trend continued.
During the regular season, these eight teams combined to average 51 penalties per week. On wild-card weekend, only 39 flags were thrown. This was a clear signal to the coaches and players that the officials were going to let them play.