Before the Denver Broncos went out and saved the day with their Mile High miracle (more on that later), the most startling development of an otherwise stale and predictable opening weekend of these 2011 NFL Playoffs was how the curtain closed on one of this season's presumed headline acts.
The Atlanta Falcons have come a long way from where they stood some four-plus years ago, when a series of scandals sabotaged an already star-crossed franchise, but Sunday's lopsided loss at the hands of the New York Giants was a sobering dose of hard reality that the expected Super Bowl contenders are still considerably far off from being truly championship caliber.
With bold steps taken to fortify the remaining chinks in the armor of a team that won an NFC-best 13 games during the 2010 regular season, the retooled Falcons weren't supposed to be bounced so quickly in their return playoff voyage -- and certainly not in the fashion that transpired in the 24-2 dressing-down by the suddenly-surging Giants. An offense touted to be sleeker and more turbo-charged than its methodical predecessor was far more Yugo than Lamborghini in its most important race, mustering a feeble 247 total yards and not a single point against a New York defense that had shown only sporadic signs of being a shutdown unit during that club's run to an NFC East title.
The numbers suggest the Falcons were more explosive than their 2010 edition, with quarterback Matt Ryan setting a team season record with 4,177 passing yards and ballyhooed rookie receiver Julio Jones adding a sorely-needed big- play element to the equation. But in the games that mattered most, the offense still came up well short. Atlanta averaged a drab 14.7 points in its six games against playoff participants this season, while being held under 350 total yards in four of those assignments.
And the question as to whether Ryan really does belong in the elite group of current quarterbacks also wasn't answered with Sunday's lackluster performance. In a sport where the chief measuring stick for greatness lies in postseason success, the well-regarded triggerman now has produced 584 passing yards, three touchdown throws, four interceptions and six total turnovers in three playoff outings -- all of which have been Atlanta losses.
Now, Ryan can't be held solely accountable for the Falcons' shoddy offensive showing on Sunday -- declining running back Michael Turner was a non-factor and the Giants were able to take away the vertical game with sound coverage schemes and an effective pass rush. But when examining the overall body of work, the notion that the Falcons aren't up to par with their two primary rivals for NFC supremacy in Green Bay and New Orleans -- or even the Giants, for that matter -- at the game's most important position isn't just a theory. It's a fact.
And that's troubling news for a team that's been harboring very real Super Bowl aspirations during what still rates as the most fruitful four-year stretch of its existence, especially when considering the gambles general manager Thomas Dimitroff took in an offseason effort designed to take Atlanta to the next step in its progression process and the minefields that lurk in a potentially-loaded NFC South that houses a new looming threat in the rising Carolina Panthers in addition to the ever-dangerous Saints.
Still, Ryan is near the least of the Falcons' worries heading into what will be a critical 2012 campaign. Turner turns 30 next month, generally a red-flag age for running backs with extensive wear and tear, and a defense that was gashed for over 155 rushing yards in four of the last six games has three valuable cogs (cornerback Brent Grimes, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, free safety Thomas DeCoud) eligible for unrestricted free agency.
"It's a disappointment for every man in that room," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith remarked after Sunday's setback. "Players, coaches, and staff. We are going to do everything in our power starting [Monday] to get it better and get it fixed."
That may be a task easier said than done, however. The Falcons are without both their first and fourth-round picks in the upcoming draft as part of the heavy bounty they paid to land Jones back in April, and Dimitroff's track record with free agents (see Dunta Robinson and Ray Edwards) has been much more spotty than his selecting of college players.
And now on to the big story of this Wild Card weekend.
Sure, the Detroit Lions were able to hang tough for a half in the Superdome before the Saints unleashed their unrivaled offensive fury, and the Houston Texans obtaining a long-awaited initial playoff victory and the first by a team based in that city since 1991 was a heartwarming piece of news. But the one image that is going to forever burn in the minds of NFL fans from this season's opening batch of playoff games is the stone Tim Tebow hurled that took down one of the league's Goliaths in the shortest overtime postseason tilt in NFL history.
Tebow's laser to Demaryius Thomas that the emerging star wide receiver turned into an astonishing 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the extra session (so much for those revised playoff overtime rules) gave the Denver Broncos an upset win over the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers that no one could have logically seen coming. But perhaps more importantly, the connection between two players that would have been eternally linked to one another even before that unforgettable moment brought about a measure of redemption for both the incredibly-scrutinized quarterback and the much-maligned former head coach that put his own faith in Tebow's unconventional yet always-entertaining talents.
Josh McDaniels did plenty of things wrong during a disastrous 28-game tenure that seemingly set a franchise once renowned for its consistency of on-field excellence to the dark ages, but his maneuvering to nab Thomas and Tebow in the first round of the 2010 draft can no longer be considered one of those black marks after the duo helped orchestrate by far the most stunning result of this postseason.
Though Tebow's unabashed Christian beliefs have no doubt contributed to his status as a polarizing source of debate among the national media, it's the shaky accuracy and overall lack of passing production that's made the former University of Florida legend a popular target for critics. But in easily the biggest game of his burgeoning pro career, he bombed away on a normally air- tight Pittsburgh defense with a remarkable and unforeseen precision.
The 24-year-old lefty completed only 10 of his 21 passes, but half of them went for gains of at least 30 yards. His 316 passing yards (a rather ironic number in its own right, isn't it?) were the most against the Steelers on a 2011 schedule that also included matchups against the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Schaub -- all current or former Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
Thomas, meanwhile, showed off the immense talent that once prompted Chan Gailey, his former college coach at Georgia Tech, to quip that the 6-foot-3, 235-pound physical marvel possessed more natural ability than similarly-sized ex-Yellow Jacket teammate Calvin Johnson. And after abusing savvy Steelers veteran Ike Taylor for a mind-boggling 204 yards on only four catches, Gailey's claims no longer seem so exaggerated.
Johnson, incidentally, racked up 211 yards and two touchdowns on an incredible 12 catches in Detroit's 45-28 loss to the Saints on Saturday.
And so Tebow and the Broncos' storybook season now moves on to of all places, New England, where McDaniels was just hired as the successor for offensive coordinator and newly-named Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien to bring another intriguing plot twist to what was already one of the more interesting games of next weekend's Divisional Round.
Here's a capsule look at the semifinal schedule:
New Orleans at San Francisco (Saturday, 4:30): Talk about one heck of a contrast in styles. The soaring Saints have erupted for 42 or more points in four straight games, while the defensively-proficient 49ers held the opposition to 17 points or less 10 times during the regular season. New Orleans invades Candlestick Park on a nine-game winning streak, but is 0-4 all-time in the road during the postseason.
Denver at New England (Saturday, 8:00): Top-seeded Patriots dealt the Broncos a 41-23 defeat in Denver just three weeks ago, but that doesn't necessarily ensure another blowout. If Tebow can put up over 300 yards on the NFL's top- ranked pass defense in a playoff setting, he's certainly capable of duplicating the feat against a New England group that gives up nearly 300 per game through the air.
Houston at Baltimore (Sunday, 1:00): Good to see Arian Foster, one of the game's overlooked great running backs due to the Texans' lack of national exposure, come through with a big day against Cincinnati in the first round. As for this one -- a rematch of a mid-October bout in Baltimore in which the Ravens posted a 29-14 win -- both teams rely on punishing running games and stifling defense. Baltimore was able to contain Foster in the first meeting and Houston still had Matt Schaub at quarterback back then, but didn't have a healthy Andre Johnson for that contest.
N.Y. Giants at Green Bay (Sunday, 4:30): These teams delivered one of the most exciting games of the regular season back on Dec. 4, with the Packers outlasting New York in a 38-35 shootout in New Jersey, and there's reason to believe the rematch will be every bit as action-packed as the first matchup. The Giants rushed for a season-high 172 yards in Sunday's rout of the Falcons, and repeating that type of performance would go a long way towards keeping Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's prolific offense in check.