Lions and Texans hoping to upset old order as they bid for unlikely Wildcard glory
AMERICAN FOOTBALL: The NFL play-offs open with a little history tonight: the Houston Texans make their debut post-season appearance, while the Detroit Lions run out for their first play-off since 1999.
The Texans, all of 10 seasons old, open the play-offs by hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. Soon after, the Lions play at New Orleans Saints.
There they are, Detroit and Houston, both with 10-6 records, in there among recent champions the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, who are all frequent play-off qualifiers.
Tomorrow, the Atlanta Falcons visit the Giants, followed by Pittsburgh at the Denver Broncos.
The lack of familiarity with such surroundings doesn't concern Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who has 17 players with play-off experience, but only kicker Jason Hanson got it with the Lions.
"We haven't always played our very best, I don't think any team ever does, but I think we've learned from some of the things that have happened and I think we're a little bit more battle-tested, a little more seasoned," he said.
"There's one thing of learning about something, there's another thing experiencing it first-hand."
The Lions only recently met the Saints, falling 31-17 at the Superdome on December 4.
Then again, everyone lost at New Orleans this season.
Saints coach Sean Payton dismisses the newcomer factor, saying he doesn't expect to see a wide-eyed, nervous opponent in the wild-card game.
"I don't think that there's really any correlation to new teams or experienced teams, necessarily, in the play-offs," said Payton, whose new play-off qualifiers in 2006 went to the NFC championship game.
"Teams have players that have been in the play-offs with another team, but I think it's the week of preparation.
"I think it becomes the key thing that wins and loses games each week in the turnover ratio, big plays, the red zone and third-down efficiency, those are the things that matter."
Fourteen Texans have made it to the play-offs with other clubs.
"From that standpoint, as far as our players, maybe that's a good thing that they don't have a lot of things to pull from. It's just, go play it like any other game," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "They know that the result -- the biggest factor -- is you can move on. If you don't play well, you're not moving on, you're going home.
"They all understand that, but this is the Houston Texans' first taste of a play-off game."
This is Cincinnati's third play-off appearance in seven seasons, but the Bengals have flopped every time. Their last post-season victory was in 1991.
"It would be a tremendous feeling for us to get rid of that stigma of not being able to get to the play-offs and win it," offensive tackle Andre Smith said.
The Texans have high hopes of adding to Cincinnati's play-off woes. Though they struggled in the last month, losing their final three games, the Texans' last win was at Cincinnati, 20-19.
The Falcons haven't won in the play-offs either with Matt Ryan at quarterback, not even as the No 1 seed in the NFC last year.
Ryan doesn't dwell on blown chances. "It is the first opportunity that I have and we have as a team this post-season. We are excited about that," he said.
"All the stuff that happened in the past doesn't really make a difference. It comes down to preparing this week and doing whatever we can to keep advancing throughout the play-offs."
The Broncos' last play-off trip was in 2005, when they lost to the Steelers for the AFC title. Pittsburgh, also a wild card then, won the Super Bowl.
"It doesn't matter how you get in," said Denver linebacker Mario Haggan. "We have an opportunity, and when you get in, anything can happen."
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
Live, Sky Sports 2, 9.30
Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints
Live, Sky Sports 2, 1.0am
Atlanta Falcons @ NY Giants
Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 5.30
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 9.30
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.