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Four home teams win wild-card games

BARRY WILNER

Published: Monday, Jan. 9 2012 3:40 a.m. MST

New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck (91) moves in to hit Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants won the game 24-2.

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Here come the big boys.

After the four host teams swept the wild-card round, the division winners who earned byes get to try their hands at protecting the home-field advantage.

Tim Tebow's overtime heroics and the Giants' balance on offense and stinginess on defense were decisive Sunday.

Tebow hooked up with Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard pass play to lift Denver over Pittsburgh 26-20, a play that took 11 seconds for the quickest overtime finish in NFL history.

"Definitely a special memory. One that will always be very special," Tebow said of his fourth overtime win of the season, against no losses.

Manning, having his best pro season, threw for three touchdowns and even scrambled for 14 yards to get New York's offense on track in a 24-2 victory against inept Atlanta.

"Before the game I said, 'Hey, let's have fun, these are special moments and just go out there and play your best,' " Manning said. "I knew all of them would be great and try not to make a big deal about things."

The big deals on Saturday were Drew Brees and the Saints, and the Texans in their postseason debut.

Brees and New Orleans dominated the second half to romp past Detroit 45-28 in the NFC. In the AFC, Houston won in its first playoff game in its 10-year existence, 31-10 against Cincinnati.

The last time all four home teams won in the wild-card round was 2006, when the Patriots beat the Jets, the Colts took the Chiefs, the Eagles downed the Giants, and the Seahawks beat the Cowboys.

And now the powerhouses join the action. NFC South champion New Orleans (13-4) visits West winner San Francisco (13-3) on Saturday. The 49ers were 7-1 at home, winning their last six.

"You win 13, 14 games now, and you're trying to find something," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "When you start playing well on the road and home, you're probably a better team and we've been able to do that. This will be a good challenge for us. Not just playing on the road, but traveling west."

New England, also 7-1 at home, hosts Denver (9-8) that night. The AFC East champ Patriots (13-3) whipped the West champion Broncos 41-23 on Dec. 18 in the Mile High City.

"We played them a month ago. It didn't go very well," Broncos coach John Fox said. "That would be kind of my mindset this minute. I think it will be a huge test. It is a well-coached ... great football team, great organization. It will be at their place, so it will be a huge challenge. It is one we'll look forward to."

The Texans (11-6) visit Baltimore (12-4), which won all eight home games in 2011, including a 29-14 victory over Houston on Oct. 16.

"We made history," said rookie defensive end J.J. Watt, whose sensational leaping interception and 29-yard return for a touchdown was decisive for Houston. "We're excited about another chance to make history up there in Baltimore."

That matchup of AFC division winners is followed by defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay (15-1), which swept its games at Lambeau Field, taking on the Giants. The NFC North winners won at the Meadowlands 38-35 in early December.

But that was when the Giants were sliding. They've won four of five since as their defense has come alive. The hot streak earned the Giants (10-7) the NFC East title and, now, a rematch with the Packers.

"If we can play defense like that," coach Tom Coughlin said, "we will continue to make ourselves heard in this tournament."

The last time the Giants were in a playoff game at frigid Lambeau Field, they won the NFC championship 23-20 in overtime, then stunned the undefeated Patriots two weeks later in the Super Bowl.

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