NFL To Kick Off Exciting Playoff Weekend

The NFL kicks off an exciting weekend of games Saturday when it starts its playoffs. Meanwhile, there's big news in the sport that most of the rest of the world calls football. Fox television is making a major play to air more soccer games in this country, including an English Premier League game before the Super Bowl. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks with Robert Siegel about the news in both kinds of football.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To be number one in the National Football League, you have to make it through the playoffs. And they kick off this weekend full of fresh faces. To begin with, Detroit is back in the mix for the first time this century. They play New Orleans tomorrow. And another game tomorrow features two rookie quarterbacks: Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals faces T.J. Yates of the Houston Texans. And, by the way, it is the Texans first appearance in the playoffs.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Stefan, how you doing?

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And these are wild card games this weekend: two tomorrow, two Sunday. Let's start with the Saints hosting the Detroit Lions.

FATSIS: This is going to be first game ever matching two quarterbacks who threw for more than 5,000 yards in the regular season: Drew Brees of the Saints, Matthew Stafford of Lions. It's also the first time that more than one quarterback ever did it in a season. Dan Marino had done that in 1984, Brees did it in 2008. This year, Brees, Stafford and Tom Brady of New England did it. Brees set the record with 5,476 yards passing. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers would have done it, but he took the last week of the season off. So his backup, Matt Flynn, went out and threw for 480 yards. And together they broke 5,000.

Lions, zero and 16 just a few seasons ago, haven't been in the playoffs since 1999, so their fans are happy. This will be a shootout, but the Saints averaged 41 points when they won all of their games at the very loud Superdome this season.

SIEGEL: Also tomorrow, the Houston Texans host the Cincinnati Bengals.

FATSIS: As you mentioned, first playoff appearance for the Texans since they joined the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, but both teams limped into the playoffs. You've got the rookie quarterbacks - first time two rookies are facing each other in the playoffs. T.J. Yates, third-string quarterback, after injuries to the one and two. The Texans are favored because of - they've got a fantastic defense. But whoever wins this game is not likely to advance much further. They're going to have to play either New England or the Baltimore Ravens next week.

SIEGEL: Now, let's move on to Sunday's games. First, the New York Giants hosting the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the Denver Broncos.

FATSIS: Yeah, that first game should be really competitive. Two excellent quarterbacks - Eli Manning for New York, Matt Ryan for Atlanta - two defenses that are suspect against the pass so that should be interesting to see how they do. The Pittsburgh-Denver game is the one that's going to get all the attention. Denver lost as many games as it won, but it's hosting the 12-and-4 Steelers, who had the same record as Baltimore but finished second in their division on tiebreakers.

The attention, of course, is going to be there because of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. He engineered a bunch of comebacks earlier in season, but his myriad deficiencies were exposed in three straight losses to end the year. His counterpart on Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger, has a bad ankle. This is going to be a low-scoring game.

SIEGEL: Now, four teams have the week off. Is the Super Bowl champion likely among those four?

FATSIS: You know, history says yes. So it should be either the Patriots, Ravens, Packers or San Francisco 49ers. Since 2000, a number one or a number two seed from one of the conferences has won the Super Bowl six out of 11 times.

SIEGEL: Now, the Super Bowl always attracts a huge television audience. But the other kind of football will also be on network TV during some of the upcoming playoff weekends. Tell us about soccer.

FATSIS: Yeah, for the first time, Fox is going to air an English Premier League game live. And this is the main network, not on its soccer cable channel. Fox have planned to do that on Super Bowl Sunday. It's not airing the Super Bowl this year, NBC is. But its tape-delayed games on the network that it had shown in the fall did so well - audience of close to 2 million for a couple of the games - that it moved the plan up. So Fox is going to show Arsenal-Manchester United live on the morning of Sunday, January 22nd. That's before it airs the NFC championship game later in the day. And on Super Bowl Sunday, February 5th, Fox is going to show Chelsea against Man U.

The live games are a sign of growth for soccer in the U.S. Of course, though, long way to go to match that Super Bowl audience, 111 million last year.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen.

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