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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Sudden turnover churns the NFL playoffs

Surprising Giants, 49ers are in. NFC favorites Green Bay, New Orleans are out, along with elite QBs Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, as fumbles, interceptions loom large in upsets. AFC picture is clearer.

January 15, 2012|Sam Farmer
  • 49ers quarterback Alex Smith finds running room down the sideline on a 28-yard touchdown dash against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter Saturday at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith finds running room down the sideline on a 28-yard… (Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images )

The San Francisco 49ers suddenly have an offense.

The New York Giants suddenly have a defense.

And the two quarterbacks whom nobody could hang with, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, now have all off-season to hang with each other, because the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints are out of the playoffs.

In San Francisco, 49ers faithful are sounding like Saints fans, still wondering, "Whodat dat threw dat?" That was Alex Smith, the quarterback nearly cast aside by the organization, who Saturday threw one of the greatest touchdown passes in franchise history — a 14-yard strike to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left to upset New Orleans, 36-32.

What's more, the Saints had five turnovers in that game. Before that, they hadn't coughed up the ball since Week 12.

And what about the Packers? They had four turnovers — not counting the one officials astoundingly ruled a non-fumble — after giving up the ball only 14 times during the regular season.

Rodgers was nowhere near as sharp as he was throughout the fall, his letdown coming at the worst of times. Maybe there was something to the fact that, coming into Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field, he hadn't played in a game since Christmas Day.

Regardless, the teams that get to the Super Bowl are the ones that get hot at the right time — something the sixth-seeded Packers were reminded of last season — and the Giants and 49ers are scorching.

For most of the season, we seemed to have the NFC figured out: The Packers were on the path to perfection, and the Saints weren't far behind. They were clearly the teams to beat, and led by Canton-bound quarterbacks, so important in a league that puts so much emphasis on throwing the ball.

It was the AFC that was a murky mess. But now, the AFC picture is pretty logical. New England is back, ending a three-game postseason losing streak by crushing Denver, 45-10. There will be no storybook ending for Tim Tebow this season.

And Baltimore picked up its first home playoff victory since 2000 — the season the Ravens won the Super Bowl — by beating Houston, 20-13. That punctuated a perfect 9-0 home record for a team that now must win at Gillette Stadium to advance.

So with three weeks to go before the Super Bowl, four teams remain, and a host of good story lines exist for whichever teams are playing in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.

It could be New England versus San Francisco. That would pit Tom Brady against the favorite franchise of his childhood. He was a kid in the stands when Dwight Clark made "The Catch" from Joe Montana in the NFC championship game against Dallas in the 1981 season. Montana wound up with four rings, and Brady is two wins away from getting a fourth of his own.

If New England plays the Giants, it would be a rematch of one of the greatest Super Bowls ever, when Eli Manning & Co. spoiled the Patriots' bid for perfection four years ago.

Giants-Ravens would be more deja vu, seeing as those teams met in Super Bowl XXXV, with Baltimore winning it all.

And San Francisco-Baltimore would be the second All-Harbaugh game of the season, with the Ravens' John coaching against the 49ers' Jim for all the marbles. If you thought that Bros. Bowl on Thanksgiving was big, just imagine it on the grandest stage.

Regardless, a lot of the faces are fresh, and so are the stories. The pot has been churned. After a weekend of fumbles and interceptions — a combined 14 by the four losing teams — that kind of turnover isn't so bad.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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