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Sports: Hopefuls Battle For NFL Glory


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.


SIMON: The NFL playoffs are well underway. Eight teams still standing. Two of them will be sent home today. Well, I'll bet most of them have pretty nice homes anyway. From the studios of New England Public Radio, we're joined now by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com, ESPN the magazine and ESPN the scented candle.

Howard, thanks very much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hi, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: Listen, Howard, a lot of people were flabbergasted to see the Denver Broncos last week upset...

BRYANT: Oh, boy.

SIMON: ...upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. I gather you know of at least one sage analyst who called it that way, right?

BRYANT: Oh, I think it might be you. Might it be you?

SIMON: Yes, come to think of it. I'm glad you remembered that. Pure dumb luck on my part. But what did we see at work that might give Denver some chance today?

BRYANT: I think you saw a couple of things at work. The first thing you saw, which I don't think is going to help Denver tonight, is a great deal of overconfidence on the part of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I don't think their defensive backs had any respect for Tim Tebow. I don't think they thought he could beat them. I don't think you're going to see such under-preparation from the Patriots.

But on the part of the Broncos, you've got a very tough team. And they win through a lot of counterprogramming. Nobody runs the football anymore in the NFL, and the Denver Broncos do. So what they do is they line you up expecting the run, and they're hoping that Tim Tebow can break for big plays, which he did constantly against Pittsburgh.

SIMON: I'm going to pick the Broncos by six again. OK?


BRYANT: I think your luck's going to run out this time.

SIMON: All right, well, my luck, not theirs. Another big game, though, tonight; San Francisco 49ers against the New Orleans Saints. Now, the 49ers this year have been one of the greatest recovery stories since Ozzy Osbourne. The, you know, defense is supposed to win championships.

BRYANT: Yeah, and they're terrific. And what you've got here is this wonderful, wonderful offensive team in Drew Brees going up against San Francisco, which is the best defensive team in the league this year. And I'd say it's that great classic matchup of defense versus offense.

And I'm not going to fall for the trap and think that the Saints are going to win this game by 30 points because I think that good defenses can make a great offense look normal. But I do think that the Saints are going to win simply because I just don't see anybody stopping the Saints enough, or San Francisco scoring enough points to win that game.

SIMON: Professional tennis season kicks off in earnest this week with the Australian Open. Let's talk about the women's side.

BRYANT: Yeah, first slam of the year. And it's going to be a terrific, terrific tournament because I think on the women's side you've got two major issues. One is we're waiting for the crowning of a new queen. You had four different women winning the majors last year. So you don't have that dominant woman. And everyone's waiting to see who it's going to be.

I think it's going to come down to Petra Kvitova, who's number two in the world, or Victoria Azarenka, who's number three in the world. Or maybe it's going to be one of the old ones coming back. Obviously, when Serena is at her best, she's the best player in the world still. But you just wonder if her health can keep up enough to get her over the top.

SIMON: And on the men's side, are we living in the tennis age of Novak Djokovic?

BRYANT: Well, the big question is whether or not anybody can take down Novak Djokovic after the year that he had. He won three out of the four majors. He destroyed Rafael Nadal, who was then the number one player in the world. And can he duplicate that is the big question.

And also, the big question for me is whether or not Roger Federer has one more major in him. I think he's going to win a major. And I think it might be the Australian Open because of how well he finished the year after the U.S. Open.

But once again, the star of the year of 2011 and obviously going in the star of this year is Novak Djokovic.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine.

Thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.