Last weekend's entertaining wild-card round games served to separate the contenders from the pretenders, and now we get the NFL's Elite 8 squaring off in what many annually consider the best two days of action on the league's schedule. Here are eight of the best storylines as the high-stakes elimination games of the NFL divisional round take center stage:
1. Fighting their way back up the mountain: The defending NFC champion 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL, carrying a seven-game winning streak into their divisional-round matchup at Carolina. They lost at home to the Panthers 10-9 in Week 10, but Jim Harbaugh's team dropped only one more game after that and now has the services of go-to receiver Michael Crabtree back in the lineup and he's producing splendidly.
San Francisco this postseason is very quietly attempting a feat that has not been accomplished in the NFL in more than 40 years -- that's the last time a team lost a Super Bowl, then came back the next season and won it all. The 1971 Dolphins were crushed by Dallas in Super Bowl VI, but took care of their unfinished business in each of the next two years, beating Washington in Super Bowl VII and Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII.
The last NFC team to even make it to consecutive Super Bowls were the 1996-97 Packers, who won on their first try, but fell prey to Denver's upset the following year. In the AFC, the last team to make back-to-back Super Bowl runs was New England, which won rings in both 2003-04.
2. Feeling the heat in Denver: Nowhere is the pressure on this weekend like it is in the Mile High City. The Broncos are 13-3 and the AFC's No. 1 seed for a second consecutive year, and no team has earned that distinction two straight years without going to the Super Bowl at least once since the 2002-03 Eagles, who lost in the NFC title game both years, then finally made the Super Bowl as a No. 1 seed in 2004.
But that's obviously just part of the story for the Broncos, who lost so painfully to visiting Baltimore 38-35 in double overtime in last year's AFC divisional round. When you factor in that Denver broke the 2007 Patriots' league-scoring record with 606 points, and 37-year-old Peyton Manning re-wrote the NFL record book with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards passing in what is sure to be another MVP-winning season, this year has a now-or-never feel to it in Denver. Will the stars ever be this well-aligned again for Manning?
But January, of course, has been the cruelest month throughout Manning's 15-year NFL career. He's just 9-11 in the postseason, with eight of those losses coming in his team's playoff opener. Manning is on a three-game playoff losing streak that started with the Colts' Super Bowl loss to the Saints in early 2010, and the other three teams remaining in the AFC playoff field are the three teams that Denver lost to this season: New England, Indianapolis and San Diego.
All those records and accomplishments are going to ring quite hollow for the Broncos if they can't put together a Super Bowl run after outpacing the rest of the league for most of this season. After all, Denver won at least one playoff game with Tim Tebow at quarterback in 2011. Did any of us ever dream Manning would be under pressure to live up to Tebow's standard as a Broncos' QB?
3. Something old, something new, at quarterback and head coach: This year's final eight playoff teams break down quite neatly on a couple of all-important fronts. At both quarterback and head coach, the playoff field is perfectly split between the veterans and the relative newcomers, which produces a blend of the very familiar and a breath of fresh air.
Consider the quarterbacks. The veteran crowd includes Super Bowl winners Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, plus San Diego's Philip Rivers, who has taken the Chargers to the playoffs five times in his eight seasons as the team's full-time starter. That's a boatload of postseason experience, with most of it falling on the AFC side of the bracket.
But then there are the young guns. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is 3-1 thus far in his playoff career. Seattle's Russell Wilson and the Colts' Andrew Luck are both 1-1 entering play this weekend, and Carolina's Cam Newton will be making his playoff debut Sunday at home against San Francisco. Newton and Kaepernick are in their third NFL seasons, while Luck and Wilson entered the league in the celebrated quarterback class of 2012. You have to figure we have a darn good shot of getting a Super Bowl QB matchup that pits youth versus experience.
And the same goes on the coaching front. There's some heavy hardware with Bill Belichick, John Fox, Pete Carroll and Sean Payton on one side of the spectrum -- with a combined 46 NFL seasons, seven Super Bowl trips, four rings and two NCAA national championships on their resumes as head coaches. And some coaches who are just starting to build their playoff legacies in the NFL. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh leads the way in that pack, with three playoff trips and last year's Super Bowl run, and Indy's Chuck Pagano is 2-for-2 in playoff seasons in his brief Colts tenure. Carolina's third-year coach Ron Rivera, and San Diego's rookie coach Mike McCoy are first-timers in the postseason, at least as head coaches. All but Rivera, whose Panthers had a first-round bye, own at least one career playoff win.
4. Upset alert?: The NFL's 12-team playoff format is set up to give the top two seeds in each conference a huge advantage. Those clubs get to skip the first round to rest up and get healthy, with extra preparation time built in before a divisional-round home game. So why doesn't it seem to amount to much of a boost in recent years?
On the surface, Denver, New England, Seattle and Carolina look like they're in good shape this weekend, although the Panthers are slight home underdogs to the defending NFC champion 49ers. But one or two of the league's elite teams are pretty good bets to fall, because the 2004 playoffs were the last time that all four divisional-round games were won by the home team -- or the two top seeds in each conference. That was Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NFC, and Pittsburgh and New England in the AFC.
From 2005 on, teams hosting in the divisional round are a so-so 18-14, with two or more home teams losing in five of the eight years. To break it down further, No. 1 seeds are just 7-9 in the divisional round since 2005, and No. 2 seeds are a much better 11-5 over the same span. That would seem to bode well for New England and Carolina, and give the shivers to fans in Denver and Seattle.
5. Taking a fresh look at an old foe: The Colts at Patriots game is the only non-rematch of the divisional round, and that's unfortunate for Indianapolis. Here's why: In New England's Bill Belichick era, the Patriots are 8-0 in the playoffs against opponents they didn't play in the regular season. Against teams they were rematched against, they're just 9-7, and 4-7 from 2005 on.
Last year, the Patriots in the playoffs drew two teams they had already faced in the 2012 season: They beat Houston (again) in the divisional round, and lost to Baltimore (again) in the AFC Championship game. But the Giants (2007), Ravens (2009) and Jets (2010) all are examples of teams that lost to New England in the regular season and then got their revenge by beating the Patriots in the playoffs.
While the Colts and Patriots have a rich history against each other in the postseason, their rivalry feels different with Peyton Manning now in Denver. Indy and New England met three times in the playoffs in a four-year span (2003-06), but that's seven years back now.
This much is worth a gamble: Whoever wins on Sunday is a lock to win the Super Bowl. Why? Because when the Patriots beat the Colts in the playoffs in 2003 and '04, they won the Super Bowl both years, and Indy did the same when it defeated New England in the 2006 playoffs.
6. Watch out for Cinderella: Are you liking that Chargers mojo about now? Yeah, me, too. San Diego has a number of things going for it, even beyond the resurgent game of quarterback Philip Rivers, who's as into this month's Super Bowl tournament as anyone still playing. For starters, Rivers and the Chargers have a history of knocking Peyton Manning out of the playoffs, having done it in both 2007 and '08, when Manning was with Colts teams that went 13-3 and 12-4, while San Diego was just 11-5 and 8-8, respectively. So this week's challenge at Denver isn't completely daunting, especially since the Chargers just traveled there and beat the Broncos in Week 15, handing them their only home loss of the season.
San Diego (9-7) was one of only two teams in the league to make the playoffs this season with fewer than 10 wins (8-7-1 Green Bay was the other), but recent NFL postseason history is filled with such teams making some legitimate noise. The 2011 Giants (9-7) won the Super Bowl, and the 8-8 Broncos that season made the AFC's final four with Tim Tebow at quarterback. In 2010, Seattle went 7-9 but still won a playoff game and survived into the divisional round. In 2009, the Jets made it all the way to the AFC title game despite a 9-7 regular season. In 2008, the 9-7 Cardinals made the Super Bowl out of the NFC, beating the 9-6-1 Eagles in the NFC title game. That same year, the 8-8 Chargers beat the 12-4 Colts, as previously mentioned.
And lastly, the Chargers are slotted as the AFC's sixth seed, a postseason positioning they've never had before. Maybe the novelty of it will work. Since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990 and started seeding the field, San Diego has been the top seed once, the second seed twice, the third seed twice, and the fourth seed three times. With only one Super Bowl trip during that span -- the 1994 team that lost to the 49ers -- the Chargers might as well try a new approach.
7. Defense doesn't always win championships, like they say, but it sure doesn't hurt to be playing some come January: This year's final eight in the NFL spells that out. Six of the eight clubs that will take the field this weekend rank in the league's top 10 in scoring defense, and San Diego ranks 11th (21.8).
The outlier? That would be No. 1-seeded Denver, which is all the way down the list at No. 22, allowing an average of almost 25 points in its 16 regular-season games. Better get the arm loose and let if fly, Peyton. Especially without injured outside linebacker Von Miller (torn ACL), the Broncos may have to win shootouts to win their way to Super Bowl 48 in New Jersey.
Where should the lowest-scoring game be this weekend? Charlotte's a logical guess, with Carolina ranking second overall in points allowed (15.1) and San Francisco third (17). The other NFC game figures to be on the low-scoring side as well, with Seattle's top-ranked defense (14.4) almost meeting its match in No. 4 New Orleans (19), which features the much-improved Saints defense coordinated by Rob Ryan.
The points will probably be more plentiful in Foxboro and Denver. The Colts (21) ranked ninth in points allowed and the Patriots (21.1) were 10th in the regular season. No. 11 San Diego and 22nd-ranked Denver has a chance to feature the busiest scoreboard of the weekend.
8. Saints seeking revenge: Between the memory of that 41-36 playoff loss in Seattle three years ago, and their 34-7 humiliation there in Week 13, nobody has more ready-made motivation to exorcise some demons this weekend than the Saints, who face off against the top-seeded Seahawks in the first game on Saturday. The Saints know what home-field advantage is all about in the comfort zone that is their Superdome, but they have gotten flattened twice in high-profile settings by the Seattle experience on gameday.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton even took the unusual and somewhat unexplainable step of having the Seahawks logo painted onto the Saints practice field this week, as if that would convince his guys they were in the raucous environs of CenturyLink Field. Good luck with that. As Saints opponents know, you can't really reproduce the din and feel of the Superdome either, even if you plaster French Fleur-de-lis all over the practice facility.
The Saints are a dangerous team for the Seahawks, because Seattle has already beaten them twice in emotional, high-stakes games in which Pete Carroll's club probably couldn't have played much better. That might mean there's nowhere to go but down against New Orleans, and over-confidence could unwittingly sneak into Seattle's mindset. Especially with the Saints playing and narrowly winning a tough-minded game at Philadelphia last Saturday night, in the less-than-friendly atmosphere of Lincoln Financial Field.