NFL Playoffs: Early look at the divisional round matchups
Though the Redskins enjoyed home-field advantage on Wild-Card Weekend, and the Bengals, Colts and Vikings all believed in their upset chances, no one can be overly surprised by which teams are left in the NFL playoffs.
Six of these teams were here last year -- only the fifth-seeded Seahawks and top-seeded Falcons in the NFC were not around for the divisional round of 2012. So, despite the NFL's love of unstoppable parity, the cream continues to rise to the top.
How do the matchups shake out next weekend? Here's your early primer for the 2013 divisional round:
Less than a month ago (Dec. 16), the Broncos beat the Ravens ... by 17 ... in Baltimore. Denver actually led 31-3 at the end of the third quarter in that one, only allowing Baltimore back in it a bit after easing up off the gas.
Is there any reason to believe next Saturday's outcome will be any different? Actually, there may be two reasons: Anquan Boldin and Ray Lewis. That duo starred Sunday in Baltimore's win over the Colts -- Lewis did not play in that first game vs. Denver, while Boldin had an extremely quiet game. Lewis might help a defense that coughed up 115 yards rushing to Knowshon Moreno, while Boldin could be a huge weapon if he can repeat his wild-card round performance.
Of course, aside from sitting out this weekend with a bye, the Broncos have not slowed down at all since their win in Baltimore. That was victory No. 9 in the 11-game win streak that Denver currently holds. Andrew Luck found openings against Baltimore's pass defense, too, so you can bet that Peyton Manning will put up some yards.
No. 3 Houston Texans at No. 2 New England Patriots, 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Another rematch of an absolute butt-kicking. This one occurred in Week 14, when the Patriots hammered the then 11-1 Texans by four touchdowns, 42-14. Houston will return to the scene of the crime Sunday, hoping to flip the script from these teams' first meeting.
It certainly will not be easy. The Patriots will enter the game winners of nine of their last 10 -- the only setback, a thrilling 41-34 loss to San Francisco. Since then, Tom Brady has gotten Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup, meaning Houston has another headache to deal with Sunday.
Matt Schaub flopped back in that December meeting. He will need to be much sharper -- as will the Texans' defense -- if Houston is to keep its Super Bowl march alive.
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks at No. 1 Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday
Will this be Atlanta's moment of redemption or another reminder that this franchise cannot get over the top?
The Falcons' last foray as a No. 1 seed, of course, ended with a 48-21 thrashing at the hands of eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in 2010. This year's divisional-round matchup likely will not leave Atlanta fans feeling any more comfortable -- Seattle brings a tough defense, athletic quarterback and pounding running back to the table.
Two matchups to watch: Seattle's offensive line against Atlanta's pass rush and Seattle's cornerbacks against Atlanta's receivers. The Seahawks allowed five sacks of Russell Wilson in Washington, and they'll have to do a better job protecting him versus the Falcons' disguised fronts. The Richard Sherman/Brandon Browner-Julio Jones/Roddy White matchups, meanwhile, might be among the best positional battles of the postseason.
The third rematch of the divisional round, though there is only so much to be learned from when San Francisco scored a 30-22 Week 1 win in Lambeau Field.
For starters, Alex Smith played quarterback that day for the 49ers, meaning that the Packers have not yet had a first-hand look at Colin Kaepernick's abilities. The Packers did see a little (very little) zone-option from Joe Webb and the Vikings, but Kaepernick is leaps and bounds ahead of Webb as a passer. The Packers, though they did not undergo any major lineup changes, are pretty far removed from the team that started this season 2-3. Their defense finally slowed Adrian Peterson this week, and Aaron Rodgers has his full arsenal of weapons in the passing game.