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NFL divisional round storylines: Welcoming Peyton back to postseason

Peyton Manning Peyton Manning will compete in his first playoff game since January 2011 when the Broncos take on the Ravens. (Peter Read Miller/SI)

It only feels like it has been an eternity since we saw Manning in the postseason.

In reality, when Peyton Manning takes the field Saturday, for the Broncos' divisional round clash with Baltimore, he will be 734 days removed from his last playoff appearance.

Jan. 8, 2011, to be exact, when Manning's Indianapolis Colts came up on the short end of a 17-16 score against the Jets -- remember when Mark Sanchez was a playoff-winning quarterback? Manning sat out the next season, then left Indianapolis for Denver.

Together, he and the Broncos are trying to reclaim some past glory. While Manning lost Super Bowl XLIV and won at Super Bowl XLI, the Broncos have not been to the big game since the 1998 season.

They snapped a six-year postseason drought in 2011, when Tim Tebow helped them capture the AFC West and knock off Pittsburgh in a wild-card game. Entering this playoff year as the AFC's top seed, riding an 11-game win streak, it's clearly Super Bowl or bust for Manning's new team.

The future Hall of Fame QB has waited a long time for another shot at a title. His day finally arrives this weekend.

Here's what else to keep an eye on as the divisional round unfolds:

A weekend full of rematches

Three of this weekend's four contests are rematches of regular-season games -- Baltimore, Green Bay and Houston all lost to their respective opponents earlier in the season.

Will that familiarity matter? Denver receiver Brandon Stokley said no.

"It means nothing that we beat them in the regular season," Stokley told the Associated Press. "I know we beat them pretty good, but in the playoffs it's just a different game."

The Ravens, Packers and Texans had better hope so. And that's especially true for the two AFC road teams. Baltimore suffered a 34-17 thrashing, at home, against Manning and the Broncos back in Week 15; Houston, meanwhile, was handed a 42-14 whitewashing, in New England one week earlier.

If any team can play the "it's a clean slate" card, it is Green Bay. True, the Packers already have lost once to San Francisco this season, but that result came waaaaaaaay back in Week 1. Alex Smith called the shots for the 49ers that day, and he is not likely to even see the field behind Colin Kaepernick on Saturday night.

The oddsmakers give the Packers the best chance to flip the script: Baltimore and Houston both are nearly 10-point underdogs, while Green Bay cedes just three points in its matchup.

Extra motivation for Arian Foster

Earlier this week, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy (in a piece titled "Texans matchup just what the Patriots wanted") skewered AFC South champion Houston, decrying the Texans as "pure frauds" and arguing that they "choked" during that earlier 28-point loss in Foxboro.

Houston running back Arian Foster took a little extra exception to Shaughnessy's blast, taking part of the harsh column and making it his Twitter avatar.

Not that the Texans need any help gearing up for a playoff game, but Shaughnessy certainly provided some bulletin-board material anyway.

Blowing Wade Phillips' comments out of proportion

A little more pregame talk from the Texans-Patriots matchup ...

During an interview with ESPN.com, Texans' defensive coordinator Wade Phillips explained that he planned to use Brandon Harris, not Jonathan Joseph, to cover Wes Welker.

"He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy," Phillips said of Welker. "He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes. Harris actually played him pretty good. He got a holding penalty that hurt us early in the game. But Harris played pretty well… If we don’t get him on a speed guy, we’re in good shape."

Pretty harmless, right? Not in the playoffs, when everyone's hunting for some extra juice to add to a matchup.

Plenty of people took Phillips' words as a knock on Welker (even if his assessment of Welker's physical abilities were pretty accurate). So, New England has its little rallying cry, should it need one, to match with Foster's Shaughnessy anger.

Last weekend for a pair of legends?

Ray Lewis staved off retirement last week, delivering a turn-back-the-clock performance in Baltimore's victory over Indianapolis. The Ravens' linebacker said he will call it a career once this playoff season ends for his team -- and the curtain could fall as early as Saturday, if Baltimore cannot upset Denver.

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez has been slightly less authoritative in his retirement comments (he put the likelihood that 2012 is his last season at 95 percent). Yet, another early Atlanta playoff loss could send Gonzalez into his post-playing life.

Amazingly, for all Gonzalez has accomplished, he has yet to win a playoff game. He gets his sixth chance to break that streak Sunday against Seattle.

• Atlanta's defense tries to do it again

Whether or not people realize it, Atlanta's defense has made terrific strides in 2012. The Falcons, despite finishing 24th in yards allowed, gave up the fifth least points in the league this year (18.7 per game).

En route to that mark, Mike Nolan's defense stymied Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Drew Brees (in one of two games against New Orleans, at least) and Eli Manning. The next challenge comes Sunday, as Russell Wilson leads Seattle's unique attack into the Georgia Dome.

Nolan, as always, will do what he can to confuse the quarterback through varying looks and blitzes. Can the Falcons come up big on defense again?

• How about that weather?

Forecasts are calling for temperatures near 50  in San Francisco and New England, while Atlanta plays indoors.

So, we're focusing on just one spot here: Denver.

Right now, it appears that the Ravens and Broncos will kick off with some snow falling and temperatures in the high teens. Great January football weather, right?

Maybe not if you're Peyton Manning. The veteran QB, who played in a domed stadium while with Indianapolis, is 0-3 in playoff games in which the game-time temperature is 40 degrees or less. Baltimore's used to the cold and inclement weather, so a little chill should not affect the Ravens much.

Of course, Manning was on the road for all three of those chilly playoff losses. He has the benefit of a home crowd Saturday. Manning will be hoping that makes a difference.

• Colin Kaepernick's first playoff test

Last weekend's wild-card round saw three rookie quarterbacks take the field. Only one, Wilson, made it through to this weekend (and things went horribly wrong for Robert Griffin III).

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is not a rookie, yet this season has been full of new experiences for him and his team. The 49ers finished 5-2 after Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at QB, bringing with him a flashier offense that incorporated the zone-read option.

Kaepernick mostly played well in his time as a starter, posting a 98.3 QB rating and throwing 10 TDs to three interceptions. The bar will be raised this weekend against Green Bay, especially if Aaron Rodgers starts lighting up the scoreboard.

Remember, Smith outdueled Drew Brees in last year's divisional round. Kaepernick may have to do the same against Rodgers.

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