This is the time of year that pro football truly kicks some tail. Who wasn't a little fired up when Demaryius Thomas was bobbing his head while running as fast as he humanly could toward the pylon in Sunday's instant-classic upset of the Steelers?
That's playoff football, man. Yes, some players play for money. Yes, it's a business. But let me tell you, there were a lot of guys -- on both sides -- who needed that game at the new Mile High. Not that you need me to tell you, but sometimes we forget how bad these highly paid professionals want to come out on top, money be damned. All you had to do was look at the sideline on both the winning side and losing side to get the feel for what was going down in Denver.
The sideline is exactly where I think the Broncos will be after Saturday night's divisional-round game at Gillette Stadium. While Tebowmania delivered Sunday, Tom Brady forces opposing quarterbacks to put up 30 points or go home. Unfortunately, my sense is that Denver's offense, Tebow or no Tebow, is not capable of matching Brady & Co. touchdown for touchdown. That's just one reason Denver sits at eighth in our playoff rankings.
As for the rest â¦
NFC No. 1 seed. By 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, it will officially have been three weeks since Aaron Rodgers threw a ball in a situation that counts. The battered Green Bay line will have its hands full with the Giants front four. Bear in mind that this was a relatively healthy line when these teams met in Week 13, and then guys started dropping like flies a week later. The line is better than it was after some reshuffling, although backup Derek Sherrod was put on injured reserve. There's no question that Rodgers' front five will be the key against a Giants defensive line that can get pressure and played very well in short-yardage situations last Sunday.
NFC No. 3 seed. Drew Brees' arm might fall off. Thank God (or should I say Tebow) for the rest of the NFL that Brees isn't more mobile.
AFC No. 1 seed. That's just what Bill Belichick needed: an extra week to prepare for a team the Patriots beat 41-23 just a couple weeks ago. New England can't be too overconfident, as Denver bailed out the Pats' suspect defense with three lost fumbles in that game. Of course, being overconfident is not really this club's M.O. After being humbled in Super Bowl XLII, Ray Rice'd in the 2009 wild-card round, and stifled by the Jets last year, the Patriots have a single-minded purpose. Does the defense have the horses to stop Tebowmania? Probably. Rice? Not so sure. It's on your shoulders again, Mr. Brady.
NFC No. 2 seed. I can't wait for Saturday's first playoff game. It literally doesn't get any cooler than watching the league's most unstoppable track-meet offense play a defense that can go toe-to-toe with all those dazzling skill players. There will be no turf advantage for the Saints, either. This game is a lot like being Derrick Thomas' Chiefs in Tecmo Super Bowl and trying to stop a Bills team that featured Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and "QB Bills." (Jim Kelly didn't lend his naming rights to the game.) "QB Bills" was like Brees in real life. It will be up to the Niners' back four -- particularly Donte Whitner -- to win this game.
AFC No. 2 seed. Stop Arian Foster. That will be the mantra all week for the Ravens' defense. Problem is, Baltimore now has to deal with Andre Johnson, too. That was something John Harbaugh's squad didn't have to worry about back in October when these teams locked horns in Maryland. The Ravens are up to the task, so long as Rice can get it going against a pretty stout Texans defense. His legs -- as well as T-Sizzles', Ray Lewis' and Ed Reed's -- got much-needed rest from the bye week.
AFC No. 3 seed. If you just read the Ravens blurb, you can guess what's coming here: The Texans need to run Arian Foster. The third-year back from Tennessee went off against the Bengals, however, there are no Haloti Ngatas on the Bengals. The key for Houston is getting a good offensive mixture. Run that 97 Stretch they love to go to over an over, then hit the Ravens with play action. They did it with Jacoby Jones in the first meeting. Former Texans safety Bernard Pollard probably won't bite as hard this time. Then again, there's a big difference between Jacoby Jones and Andre Johnson.
NFC No. 4 seed. Eli Manning deserves as much credit as any player in the NFL right now. He's making the big throws that win games, while showing so much composure in pressure situations. It's one thing to dink, dunk and toss a bunch of none-yard outs, but on Sunday the franchise quarterback averaged nearly nine yards per attempt on 32 passes (277 yards). Not only did the offense get a lot of miles per gallon, but Manning completed over 70 percent of his passes. Couple that with a suddenly potent ground game (172 yards), and the Giants might make a game of it in Lambeau.
AFC No. 4 seed. Tebow. Unreal. Tebowmania's game-winning throw in overtime was probably his best throw. This after he skipped a ball in the dirt when he had Thomas wide open on the Broncos' last possession of regulation. And what more can you say about the defense, which continually harassed Ben Roethlisberger and made the plays when Denver needed it. Speaking of pass rush, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are going to have to play the game of their lives in New England to get to you know who ...
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL