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Weekend tough to predict, but thrills are certain

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Alas, it's our last weekend for a long, long time with football games on more than one day. Brings a tear to the eye, does it not?

But man, will this be fun.

Coming into this season, most observers identified the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots as truly elite teams, and all are still playing. Who, though, would have picked the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers to be right there with them?

Yeah, that's the beauty of football. Fresh blood can chase after glory shoulder-to-shoulder with established powerhouses; of the remaining eight teams, all but the Houston Texans have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in the past. There is also a rookie head coach in the mix (Jim Harbaugh) and a bevy of record-setting passers still in play (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Eli Manning).

It will all make for another entertaining, and, I bet, unpredictable weekend of football.

    • New Orleans at San Francisco

      Sat 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Inside slant:

      Can San Francisco compete in a shootout? That's been the question all season. Maybe we find out here.

      The extra week off should have helped 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis deal with his hamstring issues. You can just imagine Jim Harbaugh having the grounds crew saturate the field at Candlestick Park to try to slow down the timing of the Saints' quick-strike attack. New Orleans has struggled against the power run game, and Frank Gore will be looking to get downhill.

      San Francisco can't be one-dimensional on offense. Receiver Michael Crabtree must have a breakout game and really compete deep to provide a complement to Vernon Davis. The 49ers might have to open it up more than usual and allow Alex Smith to take a few chances.

      Drew Brees is pretty much unstoppable; you have to figure it's going to take at least 24-27 points for San Francisco to beat the Saints, even if its defense has a good game. The matchup of San Francisco's front seven (one of the best, led by Justin Smith) against the interior of the Saints offensive line (led by the best guard combination in the league) could dictate whether Brees is able to get into one of those zones where it seems like he literally cannot make a mistake.

      The Saints' run game hasn't missed a beat with Mark Ingram out, but this is the best run front in the NFL. Of course, with Darren Sproles in the screen game, and Brees under center, they might not need to run the ball much anyway.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Denver at New England

      Sat 8:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Inside slant:

      The last time these teams met, the matchup was closer than the final score indicated. Denver pummeled the Patriots on the ground in the first half; things turned only when the Broncos started fumbling, forcing them to try to play catch-up. The Patriots also won't have Andre Carter this time around. Demaryius Thomas will be a handful for any Pats corner that lines up opposite him, though the loss of Eric Decker limits Denver's options. Eddie Royal in the screen game could be key.

      Oh, did I mention Tim Tebow yet? Yeah, he's playing, too. I have a feeling that on the road, we'll see even more of the read-option, given Tebow's accuracy issues. New England's defense isn't nearly as punishing as Pittsburgh's, but dropping back to pass more than 15-20 times in an away game invites danger.

      Denver linebacker Von Miller looked better last week than he has in a month, even with that club still on his hand. He seems to be adjusting to it, and New England's older, beat-up offensive line will have a real test here. I don't think Brady will be quite as comfortable as he'd like to be. This smells like a ballgame to me, folks, and you just never know how long Denver will be able to keep conjuring up that Tebow magic. If the pass rush is going, those screens and little slants to Wes Welker off the three-step drop will be Brady's best friend.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Houston at Baltimore

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Inside slant:

      This is a rematch of a game the Ravens won at home earlier this season after a pretty good struggle for three quarters. Of course, that was two quarterbacks ago for Houston, which still had Matt Schaub under center at the time. The Texans were also without Andre Johnson then. Johnson is back, but wasn't quite himself last week. The Ravens are hoping the injury woes that dogged Ray Lewis and Ed Reed late in the season have subsided after they had a bye week to rest.

      Quarterback Joe Flacco shines in Baltimore, where he'll be leading the Ravens in their first home playoff game since the 2006 season. Houston quarterback T.J. Yates enjoyed a cocoon-like environment last week, but he'll be in a totally different environment, especially with an offensive line that is geared more toward pushing forward and getting to the second level than it is toward pass protection. Baltimore, always stout against the run, will do whatever it takes to stifle the rushing attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Will Yates be able to find Johnson enough to keep the Ravens honest?

      The Ravens could throw Ricky Williams in the mix a little more than usual. With receiver Anquan Boldin playing in his first game after having knee surgery, keeping their young tight ends active will be imperative. Expect them to set up deep attempts to Torrey Smith off of play action with heavy doses of their run game. The Ravens love making explosive passing plays off of turnovers.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New York at Green Bay

      Sun 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Inside slant:

      The Giants are a different defensive squad when they can get Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul all on the field at once and in good health. That hasn't happened much this season, but the unit is cranking it up now. Green Bay, meanwhile, hasn't had both of its bookend tackles playing together since October. That could sway the game.

      Aaron Rodgers still has to like his chances against New York's secondary, and the status of Aaron Ross, who suffered a concussion against the Falcons, will be big. Eli Manning's fourth-quarter mastery has continued, and the Packers are going to have to find a way to make him uncomfortable in the red zone, because he is as good as it gets there.

      The Packers did a great job of monitoring injuries down the stretch and through the bye, and receiver Greg Jennings will provide a major boost in the vertical game (though I'm not sure how much they really need it). The Giants have struggled at the linebacker spot, and finding someone to put on Packers tight end Jermichael Finley will be a challenge.

      Ahmad Bradshaw will have to give the Giants an edge in field position with yards after contact, though New York's run game remains spotty. Charles Woodson just has a knack for stepping up in games like this; you'd think he'll see an awful lot of Victor Cruz at Lambeau Field.
    • Watch: Game Preview

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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