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Sunday Scramble: Previewing NFL's divisional round

Some of the best stories of this NFL season are out of the playoffs -- Chuckstrong, Adrian Peterson and RG3 among them. We'll miss them all, but let's be real: The best teams all made the divisional round.

It wasn't a great Wild Card Weekend on balance, but there were no upsets. That means a loaded elite eight is on the way. These were the best eight squads from September on, and it's going to be fun to watch them battle next week.

We'll dive deep into all the matchups throughout the week on NFL.com and Around the League, but here are three initial thoughts on each game.

Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos: Jan. 12, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

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1. These teams played in Week 15, but the Ravens have made strides in the interim. Ray Lewis is back, and the defense has proved far more aggressive in wins over the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts. Their offensive line looks better with Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. Bernard Pierce is a dangerous offensive threat. Joe Flacco has hit enough big plays. That doesn't mean the Ravens will win, but they should be more competitive.

2. The Ravens' defense actually did a decent job in the first matchup, forcing seven three-and-outs on the Broncos (Denver scored 10 first-half points on offense). We're actually more concerned with Baltimore's ability to score. It relies so much on the big play.

3. The Broncos have a huge home-field advantage in the thin air, and they get the Ravens on a short week. Baltimore's pass rush will have to play like it did against Indianapolis again. Tall order.

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers: Jan. 12, 8 p.m. ET, Fox

1. This is the best matchup of the weekend. It's the first playoff game between two teams we could see winning the Lombardi Trophy with absolutely no hesitation. It's power versus precision. It's two of the best coaching minds in the game.

2. The Packers didn't face any of the read-option teams during the regular season. We've been wondering all along if the 49ers will empty the playbook a lot more in the playoffs with Colin Kaepernick because they've mostly kept his running under wraps.

3. The 49ers' vaunted defense gave up a ton of points to the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots late in the season. Defensive end Justin Smith is expected back for this game, but the 49ers can't match Green Bay's weapons. This smells like a shootout, like the 49ers' divisional-round game against the New Orleans Saints last year.

Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons: Jan. 13, 1 p.m. ET, Fox

1. The Falcons might as well start complaining about the lack of respect they get now because the Seahawks figure to be a popular pick in this game despite Atlanta's No. 1 seed. The Seahawks has proven they can play well on the road and come back from a big deficit.

2. Don't underestimate how important the loss of defensive end Chris Clemons will be for the Seahawks. He's their best pass rusher by far, and the Falcons have struggled with edge rushers this season.

3. It doesn't get much better for perimeter matchups than Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner versus Roddy White and Julios Jones. We suspect Sherman will mostly track Jones in a battle featuring two of the most promising rising stars in the NFL.

(There, we made it through three points without mentioning the Falcons' recent playoff history).

Houston Texans @ New England Patriots: Jan. 13, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

1. The Patriots destroyed the Texans on "Monday Night Football" in December, but it's hard to imagine that  happening again. Houston's defense remains a quality unit with the pieces to slow down New England. The larger question is if Matt Schaub and the Texans' offense can take advantage of the holes in the Patriots' secondary.

2. We'll hear a lot about 2010, when the top-seeded Patriots lost to the New York Jets in the divisional round after trouncing them late in the season in prime time. Bill Belichick is sure to reference the game to his team privately, if not publicly.

3. The Patriots did not enter the playoffs necessarily playing their best, with sloppy efforts against the 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars. They will be healthier, though, than they have been all season. It's the ninth home divisional-round game for the Patriots in the last 12 seasons, which is ridiculous. The Jets game was the only loss. There's not a lot of reason to think this will be the second.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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