Divisional-round weekend is my favorite time of the NFL season. We get four quality games featuring eight teams that have been able to stand the test of time. And once the weekend comes to a close, the four survivors will be the mentally toughest teams in the NFL -- a group worthy of examination by the rest of the league. For the remaining 28 teams, finding a commonality among the final four is a critical exercise in terms of their own growth.
Analysts' picks: Divisional round
Just like the NCAA tournament's Final Four, the NFL's last quartet is significant, and teams that reach Championship Sunday share similar traits. For example, it is hard to be a final-four team with a bad offensive line or a lackluster pass rush -- those two qualities are almost essential for a team to advance to a conference championship. In addition, all final-four teams must have a high degree of mental and physical toughness. But most importantly, they must be able to run the ball when the opponent knows they have to run the ball, throw the ball when the opponent knows they have to throw it. At this point in the season, you can't rely on gimmicks and gadgets. It comes down to execution and fundamentals, along with a hot quarterback. And I cannot wait to see which teams survive.
Ten thoughts on the divisional round
1) The Seattle Seahawks make a living off opponents who come to their stadium and try to run the ball, with crowd noise routinely disrupting opposing ground attacks. The tables are turned this week, as Atlanta Falcons faithful will be ready to disrupt the Seahawks' run game with some noise of their own. And Atlanta needs the Georgia Dome to be as loud as possible, because the Seahawks can run the ball and the Falcons don't defend the run well, home or away. During the regular season, Atlanta gave up 4.8 yards per carry, ranking 29th in the NFL.
2) The last time the Falcons played the Seahawks -- at CenturyLink Field in Week 4 of last season -- Matt Ryan had a solid day, despite having to carry the load offensively with a nonexistent running game. The key in that Atlanta win: Ryan wasn't sacked a single time. If that happens again on Sunday, the Falcons will throw the ball well and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
3) The Green Bay Packers allowed 51 sacks during the regular season -- second-worst in the league. If the offensive line doesn't play its best game against the San Francisco 49ers, it will be hard for Aaron Rodgers to impact the game. On the plus side, DuJuan Harris looks like he can be the running back Green Bay needs to force the Niners' front to respect run. Harris has the open-field ability and burst to create plays. This game cannot come down to Rodgers having to do it all -- and with Harris, that might not be the case.
4) Rodgers has been sacked 34 times on the road this season, but what's amazing is that he actually has a higher passer rating away from Lambeau Field -- as well as more touchdown passes and an average of almost a yard more per attempt. Despite being knocked around more, Rodgers is better on the road than at home.
5) When San Francisco has scored 20-plus points during Jim Harbaugh's first two seasons on the job, the Niners have only lost one game. (They tied the St. Louis Rams 24-24 in Week 10.) They have lost eight games since Harbaugh took over, scoring 19 points or less in seven of them. (The lone exception: A 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2 of the 2011 season.) The moral of the story is the 49ers can definitely win a high-scoring game. Remember last season's divisional-round thriller?
6) On paper and based on the 34-17 result in Week 15, this Ravens-Broncos rematch looks like a mismatch. But this is a different Baltimore team. And if the Ravens can limit Denver's offense to 350 total yards, 5-for-16 on third down and 2-for-4 in the red zone -- like they did last month -- they will be in the game until the end. The misconception about the first game was that the Broncos' offense dominated. Not true. Denver's defense won that game.
7) Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco must connect on some deep balls in this game. Flacco is the NFL's new version of Daryle Lamonica, "The Mad Bomber." It is not about completion percentage for Flacco, but rather making big plays down the field. He can be 20-for-40 again in this game, like he was in the Week 15 bout against Denver, but in those 20 completions, he must have five big plays and average more than 7.5 yards per attempt.
8) For the Houston Texans, the most important part of Sunday's game against the New England Patriots will be the first 15 plays on both offense and defense. They must start fast, on both sides of the ball, and build confidence early. Every team talks about the first 15, but in this game, it cannot be just talk for the Texans -- it truly must be their best stuff.
9) The Texans need to find a way to make big plays down the field -- something they failed to do in last month's blowout loss at New England -- and quarterback Matt Schaub must average more than 7 yards per attempt in the game. Schaub averaged more than 8 yards per attempt at home during the regular season, and less than 7 on the road. His regular-season passer rating fell from 101 at home to 79.5 on the road.
Enjoy the games ...