In our early look at the four divisional matchups, we start with a Patriots team that must avoid the costly mistakes (like penalties and protection breakdowns) that Pittsburgh could not Sunday evening:
No. 4 Denver at No. 1 New England
When: Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Early Take: New England did a good job protecting Tom Brady when they visited the Broncos in December, allowing only two sacks in 36 dropbacks. On the backside, the Broncos didn't have the personnel to match up with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, as the two tight ends combined for 13 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown. New England smartly ran the ball 36 times to keep the strength of Denver's defense -- pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller -- at bay.
Darlington: Thrill of Tebow's lifetime
We've seen Tim Tebow
thrill us before, but nothing like he did in Denver's wild-card victory over Pittsburgh, Jeff Darlington writes. More...
Bill Belichick must keep Tim Tebow from running wild, after the second-year QB picked up 93 yards rushing in their first meeting. The Broncos scored 23 points, and would have scored more had they not fumbled three times. Against Pittsburgh, three of Tebow's rushes went for first downs and another for a touchdown. Spying him will leave a bad defense short-handed on the back end, but I'd bet a pack of Marshawn Lynch's Skittles that Tebow won't throw for 300 yards again. Let him rush for chunk yardage and consistently get outside the pocket, and it could be trouble for the Pats defense.
This and that: The Patriots scored a whopping 105 points on possessions following an opponent's turnover, 42 points over the league average. Hold onto the football, Lance Ball and Willis McGahee. ... These two franchises last met in the postseason in the 2005 divisional playoffs. Denver knocked off the two-time defending champs, although Patriots tight end Ben Watson made a play for the ages.
No. 3 New Orleans at No. 2 San Francisco
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox
Early Take: "Monday Night Football" got one of its best games the last time these two teams squared off back in 2010. The 49ers defense held Drew Brees in check, limiting him to just 254 yards passing. The Saints' ground game produced only 50 yards in 24 carries. Despite that low productivity, the Saints would be wise to run the football this weekend. The reason? To keep the defense honest, and to keep Brees upright. The Niners front seven can play with anybody, and Sean Payton needs to create some question as to what his offense is going to do from play to play. Put simply: New Orleans' offense isn't much better than San Francisco's defense. Call it even.
Is the Saints defense better than the 49ers offense? That's the question. If Alex Smith and the wideouts are effective, this could go down to the wire like that 2010 contest did. The beleaguered Smith drove his team to the lead with under a minute left, but there was too much time for Brees that night. On Saturday, look for the 49ers to run at least 30 times with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in order to burn clock and limit Brees' possessions.
Brooks: A classic matchup
This and that: The "weak" spot of the Niners defense is the secondary, which ranked 16th in net passing yards. But that was because no one could run on them. Opposing quarterbacks only managed a 73.6 passer rating, fifth lowest in the league. ... Donte Whitner will have his hands full with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The Niners could try beating Graham up as he comes off the line, but not if Sean Payton consistently flanks him. ... This game feels like the 1999 NFC Championship Game, which featured the "Greatest Show on Turf" versus the Tony Dungy "Tampa 2" Bucs. What a great matchup and game that was.
No. 3 Houston at No. 2 Baltimore
When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Early Take: These teams locked up in Baltimore way back in October in a game the Texans played with one arm tied behind their back. I was in Houston that week, and I saw a relaxed team that could just as easily have been reeling. The defense was still adjusting to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme and having rookie Brooks Reed in Mario Williams' linebacker spot. Like Williams, star wideout Andre Johnson was out with an injury. With Johnson out, the Ravens defense was able to focus on running back Arian Foster, who was held to 49 yards rushing, while Matt Schaub didn't play his best game (220 yards in 37 pass attempts).
On the other side of the ball, expect Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to give Ray Rice at least 25 touches. The stud tailback picked up 161 yards from scrimmage in the first meeting, including 60 receiving. Houston's strength lies in its defensive front and in forcing mistakes. Running the rock with Rice neutralizes that aspect of Phillips' scheme.
This and that:Joe Flacco's 2011 campaign has been the worst of his four-year career. He's completing 57.6 percent of his passes. That's 26th in the NFL. ... These squads locked up in one of the most exciting games of 2010, when former Raven Josh Wilson returned a pick-six to deep-six Houston, 34-28, in overtime.
No. 4 Giants at No. 1 Packers
When: Sunday, 4:30 PM ET, Fox
Early Take: If Big Blue is to pull off the biggest upset since their shocker over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, they must start where they left off against the Falcons. The Giants ripped Atlanta's front seven for 172 rushing yards at a sterling 5.5 yards per crack. Brandon Jacobs was a beast, pounding out 92 yards on only 14 attempts. The Giants will need more of the same to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field. New York relies on its front four for pressure, usually avoiding risky blitzes, a strategy that requires rested linemen.
To that end, expect Packers coach Mike McCarthy to put constant pressure on the Giants defense, isolating either of the safeties on Jermichael Finley or one of the slot receivers. Even with Greg Jennings returning from a knee injury, this contest reeks of one of the secondary receivers (James Jones, Donald Driver or Randall Cobb) making some big plays. Aaron Ross' concussion doesn't exactly help New York's cause, either.
This and that: Even if Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell decides to dial up some blitz pressure, that's not exactly the most effective way to rattle Rodgers. The Packers quarterback compiled a 131.4 passer rating against the blitz this season. ... While Green Bay's defense has been somewhat thrown under the bus for finishing last in yards allowed, keep in mind that the Packers also led the league in takeaways with 38. Clay Matthews' pick six in the December meeting was the difference in that game. ... The Giants and Packers have met several times in the playoffs, always with a championship on the line. Here's a rundown: the 1938, 1939, 1944, 1961, 1962 NFL Championships. And, of course, Brett Favre's last game as a Packer -- the 2007 NFC Championship game.