There's nothing like watching playoff football at this time of the year. Coaches and players approach the game with a renewed sense of urgency; with a spot in the conference championship game on the line, it's "win or go home." Given the level of parity in the NFL, and considering that each team remaining can win Super Bowl XLVII, here's an early look at the divisional-round matchups:
AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
The Broncos pulverized the Ravens in Week 15 behind an opportunistic defense and a monster effort from Peyton Manning. That game was the Ravens' first following the dismissal of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in favor of Jim Caldwell. Although Baltimore's offense clearly struggled in Caldwell's debut, the unit has since shown signs of life, utilizing a quickened tempo. The Ravens will need to score a bunch to keep up with a Manning-led Broncos squad that has reeled off 11 straight wins.
The Ravens win if...Joe Flacco brings his "A" game. The fifth-year pro has won six postseason games in his career, but the Ravens' offense is still overly dependent on running back Ray Rice to succeed against elite teams. While Rice certainly needs to be a major contributor against the Broncos, Flacco must be on point if the unit is going to stay in this one. He must generate a few big plays in the passing game while avoiding critical mistakes and turnovers. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's AFC Wild Card Game, Flacco showed big-play ability, repeatedly connecting with receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta in the second half. He will need to duplicate the effort on the road at Mile High. If Flacco can put up 250-plus yards with a few timely touchdown passes, the Ravens could continue their push for a second Super Bowl title.
The Broncos win if...Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil wreak havoc with their remarkable rush skills off the edge. The duo has combined for 29.5 sacks, 12 forced fumbles and an interception while leading the NFL's second-ranked defense. Miller has been particularly sensational, accounting for 12.5 sacks over the Broncos' final nine games. Most importantly, he commands the attention of double-teams, creating big-play opportunities for others along the front line. With Miller and Dumervil forcing Flacco to make hurried throws from the pocket, Broncos cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Tony Carter and Chris Harris could feast, creating some game-changing turnovers. Given the impact of sacks and turnovers on the outcome of games, the play of Miller and Dumervil looms large in this contest.
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
In their Week 14 showdown, the Patriots overwhelmed the Texans from the start. Tom Brady directed scoring drives on the Patriots' first three possessions, picking apart the Texans' vaunted secondary with surgical precision. Most impressively, Brady ramped up the pace of the Patriots' no-huddle offense, neutralizing the Texans' pass rush and rendering Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt a non- factor for the first time this season. With an opportunity to avenge the embarrassing loss, the Texans will certainly head to Foxborough fired up and ready to play.
The Texans win if...Arian Foster puts on a dominant performance as a runner/receiver. The Texans are at their best when leaning on a heavy-hitting running game that stresses defenders with a precise zone-blocking scheme. With his extraordinary vision, instincts and patience, Foster has the ability to capitalize on the flawless execution of that scheme. He routinely finds available creases at the point of attack, leading to big gains over the course of the game. This ground-based approach requires patience and resiliency when opponents are containing Foster. However, the fact is, the Texans are 10-0 this season when Foster gets at least 20 rushing attempts, suggesting the team should put the ball in his belly early and often to set the tone. By establishing Foster at the outset, the Texans can dial down the tempo and use the stretch-bootleg combination to create big-play opportunities in the passing game, a formula that has been successful for the team over the past two seasons.
The Patriots win if...Tom Brady gets off to another sizzling start in front of the home crowd. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the NFL at jumping on their opponents quickly, particularly in Foxborough. During the regular season, the Patriots enjoyed a 113-67 scoring advantage in the first quarter, including a 14-0 margin against the Texans in Week 14. Part of the Patriots' success can be attributed to a frenetic no-huddle tempo that stuns opponents. When operating at optimal speed, the Patriots snap the ball every 15 seconds, preventing the defense from making personnel substitutions and leaving a tired unit to attempt to slow Brady and Co. Most importantly, this approach keeps defensive coordinators from using exotic blitzes, for fear that communication issues will lead to blown coverage. If the Texans can't handle the pace of the Patriots' offense early on, Brady will be able to move the ball up and down the field at will on his way to giving New England an insurmountable advantage.
NFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers landed a signature victory in Week 1 against the Packers in Lambeau Field, showing that San Francisco's run in 2011 was not a fluke. Better yet, it showed the rest of the NFL that the old-school approach preferred by coach Jim Harbaugh was the right formula for knocking off one of the league's elite teams. Since then, things have changed drastically for San Francisco, with Colin Kaepernick replacing Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. The second-year pro is more dynamic as a dual-threat playmaker, but Kaepernick hasn't played in a game of this magnitude yet. How well he performs could be the deciding factor.
The Packers win if...Aaron Rodgers continues to play like the best quarterback in football. The reigning NFL MVP has been sensational, particularly over the last 11 regular-season games. During that span, Rodgers completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Most importantly, though the Packers had a non-existent running game and an injury-ravaged defense, they were able to compile a 9-2 record over that span that let them enter the postseason as one of the NFL's hottest teams. Rodgers has carried Green Bay, picking apart coverage with pinpoint passes to receivers all over the field. His efficient distribution stresses defenses horizontally and vertically while allowing the Packers' playmakers to make plays in the open field. Receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley are rounding back into form. The deadly passer and his explosive receiving corps could combine to spark fireworks at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers win if...Justin Smith helps the defense regain its swagger. The 12th-year pro was injured early in the second half of a Week 15 win over the Patriots, and his remarkable pass-rush skills were sorely missed over the final 10 quarters of the regular season. The 49ers' defense surrendered a total of 86 points in that span, looking nothing like the impenetrable force that had dominated the NFL for most of the 2012 campaign. Smith excels at executing stunts and games off the edge, displaying unbelievable chemistry with second-year defensive lineman Aldon Smith; before Justin Smith was injured, the duo's impeccable timing produced a number of disruptive plays off the edge. It's amazing how much of Aldon Smith's production has been generated by the execution of a loop or stunt with Justin Smith. The veteran uses all of the tricks in the book, including a grab-and-hold maneuver that frees Aldon Smith on the inside. Smith resumed practicing last week; if he can rejuvenate the 49ers' run defense and pass rush, San Francisco will return to the NFC Championship Game.
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
The Seahawks and Falcons didn't square off during the regular season, but this matchup is arguably the most compelling of the weekend. The Seahawks are a rough and rugged group that prefers to bully opponents with toughness and physicality. The Falcons, on the other hand, are a high-flying outfit built to win with speed and athleticism in the confines of the Georgia Dome, where they have a 33-7 regular-season record since coach Mike Smith's arrival in 2008. Atlanta did falter at home as a No. 1 seed in the 2010 postseason, but the home-field advantage is real, and the Dirty Birds will attempt to capitalize on it against the Seahawks.
The Seahawks win if... Running back Marshawn Lynch goes into "Beast Mode." An explosive power runner with unique skills, the Pro Bowl player is the centerpiece of the Seahawks' game plan. Lynch excels at running between the tackles, but is also a dangerous runner on the edges. Opponents have found it difficult to contain him this season, even when using eight- and nine-man fronts. Most importantly, he has given the Seahawks an identity while alleviating some of the pressure on rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to perform in the pocket. If Lynch can continue his dominance as a tenacious runner, the Seahawks will test the Falcons' physicality and push them to the brink in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks are 8-3 when Lynch rushes for 100 yards or more this season, including Sunday's 20-carry, 132-yard effort against the Washington Redskins.
The Falcons win if...Quarterback Matt Ryan and his offensive cohorts take care of the ball. Turnovers are typically the deciding factor in playoff games, and this one will come down to the takeaway battle. When it comes to ball security, the Falcons have been one of the best teams in football, ranking in the top 10 in turnover margin in each of the past three seasons. More importantly, the team has avoided making big miscues in key moments, particularly Ryan, who has thrown just one pick in the Falcons' past five games. The Seahawks will enter the game intent on forcing Ryan to recreate his dismal performances against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11 (five interceptions) and the Oakland Raiders in Week 6 (three picks). However, the odds are in Ryan's favor, based on his history of being an effective caretaker. With a berth in the NFC Championship Game on the line, Ryan and Co. must avoid giving the Seahawks a chance to feed off the energy that can be generated by turnovers.