One mountain scaled, Tebow faces another

Tim Tebow and the Broncos passed one huge test. Now comes an even bigger challenge.

If the Broncos stunned the football world - and they did everywhere outside of the Rockies - with their thrilling overtime victory against the Steelers, they could set the universe spinning out of control by beating the top-seeded Patriots.

New England isn't nearly as strong as it was in winning three Super Bowls and going undefeated on its way to a fourth NFL title game. Although the Patriots went 13-3 to secure AFC home-field advantage this season, winning their final eight, they have major issues on defense.

Plus, they've lost their last three postseason games: the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, then at home against the Ravens and Jets.

"To me it's not where,' it's morewho,' `' Broncos coach John Fox said. "They are a very good football team; they've got a lot of playoff experience. We will have to deal with crowd noise; that's always a little bit of an issue but it won't be the first time this season we've had to do that. It'll be a huge challenge and when you get to this point in the playoffs that's kind of how it always is."

New England snapped Denver's six-game winning streak with a 41-23 win in the Mile High City a month ago. So the Patriots are plenty familiar with Tebow and company.

"It's always challenging to go up against an offense like this because you can do so many things," Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You can't just say, When they get in this formation, this is going to happen,' orWhen they do this, look out for (this).' You can't do that because you can be attacked and blindsided from so many different ways.

"This game is going to come down to disciplined football for us."

The Patriots always seem to be hosting January games in Foxborough, ever since the "Tuck Rule" win over the Raiders 10 years ago. Because recently they've been vulnerable at home in those situations, and because Denver (9-8) has performed some, uh, miracles, there's a line of thought that the Broncos will surprise the Patriots on Saturday night.

The oddsmakers don't think so: The Patriots are 13 1/2-point favorites, a massive line for the playoffs.

We agree with the oddsmakers.


New Orleans (minus 3 1/2) at San Francisco, Saturday

For all those folks who've already put the Saints (13-4) in the NFC title game at Green Bay, which would be a reprise of the season opener, the 49ers (13-3) have two choice words: Hold on.

San Francisco has the best defense in the conference, if not the league, a versatile group that can cover, rush the passer, and force turnovers. The 49ers had a plus-28 turnover margin, were tops in takeaways (38) and fumble recoveries (15). New Orleans was minus-3.

The Niners also protect the ball better than anyone, with 10 giveaways all season.

All of San Francisco's strengths will be severely tested, though, by record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, who has been virtually unstoppable all season. The Saints also are experienced at this juncture of the schedule, while the 49ers most decidedly are not.

"It's special being in the playoffs," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I want them to feel that, understand what this is all about. You get one shot. They've earned a right to be here. But understand that we're not trying to get every ounce of pleasure out of this thing. We're focused on what we need to do and that's prepare for the New Orleans Saints."

Take the experience - and the better offense in this high-scoring season.

SAINTS, 24-20

Houston (plus 7 1/2) at Baltimore, Sunday

And take the defense in this one. Of course, both teams have solid units.

The Ravens (12-4) swept their home games and are far more fearsome in Baltimore than on the road. Key here is whether dynamic RB Ray Rice can break free for big gains against the Texans (11-6), and how well the Ravens' secondary can handle WR Andre Johnson.

Just well enough, we say.

RAVENS, 17-14

New York Giants (plus 7 1/2) at Green Bay, Sunday

The last time these two met in the playoffs at Lambeau, it was frigid, yet Giants QB Eli Manning outplayed Brett Favre and New York won 23-20 in overtime.

For the Giants (10-7) to replicate that, they must unleash the pass rush and make Aaron Rodgers uncomfortable. With their defense vastly improved since Green Bay's 38-35 win at the Meadowlands on Dec. 4, that could happen.

What also could - and will - happen is Rodgers still making enough plays for the defending champions Packers (15-1) to squeeze through.

PACKERS, 27-24

Against spread: 2-2 (overall 128-109-5); straight up 2-2 (overall 171-89).

Best Bet: 3-15 against spread, 12-6 straight up.

Upset Special: 11-7 against spread, 8-10 straight up.

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