New England, the top seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record, and New Orleans, No. 3 in the NFC, haven't lost in the second half of the schedule. Like Green Bay (15-1), both have dynamic, sometimes unstoppable offenses led by magnificent quarterbacks, bolstered by a deep and dangerous group of receivers.
"A lot of it is working on what we need to work on; working on things that have been a problem for us, that if they come up again we need to handle better," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, not mentioning in particular a penchant for falling into deep holes. New England rallied from 17-0 and 21-0 deficits to win its past two games.
Behind Brees' record-setting performances, the Saints soared past all eight opponents at home, but if they can handle the Lions next Saturday night in the Superdome, then they must head to San Francisco. And if they get by the formidable Niners, who rode a stingy, big-play defense to a 13-3 mark, a date at potentially frigid Lambeau Field is likely.
"Different guys, different teams. I'd love to have the same ending as the `07 team," Giants guard Chris Snee said. "We certainly have the capability of doing that, as we have shown. I'm happy just to be in the playoffs. We'll take it from there. I don't spend too much time reminiscing about that glorious time in our life."
Baltimore, like New Orleans and Green Bay, went 8-0 at home and is an entirely different team on the road (4-4). Still, with some help from outside - ironically, the AFC North rival Steelers are the most likely to provide it - the Ravens might not have to leave the Inner Harbor to get to Indianapolis in February.
Pittsburgh was the only contender not to lose to a weak team, falling twice to Baltimore, and to San Francisco and Houston. The Steelers won seven of their last eight as their supposedly aged defense looked fresh and frugal.
"We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is all about," said safety Ryan Clark. "Now's the time to go play it.
"Now we have to go and play better on the road," he added of Sunday's game in Denver. "I believe this team can win anywhere."
Unfortunately for some playoff qualifiers, their recent performances spell early exit.
The banged-up Texans (10-6) lost their final three games, are playing a rookie, third-string quarterback, and have never been in the playoffs. Their opponent Saturday is Cincinnati (9-7), loser of three of its past five, backing into the postseason thanks to other team's defeats in their finales.
Detroit was torrid in going 5-0, tepid in losing five of the next seven. The Lions (10-6), in their first playoffs since 1999, already have lost at New Orleans this season.
Then there's Denver (8-8), which sneaked away with the AFC West despite losing its final three games as Tim Tebow stopped performing great escapes. The Broncos have a good defense, a terrific placekicker, and a lot of questions.