Final eight teams set for NFL playoff battle
The National Football League's (NFL) four top-rated teams join the fray this weekend by hosting divisional round playoff games that will set the stage for the Super Bowl semi-finals.
Following first-round byes, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers should all be rested and well-prepared to do battle with last week's wild-card playoff winners.
Quarterbacking kings Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are a win away from a tantalizing AFC championship duel, with top-seeded Denver big favorites over the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday and the Patriots expected to beat the Houston Texans on Sunday.
Manning, riding an 11-game winning streak with the Broncos, steered them to a 34-17 victory last month over Baltimore, while Brady led his Patriots to a 42-14 thumping against Houston.
"We understand the challenge that we have," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. "The Patriots have been at this level for a long time. We had a rough trip up there last time, but we've earned our right to go back."
Arian Foster helped the Texans book the rematch by rushing for 140 yards in last week's 19-13 win over Cincinnati.
Vince Wilfork, New England's huge defensive tackle, said the Patriots expect a tougher test this time from the Texans.
"They didn't play their best game. They know that and we know that," said Wilfork. "Come Sunday we are expecting their best. It's all or nothing from here on out."
Manning, who has picked up right where he left off despite missing the 2011 season with Indianapolis after neck surgery, said it was pretty much business as usual for him.
"I always try to prepare every single week as if it was a playoff game or the Super Bowl," he told reporters. "That's your job as an NFL player."
Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said his team relished the role of underdog.
"Every time you turn on the TV you see somebody talking about the Broncos and the Patriots in the AFC championship game," said Williams. "We love that. People are counting us out. We love being the underdog."
The NFC match-ups, by contrast, are rated as close contests with the North Division champion Green Bay Packers playing the West-winning 49ers on Saturday, while top-seeded Atlanta face the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers had an easy time disposing of the Minnesota Vikings 24-10 in their wild-card contest, while the Seahawks roared back from a 14-0 deficit to beat the Washington Redskins 24-14.
The Packers fell 30-22 to the 49ers in their season-opener.
San Francisco, who led the NFL with nine players selected to the Pro Bowl, will have big-play quarterback Colin Kaepernick making his first postseason start in his second year in the NFL after taking over from Alex Smith.
"We lost the NFC championship game at home last year," said Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner about a heartbreaking overtime loss to the New York Giants.
"We want to take that next step this year and that's our goal. We want to win the first playoff game, win the second and then go to the Super Bowl."
Atlanta, is looking for their first playoff win under head coach Mike Smith and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, so the pressure is on them against the wild-card Seahawks, who are without injured defensive end Chris Clemons.
"I don't worry about it. I don't think about it," Ryan said about the pressure. "We just want to play our best football." (Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)