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Hosts are licking their chops

Broncos, Pats, Niners, Falcons look formidable

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The records are gaudy. The star power is high.

Here come the NFL's big boys.

Denver, Atlanta, New England and San Francisco host divisional playoff games this weekend. They're a combined 49-14-1, and their rosters are filled with such headline grabbers as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Gonzalez and Patrick Willis.

Their home-field advantages could be formidable, too. The Broncos, who have won 11 straight games, and Falcons each went 7-1; the 49ers were 6-1-1 and the Patriots 6-2.

None of which makes the Ravens, Seahawks, Texans or Packers quake in their cleats.

"That's not in my mind at all going up to Denver," said the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the only quarterback to win a playoff game in his first five seasons. "We feel confident, and I think we should."

Baltimore at Denver opens the weekend's action, followed by Green Bay at San Francisco on Saturday night.

On Sunday, Seattle is at Atlanta, then Houston goes to New England.

 

RAVENS (11-6) AT BRONCOS (13-3)

For all those impressive numbers, here's a baffling one: four-time league Manning is a mere 9-10 in post-season games. Those wins and losses were compiled with the Colts, with whom he never had a defence like the one the Broncos possess.

That defence made a big difference when Denver won 34-17 at Baltimore in Week 15. A 98-yard interception return by Chris Harris at the end of the first half turned it into a rout.

The Manning-Ray Lewis matchups through the years have been intriguing, and this will be the final one. Baltimore's emotional leader announced his retirement days before he had 13 tackles in his last home game, a 24-9 wild-card victory over Indianapolis.

"They are always classic," Lewis said. "It's just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know him very well... But at the end of the day, it's not about me and me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team. I love our team right now."

 

PACKERS (12-5) AT 49ERS (11-4-1)

Another rematch, but from so long ago: San Francisco won 30-22 in the opener, at Lambeau Field.

The Packers have the edge in this post-season series, 4-1. They would seem to have the edge on offence with top-rated passer Aaron Rodgers and a deep crew of receivers.

And the Niners would have the advantage on defence, having yielded 63 fewer points in the regular season.

A key will be whether Green Bay, which beat Minnesota 24-10 last week, can protect Rodgers after allowing 51 sacks. The 49ers' Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 himself.

"We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket," left guard T.J Lang said. "That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out."

 

SEAHAWKS (12-5) AT FALCONS (13-3)

Those road woes that plagued the Seahawks can be forgotten. They've won three in a row away from home, including the 24-14 wild-card victory at Washington that was their first on the road in the playoffs since 1983.

With six straight wins overall, they're a confident bunch as they head to the Georgia Dome.

"We've grown and become more together and more in tune with our QB and what he can do and all that," Carroll said, referring to rookie Russell Wilson. "We're a pretty hard team to beat right now."

Atlanta has been easy to beat in its last three playoff appearances, something quarterback Matt Ryan dismisses as a factor for this game.

"We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me."

 

TEXANS (13-4) AT PATRIOTS (12-4)

Yet another rematch, this from Dec. 10 when the Texans flopped in Foxborough, 42-10. That was the beginning of a fade in which they dropped three of four and sank from top AFC seed to No. 3.

Houston recovered somewhat last week in a 19-13 wild-card victory over Cincinnati. This is a much tougher task.

"If you want to move on, you've got to bring a sense of attitude and nastiness with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play," said QB Matt Schaub, who got his first post-season win last week.

Tom Brady has 16 post-season wins and needs one win to break a tie with Joe Montana.

"He's won a lot of regular-season games, won a lot of playoff games," coach Bill Belichick said. "What he does on a day-to-day basis, how he performs on the practice field, how he performs in games... he's pretty consistent. I think you see that during the week, so it shows up on Sunday."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 C6

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