It's hard to believe that a full fourth of the NFL will actually be playing with three weeks to go in the season, but they are. This is supposed to be the cream of the crop, and with minor variations from some preseason expectations, it is. With all the upheaval, the AFC sends the same four teams to the quarterfinals (aka the 'divisional round'). The NFC looks familiar enough except for Seattle. The NFC features two kid quarterbacks and three scramblers. The AFC features four old pocket pros. There are storylines galore, but really, none of them matter much. Loser go home is the only really substantive angle.
GB @ SF: The well-rested Niners face a Packer squad that has been building up a head of steam, even on defense. Despite Alex Smith's victory over the Pack during the regular season (in Green Bay), Colin Kaepernick will continue to make Smith Wally Pipp trade bait. If he fails, some of the Bay Area press is ready to hang Harbaugh, citing Smith's win over Green Bay among other things. That, of course, was a long time ago. Frisco has the better defense. Green Bay has the better offense. That leaves the game up to the other side of the ball, respectively. The game likely depends on how much pressure the Packers can put on Kaepernick while still containing him. He's not a rookie, but that's just technically --- he has by far the least game experience of any starter. Unless the Niners can run roughshod over the Pack, he will have to engineer drives that involve his stellar supporting cast. The Niners are such a question mark --- consider their two halves at New England. Question marks usually don't win, but I'm going with the home team for reasons I don't totally fathom myself.
BAL @ DEN: Ray is back, and he's danced his way into the Rockies. But unless the Ravens can dance their way to Peyton Manning early and often, the game may turn into a rout. There's not much question that their offense isn't about to keep pace with Manning in a track meet. They're going to have to win this one the old-fashioned Raven way. That, in Denver, might not be easy. Ray ain't what he used to be. Goose has been holding a microphone for a decade. In fact, it might not be possible. I'm guessing that it is possible, but not probable. Denver will go on to the AFC title game. The Broncos have proven a viable ark for Manning, and that makes it him vs. Flacco. Nuff said.
SEA @ ATL: The weekend's best underdog story pits the young but powerful Seahawks, replete with their rookie QB, against the top-seed in the NFC. Seattle enters the game hotter than the Falcons, who went 2-2 in their last four games. Still, though the Falcons lost to Carolina and Tampa, the last game was meaningless and was preceded by a couple of big wins as they effectively ended the Giants' season with a 34-0 drubbing and again topped 30 in Detroit against the hard-luck but strong Lions. The Hawks, meanwhile, achieved phenom status with an amazing three-game run that saw them score 50+ twice and pile 42 on San Francisco. That was followed by an uninspiring win over their nemesis, the Rams, and an equally uninspiring win in Washington over a one-legged scrambler who shouldn't have played. Can they get their magic back? Did they peak a shade too early? Has Atlanta ever peaked at all? These questions and more will be answered in Atlanta... and there's the rub. The Roadhawks have no truly impressive wins this season --- unless you count hanging 50 on Buffalo --- though at the time they looked that way as the Seahawks rose from the status of perpetual underdog. Atlanta isn't the best home field one could hope for, but it's still the road for Seattle. I traditionally don't like the Falcons, and my feelings say Seattle will tear them apart, but logic tells me Atlanta will get by.
HOU @ NE: Not long ago, Houston came to Foxboro and watched New England run over them. A few years ago, the Jets had a similar experience --- then came out with a revised defense and beat the Patriots in the playoffs. Could happen again. We hear Wade Phillips tossing hints that this time different strategies will be employed. Ya think? In a perfect world, should it happen, maddened throngs would storm the gates of the Boston Globe with pitchforks to string up yet another supposed sports reporter whose modus operandi is to make himself the story. Alas, it's not a perfect world. Then again, if the Texans need that sort of motivation with a 42-14 pasting still fresh in their minds, they're probably in trouble. More likely the game hinges on how motivated New England is. In recent years that hasn't been the lock it once was, but I think it will be enough of one. Barely. Home team gets the nod.