NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Final Eight Take Center Stage

On Saturday, January 12, the Denver Broncos (13-3), the AFC’s No. 1 seed, will host the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens (11-6) to kick off the weekend (CBS, 4:30 PM ET). That night in primetime (FOX, 8:00 PM ET), the Green Bay Packers (12-5), who won the NFC North, will travel to face the NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1).

On Sunday, January 13, the NFC’s top seed, the Atlanta Falcons (13-3), will welcome the Seattle Seahawks (12-5) to the Georgia Dome (FOX, 1:00 PM ET) and the AFC East champion New England Patriots (12-4) will host the AFC South champion Houston Texans (13-4) at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:30 PM ET).

“This is what playoff football is all about,” says Packers head coach MIKE MC CARTHY. “It’s exciting and it’s fun. Players and coaches live for these types of games.”

Three of the four Divisional games are rematches of regular-season meetings: The 49ers opened the season with a 30-22 win over Green Bay in Week 1, the Patriots beat the Texans 42-14 in Week 14 and the Broncos defeated the Ravens 34-17 in Week 15.

A look at this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs:

BALTIMORE RAVENS (11-6) at DENVER BRONCOS (13-3) (Saturday, CBS, 4:30 PM ET)

The Broncos defeated the Ravens 34-17 in Week 15 in the last meeting. Baltimore won the only postseason game between the clubs, a 21-3 Wild Card victory in 2000 during the Ravens’ Super Bowl season.

Denver, which enjoyed a first-round bye, is the conference’s No. 1 seed and has home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Quarterback PEYTON MANNING, in his first season with the Broncos, has 5,389 career postseason passing yards, the third-most in NFL history behind only BRETT FAVRE (5,855) and Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE MONTANA (5,772).

“It’s an extra week to get better and an extra week to prepare,” says Manning about the team’s first-round bye. “Coach (JOHN) FOX challenged us to improve.”

The Ravens punched their ticket to the Divisional round with a 24-9 win over Indianapolis last week. Quarterback JOE FLACCO threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts and is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.

“We’re looking forward to this,” says Ravens wide receiver ANQUAN BOLDIN, who had 145 receiving yards in the second half, the most in the second half a postseason game since Pro Football Hall of Famer JERRY RICE in Super Bowl XXIII (157). “I was hoping we’d get Denver again. This time we’ll make it different.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-5) at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (11-4-1) (Saturday, FOX, 8:00 PM ET)

The Packers and 49ers opened the year on Kickoff Weekend and will meet for the sixth time in the postseason. Green Bay has won four of the previous five meetings in the playoffs – most recently in 2001 – yet San Francisco defeated the Packers in Week 1 by a 30-22 score at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay defeated the division-rival Minnesota Vikings 24-10 in a Wild Card matchup last weekend behind AARON RODGERS’ 274 yards and 104.9 passer rating. Rodgers, who hails from Chico, California, will make his first ever start in San Francisco. He enters the game with the highest postseason passer rating (105.4) in league history, including 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.

“We’re a little thankful that we get the chance to play San Francisco again,” says Packers fullback JOHN KUHN, who scored two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) in the Wild Card win. “They really whooped up on us the first game of the season. We’re looking forward to going out there and playing a better game.”

San Francisco will host a Divisional round game for the second consecutive year. The 49ers led the NFL with nine players selected to the Pro Bowl: linebacker NA VORRO BOWMAN, safety DASHON GOLDSON, running back FRANK GORE, guard MIKE IUPATI, linebacker ALDON SMITH, defensive tackle JUSTIN SMITH, tackle JOE STALEY, safety DONTE WHITNER & linebacker PATRICK WILLIS.

“We lost the NFC Championship Game at home last year,” says Whitner. “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. We feel like we’re a top team in the NFL.”

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (12-5) at ATLANTA FALCONS (13-3) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)

The NFC’s top seed, the Atlanta Falcons, will return to action after a first-round bye. Led by Pro Bowl quarterback MATT RYAN, the Falcons are looking to continue their regular-season success in the postseason. Ryan has 56 wins as a starting quarterback, the most in a player’s first five seasons in NFL history.

“Matt’s had a great regular season for us this year,” says head coach MIKE SMITH about his quarterback. “He’s gotten the individual accolades. He’s led our team through some tough ballgames and been able to pull them out. I think those experiences will help us in the postseason.”

The Seahawks, who led the NFL allowing 15.3 points per game during the regular season, defeated the Redskins 24-14 in Washington, DC in the Wild Card playoffs. The victory was the first road playoff win for the Seahawks since 1983, when the team won an AFC Divisional game at Miami. This time, Seattle erased a 14-0 deficit, the largest it faced this season.

“It was only two touchdowns, but it’s still a big comeback and, in this setting and with this crowd, it’s a marvelous statement about the guys’ resolve and what is going on,” says Seahawks head coach PETE CARROLL. “It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.”

Quarterback RUSSELL WILSON threw a touchdown pass – his 27th, the most in a single season by a rookie (including postseason) – and running back MARSHAWN LYNCH tied the franchise single-game playoff record with 132 rushing yards with one score.

“I just kept telling the guys, ‘We’ve been here before,’” says Wilson. “It was no different in this game. You just play one game at a time. You just stay in the now.”

HOUSTON TEXANS (13-4) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4) (Sunday, CBS, 4:30 PM ET)

The Texans and Patriots will meet for the second time this season and the first time in the playoffs. In Week 14, New England scored the first 28 points of the game en route to a 42-14 victory.

“We understand the challenge that we have,” says Houston head coach GARY KUBIAK. “That is what is awesome about this league; it’s the ultimate challenge. 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. We want to go back and play a lot better than we did last time.”

The Texans earned the trip back to New England with a 19-13 win over Cincinnati in the Wild Card round. Houston running back ARIAN FOSTER rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown and became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first three playoff games. Foster’s 425 rushing yards are the most by a player in his first three postseason games.

“It’s meaningful for our whole team what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY, who threw four touchdown passes in the Week 14 win. “You don’t take these things for granted. It’s a privilege to be in this position and to be one of the teams to have played well enough over the course of the year to deserve the first-round bye.”

Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times (XXXVI, XXXVIII), enters the postseason with a 16-6 record. His .727 postseason winning percentage is the third-best mark in NFL history, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famers TERRY BRADSHAW (.737) and TROY AIKMAN (.733).

“You should take full advantage of every opportunity because you never know if you’ll get the opportunity again,” says Brady. “Regardless if this is your first, second, third year or if it’s your 10th or 11th, you never know if you’ll make it back.”