This is when the fun starts. With the wild-card round behind us, top-seeded teams with a bye are back in action. So it's time to welcome Bill Belichick's Patriots back into the fold, along with the 49ers, Broncos and Falcons. Ready to do some ranking? Let's put the remaining teams in order.
Houston lost three of its last four regular-season games and wasn’t impressive in a 19-13 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Although Matt Schaub was voted into the Pro Bowl, he hasn’t played at a high level down the stretch (1 TD, 4 INTs in last five games). The Texans must rely on the ninth-year passer in the divisional round as the Patriots have been scorched through the air, ranking 29th overall in passing yards in the NFL.
Facts are facts and this Ravens defense isn’t the same. Terrell Suggs struggles to get a rush off the edge. The secondary gets exposed each weekend. Ray Lewis, who made his return in wild-card action, isn’t the same. We know that. Ray Rice’s fumbles aren’t worrisome, but if this team has any hope Joe Flacco must step up. If he wants a big-time contract, he better elevate his game when it matters most.
Green Bay Packers
They're getting healthy at the right time, which is bad news for the rest of the NFC. Green Bay didn't have much of a test against the Joe Webb-led Vikings offense in the wild-card round, but a win is a win. What's more, the Packers did a great job containing Vikings RB Adrian Peterson to just 99 yards. If they can stop Peterson, one thinks they have a good shot of keeping Frank Gore and the 49ers' ground game from setting the tempo this weekend.
Yes, the Falcons finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record. Yes, the Falcons have just one home loss this season. Yes, Matt Ryan had as fine a season as any quarterback in the NFL. Yet, his 0-3 record in the postseason can't be ignored. The Falcons' recent playoff ineptitude and questionable decisions under head coach Mike Smith can't be ignored. Atlanta has a lot to prove this week. It's win or else ...
They're young, fast, physical and have a wave of momentum after going into our nation's capital and downing the Redskins. The Seahawks bring in a dominant running game led by Marshawn Lynch (132 yards and a TD against Washington) into the Georgia Dome against the Falcons this week. Will QB Russell Wilson come up with another impressive performance? The Seahawks haven't shrunk from a challenge this season, so don't expect them to be overwhelmed against top-seeded Atlanta.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco went 3-2 down the stretch in the regular season, but still secured the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the postseason. However, is a week off the best thing for a rookie quarterback? With the 49ers resting their hopes on Colin Kaepernick, they have to hope the youngster won't show any rust against the Packers squad coming off a fairly easy win over the Vikings in the wild-card round.
New England Patriots
How good are the Patriots? That’s the million-dollar question. New England is a perennial contender playing in the AFC East, but with the emergence of RB Stevan Ridley and an improved defense, this could be the season it all comes together. Rob Gronkowski is back. Aaron Hernandez is healthy. Tom Brady is playing at a high level. And the Patriots are nearly unbeatable at Foxboro in the postseason. Good luck, Houston.
The Broncos have ripped off 10 straight wins to land the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. Everyone knows Peyton Manning is having an MVP campaign, but the defense is what makes this team click. In the final four weeks of the regular season, Denver’s defense allowed an average of 11.5 points per game. Baltimore’s stagnant offense could have its hands full on Sunday.