Peyton back in playoff action
D makes Broncos contenders
The Denver Broncos are Peyton Manning's team; there's no disputing that. But Manning can't mind having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, either.
The top-seeded, AFC West champion Broncos (13-3) enter their divisional round matchup against the visiting Baltimore Ravens on an 11-game winning streak that includes a 34-17 victory in Baltimore less than a month ago.
Manning's numbers that day weren't anything special (17 of 28, 204 yards, one touchdown). The defense, however, limited Ravens star Ray Rice to 41 yards on 15 touches and forced quarterback Joe Flacco into two turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
That doesn't mean the AFC North champion Ravens (11-6) should be overlooking the all-time great passer, who is making his first postseason start for his new team after spending his first 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts. Manning threw for 4,659 yards this season, 41 yards shy of his 2010 career high.
At least the Ravens will have their best defensive personnel available as they look to avenge the prior loss. Last week's victory against the Colts in the opening round of the playoffs marked the first time all season the team had its best players healthy on defense. The same is expected to be true again on Saturday in Denver.
But even having Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the rest of their defensive studs couldn't lift their troubled run defense. Baltimore surrendered 152 yards and 5.1 yards per carry to the Colts. Denver has leaned heavily on the run game since midway through the season, a trend that should continue given the Ravens' struggles.
There are too many ways for Denver to win this game to expect Baltimore to pull off the upset as Manning's team moves on to host the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Brady, Pats face familiar Texans
Houston Texans running back Arian Foster doesn't seem to appreciate Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy saying the New England Patriots have "back-to-back byes" this postseason. Earlier this week, Foster took an excerpt from Shaughnessy's column and made it his Twitter profile picture.
While insinuating the AFC South champion Texans offer no challenge to the AFC East champion Patriots is a laughable notion, it's easy to understand not giving Houston much of a chance to score the upset Sunday in Foxboro, Mass. After all, New England crushed the Texans 42-14 at home just five weeks ago.
Houston hasn't been very impressive since, either. They're 2-2 in that time, including their 19-13 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in their playoff opener last Saturday.
Scoring won't be a problem for Tom Brady and the Patriots, who averaged a league-best 34.8 yards per game in the regular season.
It won't be a week of rest for the Patriots, but they'll roll through Houston, nonetheless.
Packers, Niners different from Week 1
The Green Bay Packers opened their 2012 season with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. They're hoping it won't end the same way on Saturday night.
The NFC North champion Packers (12-5) are coming off a dominant victory against the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card round, a game in which star quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn't asked to do much. That likely won't be the case in the rematch with the NFC West champs.
In that Week 1 matchup, the 49ers (11-4-1) jumped out to a 23-7 lead with 23 minutes go to in the game, thanks to a pair of touchdown passes by Alex Smith before winning 30-22.
Of course, Smith doesn't take the snaps for San Francisco anymore. That job belongs to Colin Kaepernick, who took over and kept the starting quarterback job after Smith suffered a Week 10 concussion. Kaepernick went 5-2 as the starter, accounting for 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions while completing 62.5% of his passes.
Kaepernick's own rushing abilities add to the Niners' strength. Running back Frank Gore and his 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground this season lead the attack, but Kaepernick rushed for 415 yards and five scores of his own. That dual threat will keep the Packers honest.
The Niners should be prepared for a more balanced offense than the one the Packers displayed in their first meeting. Green Bay opted to run the ball 14 times with just nine of those being handoffs. The Packers now sport a running back-by-committee led by DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant, neither of whom started the season on the roster. The pair accounted for 24 of Green Bay's 31 carries last weekend.
Rodgers can put the Packers on his back and pull this one out, but the well-rounded Niners are favorites for a reason and they'll show it on their home field.
Ryan chasing elusive playoff W
With Matt Ryan at the helm, the Atlanta Falcons are 56-24 in the regular season. They're also 0-3 in the postseason.
Ryan's latest attempt to get the postseason monkey off his back comes Sunday against the visiting Seattle Seahawks. Seattle's rookie quarterback Russell Wilson already has one playoff victory, a 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins last week.
Say this much for Ryan: He's playing the best football of his career. He set career highs in completion percentage (68.6%), passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and passer rating (99.1) during the 2012 season.
But outside of him and his receivers, the NFC South champion Falcons (13-3) don't have much to brag about. Their defense is inconsistent, and their running game ranked 29th in the league this season.
With a reliable defense and Wilson playing like a polished veteran, the Seahawks have what it takes to keep Ryan winless in the playoffs.