New Orleans Saints at 49ers
Records: Saints 14-3, 49ers 13-3
The setting: Candlestick Park in San Francisco, 1:30 p.m. PST
TV: FOX (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa>
Last meeting: The Saints escaped 25-22 with a 37-yard field goal as time expired at Candlestick Park on a Monday night game Sept. 20, 2010.
Streaking: The Saints have won six straight against the 49ers, averaging 31 points, and have scored at least 30 points in five straight playoff games.
Second level: Saints QB Drew Brees filleted the Lions' linebacker corps, which failed to provide resistance in coverage of RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham last week. The 49ers have arguably the best bunch of 'backers in the NFL, and won't let Brees set his feet and throw on time by using delayed and cornerback blitzes to cloud passing lanes. It's tantamount for the Saints to commit to running between the tackles, using their massive interior linemen to lean on ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the top playmakers on the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense. Doing so buys Brees time to dial deep throws to Graham and WRs Robert Meachem and Lance Moore (hamstring), who missed last week's game.
Gore season: No team turns it over less – 10 turnovers in the regular season – or takes the ball away more (38 takeaways, tied, Green Bay) than the 49ers. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can live in his "jumbo" personnel package. While RB Frank Gore is the central figure in play-action offense, the 49ers are likely to pass on early downs, using quick-hitting crossing routes to TE Vernon Davis – which puts SS Roman Harper in coverage – from bunched formations. The Saints want to force Smith to convert third downs; San Francisco was 31st in the NFL with a rate of 29.4 percent during the regular season. In a close game, the 49ers get the edge. K David Akers had 44 field goals in 2011 and has 31 postseason field goals while P Andy Lee (44.0-yard net) and RS Ted Ginn are valued weapons.
Need to know: The 49ers went 5-0 against 2011 opponents that played the Saints. ... Saints PK John Kasay was 7-of-13 from 40-plus yards this season. Five of his six misses were on the road.
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
Records: Broncos 9-8, Patriots 13-3
The setting: Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Saturday, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
Last meeting: The Patriots pulled away 41-23 at Denver on Dec. 18 after allowing 167 rushing yards in the first quarter. New England TE Aaron Hernandez caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Streaking: The Patriots are the NFL's best home team, 74-15 including the postseason, since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002.
Gift wrap: Denver moves OLB Von Miller around the field to get him in mismatches. But even if he gets pressure, Miller needs help behind him. The Broncos tackled poorly and blew assignments repeatedly in the first meeting. While containing WR Wes Welker, they neglected Hernandez and fellow TE Rob Gronkowski. Denver plans to use more of its "heavy dime" package with S Rafael Bush playing cornerback; it was effective last week. QB Tom Brady will hold Bush's feet to the flame to find out if he can hold up, while also again targeting undrafted rookie CB Chris Harris. Harris helped keep Welker quiet the first time around.
Four front: The Patriots were gashed on the ground with a 4-3 front at Denver, then finished the game using more 3-4 alignments. The wide sets from the outside linebackers kept QB Tim Tebow contained, not allowing him to turn the corner. New England wants to funnel the action inside, where its top playmakers, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, await. To draw the Patriots out of that package, Tebow has to be effective on early downs getting the ball to his receivers. Denver won't veer far from its bread and butter of straight-ahead running, even with expectations that Bill Belichick will have an inventive gameplan waiting after an extra week of prep.
Need to know: Denver is one of just five teams in NFL history to start a season 2-5 or worse and reach the postseason. ... The Patriots allowed 74 points in the first half of their final four regular-season games.
Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
Records: Texans 11-6, Ravens 12-4
The setting: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf )
Last meeting: The Ravens beat Houston in Week 6, 29-14. RB Ray Rice rushed for 101 yards and had 60 more receiving.
Streaking: Texans RB Arian Foster rushed for 153 yards last week, his eighth 100-plus yard outing in his last 11 games.
Giant Andre: Houston's ideal scenario involves another big game from WR Andre Johnson (5-90-1 last week vs. Cincinnati) and a monster effort from Foster and backup Ben Tate. The Texans cannot fully spare rookie QB T.J. Yates the blunt force of emotion he'll get from the Ravens defense – which had 48 sacks in 2011 – but they can make his job easier. OLB Terrell Suggs had 14 sacks, but he's also a hip toss away from wrecking most running plays. When Suggs gets penetration, the Ravens' disciplined defense quickly scissors into cutback lanes, where Foster does most of his damage. If the Texans can't win that battle, they'll surely lose the war.
Slack for Flacco: Rice closed the regular season at a furious pace, averaging 115 yards in the final seven games, including 191- and 204-yard rushing efforts. The Texans' defense rides into Baltimore locked into the plan to make someone other than Rice beat them. QB Joe Flacco has his full complement of receivers healthy for the first time since September. WR Anquan Boldin (knee) is expected to be ready, and zipped around CB Johnathan Joseph for 132 yards in the October meeting. If the Texans don't give up the deep ball to WR Torrey Smith, they can test whether the Ravens have fully overcome the penchant for stalling in the red zone.
Need to know: The Ravens are 21-3 at M&T Bank Stadium the last three seasons, but 0-2 in the postseason. ... Yates is the first rookie drafted in the fifth round or later to win an NFL playoff game.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
Records: Giants 10-7, Packers 15-1
The setting: Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. CST
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver)
Last meeting: The Packers won, 38-35, at MetLife Stadium on PK Mason Crosby's 31-yard field goal as time expired in Week 13. QB Aaron Rodgers had 369 yards passing and four touchdowns for Green Bay.
Streaking: The Packers had a 10-point quarter in every game except their Dec. 18 loss at Kansas City.
Z to decide: Jordy Nelson, the Packers' "Z" receiver, and TE Jermichael Finley dictated coverage looks from the Giants in the first meeting. New York aggressively bracketed "X" Greg Jennings, but coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers' play-caller, said the Giants' defense has since been simplified. By bodying up their receivers at the line, the Giants hope to give their agile pass rushers time to crowd Rodgers' sightlines -- if not bring him down. Jennings has pogo-stick quickness in and out of his breaks and gets deep easily, but the entire receiver corps blocks well. With RB James Starks (ankle) healthy for the first time in months, the Packers will use the Giants' aggressiveness against them with screen passes and isolation draws designed to expose shaky second-level tackling.
The long of it: The Packers' pass rush slowed late in the season with five sacks in the final six games. The Giants averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the first meeting, but called 40 passes in their 61 offensive snaps. They'll try to balance that number, and target RB Ahmad Bradshaw and TE Jake Ballard short, but the game will be there to be won with the deep ball. QB Eli Manning has three receivers who can take the top off of a defense in Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, but must be cautious. Green Bay's corners (31 interceptions) aggressively jump inside routes, and Manning threw a pick-six in the first meeting.
Need to know: Thirty players in this game – 15 from each roster – played in the 2008 NFC Championship Game won by the Giants. ... The Packers allowed an NFL-record 4,796 yards passing during the regular season.