Previewing the Divisional Games

There are three other games this weekend, leading off with the big one for Green Bay purposes: New Orleans at San Francisco. In the AFC, it's Denver at New England on Saturday night and Houston at Baltimore on Sunday.

New Orleans at San Francisco

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. CT, at Candlestick Park, San Francisco TV: FOX.

When the Saints run the ball: The ground game is quietly very important to New Orleans. The 49ers own the league's No. 1 run defense and RBs Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory won't enjoy the gaping holes they saw against Detroit. If San Francisco can contain the ground game with its front seven, it will go a long way toward helping the pass defense. EDGE: 49ERS

When the Saints pass the ball: Opponents had success against San Francisco's defense when they were able to adequately protect the passer and work the middle and deep part of the field. That's where QB Drew Brees, sacked only once every 26.9 attempts, is most dangerous. With TE Jimmy Graham and a host of wideouts, Brees has the weapons to attack between the hashes and test deep coverage. EDGE: SAINTS

When the 49ers run the ball: San Francisco will hit the ground running, and must be successful or risk exposing QB Alex Smith to a bevy of blitzes. The 49ers have a big offensive line paving the way for RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. While New Orleans gave up yards in chunks all season, the run defense was a respectable 12th in the league allowing 108.6 yards per game. EDGE: 49ERS

When the 49ers pass the ball: The Saints had the league's third-worst pass defense during the regular season, while the 49ers' passing game made steady progress. As long as the game is close and QB Alex Smith is able to work off play-action, San Francisco is in good shape. The concern is pass protection, and if the Saints can build an early lead, New Orleans (33 sacks during the regular season) will blitz heavily. EDGE: EVEN

Special teams: The 49ers landed P Andy Lee and PK David Akers on the All-Pro team. Akers could well be the X-factor, as the 49ers' poor red-zone offense led to 55 field-goal attempts. Lee and Akers are also familiar with Candlestick Park's often difficult wind conditions. Both teams possess potential big-play return men in the 49ers Ted Ginn and the Saints' Darren Sproles. EDGE: 49ERS

Coaching: Jim Harbaugh did a remarkable job turning the 49ers into a Super Bowl contender in just one season with largely the same personnel. The playoffs are a different beast and it will be interesting to see how San Francisco comes out following a bye week. The Saints' staff has a Super Bowl under its belt and the team was extremely well prepared last week. EDGE: SAINTS

Denver at New England

Saturday, 7 p.m., at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. - TV: CBS.

When the Broncos run the ball: Denver rushed for 167 yards in the first quarter of the first meeting. While the Patriots made adjustments and allow just 85 more the rest of the way, a big part of the change was a pair of turnovers that led New England stretch out a lead and limit the effectiveness of the ground game. There is no doubt teams have started to learn how to contain the option attack, but Denver's ground game remains the foundation of the offense. EDGE: Broncos

When the Broncos pass the ball: Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards against a far superior defense last week. The Steelers fired aggressively at the line of scrimmage, daring Tebow to beat man coverage - and that's exactly what he did. Tebow did throw for 194 yards without an interception in the first meeting and the Patriots enter with the league's second-worst pass defense from the regular season. New England does get a boost with SS Patrick Chung available for the rematch. EDGE: Even

When the Patriots run the ball: The Patriots run the ball just enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back in the pass rush. RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead combined for 122 yards on 28 carries in Week 15, and the Broncos had trouble containing Steelers backup RB Isaac Redman last week after allowing 126.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season. EDGE: Patriots

When the Patriots pass the ball: Denver has a strong pass rush and a veteran secondary. That didn't help much in the first meeting, when they got to Brady for just a pair of sacks and didn't force any turnovers. Brady has the weapons to get the ball out of his hands quickly - he'll spread the field and then work the hashes with WR Wes Welker and TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. EDGE: Patriots

Special teams: Patriots PK Stephen Gostkowski is almost automatic at home, while the Broncos' Matt Prater has 50-plus range on the road, not just at altitude. Both punters are also very solid. Broncos KR Eddie Royal will potentially get the only kick return opportunities considering Prater is virtually touchback machine. EDGE: Even

Coaching: John Fox has the Broncos playing loose and has plenty of his own playoff experience. But Bill Belichick is regarded as one of the best in NFL history for a reason. His defensive adjustments in the first meeting were a prime example of why he's destined for the Hall of Fame. EDGE: Patriots

Houston at Baltimore

Sunday, noon, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: CBS.

When the Texans run the ball: The Ravens closed the regular season with the league's No. 2 run defense, while Houston had the league's second-ranked ground game. Strength on strength led to a good duel in the regular-season meeting, with the Texans averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Houston did rip off 188 rushing yards last week and must find that type of success early. EDGE: Texans

When the Texans pass the ball: Texans rookie QB T.J. Yates has never faced the likes of the Ravens' defense - much less in a playoff environment. He has shown poise and limited his mistakes through six career starts - but against the likes of Jacksonville, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee. The Ravens have the ability to put the clamps on Foster, force the game onto Yates' shoulder and make the rookie's life extremely difficult. EDGE: Ravens

When the Ravens run the ball: This is where the Texans have to dominate in order to be competitive. RB Ray Rice racked up 159 total yards in Week 6 and his versatility can rob Houston of its strong upfield push. The Ravens' offensive line has continued to improve as the season progressed, with Rice averaging 5.3 yards per carry the past seven games. EDGE: Ravens

When the Ravens pass the ball: Houston got eight hits on QB Joe Flacco in the regular-season meeting, and he turned the ball over twice. But Flacco was also able to throw for 305 yards, including two completions of 50-plus yards. The Texans' secondary did an excellent job against the Bengals last week, but the Ravens have a nice combination of speed and possession receivers that should help them move the ball consistently and be effective in the red zone. EDGE: Ravens

Special teams: Ravens PK Billy Cundiff is coming off an inconsistent regular season, while the Texans' Neil Rackers was shaky last week. Both have strong legs that can eliminate the return game. Baltimore's Sam Koch has one of the league's top legs, but veteran Matt Turk is an excellent directional kicker for Houston. EDGE: Even

Coaching: Houston's Gary Kubiak deserves a world of credit for getting a team on its third starting quarterback prepared for its first playoff game in franchise history despite a three-game losing streak to end the regular season. Baltimore's staff is old hat at getting the Ravens primed for a playoff run. EDGE: Even



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