Houston Texans (11-6) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
KEYS TO THE GAME: 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.
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.
FAST FACTS: The Ravens beat Houston in Week 6, 29-14. RB Ray Rice rushed for 101 yards and had 60 more receiving. ... 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.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was scheduled to interview for Tampa Bay's vacant head-coaching position on Friday night, but he called off the interview to avoid being a distraction.
"This is where I want to be," Phillips told the Houston Chronicle.
The Glazers, team owners, and general manager Mark Dominik were scheduled to interview Phillips in Houston.
Phillips has installed the game plan for Sunday's game at Baltimore. The players better execute this game plan better than the one they had on Oct. 16 when they allowed 402 yards in the Ravens' 29-14 victory.
The defensive backs said that defeat in which Joe Flacco threw for 305 yards was their worst performance of the season.
"I thought it was bad in one way, but it was good in another in that after the game we made some changes," Phillips said. "We realized we couldn't give up big plays, secondary-wise I'm talking about, and overall, but we flipped both outside linebackers."
Connor Barwin moved to the weak side, the position where Mario Williams recorded five sacks in five games before suffering a season-ending injury. Rookie Brooks Reed, whose first start on the weak side was against the Ravens, moved to the strong side.
"I think it fit both of them better," Phillips said. "And then we made some mistakes in the running game."
Ray Rice ran for 101 yards, most in the fourth quarter.
"Everybody said we weren't going to be very good against the run, but after that, I think we played tremendously strong against the run. We were fourth in the league. And we played against a lot of good backs."
If the defense lets Flacco and Rice post similar numbers, the Texans will lose for sure.
The Baltimore Ravens are enjoying their recent run in the postseason, but they have little hardware to show for their efforts.
Outside of the franchise's run to Super Bowl XXXV in 2000, the team is just 5-6 in the playoffs. Baltimore is the only club in the NFL to have qualified for the postseason in each of the past four years and the only one to have won a game in each of the last three playoffs, but there is just one AFC North crown and no Super Bowl or AFC championship titles to boast of.
"You don't want to be the team that just has an 18-game season every year," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said recently. "You don't want to be the team that is just satisfied with making the playoffs and then goes home early. We appreciate the fact of what we were able to accomplish. We understand that you don't get this opportunity many times. You look at a guy like (former Miami Dolphins quarterback) Dan Marino, Hall of Famer. He went to the (Super Bowl) one time. Every year, you can't take for granted the fact that you are in the playoffs. You have to take advantage of that because you don't know if you are ever going to make it again."
One indicator of the Ravens' determination was a universal approval of coach John Harbaugh's decision to have the team practice on Wednesday and Thursday last week before getting a long weekend away.
That's not quite what Baltimore experiences in 2006 when the players were given five days off after securing a first-round bye.
"I like that we all stayed around," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We're not taking the noose off. They say never take the noose off a mule because it's not going back on there. I like that we still all stayed in football and kind of stayed grounded in football. We get a chance to refocus and actually see what it is we're playing for, and that's awesome."
Harbaugh said getting the players to buy into the schedule wasn't difficult.
"We talked about how this is not a midseason bye," he said. "There are goals in a midseason bye and goals in a postseason bye and things that need to be accomplished. Our guys understood that. We've got great leadership, and our leaders were out on front on that."
Baltimore's commitment can be linked to the number of players in the twilights of their careers. Inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Brendon Ayanbadejo, free safety Ed Reed, center Matt Birk, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Billy Cundiff are 30 years and older.
But defensive end Cory Redding, who is 31, said the hunger to win a Super Bowl is not limited to the aging veterans.
"Regardless if you have 16 years in the league or you're in your first year in the league, it's a sense of urgency because you never know when you're going to have the opportunity to be in this position again," he said. "That's the biggest thing that we emphasize to everybody in the locker room, whether they are 16 years in the league or rookies. Seize every moment. Control the opportunity you are in. Never take this for granted because we have some guys that have been in the league six years, been to the playoffs six straight times. We have guys like myself who have been in the league nine years and only tasted the playoffs twice. So you never know when you are going to get this opportunity again."
New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay Packers (15-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
KEYS TO THE GAME: 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 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.
FAST FACTS: 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. ... 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.
In 2011, the Green Bay Packers posted a franchise record 560 points, 270 of which were the result of the pinpoint accuracy of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who this season has thrown 45 touchdowns on 502 attempts (one touchdown per every 11.1 attempts).
So how, then, does the Giants defense, which in its last five games has 17 sacks and five interceptions against opposing quarterbacks, plan to stop Rodgers and Co. in this weekend's divisional playoff game in Titletown?
"Basically we have to contain him in the pocket and not let him get out and scramble on us," said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. "We have to be physical up front. It starts up front and that is basically what we have to do. We can't go out there and think all runs; we have to contain the pocket. All that is going to come, we can't rush it."
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said that there are some things that the Giants can take from the first meeting against Rodgers and the Packers back on December 4 that they can incorporate into this week's game plan.
"I think that after playing them and knowing a little bit more about them, we're more than up for the challenge to see if we can hold that guy down," said Fewell of Rodgers. "That's a big challenge for us. He's one of the best players in the league."
One of the challenges a quarterback like Rodgers poses in addition to his throwing arm is that he can scramble around, buy time, and still make plays. And that's something that Fewell said can create headaches when trying to devise a defensive scheme.
"It's a problem," Fewell said of Rodgers' ability to scramble which has seen the quarterback finish with 257 yards on 60 carries and three touchdowns, the third best in rushing yardage on the team.
"If he just would sit back in the pocket, it would be a lot more comfortable for us, but he has good move-ability. I was watching the Bears and on film and he made (linebacker Lance) Briggs and (linebacker Brian) Urlacher miss so that's a dimension that you don't really count on and he really can take advantage of you with his legs."
While the Giants obviously wouldn't disclose their specific plan to slow down Rodgers and the Packers' offense, Pierre-Paul said that the key to beating them is very simple: "We have to play great football. We have to stop the run game first, the pass game and be physical. That is basically it."
Maybe all it will take Sunday is one takeaway.
When the Packers look back on their 15-1 regular season and look ahead to playing their first postseason game this weekend, an easy correlation can be made between why they have won so many games and why they have lost only once.
The MVP-worthy impact of Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and being the highest-scoring team in the league notwithstanding, Green Bay can point to the power of the turnover.
The one game in which the Packers' maligned, but ball-hawking defense didn't come up with a takeaway happens to be the game they lost - 19-14 at the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15 on Dec. 18.
To avoid a quick exit from the NFC bracket in which it's seeded No. 1 and has home-field advantage, Green Bay may have to count on its 32nd-ranked defense to make a special play or two in the divisional-round matchup against the New York Giants.
"All we do is we preach the turnovers," cornerback Sam Shields said Thursday. "Three or more turnovers, we're winning. We keep continuing to do that, it's going to be some good things happening."
The Packers' nearly infallible regular season included six games with at least three takeaways.
Green Bay averaged nearly two interceptions per game with a league-leading total of 31. The Packers amassed 38 takeaways, tying the San Francisco 49ers for the top spot.
They forced two turnovers in the 38-35, last-second road win over the Giants on Dec. 4. Both came at the expense of quarterback Eli Manning and were the doing of Clay Matthews in the second quarter.
The Pro Bowl outside linebacker intercepted a pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and later forced a fumble on a sack of Manning.
The latter was the only sack Green Bay had in the game and one of just three hits of Manning, who otherwise shredded a mistake-prone secondary for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
The focus for the defense going into the rematch is twofold: contain the formidable duo of running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, who combined for 155 rushing yards in the wild-card rout of the Atlanta Falcons, and ramp up the pressure on Manning.
"You can't get after Eli when it's third-and-short," defensive end Ryan Pickett cautioned. "They're playing the chains. That's why we have to get 'em in long situations, and then you can bring pressure. But, other than that, you can't. That's why everything starts with stopping the run and winning first down, so we can put 'em in situations where we can put pressure on him."
If Manning's track record is any indication, forcing him into just one bad mistake could be the Packers' meal ticket to advance to the NFC Championship on Jan. 22.
The Giants are 6-0 this season and have won 11 straight games, going back to December 2009, when their Pro Bowl quarterback doesn't throw an interception. They are 4-4 this season when Manning has one pass picked and 0-3 when he's had multiple interceptions.
As further proof, consider Manning's previous two visits to Lambeau Field.
When the Giants pulled off the stunning 23-20 overtime victory in the NFC Championship four years ago, Manning didn't have a touchdown pass, but he also didn't throw an interception.
The teams' meeting in the second-to-last week of the 2010 regular season was a different story. The Packers picked off four passes from Manning, including three in the final quarter, and cruised to a 45-17 win that sparked Green Bay's six-game spurt to the Super Bowl title.
It's no coincidence the Giants are in the midst of their own late-season surge, winning four of their last five games after the narrow loss to the Packers last month. Manning threw all of two interceptions in the four wins but was picked three times in the only loss.
"I think his confidence level is definitely where it needs to be for them, and I think he's going to come here pretty confident," Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Obviously, it's our job to get pressure on him because I don't care who you are - you could be number 12 (Rodgers) - if people are constantly in your face, you're not the same quarterback."
Swarmed by reporters after practice Thursday, including a handful from New York media outlets, Raji spouted off on a few things.