Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at New England Patriots (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Ravens bring a far more run-centric offense back to Foxborough than the one that visited in October. The Patriots' middle of the pack run defense will face a stiff test from RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, and Baltimore spent plenty of time reviewing the film of Texans rookie RB Arian Foster rumbling for 119 yards against New England last Sunday. If Baltimore keeps it a one-score game and can set up play-action, QB Joe Flacco will be far more efficient against the Patriots' complex scheme.
WR Julian Edelman's stature is reminiscent of injured Wes Welker's, but it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots place on the rookie seventh-round pick in his first playoff game. RB Kevin Faulk and TE Ben Watson are likely to be utilized more in the passing game, but Edelman is a needed element underneath to help thwart Baltimore's blitz packages. Everything New England does will be in an effort to set up vertical shots to WR Randy Moss against the Ravens' thin secondary.
As the Ravens begin the playoffs at New England, Baltimore wide receiver Mark Clayton has a shot at redemption.
Three months ago, Clayton made one of the most critical drops of the Ravens' season when he let a fourth-down pass bounce off his chest at the New England 10-yard line. With only 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Clayton's mistake sealed the 27-21 loss for the Ravens.
Asked if he thinks about the drop, Clayton said, "Not at all — until somebody says something about it. No, I'm just excited because No. 1, it's been a tough season and we're in the playoffs. So it's an opportunity for us to collectively gather everything that we've done — good and bad — and put that away and start fresh with a 0-0 record like everybody else."
Coach John Harbaugh didn't take the bait when asked whether Sunday's return represented a shot at redemption for Clayton.
"Hey, you always have second chances," Harbaugh said. "If it were perfect the first time around, it's never that way. There are always things you can improve. All of our guys feel that way about every game."
Inside the locker room after the game, Clayton accepted blame for the loss. This week, he still holds himself accountable.
"For me, that's the play that lost us the game," he said. "So no, that doesn't bother me. That's cool."
Clayton said he committed the fundamental sin of not trying to catch the football with his hands, instead guiding the ball to his chest.
"Yeah, I was super shocked," he said. "For a time, (I was in) just disbelief; ‘That didn't really just happen, did it?' But it did."
Fellow wide-out Kelley Washington, who has played with top-tier receivers such as Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco, said even they have dropped a pass or two.
"Just being around Mark this year, I know that he's a guy who — as soon as he had that drop up there — forgot about it on the plane ride back and was already concentrating on the next week," Washington said. "That's the type of player he is. He prepares really well for the game, studies players. Everybody drops the ball, and that's just the position that we're in. Some are critical situations, and some are just part of the game. He's definitely looked past that, and he's battled through a lot this year and he's made a lot of plays for us."
Clayton ranks fourth on the team in catches (34) and yards (480), but he has caught more than one pass just once in his past seven games. Still, if the situation were to repeat itself with Flacco looking for a receiver on fourth down during a two-minute drill, Clayton hopes that the quarterback would look to him.
"I always say that I want to be the guy," he said. "If we need a play in the game, throw it to me. That's my mind-set, that's my mentality. It's just the next game, it's a playoff game, it's a big game for us, and we want to win it."
You'd expect Tom Brady to play the role of mentor to the Patriots' younger players since he's been involved in so many postseason games himself, yet his lips have been surprisingly sealed this week.
"No one has asked me at this point," Brady said.
However, should one of the rookies approach the veteran quarterback asking about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs, Brady will undoubtedly share his knowledge, which, as we all know, comes from a vast amount of experience.
"You're playing the best teams, so I think the biggest difference is there's less of a margin for error," said the two-time Super Bowl MVP. "I think you go into these games and you're playing teams that are the best in the league and have won the most games, so typically they are the ones that make the fewest mistakes and the ones where the yards are hardest to come by.
"So our execution has to be better. You're really not going to be given too many plays, so I think that's ... In the experience that I've had, you realize have to play a really good game of football to win. You can't go out there and play sub-par and expect to advance, so that's really what we're focused on: playing a great game, having a really good week of practice."
So far, so good. The Patriots have had a productive, healthy week, though the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker in last week's season-finale is still hanging over their heads as they prepare for Sunday's playoff opener against the improved Baltimore Ravens.
One player Brady has worked closely with this week is rookie receiver Julian Edelman, who will try to pick up the slack Sunday in Welker's absence.
"He's been working hard all year and he puts a lot of pressure on himself," Brady said of Edelman. "It's pretty remarkable what he's done as a former quarterback, which I don't know how he was a former quarterback because he can't throw at all. He tries to tell me, ‘Yeah, I threw for 2,000 yards.' I'm like, ‘Man, you can't hit that wall over there.' And he somehow was playing. I'm glad he plays receiver and not quarterback anymore, for his sake and our sake."
Welker's injury occurring last week might have been a blessing in disguise because at least the team has had a full week to prepare for his inevitable absence on Sunday afternoon. Had the injury occurred during a playoff game, the team might not have had the chance to recover from both a physical and mental standpoint.
"This week you have a full week of practice to prepare for without (Welker), but then of course injuries happen throughout the course of this game, so there will be adjustments that happen to take place," Brady said. "Those are the things that you always prepare for throughout the week. If this guy goes down, this is what we've got to do. We were going to be a three-wide receiver team.
"Now, it's got to be two wide receivers. You always have backup plans because it could happen in the first play. It could happen in the first quarter. It could happen in the fourth quarter. It's just one of those games."
Green Bay Packers (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver)
KEYS TO THE GAME
If his pass protection holds up, look for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to test the Cardinals' beat-up secondary vertically early on. Arizona will counter with aggressive blitz packages. When the Cardinals do bring the heat they had better get to Rodgers, who isn't making many mistakes with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions the past eight weeks. The Packers saw a watered down Cardinals offense last weekend. Warner got a chance to rest up, although the status of WR Anquan Boldin (ankle) is certainly worth watching. Green Bay is thin in the secondary and Warner will target CB Tramon Williams opposite Charles Woodson along with nickelback Jarrett Bush. However, the offensive line struggled in a pair of losses to San Francisco this season and Green Bay's 3-4 scheme could cause more issues.
Rodgers was sacked nine times over the past seven games after being sacked 41 times through the first nine.
The "Q" factor looms big for the Packers' showdown at the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs Sunday.
After another Cardinals practice passed Thursday without Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin on the field, the advantage tilted in Green Bay's direction to be able to handle Arizona's pass-centric attack.
Boldin is on the mend from ankle and knee injuries he sustained in a collision with Packers safety Nick Collins during Green Bay's 33-7 win over the Cardinals in the regular-season finale last Sunday.
"A guy like ‘Q', you don't replace guys like that," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said of Boldin. "You can't just plug somebody else in and get the same productivity and the same leadership and the same competitiveness and all of the things he brings to the table."
Arizona without Boldin on Sunday would be the great equalizer for the Packers' short-handed secondary, which has been without Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris since he sustained a season-ending knee injury Nov. 22.
The Achilles' heel of Green Bay's No. 2-rated defense has been a lack of depth in the secondary after Harris was hurt, but the Packers were fortunate to face only one team down the stretch that had the firepower with multiple receivers to attack the weak spots.
Incidentally, a 37-36 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 20 — a game in which Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the Green Bay defense for 503 passing yards and a last-second touchdown dart for the victory — was the Packers' lone defeat in their final eight regular-season games.
The Cardinals are similar to the Steelers with Warner at the controls of an offense that employs a lot of multi-receiver formations, but they didn't show their full hand in the meaningless matchup against the Packers last weekend.
Arizona surely won't be vanilla in the rematch Sunday.
"We fully anticipate Arizona to spread us out," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's what Kurt Warner likes to do, and that's what he does very well. We saw a number of snaps last week in spread formations, and I'm sure coming off the Pittsburgh (game), everybody is looking at the empty formations" to throw at the Green Bay defense.
If the Cardinals have to play without Boldin, the Packers will be able to match up starters Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams against All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. That would take the pressure off shaky nickel back Jarrett Bush and probably eliminate the need to go to a dime package with one of two untested players in rookie Brandon Underwood or Josh Bell, thus giving defensive coordinator Dom Capers more leeway to roll in No. 5 linebacker Brandon Chillar to help turn up the pass-rushing heat on Warner.
If Boldin plays, however, the potential mismatches tilt the advantage to Arizona.
The Cardinals likely won't know until hours before Sunday's game against the Packers about the availability of some key players.
Receiver Anquan Boldin hasn't practiced this week after suffering a sprained left ankle and knee in the season-finale against the Packers. Boldin said the injuries have improved, but it's not likely his status will be determined before Sunday.
If Boldin can't play, Steve Breaston will start with Early Doucet moving up to the third receiver role and Jerheme Urban taking the fourth spot.
At least the Cardinals have options at that position.
Their depth is lacking at some other key spots. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been limited by a left knee contusion but practiced on Thursday. He reported afterward that he felt good but would have to see how the knee reacted over the next couple days.
If he can't play, 5-foot-8 Michael Adams will replace him, and the Packers picked on Adams last week when Rodgers-Cromartie left the game after suffering the injury on the third play.
Free safety Antrel Rolle practiced a little on Thursday, after missing last week's game with a thigh bruise. His availability is important because the backup is rookie Rashad Johnson, who hasn't started a game.