Taking an early look at the best two days of football of the NFL season — the top four seeds are back in action — plus all the other developing stories around the league this week:
1. Nothing like getting the party started right. Arguably the weekend's most intriguing matchup will happen first, on Saturday afternoon. It's a match of contrasting styles, an unstoppable force (the top-ranked Saints' offense) vs. an immovable object (the Niners' top-five-ranked defense). Both teams also have excellent kicking games, too, leveling the field even more. There's also perhaps some bad blood between the teams. The Saints thumped the Niners in the preseason with Saints coordinator Gregg Williams blitzing relentlessly, sending the dogs like it was, well, the playoffs. The reason? There's a story going around that Sean Payton left a message for Jim Harbaugh and asked if the two teams could have a gentlemen's agreement and hold off from blitzing in the game. According to the story, Harbaugh never called Payton back, so Williams took matters into his own hands. Harbaugh claims no knowledge of this situation. "And even if there was, we wouldn't do it anyway," he said. "We ask no quarter, we give no quarter, and that's how we approach things." Cute story, but whatever. What no Saints fan will deny is that these teams were division rivals in the old NFC West for years with the Niners pretty much dominating the series all through the 1980s and '90s. This one will be special for some dyed-in-the-wool Saints fans who go back a few years.
2. OK, the game. The 49ers lack playoff experience and Alex Smith enters this game with a lot to prove. But this team has gotten to this point because it is confident, poised and assertive. It takes after head coach Jim Harbaugh, who will pull out all the stops this week to make sure his team is mentally ready. The coaches got together to eat some pizza, maybe have a beer or two and watch the Saints roll up 45 points against the Lions. Acid indigestion? Niners coordinator Vic Fangio will need more than Maalox to stop that offense. Saints WR Lance Moore might not play, but other than that, what can the 49ers look forward too? Don't be shocked if they take a page from the Titans' playbook. In a game that could have a similar feel to this one, the Titans held the Saints to three field goals through three quarters in Week 14. Although the Titans lost the game, they had the right formula against Drew Brees and Co. The Saints got their yards (437), first downs (24) and third-down conversions (11-of-19), but the Titans made them work. The three field goals came on drives of 10, nine and 15 plays. The Saints' longest play was 35 yards; they had only five plays longer than 20 yards.
3. Don't talk about keys of the game with Harbaugh. "I think all of it is going to matter," he said. "Everybody starts talking about the keys; this is the key, that's the key. Before you know it, you've got 26 different keys to the game, which is really accurate." The Saints did a great job of attacking the middle of the field and were fortunate that the Lions didn't take advantage of three possible interceptions, all of which were dropped. The 49ers are strongest up the middle with ILBs Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman and seldom have dropped picks, as seen by their plus-28 turnover margin in the regular season. Brees and his offensive teammates have to be sharp and deal with the crowd noise, which is sure to be a few decibels past the threshold of pain. And the run game that has made the Saints so much more balanced this season could be negated by a 49ers run defense that finished the regular season ranked No. 1.
4. After the Patriots had finished off their 41-23 win over the Broncos back in Week 15, Tom Brady and Tim Tebow met at midfield. "Maybe we'll see you again," Brady told Tebow. Now, maybe that's the kind of line veteran quarterbacks say as a show of respect for good, young opponents. Heck, maybe Kurt Warner said the same to Brady midway through that 2001 season when the Rams beat the Patriots in Foxborough. But the fact is that Brady was right. Maybe he saw something in this team and Tebow that day and knew they were better than the score indicated. Three turnovers in the second quarter turned the game on its head, with a 16-7 Broncos lead turning into a 27-16 Patriots lead at half. The home team never had a chance in the second half, chasing the tails of Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski around.
5. So what do you think, did the Patriots pull a fast one with Josh McDaniels? Two national columnists, Mike Klis and Michael Silver, think so. The NFL, apparently, disagrees. A similar — though far less incendiary — situation happened back in 2009 when the Cowboys replaced Todd Grantham, who was hired at University of Georgia, with Paul Pasqualoni, who had been cut loose by the Dolphins. It's legal, but that doesn't mean there isn't a stink to it in some folks' minds. Although before you start assuming the Broncos don't have a chance considering their former head coach will be on the Patriots' sideline, consider many things. First, the offense is different. McDaniels and his pet project, Tebow, spent only eight months together. That was more than a year ago. McDaniels, who most recently was with the Rams, did not face the Broncos this season. The Patriots just saw them three weeks ago. I'd say they have just as much intel on Tebow as McDaniels does.
6. It's somewhat easy to forget that Sunday's heroes, Tebow and Demaryius Thomas, were quite good in the first matchup. Tebow ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns and he threw for 194, with one fumble his only really big miscue. He was sacked four times, but it wasn't the Broncos' best day up front. And Patriots DE Andre Carter, who was hurt in that game, won't be playing for the Patriots. Thomas rose up with 116 yards on seven catches, although a lot of that came when the Patriots were up three scores. But they are going to have to be big in this game. With WR Eric Decker (knee) ruled out of this contest, Thomas is the one true playmaker — we're not quite ready to count TE Daniel Fells — among the pass catchers. Eddie Royal has some speed, but the Patriots really will worry about Thomas the most. It was McDaniels who traded up to get this 240-pound horse with 4.3 speed, and he might know what Thomas struggles most with. But we at "The First Fifteen" know what the Patriots struggle most with: talented deep receivers. They have been victimized time and time again. Can they make plays downfield and prevent the big gainers? It has been the question all season long.
7. Houston natives don't appear crazy about the idea that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would interview for another team's head-coaching position the week of such a big game, but he has earned it. Simply put, the Texans would not be heading to Baltimore with a chance to be in the AFC title game with a win without him. And it was a defensive play, naturally, that helped flip the wild-card win over the Bengals on its head: J.J. Watt's incredible pick-six, after which the Texans never looked back. Does the defense have a shot Sunday? They'll have to do a better job on Ray Rice, who scooted for 161 yards from scrimmage on 28 touches in the Ravens' 29-14 win in Week Six, but Texans ILB DeMeco Ryans was not healthy in that game. They also must cover Anquan Boldin, who is expected to return after missing Weeks 16 and 17 with a knee injury. Boldin got free for 132 yards on eight catches, most of them against talented Texans CB Johnathan Joseph in man coverage. Joseph played a good game against the Bengals; now he must play a better game this week.
8. Enjoying the Texans' win over the Bengals, somewhere in Section J, was Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Yes, he was there in person watching the game. Advance scouting? "He's done that quite a few times over the years when we've had bye weeks and stuff like that," Ravens head coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "So that's something that I think he likes to do. It gives him a feel, watching the game live, scouting the game live. It's not so much X's and O's as it is a feel for the tempo and things like that." Cameron saw a Texans defensive front that showed it can dominate again. Watt, Earl Mitchell and Antonio Smith all had big plays, and the linebackers held their ground against a solid run game. But as long as Cameron doesn't forget about Rice, the Ravens should be able to move the ball without too many stalled drives.
9. The Texans have a pretty good runner, too. Two actually. But it's Arian Foster's game if he wants it. The Texans will give him the ball 30 times Sunday if the run is working and he can handle the load. Foster only has had three games with 30 or more carries; in Week Six, he carried it only 15. The Ravens limited those great cutback runs we saw so many of on Saturday, and he was held to a long run of 16 yards. But that also was a game in which Andre Johnson was not on the field. Now that he is back from his nagging hamstring injuries, Johnson should be unleashed in this game. Expect Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano either to bracket Johnson or try to send the house at green QB T.J. Yates for his first road playoff game. Can't do both, really.
10. The Packers will take the field Sunday afternoon with heavy hearts following the news that the 21-year-old son of offensive coordinator Joel Philbin was found dead. Philbin had just completed a head-coaching interview with the Dolphins and was set to coach the league's most consistently dangerous offense in the Packers' first home playoff game since 2007. Life was good until this horrible tragedy struck. The player availability was canceled on Monday, but many Packers took to Twitter to express their utter shock at the situation. Wrote OL T.J. Lang, whose father passed away last week: "As children we all have to someday say goodbye to our parents, but a parent should never have to say goodbye to their child." Head coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson both issued statements mixed with shock, love and support for their co-worker, but McCarthy vowed that his team would be ready for the game against the Giants no matter the unfortunate circumstances.
11. We are completely blessed as NFL fans to have four former Super Bowl MVPs playing quarterback this weekend, including two head to head in Green Bay. Eli Manning (XLII) and Aaron Rodgers (XLV) will square off again six weeks after their epic battle at MetLife Stadium. We know the amazing numbers the Packers have amassed this season — 8-0 at home, franchise-best 560 points scored, Rodgers' NFL-record 122.5 passer rating and all the rest. There also are Rodgers' sterling postseason passing numbers, including a 67.8 completion percentage and 8.7 yards per attempt. He also gets back Greg Jennings (knee sprain), who sent word via Twitter that he has not forgotten the Giants' 2007 NFC title game win in Lambeau. So will it matter if he won't have shot a live bullet in three weeks? The Giants certainly hope so. Their pass rush, which showed signs of life in the first meeting, now is a three-alarm fire. They had only two sacks against the Falcons, one on their final play on defense, but five different Giants hit QB Matt Ryan and kept him off his spots all day Sunday. It's no longer a one-man Jason Pierre-Paul show, as it was for much of the season. The band is back together, and it certainly has reminded some folks of the 2007 tune.
12. The '07 comparisons are quite easy to see, of course. The late-season test against an unbeaten team giving the Giants the confidence they need going into the postseason, only to face said team one more time with everything on the line. But the difference this time around is that Manning has been at his best all season. He struggled that whole season, turning in the lowest full-season passer rating of his career, but 2011 has been Manning's finest hour. And now he faces a Packers secondary that has survived by making interceptions, nearly two per game, and without the benefit of a hot pass rush. They have given up tracts of land to opposing passing games, and Manning did his dirty work (347 passing yards, three TDs) against them last time with two TD strikes to Hakeem Nicks, who also scored twice vs. Atlanta. Cover salsa boy Victor Cruz, and Nicks can burn you. The Giants come to town a very confident bunch, one that knows it can play toe to toe with the champs on their best day.
13. Just as you might have been watching the field-goal fest that was LSU-Alabama, so were many NFL scouts. For the winning Crimson Tide, their many talented defenders were flying around the field, holding LSU to under 100 yards of offense and allowing them to pass the 50-yard line one time. (Said Brent Musburger, "They're treating the 50-yard line like it's the goal line!") Among them: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, S Mark Barron, DE-OLB Courtney Upshaw, ILB Don'ta Hightower and S Robert Lester, all of whom could be second-round picks or higher. You also can't forget about who might be their highest pick, RB Trent Richardson, or OLs D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. LSU might not have shown it Monday night, but the Tigers also have some elite talent. CB Morris Claiborne might be a better cover man than Patrick Peterson, some scouts feel, and talented WRs Russell Shepherd and Reuben Randle are both skilled. It might not be this season, but DE Sam Montgomery should be a first-rounder eventually. We're coming up on 100 days until the first round of the draft. Expect to hear plenty of both schools' players that entire weekend.
14. Speaking of draft news, Baylor QB Robert Griffin III apparently has informed the school that he will indeed apply for the draft. Although this was considered a no-brainer, sources told PFW that Griffin was weighing the matter seriously up until Monday night and seriously was considering returning to Waco, loving the situation he had there and with all that college life would offer him. It would have been stunning to some had he come back, but USC's Matt Barkley passed on that chance, just as Andrew Luck did a year ago. Neither the Rams nor Vikings, holders of the Nos. 2 and 3 picks, have any real desire to draft Griffin given that they believe they have the QBs of the future on their respective rosters in Sam Bradford and Christian Ponder. But Griffin's presence in the draft strengthens both of their positions. The belief is that his stock will rise enough to the point where the Rams can put the second overall pick up for sale and ask quite a bit for it. The Vikings would be just fine with that because it likely would leave them with a win-win choice: either draft USC OLT Matt Kalil or trade down and add picks. Without Griffin in the draft, those two teams would have lost their leverage to move if they want to.
15. The Lions exited the playoffs in disappointing fashion, failing to slow down Brees or secure several interception chances in a 45-28 loss in New Orleans. But the future is bright for these Lions, who will be saddled with Super Bowl expectations next season in light of their young talent across the board. Are there improvements needed? No doubt. Will there be some tough decisions to make in regard to free agency? Yes, indeed. DE Cliff Avril is a free agent who could cash in. Calvin Johnson has a year left on his deal and will be seeking Larry Fitzgerald-type money. There are pecking-order decisions to make at running back, with Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure. The offensive line could use some fresh blood perhaps. Even Jim Schwartz likely will engage in some contract talks as he has a year left on his original deal. There also is a secondary that badly needs a playmaker. But there's no question this team has Super Bowl-caliber talent and could tilt the NFC power toward Detroit. They'll have to answer questions about their mental toughness and handling some measure of success, but the ability is there to make a run. Oh, and do you remember where the Super Bowl will be held next year? That's right: New Orleans.