Wild-card winners prep for the rested and rusty
Here come the big boys.
The NFL’s wild-card weekend is over, with nary an upset. Moving on are division winners Green Bay, Houston and Baltimore, along with NFC West runner-up Seattle and the only rookie quarterback still standing: Russell Wilson.
Ahead are some daunting challenges as the Ravens visit Denver, the Texans go to New England, the Packers head to San Francisco and the Seahawks journey to Atlanta.
Only the Seahawks-Falcons isn’t a rematch.
Seattle isn’t intimidated one bit about facing the NFC’s top seed.
"Despite the fact that we have a ‘nobody’ team," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said after Sunday’s convincing 24-14 comeback win at Washington, "a team not full of first-rounders and things like that, we have a lot of guys that play at a high level."
Of course, so do the Falcons (13-3), Broncos (13-3), Patriots (12-4) and 49ers (11-4-1).
"They have a great coach and a great quarterback and they have great role players on their team," Texans running back Arian Foster said of the Patriots, who routed Houston 42-14 last month. "I have a lot of respect for them, but we can play ball, too."
The Texans beat Cincinnati 19-13 on Saturday, then Green Bay took out Minnesota 24-10. In Sunday’s other game, Baltimore eliminated Indianapolis 24-9.
The playoffs continue next Saturday with Baltimore (11-6) at Denver, followed by Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco. The Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 three weeks ago, while the 49ers knocked off the Packers 30-22 in the season opener.
On Sunday, it’s Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta, followed by Houston (13-4) visiting New England.
Ravens at Broncos
Not only is Baltimore thrilled to keep playing and keep star linebacker Ray Lewis’ career going, but the Ravens got the opponent they sought for the divisional round.
"I wanted Denver," said Anquan Boldin, who set a franchise record with 145 yards receiving, including the clinching touchdown against Indianapolis (11-6). "Because they beat us. We’ll make it different."
Lewis made 13 tackles in his first game back in nearly three months. He ended his last home game in Baltimore before his impending retirement by lining up at fullback for the final kneel-down. Then Lewis went into a short version of his trademark dance before being mobbed by teammates. He followed with a victory lap, his right triceps, covered by a brace, held high in salute to the fans.
Joe Flacco became the first quarterback to win a postseason game in each of his first five seasons and John Harbaugh is the first coach to do so.
"I love our team," Lewis said, "and I’m really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week."
The loss ended the Colts’ turnaround season in which they went from 2-14 to the playoffs in coach Chuck Pagano’s first year in Indianapolis. Pagano missed 12 weeks while undergoing treatment for leukemia and returned last week.
Andrew Luck completed 28 of 54 passes, the most attempts by a rookie in a playoff game, for 288 yards.
Packers at 49ers
It’s been a long time since these teams met on kickoff weekend, and much has changed.
Green Bay has become a bit more balanced on offense and somewhat stingier on defense than it was back in September. San Francisco has second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith, and receiver Michael Crabtree finally has developed into a threat.
The Packers held league rushing king Adrian Peterson to 99 yards in beating the Vikings (10-7), 100 yards less than he got on them the previous week.
"I don’t think we had our identity at that point," QB Aaron Rodgers said of the Packers team San Francisco beat. "We were trying a lot of different things."
Seahawks at Falcons
Atlanta has flopped in its last three playoff games, including losing at home to Green Bay two years ago in a similar scenario.
Seattle won’t bring as high-powered an offense as the Packers did to Atlanta, but it’s versatile enough with the creative Wilson, bulldozing halfback Marshawn Lynch and a deep group of receivers.
The most significant challenge for the Falcons, though, will be a defense that completely shut down the Redskins and a hobbling Robert Griffin III for the final three quarters of their wild-card game.
Washington (10-7) had 129 yards in the first quarter and 74 for the rest of the game.
"Seventy yards in 3 1/2 quarters is ridiculously good defense," coach Pete Carroll said after his Seahawks won their sixth straight and snapped Washington’s seven-game winning streak.
Texans at Patriots
Both teams say the Monday night romp by New England on Dec. 10 is not an indicator of what’s ahead. For their sake, the Texans better hope that is true.
"We didn’t play our best football up there and we hurt ourselves with penalties and mistakes," said Foster, who rushed for 140 yards and a TD against the Bengals (10-7). "Anytime you give (the Patriots) opportunities, they’ll take advantage of them. But we’ll play our best up there."
They have no choice, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick fully expects a tighter game.
"When you play a team twice during the season, the games are totally different. They never go the same way," Belichick said. "We’ll be able to certainly look at some of the matchups individually, guys that faced each (other) in the game. As far as plays and calls and things like that matching up, I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles. I’m sure we’ll have some, too. It will be totally different."
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