ESCANABA - We're now getting into the meat of the NFL playoffs, with three out of four games this weekend sure to be barnburners.
This is especially the case in the NFC where any one of the four remaining teams could be seen playing in the Super Bowl. Each have strong strengths, though none are perfect. That includes the Green Bay Packers.
In the AFC, two perennial contenders face off against two upstarts. The Patriots and Ravens should each be heavily favored but as we know, that doesn't guarantee anything.
I was 3-1 in my picks last week, only failing in selecting Cinncinati to advance over Houston. No doubt the Texans tandem of T.J. Yates and J.J. Watt was impressive. This rookie duo will now take their show to Baltimore where they'll run into a considerably more formidable defense.
Another thing the Ravens are good at - pounding the ball, which incidentally tends to wear opposing defenses down. The Texans, whether it's Matt Schaub or Yates at quarterback next year, appear to be a team built to contend for some time, even if Indianapolis rises from the ashes.
Baltimore's window is smaller though and this could be a final foray deep into the postseason for the aging Ravens.
Ravens 23, Texans 13
* Defenses thought they had the blueprint for how to stop Tim Tebow, then he shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers with his arm. That was unexpected. Now the New England Patriots have to re-figure how to stop the Broncos rookie quarterback.
The Patriots defense has fallen from recent years and the Broncos have already proven during the regular season that they can score on the Pats. New England has also had a history of boom or bust. Falling in the first round or soaring to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos are a nice story but it's hard to tell if they're a fluke or a legitimate contender. Here's thinking they again won't be able to stand up to the passing game of Tom Brady and his impressive array of receivers.
Patriots 38, Broncos 24
* The New York Giants are no stranger to postseason play and did that defense ever look impressive last week against Atlanta, stuffing the Falcons 24-2. Atlanta can be explosive on offense, but still look tame in comparison to the Green Bay Packers.
Still, Eli Manning was among a handful of quarterbacks to pass for over 4,500 yards this season and the Giants receivers are as good as anyone's. Manning also has a history of winning at Lambeau, pulling off an impressive overtime victory four years ago. The Giants also suffered a very narrow 38-35 loss to the Packers last month.
The problem with New York is consistency.
To win, Manning will have to keep up with the rocket arm of Aaron Rodgers and the defense will need to again rise to the challenge. Mental errors must be corrected and a near-pefect game will need to be played.
While questions about the Packers defense remain, the Giants don't quite have the tools to slow this well-coached Packers team enough. Green Bay advances, for now.
Packers 41, Giants 35
* Two of the NFL's maverick coaches will take the spotlight when the New Orleans Saints come marching into San Francisco. Sean Payton raised some eyebrows in the Saints win over Detroit, going for it on fourth down three times, including once deep in their own territory. Payton wanted to keep the ball away from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
San Francisco's offense doesn't pose that same threat, but their defense will present a different challenge. Jim Harbaugh has transformed the 49ers into the NFL's top ranked defense. However, they haven't been tested like this yet, having gone through the regular season avoiding Green Bay and New Orleans.
If anyone can slow the Saints train, it's San Francisco. Both teams were 13-3 during the regular season but the 49ers were also undefeated at home.
49ers 24, Saints 23