Here we go with a breakdown of the games, listed in order of potential entertainment value:
Green Bay at San Francisco
This is by far the best game of the weekend on paper. The Niners are the #2 seed in the NFC, only because the Packers couldn't stop Adrian Peterson on the last day of the season and lost on the last play of the game, kicking them down to the #3 seed and forcing them to play the Vikings again last Saturday night.
There's a reason why teams want that week off at this time of year — especially if you're a physical team like the Niners, and you desperately needed the rest. I contend the Niners are still Super Bowl contenders, based in part that they received a bye last weekend. If they had to have played last week their odds were shot, since they seemed to be playing on fumes in their last couple of games (actually going back to the second half of the high-water mark of the season, their victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on a cold, rainy Sunday night in December, the Pats first loss at home in December in a decade).
There's a rule of thumb (or at least one that I subscribe to) that in big NFL game, you bet on the better quarterback. That spells trouble for the Niners if that's the case here; Green Bay QB Aaron Rogers is in his prime, while Niners second year QB Colin Kaepernick is still engaging in-on-the job training. Rogers' numbers in the post-season are numbing. He owns the best career playoff passing rating (105.4) in NFL history, and according to the New York Times he's got a Rock of Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder from the Niners (his favorite, sort-of-hometown team growing up in Chico) bypassing him in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft for Alex Smith.
Speaking of Smith — and speaking as a Niner diehard — I'm totally good with coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to jettison his one-time starting QB from the lineup in favor of young Kaepernick after Smith was injured earlier this season. Last January's NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants exposed that the Niners have a ceiling with Smith, and most of the Niner Empire is still good with the somewhat controversial decision.
However, Kaepernick has definitely come back to earth after his mind-blowing debut, a nationally televised Monday night clinic against the then still very respected Chicago Bears in November. He's struggled at times since, though there's no question that he'll be a better player after undergoing a training camp with his receivers.
Frank Gore had another studly year, but slowed down in December, and the Niners will have to go to the air first. Even though San Fran is favored, a sampling I've done of NFL writers from the NY Post and USA Today indicate that most serious analysts favor Green Bay.
Houston at New England 4:30 CBS Sunday
This is a rematch of what was one of the most anticipated games of the year, a Dec. 10 matchup in Foxboro. You remember that game, right? The Texans were 11-1 and having the season of their short lives. Then they went up to Massachusetts and laid a fierce-looking egg of a performance, getting stomped by the Pats 42-14.
There is precedent for a team that was humiliated by the Patriots coming back and shocking them in their own yard. It happened just two years ago when Rex Ryan's New York Jets came back from a 42-point drubbing and stunned and shocked Tom Brady and company into submission.
Surely the Pats can't forget that number. Belichick won't allow them to. But maybe the Texans will be inspired after they were belittled this week by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who wrote that "The 2012-13 Texans? Pure frauds. The worst 11-1 team in the history of the NFL. These Texans have absolutely zero chance of beating New England here next week. And everybody knows that this is true."
Seattle at Atlanta 1 p.m. Fox
The betting line began with the home team Falcons — the most disrepected number one seed in recent NFL history — favored by 3.5 points in their battle against the surging Seahawks this Sunday. That line has since moved down to 2.5 point.
Not only is Atlanta the Rodney Dangerfield of these NFL playoffs (pretty understandable, in light of their failure to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era), but the Seahawks are now officially the hottest team in the post-season, winning on the road last week in Washington D.C. But can they do it two weeks in a row? The fact is that this team, despite last week's victory against a disabled RGIII, are not exactly road warriors. In fact they average 10 points less a game on the road, give up 7 more on average, and are worse in some other key statistics.
Houston was in the same situation a year ago, and they finally got off the schneid with a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Maybe this will be Atlanta's time.
Baltimore vs. Denver 4:30 p.m. Saturday CBS
On paper, this is the worst of the weekends match-ups. The Broncos are 9-point favorites in the Mile High City, and let's be honest — they're hot, while Baltimore is fortunate to even be where they're at. We've seen number one seeds lose first-round games at home (the Broncos were one of those teams back in 1996, when a Jacksonville squad led by QB Mark Brunell shocked John Elway, Terrell Davis, Mike Shanahan and that whole crew. The Broncos then went on to two straight Super Bowls the following two seasons).
Will this be Ray Lewis' swan-song after 17 mostly Hall of Fame season? It looks like it. And hey, we get to watch the great Peyton Manning wearing orange gloves for the game, expected to be played in 20-degree temps. Potential fun fact: Manning is 0-3 in playoff games played in weather that was under 40 degrees. Of course, a couple of those losses came to the hands of Belichick, Brady and company in New England.