This is always the most intriguing weekend of the NFL season, because of the variables created by first-round byes.
The teams with the top two records in each conference have competed all season for the right to host divisional playoff games, but now they’re facing teams that have played their way into this round and generated some momentum.
So there’s considerable angst in the NFC venues of San Francisco and Atlanta, especially. The AFC’s home teams should be feeling more comfortable. A look at this weekend’s lineup:
Baltimore at Denver, 2:30 p.m. MST Saturday, Ch. 2
This is a tough assignment for the Ravens, traveling and playing at altitude with a quick turnaround after Sunday’s win over Indianapolis.
Baltimore faces big issues offensively and defensively. The Ravens will have to sustain drives, beyond relying on the big plays that carried them last weekend. And they will have to get some pressure on Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, which is always difficult because of his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.
Add it up, and the Ravens will have to play pretty much perfect football to stage an upset. The pick: Denver 28, Baltimore 14.
Green Bay at San Francisco, 6 p.m. MST Saturday, Ch. 13
The 49ers have earned a first-round bye for the second year in a row, with another quarterback making his playoff debut. Former University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith performed heroically in last January’s divisional win over New Orleans, and now it’s Colin Kaepernick’s turn. Just as much pressure falls on San Francisco’s defense, facing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay offense that was consistently efficient in a win over Minnesota. The 49ers will have to convert their scoring opportunities into touchdowns, not field goals, to have a chance of advancing to another NFC championship game. The pick: Green Bay 21, San Francisco 17.
Seattle at Atlanta, 11 a.m. MST Sunday, Ch. 13
The Falcons have been here before, which is why nobody seems to trust quarterback Matt Ryan and his teammates. Not even Atlanta fans know exactly what to expect from their team, even after they delivered one victory after another in the regular season. This will be a great test for a Seattle defense anchored by rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner of Utah State. Many observers believe the Seahawks have the best defense in the NFL. This is their chance to prove it. The pick: Atlanta 28, Seattle 21.
Houston at New England, 2:30 p.m. MST Sunday, Ch. 2
The Patriots have their own history of failing to come through at home in the playoffs, but this looks like a mismatch — even though Houston contended for the AFC’s top seed for most of the season. The Texans barely overcame Cincinnati last week and, like Baltimore vs. Denver, their notorious pass rushers will be frustrated by quarterback Tom Brady’s sack-proof nature. The pick: New England 35, Houston 21.