NFL PLAYOFF SUNDAY Houston at Baltimore, 1 p.m. ET
What to watch for: The Ravens are 5-0 all-time against the Texans, including a 29-14 victory at home on Oct. 16. The Ravens rolled up 402 yards, with Joe Flacco throwing for 305. Flacco, in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, is the only quarterback ever to win a playoff game in each of his first three NFL seasons.
One way the Texans can neutralize Flacco is with pressure. Houston had a club-record 44 sacks this season and Connor Barwin (11-1/2 sacks), could have a big day going against Baltimore LT Bryant McKinnie, who doesn't have the quickness to stay with Barwin. Flacco gets WR Anquan Boldin (knee surgery) back on the field and he needs him to set up fellow wideouts Torrey Smith and Lee Evans deep.
But we all know that Baltimore's offense revolves around RB Ray Rice. In the second half of the season, Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron made sure that Rice averaged more than 20 touches per game and Rice delivered with 832 yards rushing, 288 yards receiving and eight total TDs -- including one passing. I'm not sure that Houston has the linebacker answer for Rice, as ILB DeMeco Ryans doesn't run like he used to. It's very important for the Texans to keep Rice in the backfield and not allow him to get to the second level of the defense where he can turn a short gain into a home-run score.
On the flip side, Houston rookie QB T.J. Yates must contend with the Ravens' awesome defensive duo of Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Together, they can collapse one side of the offensive line and that could mean trouble for Yates and stud RB Arian Foster. Foster rushed for 153 yards in last week's wild-card win over the Bengals, but the Ravens are a better defensive team than Cincinnati, with RG Mike Brisiel likely having trouble stopping Ngata.
The wild card today may be Houston WR Andre Johnson, who didn't play in the Oct. 16 game. Yates will be looking for Johnson all day, similar to Flacco's attachment to Boldin -- though Houston's Jacoby Jones did beat Ravens safety Ed Reed for a 32-yard TD in that first matchup.
Czar's scoop: Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that LB Jameel McClain (sprained left knee) will be a game-time decision, although McClain keeps saying that he will play next to fellow ILB Ray Lewis. McClain, who ranks second on the defense with 81 tackles, practiced fully Wednesday before being downgraded. Baltimore SS Tom Zbikowski and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith (each has post-concussion symptoms) both should be available.
For the Texans, it definitely looks like Houston TE Owen Daniels, a key target in the short-passing game, will play despite being limited in practice all week. On the coaching front, it is more good news for Houston as defensive coordinator Wade Phillips pulled himself from consideration in Tampa Bay, believing that he really didn't have a serious shot at getting the vacant head-coaching position.
The Ravens have also been aggressive in maintaining a high salary for Eric DeCosta, who is GM Ozzie Newsome's right-hand man in personnel (explaining why DeCosta has yet to consider leaving Baltimore despite all the GM openings around the league at this time).
Based on Saturday's results, you can bet the Harbaugh family is thinking about a family reunion in Indianapolis at Super Bowl XLVI.
NY Giants at Green Bay, 4:30 p.m. ET on FOX
What to watch for: With the healthy returns of Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck toward the end of the season, New York now has a complete and a relentless pass rush that figures to give MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers all he can handle.
Just in time, the Packers get back their two starting offensive tackles in Chad Clifton (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (knee). If Sunday is anything like these teams' regular-season matchup in Week 13, Rodgers will need them both -- and need them at full strength. In that first game, Rodgers threw a season-high 46 pass attempts in a game the Packers won with a field goal at the final gun. The Packers didn't have much of a running game in that one, either, as Rodgers led them with 32 yards on many of his nifty scrambles out of trouble. Rodgers hasn't played in three weeks, but he does get WR Greg Jennings back to go with Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and deep-threat tight end Jermichael Finley.
Despite the chilly temperatures at Lambeau Field, this figures to be a shootout. Giants QB Eli Manning has displayed a lot of poise down the stretch and has two playmaker receivers in Hakeem Nicks (1,192 receiving yards, 7 TD catches) and Victor Cruz (1,536 yards, 9 TDs). Ahmad Bradshaw is also dangerous out the backfield as a receiver and the Green Bay linebackers better be ready.
The Packers allowed the most yards in the league this season, but also led the NFL with 31 interceptions. Manning will have to steer clear of Green Bay playmakers Charles Woodson in the secondary and Clay Matthews (aiming for the Giants' backfield). The Packers have really missed safety Nick Collins in the deep middle, plus CB Tramon Williams has had a down season by his standards. New York's secondary, if Rodgers gets the time, is susceptible to double moves, plus Rodgers has been so good at simply taking whatever the defense gives him.
Czar's scoop: With the exception of rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle), who won't play, the Giants are entirely healthy today. Giants CB Aaron Ross (concussion) is expected to start. On the flip side, Packers TE Andrew Quarless believes he can play next season after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery this week. Quarless is hoping that he can be on the PUP list when training camp opens and then be available the second half of the 2012 season. The Packers' superb backup inside LB Robert Francois has been bothered by a hamstring injury.
The Packers don't figure to franchise unrestricted QB Matt Flynn and then attempt to trade him, a strategy that the Patriots used with Matt Cassel -- which allowed them to get compensation from the Chiefs.
Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, whose son Michael drowned last Monday, will be with the team on Sunday two days after Michael's funeral, which was attended by several Packers including Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy. Several of the other offensive assistants aided McCarthy with the game plan and its installation while Philbin was away with his family during the week. Philbin, who will be coaching from the press box today, remains in contention for the head-coaching vacancy in Miami.