For our money, this is the best weekend of the NFL season. The best eight teams in the NFL — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — all facing off on two consecutive days, with league championship game berths on the line. If you lose this week, the season is a disappointment; win, and you're one game away from the Super Bowl. Rarely do pro sports have that sort of immediacy; the NFL does it every year. The story lines are abundant this year, from the Patriots' attempt to win their first playoff game since January 20, 2008, to the Packers trying for their second consecutive championship to, oh, yeah, TebowTebowTebowTebowTebowTebowTebow. Let us of course not forget the Giants, who sort of feel like the ideal team to throw a wrench in all this, just like they did four years ago. Let's pretend we know what we're talking about and make some predictions.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m., New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers benefited from a weak division — though one that had made a nice little run to respectability by the end of the year — and has known it was going to host a playoff game pretty much since early October. But they struggled a bit late, and it's possible that Frank Gore is starting to wear down. Their strength all season has been their run defense, but the Saints will throw like crazy; it's possible that if the Packers and the Saints play in the NFC Championship Game, the only running plays will be kneel-downs. It's pretty amazing what new head coach Jim Harbaugh has been able to pull off in his first season, but the Saints are hot and the weather in San Francisco is gonna be gorgeous (and thus not mess with the Saints' passing game). If you want to pick Alex Smith over Drew Brees, though, be our guest. Pick: New Orleans.
Saturday, 8 p.m., Denver Broncos at New England Patriots.
Let there be no doubt: The Patriots can be had. Their defense is pretty lousy, and the way their schedule turned out, they didn't beat a team with a winning record all season. (They only played two, and lost to both of them.) This is not among the most impressive Patriots teams of the last decade; we're pretty sure that if they play the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, they're toast. But: There is no way they're losing to Tim Tebow and the Broncos. (Note: This is of course what we said last week. Shush.) Pick: New England.
Sunday, 1 p.m., Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens.
Surely the least anticipated game of the weekend, and, with the exception of the other AFC divisional matchup, the one most likely to be a blowout. Joe Flacco's protestations to the contrary, there's a ton of value in a team that doesn't rely on its quarterback and has the horses to back it up, and the Ravens crowd, which hasn't seen a home playoff game since 2006 (and hasn't won one since 2000), is going to be a bit nutty. We wouldn't switch places with T.J. Yates right now for all the gold in Ireland. Pick: Baltimore.
Sunday, 4:30 p.m., New York Giants at Green Bay Packers.
Yes, yes, we get all the parallels with 2007-08. The regular season close call. The rematch in front of a nervous set of fans. The general sense that the Giants are peaking at the right time. But there's one critical difference: Brett Favre isn't going to be around to throw a devastating fourth-quarter interception. Aaron Rodgers is redefining the position right now, and as game as the Giants might be, nobody's taking him out right now. Pick: Green Bay.