There is no better weekend in the playoffs than the divisional round. The top seeds come into play. The best teams of the wild-card round emerge. The possibility for upsets -- either because some teams are surging out of the first round or others are struggling to re-energize themselves after a bye -- also lingers in the air. If you want to spot a serious championship contender, this is the time when it usually announces itself.
The New York Giants made their first big move toward last year's Super Bowl run with a win at Green Bay in the divisional round. The Packers did the same thing by blowing out Atlanta during the 2010 season. And let's not forget the way the Pittsburgh Steelers went into Indianapolis in the 2005 season and upset the top-seeded Colts before eventually winning that year's Super Bowl. This year should offer just as many exciting moments on the AFC side of the postseason bracket.
In the wild-card round, the Houston Texans showed us they know how to win critical games. The Baltimore Ravens proved that they're ready to make the most of the final season for their leader, Ray Lewis. Now we have to figure out the rest of the questions. Here they come:
1. Which team is likely to be more sluggish coming off the first-round bye -- Denver or New England? We'll take Denver here, just because it's impossible to imagine Bill Belichick not having New England ready after two weeks of preparation. The Patriots also are facing a Houston team they've already whipped, so you can bet Belichick will find ample opportunities to sell his team on how it shouldn't be cocky a second time around. On the other hand, the Broncos have several players who are only learning what life is like with elite status heading into the postseason. As much as veterans such as Peyton Manning and Champ Bailey can preach to them, this is still a team that has to adjust to life with a bull's-eye on its back. Don't be surprised if that leads to a little rustiness.
2. How much does the impending retirement of Ray Lewis mean to the Ravens? Let's not kid ourselves. Lewis knew exactly what he was doing when he announced his retirement last week. This Baltimore team needed a jolt, and he gave it exactly that with news of his eventual exit. Consequently, the Ravens' defense attacked the Colts with the type of tenacity that is vital if Baltimore is to make a run at the Super Bowl. The offense also continued to go back to basics -- meaning running back Ray Rice was given ample opportunities to handle the rock, and big plays were in abundance. The Ravens will still have a tough time winning in Denver. But you can count on that game being as physical as any Baltimore has played this season.
3. Which player will have the biggest impact in the divisional playoff round? Rob Gronkowski. The best tight end in football never has a problem hyping himself up to play. He should be even more motivated this weekend. Before returning for New England's season-ending win over Miami, Gronkowski had missed the previous five weeks with a broken forearm. He also was hobbled in last year's Super Bowl by a left ankle injury that required postseason surgery. Throw in the fact that Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez have played in only five games together this season, and you can see where this is going. Gronkowski should find plenty of passes coming his way, especially against a Texans defense that will struggle to match up with him.
4. Which offensive player, aside from Peyton Manning, should most concern the Ravens? Eric Decker. Demaryius Thomas may be the best receiver in Denver, but Decker is a solid second option. He caught 85 passes for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, and he torched the Ravens in Week 15 (eight receptions, 133 yards and a 51-yard scoring grab). Some of that production likely had to do with the Ravens trying to contain Thomas. Much of it had to do with Decker's ability to make big plays. It's apparent that Manning has great trust in Decker, and he has the size (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) to create mismatches against single coverage. The Ravens can ill afford to let him run wild again.
5. Should we have more confidence in the Texans after their wild-card win over Cincinnati? As important as that victory was for Houston, let's not overstate what the Texans did on Saturday. They beat a young Bengals team whose offense was so limited that it generated only 198 total yards and converted no third-down opportunities. Give credit to Houston for doing its job. Just don't expect the Patriots to put up those kinds of numbers. They dropped 42 points on the Texans in Week 14. New England is more than capable of doing that again, especially with Gronkowski healthy.
6. Why aren't people talking more about Stevan Ridley? That's part of life in Tom Brady's shadow. But don't think Brady doesn't appreciate what Ridley has meant to the Patriots' offense. This team has stocked its rushing attack with mediocre ball carriers who mostly lacked game-breaking ability. Ridley is a different story. The second-year running back has rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns this season while pacing a ground attack that ranked seventh in the NFL (after being 20th in 2011). That added dimension has made Brady's play-action fakes, which led to several big plays in last month's win over Houston, even more effective. Don't make the mistake of thinking this game will be decided solely by what the Patriots do through the air. Ridley is capable of doing plenty of damage as well.
7. Are the Broncos overrated? The cynics will tell you that rolling through the exceptionally weak AFC West and going 2-3 against playoff teams should be enough evidence to distress those aboard the Denver bandwagon. The argument against that is momentum. Eleven straight wins are eleven straight wins, regardless of how they happened. True, the Broncos might have to raise their intensity level when the Raiders, Chiefs and Chargers aren't on the other side of the field. But that's a job they can handle. They deserve to be the top seed in the AFC. Deal with it.
8. What is the key to Baltimore winning a rematch in Denver? More offense. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was handling the offense for the first time this season when these teams met in December -- following the firing of Cam Cameron -- and the results weren't good. Joe Flacco completed only 50 percent of his passes, Ray Rice ran for a mere 38 yards and Baltimore was never really in a game that Denver won 34-17. Since the rematch will be played in Denver, don't expect Baltimore to have an easier time with a Broncos defense that allowed the fewest points in the AFC. The good news is that Rice is far more involved in the offense now, and the Ravens still have plenty of other weapons, including tight end Dennis Pitta and receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. If the Ravens want to advance, they'll need the same explosive plays they produced in their wild-card win over Indianapolis. They're not going to keep pace with Denver by scoring field goals.
9. What is the key to Houston winning a rematch in New England? Arian Foster had better keep running exactly as he has been. He gained 140 yards in Saturday's win, and that makes him the only back in NFL history to top the century mark in his first three playoff games. That performance also reminded us of what makes the Texans so dangerous when they're on their game. Foster can carry the offense when necessary, and he can create excellent play-action opportunities for quarterback Matt Schaub. Given how tentative the Texans looked when throwing the ball against Cincinnati, it's highly unlikely they're going to put the upcoming contest in Schaub's hands. They'll want to grind it out, keep Brady & Co. on the sideline and pray for enough key stops on defense to make this game as ugly as possible.
10. Who is going to meet in the AFC Championship Game? Does anybody seriously think there is any suspense to this question? Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have met enough times in past postseasons to know they're on a collision course once again. They will have to play some tough games next weeklend, but Denver and New England will nevertheless advance.