Seattle Seahawks new kicker Ryan Longwell stands on the sideline during practice Wednesday in Renton, Wash. Longwell was signed after Steven Hauschka was placed on injured reserve. Coach Pete Carroll said Monday that Hauschka was feeling better but his availability for the rest of the playoffs was unclear.
Bill Belichick insists the rematch of a December game with the Texans will be different.
Not too much different, of course, because he fully expects his Patriots to win the divisional-round playoff game and advance to the AFC title match.
As for another 42-14 outcome, New England’s coach is having none of it.
“The plays will match up differently and I’m sure there will be new plays that weren’t in that game,” Belichick said. “I don’t think you can overanalyze that game. We’re playing a team, we have our team, they have their team and it’s a big picture thing.”
The big picture is that the AFC East champion Patriots (12-4) come off their playoff bye as 9½-point favorites against the AFC South winners. Houston (13-4) beat Cincinnati 19-13 in the wild-card round, not looking particularly overwhelming.
It’s pretty simple what the Texans must do at the outset Sunday: stay close. They fell behind so quickly on Dec. 10 that the outcome was decided after one quarter.
“We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn’t give us a chance against anybody on the road,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “It’s about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful, and I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking about.”
It won’t be as bad as 42-14, but ...
BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 41-14.
Green Bay (plus 3) at San Francisco
The Packers have no fear about going on the road in the postseason. A similar crew to this year’s group won three away games two years ago, then beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
And the NFC North champion Packers who the West-winning 49ers face Saturday night have gotten healthier as the playoffs approached. They have a decent running game to go with that deep receiving corps Aaron Rodgers throws to.
But Green Bay has two significant questions:
n Can the spotty offensive line neutralize one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass rushes, something it couldn’t do in the season opener?
n Can a defense that has been gorged on the ground at times slow down the league’s fourth-best rushing attack, led by Frank Gore.
The Niners also have some uncertainties, notably how second-year QB Colin Kaepernick will handle the playoff pressure for the first time. They do have a secondary that matches up well with Green Bay’s receivers.
The Pack has been through this before and succeeded. Why not again?
UPSET SPECIAL: PACKERS, 30-27
Baltimore (plus 9½) at Denver
For the Ray Lewis Tribute Tour to keep rolling, the Ravens must beat Peyton Manning and the NFL’s hottest team, the AFC West champion Broncos. In the Mile High City.
It’s a lot more imposing a task than the AFC North champ Ravens faced at home against the Colts.
“There’s probably an element that we’ll carry forward because you’re always building on what you are,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Hopefully we take all the things that happened and we take it into that game emotionally and carry it with us. But this is a new game. It’s a whole new environment. It’s a whole new situation for us. So I think the slate is wiped clean in that sense. This will be a new challenge for us.”
Too big a challenge.
Seattle (plus 3) at Atlanta
Seattle has become the fashionable choice, the outsider that could emulate the Giants of last season, the Packers of the previous year, and so on.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have been stamped by many as the shaky favorite because of an 0-3 postseason record under Mike Smith. There’s also the feeling that no team fears going into the Georgia Dome, and with the Seahawks having erased their road woes in the last month or so, they are a formidable foe.
Still, these Falcons are better than the previous three playoff editions, and they have the big, physical and versatile receivers to deal with Seattle’s big, physical and versatile secondary.
Like the other NFC game, this will be close.
Against spread: 2-2 (114-126-7). Straight up: 3-1 (162-93-1)
Best Bet: 8-8-2 against spread, 12-6 straight up.
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