Game of the week
The line: Colts by 1½
The story: Here they go again, meeting for the third time in 13 months. It figures. The only certainties in this world are death, taxes and the Colts meeting New England and San Diego every year. The Colts played the Bolts earlier this season and won 23-20, snapping a three-game losing streak to San Diego.
The Chargers are hot, winning their last four games, but the Colts are hotter. They haven't lost since a 31-21 setback in Tennessee on Oct. 27, and one of the reasons is Peyton Manning, the popular choice for this year's MVP. Manning has been bulletproof down the stretch, with 17 touchdown passes and three interceptions his last nine starts.
But look what's going on with San Diego's Philip Rivers. He tied for the league lead in touchdown passes, led everyone in passer rating and, like Manning, is on a tear -- with 11 touchdowns and one interception in the Chargers' last four games.
Rivers isn't the concern for San Diego, but running back LaDainian Tomlinson could be. He hasn't been right all season, and now he's complaining of a sore groin that he aggravated a week ago. A diminished L.T. puts more heat on Rivers, and that's not good. If Indianapolis is vulnerable, it's to the run, not the pass, and all-Rivers-all-the-time is not how you beat these guys.
Tight end Antonio Gates is hurt, too, sidelined by a high ankle sprain. He is probably less likely to play than Tomlinson, with coach Norv Turner saying he will wait until Saturday to make a decision.
Nevertheless, the Bolts are confident they can win because A) they're home, B) they have momentum and C) they match up with the Colts. Remember, when Indy beat them on a last-second field goal in November it was only after coach Norv Turner took a foolish timeout with more than a minute left, saving time for the Colts to use.
Indy, meanwhile, understands this might be its biggest playoff hurdle. If it can clear San Diego it meets Tennessee or Pittsburgh next, and the Colts beat both this season. That's the good news. The bad: Indianapolis hasn't won its first playoff game in six of its last nine tries.
One more thing: The Chargers retrieved their powder-blue uniforms for this game, and, yep, I'd say that is significant. They last wore them in a Dec. 4 rout of Oakland and have won seven straight and eight of their past nine in them.
Something to consider: The Colts allowed only six touchdown passes, the fewest ever in a 16-game season. But there's a reason: Opponents had success running against the league's 24th-ranked run defense, scoring 18 times.
The rest of the story
The line: Falcons by 1½
The story: One team is quarterbacked by a rookie; the other by a 37-year-old former MVP. One team features the league's second-ranked rushing attack; the other doesn't even pretend to run. Instead, it offers the league's second-ranking passing game.
Welcome to the world of polar opposites, with Atlanta the more balanced and, frankly, more complete ballclub. The Falcons can beat you with Michael Turner or Matt Ryan or Roddy White or John Abraham, and expect all to be factors. The inexperience of Ryan and the playoff inexperience of some of his teammates could be a factor, too, but look what they're up against -- a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1998 and last hosted a playoff game in 1947.
The Falcons, then, have the edge despite a rookie quarterback. Yes, Kurt Warner had an outstanding season and puts up prodigious numbers at home, but he better be protected. When he's not he has trouble holding on to the ball, fumbling 11 times and losing seven of them.
Turnovers must be avoided here, and that's not easy when the Falcons know Arizona won't -- and can't -- run. So the Falcons drop everyone into coverage, rush three or four as the Jets did earlier this year, then wait for the big mistake. If it's there they will get it, and that's curtains for Arizona.
The Falcons may be a wild card, but they were within a last-second field goal of being the NFC's No. 2 seed. They're also not all that bad outside the Georgia Dome. They beat Minnesota in Minneapolis. They won in Green Bay. They won in San Diego. They won in Oakland. OK, so virtually everyone but the New York Jets won in Oakland. Atlanta is 4-4 on the road but won three of its last four.
Arizona, be careful.
Something to consider: Three of the four NFC receivers in the Pro Bowl are in action here: Atlanta's Roddy White and the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Boldin, Fitzgerald and teammate Steve Breaston produced 13 100-yard receiving games this season, tops in the NFL.
The line: Ravens by 2½
The story: When I listened to the Dolphins after last weekend's AFC East-clinching defeat of the New York Jets, I was struck by their confidence. They just knocked off an opponent that beat them earlier in the year, so they weren't dismayed at the prospect of pulling an encore performance a week later.
"So the Ravens beat us," they seemed to say. "So did the Jets. Just another hurdle we will overcome."
That's something to admire in this never-say-die bunch of overachievers. Never, ever, ever were they supposed to be in this spot, but somehow they pulled themselves together and won nine of their last 10 starts. And the 11th game? That would've been a 27-13 loss to Baltimore at Miami on Oct. 19.
But so what? The Dolphins believe they're destined for greatness, partly because Chad Pennington won't let them lose. Pennington doesn't commit the mistakes of, say, a Brett Favre. He lost one fumble this year and had only seven interceptions. But numbers don't measure his value. You find that in the stability and leadership he brings to a young and talented club.
The problem is: There might not be enough talent or enough Chad Pennington to hold off the surging Ravens. Baltimore is loaded on defense, and the Ravens are as confident as Miami. They know how to beat them, and they know they're the club no one wants to face.
Nor should they. Baltimore leads the league with 34 takeaways, has won five of its past six road games and allowed fewer points than everyone but Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Plus, it throws unguided missiles like Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs at you, down after down after down.
Yes, the Ravens have a rookie quarterback, but Joe Flacco has been unshakable, with only five interceptions the past 11 games and a season-high 297 yards passing in his latest performance. Plus, he has been marvelous on the road -- with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his last six starts there.
But it's not Flacco who beats Miami. It's the Ravens defense and the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack. Both were too much for Miami to handle in October and should be too much for the Dolphins again.
Something to consider: The Ravens' defense held opponents to four touchdowns rushing, 58 first downs and a combined passer rating of 60.4 -- all Baltimore records. But there's more: It led the league in most third-and-outs with 60 and did not allow a 100-yard rusher for the second straight season.
The line: Eagles by 2½
The story: Once upon a time, Andy Reid and Brad Childress worked for the same team, with Childress coaching the offense Reid assembled. Then Childress took the head-coaching job in Minnesota, shed the club of its bad actors and steered the team into the playoffs.
Great, huh? Not if you ask some Vikings fans. They're so underwhelmed by this season's team they didn't sell out the Metrodome by New Year's, and, I'm sorry, I just don't get it. The same goes for Arizona. You have the first shot at a playoff game in years, and you're home watching Seinfeld reruns? Please.
The Eagles are favored here because oddsmakers trust Donovan McNabb more than Tarvaris Jackson. Fair enough. I get that. But McNabb has been dreadful on the road lately, winning one of his last four starts there, with two touchdown passes, five interceptions and a very significant benching in Baltimore.
Sure he beat the New York Giants. He also lost to Washington in a game where the Eagles didn't produce a touchdown. And he tied Cincinnati in a game where he had three interceptions. In short, he's not the same as he is at home, where he had 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
McNabb is the key here because Philadelphia will have trouble solving the league's top-rated run defense. Eagles critics constantly complain about the lack of a balanced attack, but you go with what works -- and what may work here is attacking the Vikings' secondary.
I have no doubt that can happen. What I question is how effective the Eagles will be against Adrian Peterson. Stop him and you force Jackson to beat you. And that's the attack defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will take. Heck, it's the approach anyone will take, but it's not all that easy. If it were, Peterson wouldn't lead the league in rushing.
Bottom line: I like the Eagles more than I do Minnesota. Maybe it's Reid. Maybe it's McNabb. Maybe it's both of them. All I know is that when the two are backed against a wall they seem to respond. And they are there now.
Something to consider: The Vikings led the NFL with 18 touchdowns on plays of 20 yards or more -- with 13 by passing, a number that tied for the league lead. The team also tied for second in the NFL with five rushing TDs of 20 or more yards.
Games within the games
Brad Childress vs. Jim Johnson: Three years ago Childress was the offensive coordinator for Philadelphia, and Johnson was the defensive coordinator. Now it's Childress' offense vs. Johnson's defense, with Childress at a slight disadvantage: He is 0-1 against his former team and 3-3 against the NFC East since taking over in 2006.
Which game are you most looking forward to?
Colts at Chargers
Eagles at Vikings
Ravens at Dolphins
Falcons at Cardinals
Total Votes: 32,171
Tarvaris Jackson vs. the blitz: Nobody throws more at quarterbacks than Philadelphia's defense, but the circumstances are different here: Jackson is young, hasn't played a complete season and makes his first playoff start. Which means ... uh-huh, start your engines, Philadelphia. The race to the pocket is about to begin.
Dwight Freeney vs. Marcus McNeill: McNeill covers Rivers' back, which is where Freeney attacks. Freeney has six playoff sacks, so get ready to dial 911.
John Abraham vs. any Arizona offensive lineman: Atlanta coach Mike Smith had the brilliant idea to get more out of Abraham by having him play less, and the strategy worked. He wound up with a career-high 16.5 sacks and now aims for his third straight playoff game with at least one. If Abraham can get to Kurt Warner or disrupt the pocket, it's all over. You know the Cards will throw, and throw a lot. What you don't know is how effective they will be protecting Warner.
Cam Cameron vs. a past he'd like to forget: Cameron was the head coach of last year's Dolphins, a sorry excuse of a club that won one of its 16 starts. When the Ravens beat Miami in October he was given a game ball and got emotional. Now it's a whole different ballgame, which the Dolphins were only too willing to point out last week when Cameron's name came up. "Who?" said linebacker Channing Crowder in mock jest.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers: In his last two starts against Indianapolis he has five touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 136.4. The Chargers are 2-0 in the playoffs when Rivers has a touchdown pass.
2. Baltimore running back Willis McGahee: He averages 93.5 yards a game against the Dolphins and looks for his third straight 100-yard game against them.
3. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner: The Cards are 12-4 at home under coach Ken Whisenhunt, and Warner has four playoff games with 365 yards or more passing. He's also 7-1 against Atlanta, with 21 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
4. Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb: He has never lost to Minnesota (4-0, including the playoffs) and has eight touchdowns and no interceptions against the Vikings.
5. Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook: He shoots for his third straight playoff game with 100 yards rushing and his fourth straight with a touchdown. Plus, he has three touchdowns in his last two games against Minnesota.
The Arizona Cardinals aren't given much of a chance against Atlanta, but I'd be careful. First, they're home, and they were 6-2 there in each of the past two seasons. In fact, their only home losses this season were to division champions Minnesota and the New York Giants.
Second, the Cards score in bunches at University of Phoenix stadium. In their 16 games there the past two seasons they produced 463 points, or an average of 28.9 per start. That makes them the third most productive home team in the league, behind New England (29.8) and San Diego (29.1).
But there's one more thing: The Cards scored 30 or more points seven times this year, and five of those games were at home.
• Phoenix (Saturday): Partly cloudy, high of 66.
• San Diego (Saturday): AM showers, high of 59.
• Miami (Sunday): Partly cloudy, high of 77.
• Minneapolis (Sunday): Dome
Where we will be
• Pete will be in Minneapolis to see which shows up first, the Minnesota passing game or Vikings fans.
• I will be in San Diego to take carry-out orders at the Encinitas Café.
• Mike Freeman will be in Phoenix to take my carry-out order at Richardson's.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Miami to audition for "The Sparanos."