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Nothing easy for Broncos

End Zone



So you're John Fox or Peyton Manning, waiting to see what team would become the Denver Broncos' first playoff opponent.

Were you hoping for Indianapolis, and an emotional reunion with Manning facing the Colts and Andrew Luck? Or Baltimore, since the Broncos thumped the Ravens last month at Baltimore in a game that mattered to both teams?

Most likely, Fox, Manning and everyone else in Denver's organization wanted Indianapolis. Why? Everyone saw the answer last Sunday, as the revitalized Ravens mashed the Colts.

So now we head into the weekend of conference semifinals, most of which could go either way. The underdogs have momentum from already having won a playoff game. The favorites might be rested, but they also might be rusty. Let's look at the matchups, picking those winners and the two Super Bowl participants.

• Baltimore at Denver, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, CBS: The Broncos are favored by more than a touchdown, which ignores the factors that give the Ravens a chance. They're healthier on defense than they've been all season, with Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs back. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off a strong game, and runner Ray Rice can pop a big play at any moment.

Denver should be refreshed, and Manning's postseason experience will help considerably. But the Broncos also need their defense to come up big, or their dreams could crash quickly. Unless Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and crew dominate, this battle will be tense to the end. My guess: Denver, 23-20.

• Green Bay at San Francisco, 6 p.m., Saturday, FOX: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers appear to be peaking at the right time, as they did two years ago in going all the way. But they face a stiff challenge against the 49ers, who are so tough at home on defense and also have found a new offensive gear since Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith at quarterback.

Rodgers certainly is capable of carrying Green Bay by himself, especially with Greg Jennings back to help the receiving corps. But can the Packers run the ball well enough to win, and can their defense contain Kaepernick along with all of his weapons? Something tells me those answers will be no. My guess: San Francisco, 31-23.

• Seattle at Atlanta, 11 a.m., Sunday, FOX: Just how good are the Falcons? This is their moment, but they were in the same spot two years ago and Green Bay ambushed them. Surely quarterback Matt Ryan, throwing to Julio Jones and Roddy White as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez, won't let another nightmare happen.

But then again, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has taken his team further than any other rookie (Robert Griffin III and Luck are spectators now), and Marshawn Lynch belongs among the league's elite runners. More impressively, the Seahawks defense has been swarming, swaggering and seething — enough to pull off the upset. My guess: Seattle, 27-20.

• Houston at New England, 2:30 p.m., Sunday, CBS: Tom Brady and the Patriots already have hammered the Texans at Foxborough, 42-14, so why not again? Could happen, but the Texans righted their ship in their wild-card win against Cincinnati, and their defense should hold up better this time.

For the Texans to have any shot, quarterback Matt Schaub has to avoid big mistakes and runner Arian Foster must rip apart the Patriots. They might for a while, but not four quarters. My guess: New England, 38-27.

Those outcomes would mean New England at Denver for the AFC title, and Seattle at San Francisco on the NFC side. And that's when the home-field edge would matter most, meaning the Broncos and 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Now, let's see how smart those guesses are.

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