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Here come the big boys

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Here come the big boys

The records are gaudy. The star power is high.

Here come the NFL's big boys.

Denver, Atlanta, New England and San Francisco host divisional playoff games this weekend. They're a combined 49-14-1, and their rosters are filled with such headline grabbers as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Gonzalez and Patrick Willis.

Their home-field advantages could be formidable, too. The Broncos, who have won 11 straight games, and Falcons each went 7-1; the 49ers were 6-1-1 and the Patriots 6-2.

None of which makes the Ravens, Seahawks, Texans or Packers quake in their cleats.

``That's not in my mind at all going up to Denver,'' said the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the only quarterback to win a playoff game in his first five seasons. ``We feel confident, and I think we should.''

Baltimore at Denver opens the weekend's action, followed by Green Bay at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Sunday, Seattle is at Atlanta, then Houston goes to New England.

Ravens (11-6) at Broncos (13-3)

For all those impressive numbers, here's a baffling one: four-time league Manning is a mere 9-10 in postseason games. Those wins and losses were compiled with the Colts, with whom he never had a defense like the one the Broncos possess.

That defense made a big difference when Denver won 34-17 at Baltimore in Week 15. A 98-yard interception return by Chris Harris at the end of the first half turned it into a rout.

``I really haven't made a whole lot of comparisons, but our defense has been outstanding all year,'' Manning said. ``Our offense has fed off of our defense. I think that's one of the best things this team has done. If the offense was in a rut, defense picked us up. The defense was bending a little bit, the offense picked them up. That's what you've got to have, to me, as a team.''

The Manning-Ray Lewis matchups through the years have been intriguing, and this will be the final one. Baltimore's emotional leader announced his retirement days before he had 13 tackles in his last home game, a 24-9 wild-card victory over Indianapolis.

``They are always classic,'' Lewis said. ``It's just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know him very well. ... But at the end of the day, it's not about me and me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team. I love our team right now.''

Packers (12-5) at 49ers (11-4-1)

Another rematch, but from so long ago: San Francisco won 30-22 in the opener, at Lambeau Field.

The Packers have the edge in this postseason series, 4-1. They would seem to have the edge on offense with top-rated passer Aaron Rodgers and a deep crew of receivers.

And the Niners would have the advantage on defense, having yielded 63 fewer points in the regular season.

A key will be whether Green Bay, which beat Minnesota 24-10 last week, can protect Rodgers after allowing 51 sacks. The 49ers' Aldon Smith had 19 1-2 himself.

``We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket,'' left guard T.J Lang said. ``That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out.''

Seahawks (12-5) at Falcons (13-3)

Those road woes that plagued the Seahawks can be forgotten. They've won three in a row away from home, including the 24-14 wild-card victory at Washington that was their first on the road in the playoffs since 1983.

With six straight wins overall, they're a confident bunch as they head to the Georgia Dome.

``We've grown and become more together and more in tune with our QB and what he can do and all that,'' Carroll said, referring to rookie Russell Wilson. ``We're a pretty hard team to beat right now.''

Atlanta has been easy to beat in its last three playoff appearances, something quarterback Matt Ryan dismisses as a factor for this game.

``We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me.''

Texans (13-4) at Patriots (12-4)

Yet another rematch, this from Dec. 10 when the Texans flopped in Foxborough, 42-10. That was the beginning of a fade in which they dropped three of four and sank from top AFC seed to No. 3.

Houston recovered somewhat last week in a 19-13 wild-card victory over Cincinnati. This is a much tougher task.

``If you want to move on, you've got to bring a sense of attitude and nastiness with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play,'' said QB Matt Schaub, who got his first postseason win last week.

Tom Brady has 16 postseason wins and needs one win to break a tie with Joe Montana.

``He's won a lot of regular-season games, won a lot of playoff games,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ``What he does on a day-to-day basis, how he performs on the practice field, how he performs in games - whether they're preseason, regular season, postseason, whatever it is - he's pretty consistent. I think you see that during the week, so it shows up on Sunday.''

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LB Za'Darius Smith among those not playing Saturday

LB Za'Darius Smith among those not playing Saturday

OWINGS MILLS – Add outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith to the list of Ravens not expected to play Saturday night. Head coach John Harbaugh said Smith had an ankle issue that would keep him out against the Lions. Smith was not at practice Thursday.

Others not expected to play against the Lions include outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, left guard John Urschel, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Maxx Williams, safety Kendrick Lewis, cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Jerraud Powers, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams. All of them are at various stages of dealing with injuries.

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Perriman returned to practice this week, but head coach John Harbaugh did not commit to playing Perriman after Thursday’s walkthrough practice.

“We’ll see, it’s up to the doctors,” Harbaugh said of Perriman. “He hasn’t gone full speed in practice yet. Today was not a full speed practice for anybody.”

Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is not expected to play either, because he just returned to practice this week after offseason foot surgery. With Suggs, Dumervil, and Smith out of the lineup, Saturday should present an opportunity for pass rushers like Matt Judon, Chris Carter, and Victor Ochi to get extra reps.

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Flacco looks forward to playing. Getting hit? Not so much

Flacco looks forward to playing. Getting hit? Not so much

OWINGS MILLS – Joe Flacco is looking forward to playing Saturday night, but not looking forward to getting hit.

That’s always the case, but Flacco will be watched closely than usual when he plays for the first time since his knee injury last November. Will he stand calmly in the pocket against the Lions’ pass rush? Will he step into his throws with confidence? Will he look rusty, or in sync? If Flacco’s left knee is hit, how will it react?

Flacco has felt good about the answers to all of those questions for months, and he has looked terrific in practice. But returning to game action was the last hurdle Flacco wanted to clear before the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Bills.

“I really don’t feel like I need to play in games to be ready to play Game 1, but I want to put myself through that whole process,” Flacco said following Thursday’s practice. “I don’t need to, but I want to. I think I’ll be better for it.”

RELATED: PERRIMAN HOPES TO IMPRESS WITH SPEED AND HANDS

Flacco said it was hard for him to sit out the first two preseason games, but he understood the logic.

“I could’ve played the first two games,” Flacco said. “Was it really worth it? Probably not. You’re (only) going to get a couple of series anyway.”

Flacco said he expected to play about a half Saturday night, which might give him a chance to build chemistry with new targets like tight end Ben Watson, and wide receivers Mike Wallace and Chris Moore, who are all expected to play.

Asked if he wanted to get hit, Flacco smiled and said, “It’d be great not to get hit. I don’t need to get hit, no.”

But at some point, Flacco wanted to test his knee in live action before the regular season began. Flacco is not expected to play the preseason finale, Sept. 1 against the Saints.

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WR Perriman hopes to impress not only with speed, but with hands

WR Perriman hopes to impress not only with speed, but with hands

OWINGS MILLS - People often call Breshad Perriman fast. They don’t always call Perriman sure-handed.

However, criticism of Perriman’s hands may be a thing of the past, according to Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. One of the few knocks on Perriman entering the 2015 draft was that he sometimes dropped catchable balls due to a lack of concentration. However, the Ravens’ second-year wide receiver has worked hard on catching the ball consistently, even when he wasn’t able to run during his recovery from two knee injuries.

Now Perriman finally seems close to making his Ravens debut. When that happens, Trestman said he expected to see a receiver not only with impressive speed, but reliable hands.

“I think his hands and concentration have even got better since he first got here,” Trestman said. “He is much more sure-handed – not that he wasn’t – but he has become even more sure-handed. I think that goes with confidence. He just needs to get out and play and run routes and do it consistently and get some reps. He just needs reps. He has go-to speed, and he has size to go with it. It is a unique package.”

A package the Ravens are eager to unwrap.

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