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There’s no clear-cut favorite among final eight in NFL playoffs

By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — The little guys are out of the NFL playoffs. For only the second time since realignment in 2002, the second round is composed entirely of division champions.

What’s more, three of this weekend’s four games are rematches from earlier this season.

New England beat Denver. Baltimore beat Houston. Green Bay beat the New York Giants. And even New Orleans at San Francisco is a rematch of sorts, with the Saints beating the 49ers in an exhibition opener.

But now, maybe more than in other years, anyone is capable of beating anyone else.

Here’s how:

New Orleans Saints

They’re moving on: Who could bet against Drew Brees? He directs an offense that puts up absurd numbers — an NFL-best 467.1 yards per game this season, almost 40 yards more than second-place New England — and the Saints rolled up 627 in beating Detroit last weekend.

They’re moving out: The Saints are at home in the dome. They’re 0-4 in road playoff games and last year were upset in Seattle. Candlestick Park, particularly on a windy day, doesn’t make for the most comfortable confines.

San Francisco 49ers

They’re moving on: The 49ers can both run and stop the run. They can use their Frank Gore-led ground game to play keep-away from the Saints, and they have the ability to make New Orleans more one-dimensional. The Saints rely on a balanced run-pass attack to set up their play-action passes and bootlegs.

They’re moving out: There’s no way 49ers quarterback Alex Smith can match Brees pass for pass if the game turns into a shootout. Smith was excellent at protecting the ball this season — he had just five interceptions — but he directed a passing offense ranked 29th.

Denver Broncos

They’re moving on: The Broncos are riding high after their stunning overtime upset of Pittsburgh. Tim Tebow leads the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, and the Patriots were a so-so 17th against the run this season. The Patriots were one and done in the last two postseasons, thanks to strong-running opponents.

They’re moving out: With Eric Decker out, Tebow loses his favorite target. That means the Patriots can double-team Demaryius Thomas, last week’s star, and limit what the Broncos can do with the pass. The Steelers didn’t do that Sunday, instead putting all their efforts into stopping the run, but the Patriots will learn from that tape.

New England Patriots

They’re moving on: There’s no question these Patriots have resolve and mental toughness, so they’re rarely out of games. They’ve come back from some big deficits — including 17-0 to Miami and 21-0 to Buffalo — to win. That’s the sign of a mature team, and one that’s unlikely to break.

They’re moving out: If defenses can get to Tom Brady, that means big problems for New England. The Broncos have an outstanding pass rush with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Generally speaking, teams that can get pressure up the middle have been the biggest defensive challenge for the Patriots line.

Houston Texans

They’re moving on: The Texans are a lot like Baltimore. The two teams have strong defenses and effective running games. If Houston can get Arian Foster going — something they couldn’t do when they played the Ravens earlier this season — that will take a lot of pressure off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.

They’re moving out: The Ravens will do what they can to shift the weight back on to the shoulders of Yates. Baltimore has the AFC’s best run defense and in October limited Foster to 49 yards and 3.3 per carry.

Baltimore Ravens

They’re moving on: He might not be a superstar, but Joe Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons. If he can protect the ball, the Ravens have the running game and defense to get this team to the conference championship game.

They’re moving out: Flacco, again. He’s played in seven postseason games, all on the road, and his numbers have been less than impressive. He’s had four touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 61.6. Maybe being at home will finally make the difference for him.

New York Giants

They’re moving on: Not only is Eli Manning enjoying the best season of his career, but the Giants’ front four also can be dominant. The team ranked fourth in sacks this season with 48, and Jason Pierre-Paul had 16 1/2. Green Bay’s complete first-string offensive line is playing together for the first time since Week 3.

They’re moving out: Even though the Packers aren’t a strong run-stopping team, there’s no guarantee the Giants can control the clock — and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field — by running the ball. The Giants were last in the league in rushing yards per game at 89.2. That said, they ran for 172 in their first-round game against Atlanta.

Green Bay Packers

They’re moving on: Tight end Jermichael Finley is back and motivated by missing last year’s Super Bowl run. In his last playoff game, against Arizona in 2010, he set a franchise postseason record with 159 yards receiving. He had his season high in receiving yardage against the Giants — six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown — and this week said: “The lights are on. And when the lights are on, I’m on.”

They’re moving out: The Packers need to force turnovers. The last two times they failed to do so — against Kansas City this season, and against New England last season — they lost. If the Giants can protect the ball, they can do damage against the league’s 32nd-ranked defense.

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