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New breed of quarterback under center for today's games

The changing of the guard among NFL quarterbacks is nearly complete.

All four starting quarterbacks in today's NFL divisional playoff games were drafted in this century -- the last seven years, to be exact. Gone from the postseason scene are playoff fixtures such as Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Kerry Collins. The new breed has taken over. The only holdover from the old days among the NFL's final eight is 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks.

Ben Roethlisberger (age 32, drafted in 2004), Aaron Rodgers (27, '05), Joe Flacco (26, '08) and Matt Ryan (25, '08) will be the starting quarterbacks in today's games.

Roethlisberger will lead the Pittsburgh Steelers against Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens in today's AFC game. Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers face Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta.

Besides home field, Atlanta and Pittsburgh have the advantage of having had a bye week in the wild-card round. The bye assures nothing, however. Since 2000, home teams have a 26-14 advantage in the divisional rounds, but over the last five years it's all even at 10-10. Last time all four home teams won divisional round games was in 2004.

Here's a capsule look at today's games:

Ravens (13-4) at Steelers (12-4)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:30 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-3)

The scoop: Despite the quarterback talent on hand, all expectations are that this will be a typical Steelers-Ravens defensive struggle. Five of the last seven games between the teams have been three-point games, with Pittsburgh owning a 3-2 edge in those games.

The teams split their regular season series in the AFC North, with the Ravens winning at Pittsburgh, 17-14, on Oct. 3 when Roethlisberger was still serving his NFL suspension. The Steelers won in Baltimore, 13-10, on Dec. 5. Since 2000, Pittsburgh is 14-10 (including 1-1 in postseason) against Baltimore. The Ravens are only 3-10 in games played in Pittsburgh.

Flacco riddled Kansas City last week with 10 completions to TE Todd Heap and crossing patterns to Anquan Boldin (5 catches, 64 yards, 1 TD) when the Chiefs took away WRs Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had only two catches for 39 yards. Meanwhile, the Ravens' secondary threw a virtual shutout at Kansas City's WRs, allowing only two catches for eight yards. Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs' leading receiver, had no catches.

Pittsburgh has a more diversified receiving corps with Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Emmanuel Sanders and Antwaan Randle El, and Roethlisberger will stand up the Ravens' pass rush much better than K.C.'s Matt Cassel did. In a crunching defensive duel, the outcome may be determined by who has the more productive ground game -- Ray Rice of the Ravens or Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers.

Defensive players to watch: LB Ray Lewis, S Ed Reed and OLB Terrell Suggs of the Ravens and S Troy Polamalu, LB James Harrison and OLB LaMarr Woodley of the Steelers. Polamalu has an injured ankle, but is expected to play.

Outlook: Fresher legs will serve Steelers in what should be hardest-hitting game of the postseason. Question is, how much will today's winner have left for the Jets or Patriots next week in the AFC Championship Game? Steelers, 23-20.

Packers (11-6) at Falcons (13-3)

TV: Ch. 29, 8 p.m.

The line: Falcons (-2 1/2 )

The scoop: The two rookies who probably will have the most impact in the NFL postseason both happen to be from Western New York -- RB James Starks of the Packers and TE Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. Starks already has made a major impact, rushing for 123 yards in the Packers' 21-16 upset of the Eagles in Philadelphia last Sunday. For one game at least, Starks was the answer to what was regarded as Green Bay's major weakness, lack of a productive ground attack to set up the passing of Rodgers. The Packers never had lost a home playoff game (13-0) until the Falcons (with Michael Vick) came to town and upset Green Bay, 27-7, in the 2002 playoffs. Now Green Bay can take a shot at Atlanta's recent home success. The Falcons are 20-4 at home under coach Mike Smith and Ryan is 20-2 at home as a starting QB.

The teams met in the regular season in the Georgia Dome with Atlanta pulling out a 20-17 victory on a 47-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with 9 seconds left in regulation. The Falcons went 7-1 at home in the regular season but five of the wins were by six points or less. Ryan will be throwing to the NFL's leading receiver, Roddy White (115 catches for 1,389 yards and 10 TDs). Also, RB Michael Turner led the NFC with 1,371 rushing yards.

Rodgers threw for three TDs last week against Philadelphia and has seven in two playoff starts in his career. Leading target is Pro Bowl receiver and Mid-American Conference product (Western Michigan) Greg Jennings (76 receptions and an NFC-best 12 TD catches). Interesting sidelight: the NFL's only graduates of Shippensburg (Pa.) University will be on opposite sides -- FB John Kuhn of the Packers and CB Brent Grimes (5 INTs) of the Falcons.

Defensive players to watch: CB Charles Woodson, OLB Clay Matthews and S Nick Collins of the Packers and DE John Abraham, LB Mike Peterson and Grimes of the Falcons.

Outlook: Another toss-up game. Falcons are NFC's best-balanced -- but perhaps most overrated -- team. Packers have overcome ton of injuries. Packers, 30-27.

Last week's record: 2-2 outright, 1-3 versus spread.

Season's record: 149-90 outright, 135-122-5 versus spread.

e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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