Top seeds enter Super Bowl chase
DENVER, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta and New England enter the Super Bowl chase this weekend in games that will whittle the championship field to the final four.
The winner of each of the games Saturday and Sunday will move to within one victory of a Super Bowl appearance, something one of the clubs remaining has never achieved.
Three of the four games on the schedule will be rematches of contests played during the regular season, and the teams that will host the playoff contests won all three.
The action begins Saturday with Baltimore traveling to Denver, where forecasters have called for a 20 percent chance of snow at kickoff with a high temperature of 18 degrees.
Denver's Peyton Manning, in his first year with the Broncos, is trying to become the first quarterback in NFL history to lead two different franchises to a Super Bowl title. He won the NFL crown with Indianapolis 6 years ago.
The Broncos defeated Baltimore 34-17 late in the regular season. Baltimore was without the services of linebacker Ray Lewis in that game, but he will be back to add his emotional presence to the playoff contest. Lewis has said he will retire at the end of this, his 17th season in the NFL.
San Francisco will be at home against Green Bay in Saturday's second contest -- a game that will feature the quarterback with the best passing rating in the league.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers had a rating of 108 thanks to his 39 touchdown throws and a completion percentage of 67.2.
The 49ers downed the Packers 30-22 on the first weekend of the regular season.
Sunday's opening game will send Seattle to Atlanta, where rookie quarterback Russell Wilson will try to lead the Seahawks to another unlikely step forward in the playoffs. Seattle was the only wild card team to win during the opening round with Wilson leading a comeback that saw the Seahawks down Washington 24-14.
Houston will visit New England to conclude the divisional round of the playoffs and the Texans will have to deal with the league's No. 1 offense guided by three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady.
When the teams met in December, New England coasted to a 42-14 victory.
Houston is the only team left in the playoffs that has never been to the Super Bowl. Atlanta and Seattle have been to the title game, but have yet to win it.
The conference championship games will be played on Jan. 20. The Denver-Baltimore winner will take on the New England-Houston survivor in the AFC title game with the kickoff in that one set for 6:30 p.m. ET.
The winners of the other two games this weekend will play for the NFC championship at 3 p.m.
The Super Bowl will be take place on Feb. 3 in New Orleans with a starting time of 6:30 p.m.
Brooklyn earns fifth straight victory
NEW YORK, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Joe Johnson was one of five Brooklyn players in double figures Friday and the Nets held Phoenix to 26 second-half points in downing the Suns 99-79.
Phoenix led by seven at the break, but turned cold over the final two quarters while losing its fifth in a row. Brooklyn has won five straight.
Johnson played through an illness to score 19 points and was backed up by 17 from MarShon Brooks and 15 from Andray Blatche. Brooklyn went to the foul line 16 more times than Phoenix and made 15 more than did the Suns.
Jared Dudley led Phoenix with 18 points and hit all four of his attempts from 3-point range.
Phoenix was called for 30 fouls to 15 for the Nets.
Hensley takes 36-hole lead in Hawaii
HONOLULU, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Russell Hensley moved past fellow rookie Scott Langley with a round of 63 Friday and took a two-shot lead midway through the Sony Open.
The two newcomers to the PGA Tour have dominated the opening two rounds of the first full-field event of the season and for the third straight day will be paired together when they tee off in the final group on Saturday.
Hensley did not make a bogey at the Waialae Country Club Friday and posted a 36-hole total of 14-under 126.
Langley, who led the event with a 62 Thursday in his first round as a tour member, added a 66 Friday and his 128 total left him in a second-place tie with Scott Piercy.
Hensley reached the tour this year by finishing among the leading money winners on the Web.com Tour last season. Langley earned his rookie status with a 17th place finish in the qualifying tournament.
Matt Kuchar was alone in fourth at 129 following a 63. He rolled in a 16-foot eagle putt at the final hole to reach that total.
Dustin Johnson, who began the golf season with a victory last week at the weather-marred Tournament of Champions on the island of Maui, withdrew midway through the second round with flu-like symptoms.
Johnson shot a 70 on Thursday and was 3-over for the day Friday when he withdrew.
Among those making the cut was John Daly, who finished at 138 following a 68.
Three Alabama players to turn pro early
TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Running back Eddie Lacy and two of his teammates announced Friday they would leave the University of Alabama and enter the NFL draft.
Cornerback Dee Milliner and right tackle D.J. Fluker will join Lacy in moving to the professional ranks after being a part of back-to-back national championship teams.
Alabama captured its second straight national crown and its third in four years with a 42-14 rout of Notre Dame last Monday.
Lacy rushed for 140 yards and scored twice in the national championship game. He picked up 1,322 yards with 17 touchdowns during the season.
Milliner is considered one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, having recorded 54 tackles with two interceptions during the campaign.
Fluker started every game for Alabama this season as a red shirt junior. He helped block for two 1,000-yard rushers in 2012.
"They've been good teammates to the players that they've played with," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said during a news conference announcing the departures. "They've set a good example with their leadership and they've certainly been very, very effective performers."