Goodbye Wild Card round, hello Divisional playoffs.
The opening round of the 2011 postseason was an eventful one for each team involved. The Kansas City Chiefs faced the Baltimore Ravens, failing to show up at Arrowhead Stadium. The Green Bay Packers shocked Michael Vick. Rex Ryan's Jets soared to new heights over Indianapolis. And the Seattle Seahawks stole perhaps the biggest headline of the season.
Then there were the other four teams who willingly took a week off.
Yes, Pittsburgh, New England, Atlanta and Chicago now step into the pool of playoff contenders, meeting their divisional foes this weekend in an abundance of games that are unusually even-Steven in terms of underdogs and favorites.
But before we await a potential turbulent round of playoff football, some personnel matchups propose an intriguing thought, as this week's events feature many familiar teams with a grievance against one another.
Here's a peak at a few player versus player conflicts that will pop up on the field this Saturday and Sunday, and with a pop, fizzle and crack, all 10 of these opponents will likely mean the difference between winning and losing for their respective teams.
Maybe it was the cold winter air that made the Green Bay Packers feel at home this past Sunday night in Philadelphia. But if one thing is for sure, it is that defensive coordinator Dom Capers certainly utilized his coaching brilliance to the best of his ability.
The question that always loomed for the Packers ahead of their trip to Lincoln Financial Field was the run game, as both Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn have struggled entirely throughout the regular season.
A 21-16 victory later and the Packers have their answer.
Before Green Bay could celebrate such a hard-fought victory on Sunday night, though, a new problem has appeared from the woodwork, as the Atlanta Falcons now await at the Georgia Dome heading toward Saturday evening.
Yet as far as rematches go, this Week 12 do-over couldn't be any more intense.
To be perfectly honest, this matchup would be nothing without full back John Kuhn and defensive end John Abraham, who have utilized their large frames and forceful nature throughout the entire span of the regular season.
Against the Eagles this past weekend, Kuhn was hardly a factor with the ball in his hands, but when it came to blocking and setting a clear path for talented rookie running back James Starks, Kuhn fulfilled his promise all game long.
This time around, Abraham awaits. And it won't be a walk in the park against Atlanta's 12th-ranked rush defense.
The Chicago Bears find themselves in the playoffs, and after Devin Hester's memorable kick return for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI, Lovie Smith favors his chances against the Seattle Seahawks this weekend.
Call it a crazy league or simply sit back and wonder, because strangely enough Hester has remained scoreless on returns this season.
What Hester has managed to do, though, against an array of teams from all over the NFL, is accumulate 427 return yards this season, along with granting the Bears threatening field position in just about every game.
Still, once again, the positive is out ruled by the negative.
In Week 17 against the Green Bay Packers, Hester remained dead quiet all game long, thanks to the brilliant place kicking of punter Tim Masthay and Mike McCarthy's much improved special teams unit.
So what's to say this same lackadaisical performance can't be expected on Sunday?
One very easy factor—the Seattle Seahawks.
During the regular season, Pete Carroll's team ranked tied for 14th with the Arizona Cardinals in punting statistics. While this point may not seem very relevant in the midst of the postseason, punter Jon Ryan has placed 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line this year.
Pay attention to special teams if you will, simply because Hester is always a factor to keep an eye on. After DeSean Jackson was contained in the Wild Card round, though, it's hard to favor his chances right now.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady makes his debut in the 2011 postseason, following one of his brightest and most recognizable years under center.
Bless head coach Rex Ryan for remaining optimistic, though, as yet again the face of the New York Jets franchise continues to bring a positive and opportunistic frame of mind towards this weekend's divisional game.
In Ryan's defense, he does have a very good reason to be overconfident. At the beginning of the season, Ryan acquired cornerback Antonio Cromartie from the San Diego Chargers, a move he envisioned to make an impact in the very same scenario that awaits the Jets this Sunday.
Yet again, this is Tom Brady we're talking about.
To be perfectly fair here, this debate is nothing like comparing apples to oranges. On one hand, we have a quarterback who looks to be a shoo-in for the MVP award, while on the other, we have a cornerback who has been off at times during the regular season.
Nevertheless, expect Cromartie to test Brady on Sunday. Corner blitzes aren't very likely and after Cromartie allowed Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon an easy path to the end zone during the Wild Card round, who knows how this matchup will turn out.
It is likely that Brady will gain the upper hand at home in Foxboro, after passing for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns on the season.
It's a rivalry and one that will be intensified in the playoffs following the Patriots rise to the top, thanks to their once-upon-a-time underrated wide receiving core. Now it's a battle of AFC East supremacy.
The Seattle Seahawks shocked the world on Saturday, knocking off the New Orleans Saints at home in one of the season's most meaningful and also exciting playoff games in recent years.
If you haven't already credited head coach Pete Carroll for being a genius, now would be the right time, as his maneuver to place Matt Hasselbeck into the starting quarterback role ahead of Charlie Whitehurst paid off immensely for the Seahawks to open the postseason.
However, aside from the veteran passer that has rejuvenated his career, wide receiver Mike Williams also stood up to the task of the Saints battered and bruised defense, playing for 68 yards and one touchdown on the day.
Next in line for the Seahawks talented wide receiver is Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.
While it is rather easy to overlook the Bears secondary presence and instead focus on Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher up front, Tillman has been an absolute threat for the Bears all season long. With five interceptions, three forced fumbles and 82 tackles to his name, Tillman will look to seriously test the Seahawks young receiving core and also dish out a physical test.
It's extremely unclear as to who will come out on top in this matchup but perhaps the safer pick is to go with Tillman. Williams has struggled to post over 50 yards week in and week out this year, and as for Tillman, he has had a week off to regroup after the Bears demoralizing Week 17 loss in Green Bay.
Wide receiver versus cornerback matchups will be prevalent this weekend, and Williams versus Tillman is only the very start.
If anyone seriously doubted the integrity of the Baltimore Ravens defense, the Kansas City Chiefs can willingly offer up a rebuttal as to how demeaning it can be, following a depressing 30-7 loss at Arrowhead Stadium last week.
Realistically, it wouldn't be postseason football without some Ray Lewis inspired motivation and some John Harbaugh defense. Not only that, it simply wouldn't be the NFL without a good old Pittsburgh Steelers versus Baltimore Ravens affair.
Wish and you shall get.
This weekend, the Steelers will kick off their postseason campaign in what is sure to be a sold out Heinz Field, hungry for their first playoff win in 2011. Unfortunately for Steeler faithfuls, the Ravens will be no easy task on Saturday afternoon.
In one of the most anticipated rivalries of the year, veteran safety Ed Reed will once again go head to head with wide receiver Hines Ward, for what seems like the 100th time in their combined 22-years in the league.
Who should you pick to win?
No one, because there never is a winner in this situation. If Ward burns Reed once, Reed is likely to respond with his own big play simultaneously in almost NBA-like fashion.
Pittsburgh versus Baltimore is big, yes, but Reed versus Ward is just as epic.
As already mentioned, Green Bay faced a tough task matching up with the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, particularly from a defensive standpoint against quarterback Michael Vick.
Unluckily, things haven't changed much in the span of six days.
After losing to the Falcons 20-17 back in Week 12, Mike McCarthy and company prepare for their second trip to the Georgia Dome this season, as the Packers look to redeem themselves from a last-minute, fourth quarter collapse seven weeks ago.
If the Packers are to make up for their loss, an immediate impact must be felt from linebacker Clay Matthews, who failed to record a sack when these two teams originally met.
Needless to say, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is also in need of some help from his offensive line, especially considering the Packers defense has risen among the ranks as of late and now employs some of the best blitzing specialists the league has to offer.
Rematches are always exciting in the postseason, but it's the small rivalries this game bears with it that makes it exciting.
Matthews wreaked havoc on Vick last week, recording a sack and three total tackles. Ryan himself has been flawless barring Week 16's loss against New Orleans, making this matchup that much more delightful.
Just like the Baltimore Ravens, the Chicago Bears defense has been one of the many bright spots for head coach Lovie Smith to focus on this year, mainly thanks to defensive end Julius Peppers.
Opposite the Bears on Sunday will be the Seattle Seahawks, a team that had one of the Wild Card round's best passers, Matt Hasselbeck, who threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns against an injury-depleted New Orleans Saints team.
Before Seahawk fans get ahead of themselves, however, come back to earth for a moment, because the Chicago Bears now await.
OK, so the Seahawks aren't exactly immediate underdogs heading into Solider Field this week, but it isn't like the threat of Peppers can be shaken off with a Pete Carroll smile and hopeful wishing on Marshawn Lynch's part.
First and foremost, Peppers is heading to the Pro Bowl this season—meaning he has done something right. Secondly, Peppers' teammate Brian Urlacher also acts as a wrecking ball for Hasselbeck to avoid this weekend, if the Seahawks have any hope of reaching the NFC Championship Game.
This year Peppers has recorded eight sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions, making his move to Chicago an ultimate success.
Let's not forget that Hasselbeck was pulled from the starting role for a reason midway through the regular season, and although Charlie Whitehurst may be no better option, the question of "When will the real Hasselbeck stand up?" still lingers.
This Sunday should tell us exactly.
Another wide receiver versus cornerback duel cracks this list. Luckily, this is a match up between two of the league's most prolific and exciting stars.
Starting with Charles Woodson, the Packers' cornerback has experienced a rather dull year in comparison to his 2009 Defensive Player of the Year season, even though it would be foolish to expect the same results from No.21.
Where Woodson makes up for his low-interception count, though, is in the tackling department, especially against some of the league's top wide receivers which includes a serious deep threat in such a pivotal game.
That wide receiver this weekend will be Roddy White.
As far as MVP nominations go, some people decided to throw White into the debate after such a dominating season in Atlanta under head coach Mike Smith. Whether or not that fate becomes a reality is questionable, but White does face a big test on Saturday night against Woodson.
Last time these two met up, White wound up burning Woodson for just 42 yards—a complement of Woodson's 13 years in the NFL.
It's a highly unstable affair, and even if White chooses to try the opposite side of the field, Tramon Williams is ready and able to contain him should Woodson somehow fail to complete this task.
Cornerback play has been the cornerstone for the Packers all year, and you only have to take a look at Williams' game-winning interception against Michael Vick last week in Philadelphia to realize just that.
Second-year player Mark Sanchez will gear up against the New England Patriots on Sunday, to take on rookie cornerback Devin McCourty in the teams' third meeting of the season.
If you haven't heard already, McCourty is one of few favorites to take home the Rookie of the Year Award this year. McCourty's deep-threat presence has been phenomenal, considering the Patriots tough division competition. With seven interceptions to his name, the award may be No. 32's in no time at all.
Mind you, Jets head coach Rex Ryan is looking for a dominating display from his quarterback this weekend.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round, the Jets escaped by the skin of their teeth against Jim Caldwell's team, relying on a last ditch field goal to award Sanchez his third overall playoff win in his career.
This weekend, the Jets may not be quite so lucky.
The Jets will take on the hottest team in football, at Gillette Stadium and in front of a hostile rival crowd. Sanchez has been known to get rattled in big-time confrontations, and after passing for just 189 yards and one interception against Indianapolis, who knows what version of Sanchez will show up on Sunday.
McCourty versus Sanchez is going a little unnoticed right now but don't be surprised if it explodes come game time.
Sure, the Baltimore Ravens clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers will be intense this weekend. That isn't to say Troy Polamalu's confrontational test of quarterback Joe Flacco won't be just as monumental.
Stepping up to the plate against the Kansas City Chiefs, Flacco proved to everybody he does indeed possess playoff potential, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns against Todd Haley's disappointing turnover-prone team.
As for Polamalu, his past few weeks haven't been quite as promising. With age playing a serious factor, injuries continue to pop up for the Steelers defensive backbone, and even at this point in time, Polamalu is still listed as questionable heading into the divisional round.
Fortunately, however, team doctors announced earlier in January that Polamalu has been practicing and is feeling better and better.
If the past three years have taught us anything, it is that Baltimore versus Pittsburgh is full of big time collisions. Polamalu has been responsible for these clashes many times, and even though the league is less lenient on hits now, it wouldn't be a classic AFC North rivalry game without a few head knocks.
Flacco has answered his first test and one does get the feeling if he pulls off the unthinkable against Pittsburgh, the Ravens may be Super Bowl bound.
Expect Polamalu to be responsible for a handful of blitzes this weekend, and if he can somehow get his hands on Flacco before the likes of James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley do, Flacco may be in some serious strife.
Baltimore's defense is equally as strong as Pittsburgh's at the present time, and with both offenses hot and ready to go, this may quite possibly be the best affair between these two in recent history.