New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan will meet once again in the AFC Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs this weekend.
In this week’s Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, redemption has become an underlying theme to each of the games slated to take place on Jan. 15 and 16.
By the grace of the football gods, on tap are four specific matchups in which each of the teams are already quite familiar with their opponent. During the regular season, the eight remaining teams left to vie for the Lombardi Trophy have faced next week’s opponents a combined six times.
On Jan. 15, the Baltimore Ravens head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in what will be the most critical of the AFC North archrivals’ three matchups this season. Of course, divisional foes square off twice each regular season in a home-and-away, but when the two teams each win a game, rarely do they get an opportunity to settle their differences with a rubber match in the postseason.
In 2011, a threematch will not only occur in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but also New England on Jan. 16.
The rivalry between the New York Jets and the Patriots is just as bitter and intense as the Steelers-Ravens, and will pit two teams with a history of poaching personnel and practice tape against each other.
The two other Divisional Round games may not feature matchups of division rivals, but these two contests will also be opportunities for redemption for both the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
The Packers lost to the Falcons 20-17 in the Georgia Dome earlier in the season, and will return to the scene of their heartbreaking loss on Jan. 15.
The Seahawks pulled off one of the season’s more unlikely upsets Week 6 when they traveled to the Windy City to stun the Bears at Soldier Field 23-20. Given Seattle’s 7-9 regular season record along with just two road victories, the Bears have to be grateful to the New Orleans Saints for succumbing to the earth-shaking elements of Qwest Field on Jan. 8.
This loss by the heavily-favored, defending Super Bowl champs gave the Bears a chance to advance to the NFC Championship by defeating a team they’ll be the first to admit they should have beaten back in October.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the four aforementioned clashes...
Despite the fact that the 'Hawks beat the Bears in Chicago on Oct. 17, sports books still have them pegged as double-digit underdogs. One can sympathize with the Seahawks for feeling disrespected.
The age-old debate of postseason football wages on with this matchup: What is a more important key to success in January: rest or momentum?
Although they lost a meaningless Week 17 game after already securing a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Bears will be healthy, well-rested, and eagerly anticipating revenge against a Seahawks team that is in its third consecutive week of win-or-go-home mode.
While the Bears have been home returning to full health and licking their chops for a rematch, the Seahawks must now travel to the Midwest to face the Monsters of the Midway on Sunday.
When these two teams first met in the fall, Marshawn Lynch made his ‘Hawks debut after a mid-season trade from Buffalo, and Seattle’s new-look ground game was born. With Justin Forsett and versatile scatback Leon Washington handling passing down work, the Seahawks boast a multi-faceted running attack that will be tested by Chicago’s second-ranked rush defense.
The deciding factor in this game may be which team is more capable of exposing its opponents’ weakness. For Seattle, it’s their 27th-ranked pass defense, which yielded 31 passing touchdowns during the regular season, tied for second most in the league. Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees just sliced and diced the Seattle secondary for 404 yards and two scores, so one can expect Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz to stage a pass-heavy attack as well.
Chicago’s primary weakness has been its offensive line, which has contributed to the Bears’ 30th-ranking in total offense, but the line's health has improved with time to rest. Quarterback Jay Cutler posted solid stats on paper this year, but anyone who watched him play will attest that he spent much of the season running for his life.
If Cutler is to emerge victorious in his first career playoff game, he’ll have to improve on his third down conversation from Week 6, when the Bears went an embarrassing 0 for 12.
The Seahawks will need to dial up extensive pressure on rookie RT J’Marcus Webb, and force Cutler into making errant throws off his back foot that result in incompletions and turnovers. Otherwise, the former Bronco could pick apart the Seattle secondary if he has time to find receivers Johnny Knox, Devin Hester, and Earl Bennett downfield.
The Chicago secondary, on the other hand, had better be prepared for red-hot QB Matt Hasselbeck, who had a career game against the typically-stingy Saints pass defense, and is playing at an elite level after returning from a hip injury.
This game should be fun to watch based solely on the fact that both teams head into the matchup with confidence. Given their recent history, the Bears have to be thrilled that the sub-.500 Seahawks stand between them and a return to the NFC Championship game.
Conversely, the Seahawks are happy to meet a team they already beat this season in their own house. Coach Pete Carroll’s team won’t admit to looking ahead, but if Seattle wins, and the Packers upset the Falcons, then the Seahawks would host the NFC Championship game at Qwest Field. Now raise your hand if you saw that coming!
Bears 24, Seahawks 13
Having clinched the tiebreaker with a Week 13 victory over the Ravens, the Steelers earned a first-round bye and home field advantage in the Divisional Round threematch. Whether home field provides a strategic edge has yet to be proven yet this season.
In both matchups from 2010, the visiting team stole the show in eerily similar defensive slugfests. Each of these teams has experienced success in the postseason in recent years, but Baltimore is the team playing with a chip on their shoulder.
When these two rivals last faced each other Week 13, the Ravens squandered a second-half lead, and surrendered 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Had the 12-4 Ravens held on to win that game, they would have secured the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye instead of having to first travel to sub-freezing Kansas City to dispatch the Chiefs.
But since Baltimore handled their business on the road, they’ll get a shot at redemption in the Steel City. However, the team will be preparing with a heavy heart.
Safety Ed Reed has headed home to his family in Louisiana to deal with the disappearance of his brother. The seven-time Pro Bowler is in a state of mourning after a police search for Brian Reed was called off. The 29-year-old Reed reportedly jumped into the 42-degree Mississippi River to evade police when he was spotted by authorities, and was believed to be driving a stolen car. His shoes and jacket were found at the scene, and he has not been seen or heard from since.
The seven-time Pro Bowler had been given full clearance from Coach John Harbaugh to tend to personal matters, and Reed has since returned to the team. In the 30-7 victory over the Chiefs in the Wild Card round, Reed, who had four tackles, was given a game ball for his gutsy performance given the emotionally tumultuous circumstances. However, it remains to be seen how the off-field distractions will affect the Ravens' performance in Pittsburgh.
Although Baltimore is riding the momentum of a five-game winning streak that began after the loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, they’ll face a Steelers team that blew out its last two opponents by a combined score of 68-12.
Expect these two similar teams to continue punishing each other at the line of scrimmage. Both the Steelers and Ravens have a playoff-tested quarterback, a physical running attack, reliable downfield receivers, and a swarming defense that flies to the ball.
Where these teams differ is their weaknesses. Baltimore finished the regular season a mediocre 21st in pass defense, and may have to move forward in the playoffs with a distracted Reed in the lineup. The Ravens will have to lean on their ferocious front seven, led by future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who led the team with 11 sacks.
The Steelers have dealt with injuries to their offensive line all season long. With Suggs sure to serve as a disruption, veteran tackle Flozell Adams might need help to keep the former Sun Devil, who totaled 2.5 sacks in the Week 4 and Week 13 matchups, at bay. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, third down back and blitz pickup specialist Mewelde Moore is set to return from a knee injury that kept him out of action Week 17.
Baltimore/Pittsburgh has become one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL of the past decade. Having won three of the last 11 Super Bowls, these two teams know how to dial up the intensity to both intimidate and dominate their opponents.
Of course, these two teams have had their share of success during the last decade, but not as much as...
Steelers 26, Ravens 13
…The New England Patriots, who have won three of the four Super Bowls they’ve been to in the last nine years.
The Pats will face their hated AFC East rival, the New York Jets, in a threematch that’s sure to generate both huge television ratings as well as widespread conflict across the northeastern seaboard.
These two teams have historically shared coaches, players, and a penchant for getting into trouble with the league. Although Pats coach Bill Belichick has managed to live down the shame from the 2007 practice videotaping scandal dubbed “Spygate”, Jets coach Rex Ryan is still dealing with the fallout from this season’s embarrassing pratfall involving former strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi nicknamed “Tripgate”.
NFL jurisprudence aside, 50 players have played with both the Jets and Patriots since 1993 (RB Danny Woodhead being the most recent member of this fraternity). Furthermore, coaches Pete Carroll, Eric Mangini, Bill Parcells, and Belichick all worked with both teams during that timeframe.
Whether the veritable player and coach sharing can be attributed to similar team philosophies or merely a desire to keep tabs on their archrival, the Jets have to be searching for any advantage that will help to avenge a humiliating 45-3 beatdown the Patriots handed them in Week 13. Although the Jets defeated the Pats 28-14 at the Meadowlands in Week 2, the blowout loss is far more prominent in their memory, and requires retribution.
New England averaged over 37 points scored per game during the second half of the regular season. While the top-seeded Pats got last week off, the Jets traveled to Indianapolis, and were fortunate to squeak by Peyton Manning and the Colts 17-16 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Hence, we’re back to the momentum vs. rest debate.
Will a week of rest and preparation help Belichick and Brady to prepare for the complex blitz schemes that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will draw up, or will the Pats fall flat as the Jets continue their march through the AFC playoffs?
Jets QB Mark Sanchez will need to improve on his performance in the last matchup, when he threw for just 164 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Although New England has the 30th-ranked pass defense, they led the NFL with 25 interceptions during the regular season. Conversely, the Jets’ pass defense ranks fifth in the league. However, New York finished a distant 25th in interceptions with 12, which is surprising considering their impressive cornerback tandem of Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
With New York’s third-ranked rush defense set to contain RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis, veteran Fred Taylor, and the aforementioned Woodhead, Brady should be expected to handle the majority of offensive responsibility by hitting WR Wes Welker, TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on short passing patterns, and recent acquisition Deion Branch downfield.
It’s no coincidence that Brady has looked especially comfortable in the pocket ever since Branch returned to New England via a midseason trade with the Seahawks. Branch and Brady have always shared great chemistry on the football field, and his addition brings a dynamic aspect to the Pats’ passing attack.
The weather in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Sunday is expected to be in the low-30s with some cloud cover, but no precipitation or significant wind is in the forecast. While one would expect a rivalry game to play out in a defensive slugfest, a la Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Divisional Round threematch between New York and New England should feature more scoring, especially from the arm of Brady, the MVP frontrunner.
Patriots 31, Jets 16
Another rematch where one can expect points to be scored is in Atlanta, where the Green Bay Packers will face the No. 1-seeded Falcons.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ postseason credibility got a huge boost when the Packers went into Philadelphia, and knocked out the favored Eagles in the Wild Card round on Jan. 9. After experiencing struggles in January prior to this victory, Rodgers seems to have turned a corner as a playoff-caliber quarterback as opposed to merely a quarterback that posts ridiculous stats.
In spite of going 7-1 at home in the regular season, the top-seeded Falcons are favored by less than a field goal to the No. 6-seeded team in the NFC. They barely held off the Pack in a 20-17 victory Week 12, but the Packers were a different team in November without some of the playmakers that they have now.
Running back James Starks dominated backfield touches with 23 carries for 123 yards in the Jan. 9 Wild Card victory. In the Nov. 28 loss, Rodgers was the Packers’ leading rusher as well as passer, totaling almost 400 yards from scrimmage. But he couldn’t beat the Dirty Birds on his own, as his lost fumble at the goal line in the second quarter proved to be the difference in the game.
The Falcons finished top-10 in rush defense, but allowed 4.6 yards-per-carry, an average that is among the worst in the league.
With a bonafide running game in Starks, passing down specialist Brandon Jackson, and power back John Kuhn to complement Rodgers’ deadly arm, expect more scoring from the Packers on the Georgia Dome turf. The question is whether the Packers’ secondary can contain Matt Ryan.
Green Bay cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams are playing as well as at any point during the season. Williams sealed the Wild Card victory with an interception of a Michael Vick pass in the waning seconds. Woodson, who looks Hall of Fame-bound at this stage of his illustrious career, will likely cover Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White, which should make for an entertaining one-on-one rematch.
In their previous matchup, White generated just 49 receiving yards with Woodson covering him, his second-lowest total of the season. The onus may fall on Pro Bowl starting halfback Michael Turner to move the chains against Green Bay’s inconsistent rush defense. While the Pack have only allowed six rushing touchdowns all season, they rank second-to-last in the league by surrendering 4.7 YPC.
Based on the elite level of play from the Green Bay cornerbacks and the Falcons’ desire to control the clock, expect the Falcons to implement heavy doses of Michael Turner, especially if they grab an early lead. Pro Bowler Clay Mathews will need to play his usual role of ballhawking linebacker in order to contain a rumbling Turner.
Regardless, this weekend, often seen as the best playoff weekend of the year in all of sports, will be teeming with great rematches and threematches that are sure to keep football audiences enthralled until Monday morning.
Packers 24, Falcons 21