In a fascinating phenomenon, all four games set to be played in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs are rematches of regular-season games. That means quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and Matt Hasselbeck have all seen the opposing defenses already. In the AFC, where each game is a divisional matchup, Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have already seen each other twice.
The added layer of complexity presented by having played a playoff opponent during the regular season campaign can work for or against either team. It all depends on coaching, preparation and the ability to make week-to-week adjustments. Read on for five keys to each of the weekend's four contests, and predictions of whom will win each.
Both teams in this matchup have reputations for playing with scarcely contained fury, and things can get chippy no matter whom each team plays. With a trip to the AFC Championship on the line, expect it to get ugly, both in terms of the play on the field and in terms of pushing and shoving between plays. It should be fun to watch, but the officials had better keep control of this one from start to finish.
I never got any further than youth flag football, but my father did, and he coached my team as a kid. He always preached to us that defense was all about "controlled chaos." He was right, too: Defenders at any level, but especially this level, have to go just crazy enough to intimidate and dominate their opponents, without losing control over their own movements or emotions.
That is an important consideration in this game. Both defenses are intent upon hitting harder and being meaner than the other. In a fight like that, the winner is not the guy who throws and lands more punches, but the one who has taken the most, and who can absorb the blows best. In this game, that "guy" is probably Baltimore, under the less volatile leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, rather than Pittsburgh, under James Harrison.
Todd Heap absolutely took over the game Sunday in Kansas City, as he caught everything Joe Flacco threw his way, a total of 10 catches for 108 yards. Flacco increasingly relied upon Heap as Kansas City largely succeeded at shutting down his outside options.
The Steelers' safeties and linebackers are much better than those of the Chiefs, though. Heap will have a harder time finding open space underneath coverage against them, and Troy Polamalu will pick him up and pose a tough matchup if he tries to go vertical.
The Ravens defense is as opportunistic, physical and intelligent as ever, but there is one thing that has eroded over the years in Baltimore: Their defensive unit is no longer the fastest in the league. Jamaal Charles of Kansas City got too few opportunities last week, but when the Chiefs out the ball in his hands, he was able to gash the Ravens for big yardage.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do not have a Charles-type runner. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are both fast enough for their skill set, but each favors downhill running and tackle-breaking to make plays. The Ravens do not miss many tackles, even against great runners.
The most dangerous and explosive offensive player on either team in this game is probably Mike Wallace, who broke out this season for a remarkable campaign. He finished with 60 catches for over 1,250 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wallace has a tough task this week in trying to beat the Ravens' good secondary, especially since Ed Reed will surely roll his way all day, but Wallace is the most important cog to the Pittsburgh offense this week. If Baltimore shuts him out, or even comes especially close to doing so, the Ravens will win.
It sometimes seems like Joe Flacco was born at age 30, but in reality, he will turn just 26 on Sunday. Before doing so, he will play in his seventh career playoff game. He is 4-2 in those contests, although one ugly loss did come at the hands of the Steelers. Flacco threw three picks that day.
For the Ravens to win, they need Flacco to be at his best: He completed over 73 percent of his passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions last week, so he clearly is playing his best football right now.
This one will be low-scoring, and likely all about who can come up with the big play at the big moment. Given Ben Roethlisberger's arsenal of weapons (especially Wallace) and the Ravens' occasional stalls on offense this season, the safer bet is on Pittsburgh to make that key play.
With Drew Brees struggling all season and then losing to Seattle in the Wild Card round, and after the Packers knocked out Michael Vick and the Eagles last week, there remains only two real candidates for the title of the NFC's premier quarterback.
Aaron Rodgers has turned it on at precisely the right time and has the Packers running so smoothly that a fair number of folks are calling for an upset. Matt Ryan, meanwhile, flat out does not lose at the Georgia Dome, and had a terrific season in 2010. Whoever wins this game will carry the mantle for NFC passers into next season.
In the entire regular season, Green Bay running back James Starks had 101 rushing yards on 29 carries. In 23 carries against the Eagles last week, he piled up 123 yards.
Starks is the key to the Packers' offense Saturday: They do not have balance without him, as Brandon Jackson continues to wallow in mediocrity. Aaron Rodgers led the Packers with 51 rushing yards on 12 carries during the team's loss to Atlanta during the regular season. The team can ill-afford for him to do that again.
The Packers sacked Matt Ryan twice during Atlanta's Week 12 win. That might sound like enough, but for a Packers defense that recorded 47 sacks during the regular season and that is predicated on pass rush, it was insufficient. Clay Matthews got shut out that night; so did Charles Woodson.
Both men will be aggressively attempting to get in Ryan's face this week. Woodson, in particular, has moved into a much more frequent pass-rush mode over the past few weeks, and the results have been good. If Green Bay's secondary can make Ryan hold onto the ball for even a split second more than he expects, the Packers will get to him.
Roddy White made an interesting transition over the past two seasons, from big-play threat to possession receiver with big-play potential. The latter makes him very valuable in this game, since Ryan will need a safety valve when the rush starts coming. White is as good as anyone in the league at getting position on any kind of pass, so Tramon Williams, the Packers corner who will be left in coverage with White most often, needs to come to play.
Williams is an opportunist, having intercepted six passes during the regular season, and sealed the Pack's win over Philadelphia with a pick in the end zone. He is physically gifted as a speedster and a leaper. Unfortunately, he is not an elite corner when it comes to shutting down an opposing receiver. The Packers might elect to use Woodson on White whenever he is not blitzing off the edge, but whenever White and Williams are opposite one another, Ryan should look to take advantage.
Michael Turner is one of the elite running backs in football. He is consistent, powerful and fast in the open field and has a nose for the end zone. Unfortunately, Turner has looked worn down over the final stretch of the season, and Atlanta may have cause to wonder whether he will be able to slice even this relatively weak Packers run defense.
In their first matchup in November, Turner ran for 110 yards on 23 carries. Since then, though, his season has gone into decline: He averaged only 3.6 yards per carry over the final five weeks, and that number drops to 3.3 yards per attempt if one isolates the final three weeks.
The bye ought to have done Turner good, but unless he can get it back into gear against Green Bay, Atlanta is in trouble.
He has suffered two concussions and a streak of relative inconsistency this season, but over the past three weeks, Aaron Rodgers has looked like Brett Favre, circa 1996. Rodgers steamrolled the Giants in Week 16, willed the Packers to victory against the Bears in the final regular-season game of the year, then tossed three touchdown passes and never turned the ball over in a 21-16 win over the Eagles. Right now, no team in football can help but feel a bit unnerved at the sight of No. 12 in green and gold.
I see this game as a more wide-open version of the one played Week 12 in Atlanta, and more wide open favors Green Bay. If Turner can find some holes and rip off a big run, or if he can wear down the defense and slow the pass rush without himself wearing down, then Atlanta can win, but the Packers are hot right now and the Falcons have a lot of momentum working against them.
No doubt there will be those who claim that the Seahawks, by virtue of their win over the Saints, are becoming more dangerous by the minute. The logic would hold that the team is gaining confidence, has some underrated talent in its secondary and along the offensive line, and matches its strengths well with the weaknesses of the Bears.
The real team of destiny, though, might be on the other sideline Sunday. The Bears are now 25 years removed from a championship team no one in the city can forget about, and those old-timers (Ron Rivera and Leslie Frazier played on that 1985 Super Bowl-winning squad) have had pretty good years individually. Now, perhaps, the time has come for Lovie Smith's team to go get another title, and allow those old Bears to move on with their lives.
Jay Cutler took more sacks than any other quarterback in the NFL this season. He was sacked six times during Chicago's Week 6 loss to Seattle at Soldier Field, and though the offensive line has ostensibly made big forward strides since, the Packers dropped Cutler six times in beating the Bears, 10-7 in Week 17.
Seattle does not have the wide array of edge and interior rushers that Green Bay does, and the safety blitzes that gave the Bears fits in October should not fool them again. If Pete Carroll and company are creative enough, though, they should still be able to find and attack weaknesses in the Bears' protection schemes.
Seattle's defensive strength is its secondary, and corners Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant are good physical defenders in press coverage. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, both of whom rely almost exclusively on speed to be effective, struggle badly against that kind of player.
Cutler relies increasingly on Matt Forte and Greg Olsen in the passing game anyway, but if the Bears want to create any big plays Sunday, they need Hester or Knox to get into space without being jammed.
A week after the best and most important run of his career, Marshawn Lynch has a tall task before him this Sunday: He needs to rush effectively again, but faces a defense much better (especially against the run) than the Saints' unit. Chicago's linebackers don't miss tackles. Lynch will do his best work only if the Seahawks can establish the pass and open up draws and screen plays for Lynch.
The Bears have been forced to make some adjustments on the offensive side of the ball, but defensively, their success against most of the league has fed Lovie Smith's self-satisfied attachment to the Cover 2 shell defense that the Bears run.
Matt Hasselbeck thrives against soft defenses like Chicago's, who sag off the ball and leave gaps underneath their deep coverage. How well Seattle takes advantage of this favorable matchup will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.
Both teams have elite special teams units in every respect. Punters Brad Maynard and Jon Ryan are exceptional directional kickers, but the real game-changers are return men Devi Hester and Leon Washington. Chicago is one of just two teams to return three punts for scores this season; Seattle is one of just two to return three kickoffs for touchdowns.
Both men threaten to score any time they get to the ball, and in this game that matches good defenses and flawed offenses, one potential score could be the difference.
This game will be closer than most think, but the better team here is clearly Chicago. The Bears have a defense that could frankly shut out Seattle, and Matt Forte has been better over the final few weeks than he was when the two teams squared off in October.
Rex Ryan seemed eager to pump up his troops by saying that the Jets' game against the Colts was personal last week. Well, it does not get more personal than facing a division rival with the season on the line, especially knowing that said rival put a 45-3 whooping on you the last time you met. Hopefully, Ryan has remembered to take this one personally, too.
How important is Sanchez to the Jets' success against New England? In their Week 2 win, he threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions, completing 70 percent of his passes. In their Week 13 loss, he completed less than 52 percent of his throws, and had three interceptions without a touchdown.
In passing yardage allowed per game, the Patriots defense finished narrowly outside the cellar of the league. Sanchez and the Jets have the weapons to take advantage of a team that can be had. The problem for New York is that the two squads are clearly headed in opposite directions: New England has stepped up its game defensively over the past month, while the Jets have floundered a bit on offense.
The Jets struggle against the Patriots passing game because New England's strengths are New York's weaknesses. The Pats feast on opposing defenses who sag off the line at the snap and give their receivers space, and all too often, Antonio Cromartie does just that.
Therefore, Ryan and his staff might ought to get creative. Cromartie is not a critical part of their man-to-man coverage: That guy is Darrelle Revis. New York has not been able to consistently get to Brady with a conventional pass rush. Why not send Cromartie on a handful of blitzes, a la Charles Woodson of the Packers?
It's nothing Cromartie hasn't done before, Cromartie is an athletic freak with all the tools to be a good surprise edge rusher, and frankly, it's worth a try: Cromartie has been badly burned on multiple occasions in recent weeks.
The Jets' running game looked good against Indianapolis, but the Colts do not have anything like the speed New England does on its defensive front. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see whether the tandem of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson can repeat their success.
Green looked slow and missed at least two key chances to break bigger runs last week, so it may fall to Tomlinson to ensure balance and provide a spark for the Jets offense.
Everyone knows that the Patriots snagged Woodhead after Rex Ryan and the Jets cut him loose in early September. Obviously, Woodhead made the Jets look bad for that decision last month, when he caught four passes for 104 yards in the Patriots' romp.
Ryan had his reasons for parting ways with Woodhead, though, and one of them was and is Joe McKnight. Adding depth to the roster as a kick returner and coverage guy made McKnight valuable and Woodhead expendable. McKnight has gotten little chance to make a Woodheadian impact, but he proved what he can do in Week 17, when he ran for 158 yards on 32 carries.
He can be a good receiver out of the backfield and a dodgy runner. The Packers just unveiled a secret weapon at the position last week, so perhaps Ryan will try to emulate that success.
Though Darrelle Revis is more about lockdown coverage than takeaways these days, he and Cromartie are excellent defenders and athletes who could swing the game with huge defensive plays. Of course, the Patriots have the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year in Devin McCourty, who provides the same dangerous presence in their secondary. Whichever team changes momentum, stops a red-zone drive or scores a touchdowns with a big takeaway will have a huge leg up on the eventual victory.
In the end, the Patriots are just too good. The Jets are extraordinarily good at what they do well, but they have serious flaws, while the Patriots are much more complete. Bill Belichick will again out-coach Ryan, and Tom Brady (all alone with the MVP award) will carve the Jets during the second half.