Familiar foes meet in divisional round

BY Peter Schrager • January 9, 2011

To say this weekend’s playoff matchups feature a few familiar bedfellows going at it would be quite the understatement. In addition to Rex Ryan’s Jets squaring off with Bill Belichick’s Patriots for a third time and a much-anticipated Ravens-Steelers Part III, both NFC divisional-round games happen to be rematches of games played — on the very same fields, no less — earlier this season.

And yes, I promise never to mention the word “bedfellow” and Rex Ryan in the same sentence again. Well, not without a pithy foot reference squeezed in there, at least.

Since the implementation of the wild-card round in 1978 through last year’s 2009 playoffs, there never had been a postseason in which a conference's two divisional-round games featured separate pairs of division foes going head-to-head. This year’s AFC side of the postseason bracket has broken that trend.

The AFC’s divisional-round slate not only features two of the game’s richest rivalries from the past 10 years, but also happens to be a redo of a wild Week 13, which gave us a down-to-the-wire 13-10 Sunday night Steelers win over the Ravens and a 45-3 Pats blowout of the Jets 24 hours later.

Everyone said it going into that weekend in December — these four teams were the best the AFC had to offer.

A month later, it turns out everyone was right on the money with that assessment.

"It's Armageddon for all four teams, and there can only be one winner at the end," Ravens sack master Terrell Suggs said in Sunday’s postgame news conference in Kansas City. "What better teams than these four?"

Familiarity might breed contempt (and in the case of the fans of all four of these squads, trust me, it absolutely does), but does it breed any leg up or advantage in game preparation? Does playing a team twice in the regular season make you any more ready for a playoff meeting?

According to Belichick, no.

"I don’t think the last game or even the first game, either one of those games, is going to mean a whole lot," Belichick said in his Sunday news conference. "Both teams know each other well. We're ready for a whole new week of preparation. Even though we're familiar with them and they're familiar with us, it feels like every time you play a team games go a lot differently."

Tom Brady will study film of the Jets’ defense this week, no doubt, but it’s not like he lost sleep over the thought of facing his longtime division rivals over the weekend. Brady, 15-4 all-time as a starter vs. the Jets (including the playoffs), didn’t spend his Saturday night watching Jets-Colts pacing around his apartment with a pen and notebook in his hands. Nah, he was in Manhattan, taking in a Broadway show (“Lombardi”, which I reviewed here), with his wife Gisele Bundchen.

As for the Jets? A 42-point blowout on national television isn’t just some ordinary, run-of-the-mill loss. In fact, the 1991 Detroit Lions were the last team to lose by 40 points in the regular season to an opponent and have a shot to avenge such a blowout in the playoffs. How’d that squad fare? The eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins beat them 41-10 in the postseason.

"We've been wanting the Patriots for a while now," tight end Dustin Keller said after Saturday night’s win. "Ever since that game."

Following the Dec. 6 loss, a somewhat humbled Rex Ryan said of Bill Belichick, “I came in here to kick his butt, and he kicked mine. There are a zillion things to correct."

Well, the Jets’ coaching staff has eight days to correct them.

Local New York radio jock Mike Francesca joked the Tuesday morning after that blowout loss, “It was like watching Albert Einstein go up against Alfred E. Newman.” Who could argue? To be certain, the Jets’ 28-14 win in September feels like a distant memory now. Randy Moss, who? It’s “What have you done lately?,” and in the case of Vegas, the 42-point margin, in addition to the home-field advantage and a 13-1 run since Week 2’s loss has resulted in New England being a nine-point favorite over New York for this one.

There’s an old saying that you can’t beat a team three times in a season. Like my pre-playoffs prediction of the Saints easily dispatching the Seahawks and making a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, that old saying is, well, just plain wrong.

Of the 19 times a team has played a division opponent in the playoffs after sweeping the season series, that same team has won the third meeting 12 times. Why mention this fact when neither of these two matchups feature teams that have swept the other? To show that for as much as people might want to believe otherwise, certain teams do have the edge over certain other teams come playoff time.

With Flacco winless vs. Roethlisberger and the Jets having not beaten a Brady-led squad in Gillette Stadium since 2006, you can understand why the Steelers and Patriots are the big favorites this weekend. If there’s anything that can’t  be tracked by raw data and statistical analysis, though, it’s the emotions in the veteran Ravens' and Jets' locker rooms and the ability such emotions can have on an outcome of this weekend's games. How much does Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed wanting to beat Pittsburgh in Heinz Field factor into Saturday's game? Does a 42-point loss in December make the Jets any more hungry for a win on Sunday?

All things considered, in the AFC, the advantage has to go to the two home teams this weekend; both because of their recent victories in head-to-head matchups and their recent string of multiple season success over their opponents.

As for the NFC’s two rematches of duels that took place earlier in the season, there’s a significant difference when analyzing the matchups.

Seattle beat the Bears in Chicago on Oct. 15. Since that loss, Chicago won seven of 10 games, including victories over the Eagles and Jets at home. The Seahawks, meanwhile, lost all but one of their remaining regular season road games by an average of more than 21 points. Then again, Seattle is also coming off an offensive explosion against the Saints on Saturday.

Clearly, you can take less stock in that Oct. 15 game when evaluating the outcome of this one. Matt Forte carried the ball just six times and Lance Briggs missed the game with an injury. Chicago's won several big games and quite frankly, Jay Cutler's become a better player since the loss. Too small of a sample size; too much has changed. If anything, the early-season victory might give Seattle a bit more confidence heading into Sunday’s bout. But after beating the defending Super Bowl champions, how much more confidence do they really need?

As for the Falcons and Packers, their Thanksgiving weekend clash made for one of the better regular-season games of the year. But the Packers appear to be an entirely different team than the one that traveled to Atlanta in November. Suddenly, there’s a running game, with rookie James Starks gashing Philadelphia’s stout run defense for 123 yards on 23 carries. Erik Walden, unemployed in October and a non-factor in the earlier meeting, had 16 tackles and three sacks vs. the Bears in Week 17 and five tackles in the win over Philly. It’d be foolish to write off this Packers team — despite their No. 6 seed — based solely on a last-second three-point loss in November.

But in the playoffs, each game has its own feel, its own unique set of storylines, and its own flow.

The Jets and Ravens have things to prove in their arch-rivals' buildings, while the Bears and Packers are looking to erase early season defeats and advance to the NFC Championship Game.

The opponents might look familiar this weekend, sure. But the stakes?

Well, they're a whole lot higher.

In the end, it'll be the four teams that seize the moment and answer the call this weekend that will advance to the next round.

And there's no statistic, game tape, or bulletin board material that can accurately predict who'll end up doing that.

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