Rematch Factor Adds Kick to Tantalizing Divisional Round
By Dave Goldberg
Senior NFL Writer | Follow on Twitter: @davegoldberg84
There's no better testimony to the parity in the NFL than the upcoming weekend. Just look at the numbers.
The two AFC games will be the third between divisional foes -- the Steelers and Ravens; the Jets and Patriots. Both Pittsburgh-Baltimore games were decided by three points and won by the road team; New York and New England split, although the point disparity was wider -- the Jets winning at home by 14, the Patriots by 42.
In the NFC, both regular-season games also were decided by three points, a 23-20 win by Seattle at Chicago on Oct. 17, providing at least a glimmer of suggestion that the rank outsiders from the Pacific Northwest, still under .500 at 8-9 overall, can advance to the conference-title game.
That sets up this weekend perfectly and will probably lead again to record television ratings, making folks wonder again why the threat of a lockout hangs over the NFL. Are the owners really that strapped financially (with close to $2 billion a year reportedly coming soon from ESPN) that they're willing to turn off fans by locking out the players?
But that's for another day.
Right now, it's about enjoying the next four weeks.
So on to this week, which starts with what will undoubtedly be the most bruising matchup, Baltimore at Pittsburgh.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh -- Jan. 15, 4:30 p.m. ET
In their two games against each other, the Ravens and Steelers have scored an average of 27 points total -- or fewer than both Seattle and New Orleans scored in their opening playoff game, won by the Seahawks, 41-36. To be precise, the Ravens won at Heinz Field, 17-14, with Charlie Batch at QB for Pittsburgh while Ben Roethlisberger served the fourth game of his suspension. Then the Steelers won, 13-10 in Baltimore, in a game in which Roethlisberger and the offense did almost nothing -- Troy Polamalu's strip sack of Joe Flacco set up the winning touchdown for Pittsburgh. .
A year ago, the teams also split three-point decisions, the Ravens winning 20-17 in overtime at home; the Steelers winning their home game 23-20, which in a game between these two teams, qualifies as a shootout. Go back another year and you get two Steelers wins, 23-20 again in overtime and 13-9. So no surprise that the folks in Vegas have set the over-under at 36 1/2, with the Steelers favored by three.
One reason the games are close is that neither team can do against the other what it likes to do best: run. Pittsburgh rushed for a total of 138 yards in the two meetings and Baltimore for 113. That leaves the burden on Roethlisberger and Flacco against two of the most intimidating defenses in the NFL.
Take the under and enjoy.
New York Jets at New England -- Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m. ET
The noise all emanates from New York (actually New Jersey)
"It's about Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan. It's personal,'' Rex said Monday, acknowledging that he was outcoached in the Pats' nationally-televised 45-3 win in Foxborough on Dec. 6. Belichick? He says things like, "Well, we're full speed ahead on our preparations for the Jets.''
One difference in that 45-3 game was the absence of Randy Moss from the Patriots. In the first game, a 28-14 New York victory in Week 2, he gave Darrelle Revis someone to cover. Where does Revis go now? Maybe to Wes Welker or Deion Branch, which doesn't bother Tom Brady -- he simply throws to the other one, and to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Tate and Danny Woodhead and so on.
Another difference is the development of BenJarvus Green-Ellis into more than just a fill-in at running back, and the continuing maturation of the young New England defense, which may start three or four rookies.
That doesn't mean it will be 45-3 again, although the spread is 8 1/2. a lot considering the regular-season split. If the Jets can run again the way they did in the second half against Indianapolis, they might win, although the Colts didn't have anyone like Vince Wilfork to clog up the middle. Give Mark Sanchez credit for getting the Jets into position for Nick Folk's winning kick.
Behind his bluster, Rex is pretty good -- he's already won three more playoff games than his father Buddy (who also blustered) won in five seasons as a head coach in Philadelphia and two in Arizona, which was none. But he's not Bill Belichick.
Green Bay at Atlanta -- Jan. 15, 8 p.m. ET
The Falcons won 20-17 over Green Bay at the Georgia Dome Nov. 28 on Matt Bryant's 47-yard field goal with nine seconds left. That came less than a minute after Aaron Rodgers' TD pass to Jordy Nelson tied the game at 17-17. That's the kind of thing that could happen again, so this Saturday night game may end a lot like last Saturday night's game between the Jets and Colts.
The fun here is the matchup between two of the NFL's best young quarterbacks: Rodgers and Matt Ryan, who is 19-2 in his last 21 home games. But it might also be decided on the ground between the established Michael Turner and Green Bay's new discovery, James Starks, whose 123 yards Sunday were 22 yards more than he had in the only three NFL games he'd played going into Philadelphia (he was inactive in the first game in Atlanta).
That the Packers are here is a tribute to their depth, and thus, a tribute to Ted Thompson, the GM -- they have 15 players on injured reserve, including Ryan Grant, whose absence since the first game had left them (until Starks' emergence Sunday) without a reliable every-down running game. They are two-point underdogs, but that spread may drop as the money comes in -- Green Bay was (with Dallas) the NFC's preseason favorite and its defense may be the best in the NFC.
Seattle at Chicago -- Jan. 16, 1 p.m. ET
The Seahawks, the only sub-.500 team to make the playoffs in modern time, don't even have the advantage of potential Chicago overconfidence. That's because Seattle won 23-20 at Soldier Field on Oct. 17, a game that was made that close only because Devin Hester returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown with two minutes left.
But the Bears are a 10-point favorite and rightly so. The loss to Seattle came in a stretch in which the Bears lost three of four and were trying to work things out after their first loss -- that nationally-televised game, in which Jay Cutler was sacked nine times in a half by the Giants. It led to a reshuffling of a leaky offensive line that has protected Cutler a lot better in the second half of the season.
The biggest positive for the Seahawks in their 41-36 wild-card round win over New Orleans was Matt Hasselbeck, who demonstrated that, when his back isn't acting up, he's productive enough to think about another year on the field instead of in the broadcast booth or studio. Still, it's unlikely the Seahawks would have won that game in New Orleans, once again raising questions about reseeding. Think of this: If the Seahawks pull off another upset and Green Bay also wins, the NFC title game will be hosted by a team that went 7-9 in the regular season.
On the other hand ...
Maybe that's OK.