Playoff Lookahead: Nothing but Reruns
Lots of reruns.
Three of next week's games are repeats of Week 17 games. But only Philadelphia-Dallas was played at full speed -- Dallas captured the NFC East by beating the Eagles 24-0 in a game in which Philly could have gotten a first-round bye with a win. The other two losers -- Cincinnati to the Jets and Arizona to the Packers -- had nothing to play for.
The fourth game next week is a replay of an early-season game that saw New England beat Baltimore. The Pats played a meaningless (to them) game in Houston in Week 17 and ended up losing Wes Welker, the NFL's leading receiver; the Ravens played their way into the playoffs with a win in Oakland.
Never since the current playoff format was instituted for the 1990 season have three matchups been played the final week of the regular season and again the first week of the playoffs. In all, it's happened nine times in those 20 seasons and only once have there been two back-to-back games in the same season. That was in 2001 when Tampa Bay was at Philadelphia and the Jets at Oakland in the first week after they played the last week of the regular season.
The Eagles won both the regular-season and playoff game that season; the Jets won the regular-season game but Oakland won in the postseason.
This year's playoffs open with the Jets at the Bengals on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST, followed by the Eagles at the Cowboys at 8 p.m. The Ravens will be at the Patriots at 1 p.m. Sunday, with the Packers at the Cardinals following at 4:30.
New York Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati (10-6)
Two "just happy to be here'' teams, based on preseason expectations, although Jets coach Rex Ryan talked a big game and made good on it. If he wins this playoff game, he'll be the first in the Ryan family to do it as a head coach -- his father Buddy was 0-3 with the Eagles.
Based on Sunday night's win over the Bengals, he's got a good shot. Although the problem is how hard, if at all, Cincinnati was trying in Week 17 after being outgained 250-7 in the first half.
And if nothing else, coach Marvin Lewis got what was essentially a practice run at New York. Yes, a lot of the Bengals' starters played, and they got to see the Jets' gadgets -- like Brad Smith, the all-purpose quarterback, receiver, running back and kick returner. He mostly ran, blowing by the Bengals on 57- and 32-yard runs early. At least next week, Cincinnati will know he exists.
Still, drawing up a game plan is one thing. Stopping the Jets' power running game is something else. New York led the league in both running and defense, in the past a formula for winning, although not as much in this year of the quarterback. That may make Cincinnati's simplest game plan: getting ahead and forcing Mark Sanchez to throw at them.
Green Bay (11-5) at Arizona (10-6)
The Cardinals have the experience from their trip to the Super Bowl last season, when they were awful late in the regular season, then turned it around, snuck up on Carolina on the road, and eventually won the title over the Eagles at home.
They won't sneak up on the Packers, who beat them 33-7 Sunday. It was one of those silly games, of course -- neither team needed it and Arizona more or less played the scrubs. Still, they lost Anquan Boldin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to injuries just in time for the playoffs.
The Cardinals, playing in a relatively weak division, have been a bit schizophrenic this season, perhaps because they didn't have to be any better..
The Packers have won seven of their last eight. The key was stabilizing the offensive line by reinstalling dinosaurs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton at offensive tackle, and the defense learning what new coordinator Dom Capers was trying to do with his 3-4. Maybe that gives them the edge -- they may be built for indoor/warm weather as much as they're built for playing at Lambeau, although obviously they'd rather drag the Cards into subzero temperatures.
This may come down to running if Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers cancel each other out. Also turnovers: Tim Hightower, who shares the Arizona running back duties with Beanie Wells, drops the ball a lot.
Baltimore (9-7) at New England (10-6)
The Ravens were 3-0 when they went into Foxborough on Oct. 4 and lost 27-21 to the Patriots. That stopped most of us from thinking of them as a "power team'' as they sputtered around .500 the rest of the season.
But they're in now and other teams have won Super Bowls from this position -- like the Steelers and Giants in 2005 and 2007, respectively. And the Steelers did it with Ben Roethlisberger, then a second-year quarterback, as Joe Flacco is now.
It does seem to set up for Baltimore. Welker is out and Julian Edelman is still a novice at the Welker role, although he shows promise there. Tom Brady is said to have broken ribs, and the Ravens should run well with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee against a team that, at times Sunday against Houston, played with no down linemen on the field due to injuries to Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. OK, the Pats didn't need the game, but they played Welker long enough to get hurt.
All of this means that the Ravens will concentrate on shutting down Randy Moss and letting the Pats try beat them with the running game and the other receivers -- Edelman, Sam Aiken and tight end Ben Watson.
The intangible is the Patriots' mystique, although Baltimore is not a team that allows itself to get intimidated. In that first meeting, the Pats got some favorable calls, including a roughing the passer penalty on which Brady asked referee Ron Winter to throw a roughing flag on Terrell Suggs and Winter obliged.
Philadelphia (11-5) at Dallas (11-5)
OK, the Cowboys handed New Orleans its first loss and beat the Eagles twice, including 24-0 on Sunday to win the NFC East and the third seed in the playoffs. They also have two straight shutouts entering the postseason.
But they haven't won a playoff game since 1996. Wade Phillips is 0-4 in his coaching career in the postseason and quarterback Tony Romo is 0-2.
But the Cowboys were supposed to be "choking'' -- let's get rid of that word -- when they lost their first two games in December this season to the Giants and Chargers and were on the cusp of extinction. So they went to New Orleans and handed the Saints their first loss, then posted those two shutouts.
The Eagles? They can point to another NFC East team.
Two years ago, Dallas beat the Giants twice in the regular season, just as they beat Philadelphia twice this year. Then the Cowboys opened the playoffs against New York, which had beaten Tampa the previous week. They dominated the first half, taking a 14-7 lead on a 90-yard drive in 20 plays that took over 10 minutes.
But Eli Manning drove the Giants to a touchdown in 46 seconds, tying it at halftime and eventually winning, 21-17. Thus were the "late-season loser'' reputations of Romo and Phillips enhanced..
One other thing: Philly played Sunday with a reshuffled offensive line. The cohesion should be better this time.
It won't be as easy for the Cowboys.