Wild-Card Teams Must Ask: What Have We Learned?
Three matchups (Jets/Bengals, Eagles/Cowboys and Packers/Cardinals) are repeats of regular-season finales. The Eagles/Cowboys will battle for the third time this season. The Ravens/Patriots clashed on Oct. 4.
What did you learn from the last time? What can you repeat? What changes should be made? The wild-card playoff coaches are mulling these questions as they assemble game plans.
"You have to worry about being too confident if you won big the last time and lacking confidence if you lost," an NFL general manager said. "If you lost, you have to factor in the players you rested and discern how much of a difference they will make. If you won, you account for the return of those players and how that changes your attack. I think when you have teams that are familiar, it often boils down to turnovers. Those speak to the execution of your plan and the level of intensity of your defense."
If turnovers become the distinguishing factor, the Packers, Eagles and Ravens are most suited to force things their way. Green Bay leads the playoff field with a plus-24 turnover differential. Philadelphia is next at plus-15 followed by the Ravens at plus-10. That trio stands alone as the only teams in action this weekend that have earned a double-digit advantage in turnovers. The bottom of the turnover-differential group finds the Bengals even and the Cardinals at minus-7.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh needs little reminder of his team's Oct. 4 visit to New England. The Ravens lost 27-21 and afterward complained about the officiating.
Harbaugh said: "If you let that hover and bother you, then you just have one more thing to beat. We have to try to play penalty-free and take charge there. When you play a team again like this in one season, the barometers go both ways. We have a pretty good understanding of what they do, and they have the same regarding us. You can't tell some things until you match up in the game and see what people are bringing to the table. You see how they attack your strengths and weaknesses. It's still a chess match even though you are familiar. Especially against the Patriots. They always try to figure out what you expect and then do what you don't expect.''
Dallas beat Philadelphia 20-16 on Oct. 8. The Dallas dominance in tempo in its 24-0 victory over the Eagles on Sunday surprised Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones. He expects both teams will be prepared for a high-strung game, in both style and outcome, on Saturday in Dallas.
"You never know. I didn't expect us to win like that on Sunday," Jones said. "It will be highly competitive -- likely come down to the wire, hard-fought NFC East game but this time in the playoffs. It's tough playing a team three times. But I know I would rather to have beaten you twice than not beaten you yet.''
The Cowboys and Jets defenses enter the playoffs in striking, compelling step. Both are fresh off pitching shutouts, with Dallas having compiled two straight for the first time in franchise history. Dallas also saddled the Eagles with their first shutout in four years.
But the Cowboys and Jets find their signature defensive players at different positions.
Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware has made 57 tackles, 11 sacks and forced five fumbles. He is often double-teamed, creating opportunities for his defensive peers. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis has dominated some of the NFL's best receivers this season, en route to a team-high six interceptions (twice as many as any other Jet) with one return for a touchdown.
"First of all, DeMarcus Ware has been as great a person off the field as he has been a great player on it,'' Jones said. "When we signed a new deal with him during the season we knew the contract would not change him. You wish you had 53 guys like that. He is a key piece of our defense, our pressure player, our main guy. He's never deterred. And a lot of people don't know that he has been playing with a banged-up foot and wrist. He never says anything about it and just produces.''
Revis is allowing the Jets defense to be as exotic as it wants, knowing that this shutdown corner will take care of his portion of the field.
Here is what one Bengals player had to say about Revis, who held receiver Chad Ochocinco catchless on Sunday: "We talked about him a lot in preparation -- obviously, not enough. He is better than advertised, and he's a Pro Bowl player, so that says a lot. I think we have to consider how much and in what way we are going to attack him in the playoffs. My vote would be to just know where he is -- and attack wherever he isn't."
Brad Smith has been with the Jets for four seasons. And during most of that time, the franchise has tried to find the proper niche for this unusual player, a college quarterback turned NFL wide receiver.
The Jets' hit-and-miss approach has finally reached fruition. In consecutive weeks to end the regular season, Smith broke loose -- he had a 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Indianapolis in Week 16, then posted runs of 57 and 24 yards out of the wildcat (the latter for a touchdown) against in a Week 17 win over Cincinnati.
"This guy can be a game-changer,'' an NFL scout said. "I don't know if you applaud the Jets for finally realizing that or criticize them for not using more prominently what they have in this player.''
The Jets insist we will see more of Smith.
"He is one of the better young men you can be around in this league. Solid character. He is a very explosive athlete and everyone saw that with him coming out of college," a Jets' source said. "He played quarterback [at Missouri], but he did everything, including throwing it, running it and catching it. He had a back injury that has slowed his progress here but he is healthy now. When Leon [Washington] went down, he got the chance to return kicks.
"We've learned that he can become a big-play guy for us on offense. We don't have a lot of those. We're still figuring out how to get the ball in his hands. He is becoming one of our better weapons to get the ball downfield.''
Eagles coach Andy Reid does not find himself in a perfect position, with his team looking to rebound from a lopsided loss against Dallas. But Reid loves these teaching chances where he has his team's full attention and with them feeling humbled.
And Reid has no problem riding his youth-infused club -- among them rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin, running back LeSean McCoy and safety/kickoff returner Macho Harris-- into the postseason.
"Our younger players have the ability to pick up schemes and the intelligence to be in the right place in games,'' Reid said. "I love seeing the maturity that takes place. We continue to let them play and work their way in there and have an opportunity. I'm not hesitant with the younger players. You know they will make mistakes; you hope they are not the same ones. I appreciate the hard work that leads to the kind of productivity they have had this year.''
Though the AFC grabbed most of the headlines this season with exciting offenses and more late playoff-race buzz than the NFC, it is the NFC that presents the most stout playoff teams. I believe that Green Bay, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Minnesota are stronger teams than any the AFC has to offer. Each team in this quartet finishes ahead of the AFC's playoff class in combined effectiveness in three key areas that help determine teams' playoff mettle: Sacks gained, yards gained per pass attempt and turnover differential.
Look for one of those four to win Super Bowl XLIV.