NFL Divisional Playoffs: And Then There Were 8

The NFL’s remaining eight teams will be in the spotlight on Divisional Weekend. On Saturday, Jan. 15, the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) will host the division rival Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at Heinz Field (CBS, 4:30 PM ET). That night in primetime (FOX, 8:00 PM ET), the Atlanta Falcons (13-3), the NFC’s No. 1 seed, will welcome the Green Bay Packers (11-6) to the Georgia Dome.  On Sunday, Jan. 16, the NFC North champion Chicago Bears (11-5) will play the Seattle Seahawks (8-9) at Soldier Field (FOX, 1:00 PM ET) and the AFC’s top seed, the New England Patriots (14-2), will face the AFC East rival New York Jets (12-5) at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:30 PM ET).

“This time of year,” says Chicago Head Coach Lovie Smith, “the teams that are in the playoffs are all good football teams.”

For the first time since 2000, two of the Divisional matchups feature division foes. The AFC East’s Patriots and Jets will clash in New England and the AFC North’s Steelers and Ravens will face each other for the third time this year.

“We’re familiar with them and they’re familiar with us,” says Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin about Baltimore.  “Not much has changed since the last time we played them.”

All four Divisional games are rematches of regular-season meetings. The Steelers and Ravens split the season series, as did the Patriots and Jets. The Seahawks defeated the Bears in Chicago in Week 6 and the Falcons knocked off the Packers in Week 12 at the Georgia Dome.

“These playoffs are wide open,” says NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. “There isn’t anything that could happen that would surprise me.”

A look at this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs:

BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-4) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4) (Saturday, CBS, 4:30 PM ET)     

For the second time in the past three seasons, these two division rivals will meet in the postseason. In 2008, the Steelers beat the Ravens 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLIII. These two teams own the best postseason records in NFL history: Baltimore is 9-5 (.643) and Pittsburgh is 31-19 (.620).

“There’s no tomorrow,” says Steelers wide receiver Hine Ward. “That’s what makes our sport so great.  We don’t have a series where you lose a game and you’ve got a chance the next day.  That’s why every play is magnified.”

The teams split the season series this year, with each team winning once. The combined score?  27-27.

“We’re very evenly matched,” says Baltimore Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Last week, the Ravens defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 30-7 to improve their road record in the postseason to 7-3. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco passed for 265 yards and two touchdowns to become the first quarterback in NFL history to start and win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons in the league.

“That’s one of four,” says Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh after the win. “Now we’ll start thinking about the next guys. And we know who those next guys are.  We know how to play that game.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-6) at ATLANTA FALCONS (13-3) (Saturday, FOX, 8:00 PM ET)     

The NFC’s top seed, the Falcons, will host the Packers in a rematch of their Week 12 meeting. In that contest, won 20-17 by Atlanta, both quarterbacks posted a 100.0+ passer rating. Matt Ryan (107.9) of the Falcons tied a franchise record by completing 85.7 percent of his passes (24 of 28) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (114.5) passed for 344 yards.

“We’re going to watch two of the young greats that are coming up in this league in Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan,” says NFL Network analyst and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Rodgers tossed three touchdown passes in last week’s 21-16 Wild Card victory at Philadelphia and his seven passing touchdowns are the most ever by a quarterback in his first two playoff games.

“This is playoff football,” says Green Bay Head Coach Mike McCarthy. “We feel very good that we’ve played three weeks in a row in a very competitive playoff atmosphere. So that’s what we’re taking into the game. We’re ready to go.”

All-Star Ryan is 20-2 (.909) at home in his career and his 33 wins are tied for the most by a quarterback (Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino) in his first three seasons since the 1970 merger.

“We’ve worked very hard to attain this position,” says Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith. “It’s not only the players, but the coaching staff, the support staff and the entire organization. We have started our fifth quarter and we want to make sure we play very effective and efficient ball through the fifth quarter of our season. We’re very excited to be playing at home.”

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8-9) at CHICAGO BEARS (11-5) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)     

Earlier this season, the Seahawks won 23-20 in Chicago. However, the last time these two teams met in the postseason (2006 Divisional), the Bears defeated Seattle 27-24 in overtime.

“The guys know the magnitude of the playoffs and what a good position we’re in,” says Bears QB Jay Cutler. “But at the same time, we’ve got to take care of one game at a time and keep executing.”

The Seahawks knocked off the New Orleans Saints last week, becoming the first team in NFL history to beat the defending Super Bowl champions in the postseason after trailing by at least 10 points. QB Matt Hasselbeck threw a franchise playoff record four touchdown passes to lead Seattle to victory.

“I think that our team is starting to come together in some ways that are special,” says Hasselbeck, who has started 10 postseason games for Seattle, tied with Walter Jones for the most in franchise history. “We just beat the world champions and that’s a great feeling.”

“We’re not done yet,” says Seahawks Tight End John Carlson, who tied a team postseason record with two TD catches.  “We’re happy with the win and excited to be playing another week.  It’s a one-game season.  If we win, we get to go on again.  So we’ve got to be focused.”

NEW YORK JETS (12-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2) (Sunday, CBS, 4:30 PM ET)     

The Divisional weekend will conclude when these two AFC East rivals face one another. The clubs split the season-series 1-1 with the home team winning each contest. The Jets will look to avenge the Patriots’ 45-3 victory in Week 13.

“It’s going to be tough football,” says Jets Pro Bowl Cornerback Darrelle Revis, who held Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne to one catch for one yard in New York’s Wild Card win. “This is our chance to prove ourselves again to the world.  We’ve got another chance to go back at these guys and try and get a win.”

In the Jets’ 17-16 Wild Card victory at Indianapolis, RB LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for two touchdowns and Wide Receiver Braylon Edwards set up the game-winning field goal with an acrobatic 18-yard catch.

“You’d better believe I’m thinking about New England,” Edwards said afterwards. “That’s our next game. We’ll be ready.”

The Patriots finished the season with the league’s best record at 14-2. Pro Bowl QB Tom Brady set an NFL record with 335 consecutive passes without an interception and he led New England to a perfect 8-0 mark at home. 

“I don’t think the last game or even the first game is going to mean a whole lot,” says New England’s Bill Belichick, who became the first head coach in NFL history to win at least 14 games in four different seasons. “Both teams know each other well. 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.”

“I love playing at this time of year,” says Jets QB Mark Sanchez, who is 3-1 in his postseason career.  “It’s very exciting. It’s fun. We’ve just got to keep this rolling.”
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