Familiarity reigns in playoffs

Posted: Friday, January 03, 2003

In the season's first week, the Giants played the 49ers, and the Falcons were in Green Bay.

Division rivals Cleveland and Pittsburgh played each other twice. And until this season, the Jets and Colts were in the same division and played twice a year.

Familiarity is the rule in the wild-card round as the NFL playoffs begin this weekend.

''We know a little bit more about them because we played them, so we're familiar with what they do and what their philosophy is,'' says Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, who takes the Falcons to Lambeau field to play the Packers on Saturday night.

''But it still boils down to the players.''

A look at this weekend's games (times AST):

Indianapolis (10-6) at New York Jets (9-7) (12:30 p.m. Saturday)

The Friendship Bowl.

Tony Dungy of the Colts and Herman Edwards of the Jets met at a college all-star game in Hawaii in 1977 and coached together in Kansas City and Tampa Bay. They also are the only black coaches in the NFL -- and this is the first playoff game in league history between minority head coaches.

''I think it's going to spotlight the minority issue, and that's not all bad,'' says Dungy, who in his first year in Indianapolis turned around a 6-10 team.

The improvement was largely due to defense. The Colts went from 29th in yards allowed a year ago to eighth this season.

The Jets switched gears, too -- from 1-4 to the AFC East title, due largely to the work of Chad Pennington, who replaced Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. Pennington, a friend of the Colts' Peyton Manning, completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and led the league in passer rating.

These franchises have played 63 times since their last postseason game: the 1969 Super Bowl, when Joe Namath and New York upset the Baltimore Colts.

Atlanta (9-6-1) at Green Bay (4 p.m. Saturday)

The NFL and the networks liked last year's Snow Bowl in New England so much that they decided to have a January night game at Lambeau Field. Surprise! The forecast for Saturday night is snow.

The Packers beat the Falcons 37-34 in Week 1, an early indication of Atlanta QB Michael Vick's impact -- he ran nine times for 72 yards and completed 15-of-23 for 209 yards.

Brett Favre has never lost a cold-weather game, and the Packers have never lost a home game in the playoffs.

But ...

''I think of the conditions in the Ice Bowl,'' says Reeves, who played for the Cowboys against the Packers in that classic game on Dec. 31, 1967. ''I don't think they had any advantage over us, I don't think they were used to that. You can't try to get used to that kind of weather. It's ridiculous.''

Cleveland (9-7) at Pittsburgh (10-5-1) (9 a.m. Sunday)

After starting the season 0-2, the Steelers began to right themselves by beating Cleveland 16-13 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers later beat the Browns 23-20 in Cleveland.

Pittsburgh was a preseason favorite in the AFC but had an up-and-down season. Still, the Steelers enter the playoffs with legitimate hopes.

The Browns, making their first playoff appearance since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999, got a real boost from rookie running back William Green, who came on strong in the second half of the season.

Cleveland is without quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his leg in a victory over Atlanta last week. The folks in the Dawg Pound don't seem to care -- they've been calling all year for Kelly Holcomb, who will replace Couch for as long as Cleveland remains in the playoffs.

New York Giants (10-6) at San Francisco (10-6) (12:30 p.m. Sunday)

The Giants won their last four games and have improved dramatically on offense since a 16-13 loss to the 49ers at the Meadowlands on that opening Thursday night.

San Francisco, on the other hand, has been on cruise control -- it had an easy run in the NFC West and stumbled home.

Weather could be a factor in this matchup of teams that met in the playoffs five times from 1981-90. It's monsoon season in the Bay Area and the Candlestick field isn't the best under any conditions.

But the 49ers are more concerned with the development of the Giants' rookie tight end, Jeremy Shockey, who developed into a true leader this season.

''It's going to be a great matchup,'' says 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson, who shut down Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. ''I'm going to have fun. I''m so motivated right now it is unbelievable.''



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