NFL playoffs start with rematches

Posted: Friday, January 07, 2005

New scouting reports won't be needed much in the first round of the NFL playoffs this weekend.

All four games are rematches of regular-season games, the two in the NFC between division opponents.

''It couldn't be a better draw for us,'' says offensive coordinator Scott Linehan of Minnesota, which will play the Packers in Green Bay. ''We always spend a little extra time on Green Bay, so we know the opponent pretty well.''

That's only a little less true in the AFC.

San Diego, which is at home to the New York Jets, lost to the Jets 34-28 in the second week of the season, when the Chargers were regarded as a bottom-of-the-table team. Denver is at Indianapolis after beating the Colts last week when Indy played almost all backups.

But the Broncos and Colts also played in both the regular season and playoffs last season, so there's still some tape left.

The winners play next week on the road against the four top-seeded teams: Pittsburgh (15-1) and New England (14-2) in the AFC, Philadelphia (13-3) and Atlanta (11-5) in the NFC.

St. Louis (8-8) at Seattle (9-7)(4:30 p.m. EST Saturday, ABC)

The Rams took both regular-season meetings, the first by coming from 17 points back in Seattle with six minutes left in the fourth quarter to win 33-27 in overtime, and the second game 23-12.

The Seahawks have some internal problems, too.

Shaun Alexander was miffed because Matt Hasselbeck scored the final touchdown against the Falcons and the yard Alexander didn't get cost him a portion of the rushing title. The Jets' Curtis Martin won it and Alexander later issued a rather tame apology.

Wide receiver Koren Robinson, who served a four-week league suspension for a substance-abuse violation, was sent home last weekend for an undisclosed team rules violation. ''Shaun's situation came and went. It's over,'' coach Mike Holmgren says. ''Koren's situation? We haven't had Koren much in the last six weeks. We've been playing without him. Would I like to have Koren? Yes, I would. But we're moving forward.''

The Rams, who are 2-6 on the road, are lucky to be here.

They stayed alive by beating Philadelphia two weeks ago after the Eagles had clinched home-field advantage in the NFC and played scrubs. They got in by beating the Jets in overtime last week in a game New York might have won in regulation had it not tried a third-quarter 2-point conversion.

New York Jets (10-6) at San Diego (12-4) (8 p.m. EST Saturday, ABC)

The Jets started 5-0 and finished 5-6, in part because quarterback Chad Pennington missed three games with a rotator cuff injury and hasn't thrown well since returning. The Jets also have been without John Abraham, their best defensive player, who has missed four games with a sprained knee, but is probable for this week.

The Chargers, 4-12 a year ago, have won 11 of their last 13 and one of the losses was in overtime at Indianapolis in a game they easily could have won. They were second among playoff teams to the Colts in scoring with 446 points as Comeback Player of the Year Drew Brees bounced back from being benched last season; RB LaDainian Tomlinson made the All-Pro team along with Martin; and unsung Antonio Gates emerged as one of the league's top tight ends and was an All-Pro.

''It's kind of a reverse,'' says Jets coach Herman Edwards, who played in college at San Diego State. ''When we played them, they could not sell enough tickets and the game was blacked out. Now it's sold out, everyone is wearing Chargers jerseys. They have had a great year.''

Denver (10-6) at Indianapolis (12-4) (1 p.m. EST Sunday, CBS)

The Broncos know last week's 37-14 win over the Colts in Denver was meaningless as a barometer. They can only hope this week's game won't be like their meeting at this stage of the playoffs last season, when they were routed in Indianapolis 41-10.

This Denver team was built in part from the ruins of that loss. Champ Bailey was acquired from Washington and John Lynch was signed to bolster a secondary shredded by Peyton Manning. Lynch certainly wouldn't have allowed the most-remembered play: four Broncos arguing over who blew a coverage as Marvin Harrison, who had fallen untouched making a catch, got up and ran for a touchdown.

''It took me a long time to get over that game,'' concedes linebacker Al Wilson, one of the four.

Manning, of course, has been this season's marquee player, setting an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes to earn Offensive Player of the Year honors. Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley form the first trio to each have over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdown catches in a season, and running back Edgerrin James is back to his pre-injury form.

Minnesota (8-8) at Green Bay (10-6) (4:30 p.m. EST Sunday, Fox)

Yes, the Packers won both games 34-31 in the last seconds, but these teams are coming from distinctly different directions.

Green Bay started 1-4, including three home losses to teams that finished a combined 16-32 (the Bears, Giants and Titans). Then it won nine of 11 despite a leaky secondary.

Minnesota started 5-1, then lost seven of its last 10 for the second straight season. The difference: The NFC is so weak this season that the Vikings made the playoffs anyway.

Like the Seahawks, the Vikings have some internal issues. After they lost 21-18 in Washington last week to back their way into the postseason, center Matt Birk and quarterback Daunte Culpepper expressed their irritation with Randy Moss, who left the field before the game ended.

But the Vikings also think their slide can work in their favor.

''We've got nothing to lose,'' says Birk, the Harvard man who over the years has become a team spokesman on almost everything. ''No one's expecting anything from us, so, just go out there and cut it loose and lay it on the line.''

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