American Football Conference
6. JETS (Wild Card) at1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (East)
This is the first time in N.F.L. history that both divisional-round games in a conference feature matchups ofdivision rivals. But Jets versus Patriots is the N.F.L.’snastiest current feud, and its third installment this seasonis a fitting reprise.The Jets say they wanted this game. They shouldprobably be careful what they wish for. They were humiliatedby the Patriots a month ago, 45-3, a demolitionthat Jets Coach Rex Ryan will need all of his motivationalskills to get his players to erase from their memories.The problem for the Jets is that the Patriots’ multifacetedoffense has not slowed since then, and the Jets’ offense is stillstruggling to score. The Patriots have not scored fewer than 31points since Nov. 7, slicing up the vaunted defenses of the Jets,the Packers and the Bears in that stretch. Danny Woodheadand the Patriots’ tight ends present tough matchups for theJets’ defense.Given Mark Sanchez’s shaky passing for much of the Coltsgame, it is reasonable to assume the Jets will try to runthrough the Patriots. They rushed for 169 yards against theColts and they averaged 4.9 yards a carry against the Patriotsin December. But the Patriots held three of their last four regular-season opponents under 4 yards a carry, and if they getout to a quick lead, the game will be forced into Sanchez’shands — exactly where the big-play Patriots defense wants it.Ryan got the hype started last week with a swipe at Bradywhen he unfavorably compared his study habits with PeytonManning’s. The Jets will need their most complete game –balanced offense, a defense that forces turnovers — to staywith the Patriots.PLAYER TO WATCH Don’t overthink this. Watch Brady, whoprobably heard about Ryan’s slight within minutes of its utterance.His passing has been staggeringly accurate (no interceptionssince Oct. 17, four over all). The Patriots go as Bradygoes, and for most of the last two months it has looked as if that would be to the A.F.C. championship game.
5. BALTIMORE RAVENS (Wild Card) at2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (North)
Can they please stage this game inside a steel cage? Themost bruising rivalry in football is played by two teams builtaround pounding defenses and a preference for the runninggame. The fascinating thing, as in the Jets-Patriotsgame, is how the teams will change their approachesbecause they are so familiar with each other.The Ravens came out throwing against the Chiefson Sunday, before leaning on Ray Rice. They will probablyhave to try to throw against the Steelers, too, becauseif the Steelers’ defense has a weakness, it’s atthe corners. Much about the Steelers will depend onthe health of safety Troy Polamalu. In the final twomonths of the regular season, the Steelers allowed anopponent to score more than 16 points only once — theJets, in a game that Polamalu did not play.The Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall rushed for morethan 1,200 yards this season, but his yards per attemptwas just 3.9, and he will have little running room againstthe Ravens. So it will fall to Ben Roethlisberger to attackthe Ravens’ secondary — also their weakness, exceptfor safety Ed Reed. The Ravens will have to be vigilantbecause Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays by scramblingout of the pocket, and by avoiding interceptions (just fivethis season), makes him dangerous.But the Ravens forced five turnovers against the Chiefs, andthe Steelers will have to guard against that, too. These teamssplit their season series, although the Ravens’ victory came inSeptember, when Roethlisberger was suspended. When theyplayed in December, it was exactly what is expected now: alow-scoring, penalty-laden affair. The Ravens have won five ina row since.PLAYER TO WATCH Make it players — Polamalu and JamesHarrison. Joe Flacco was poised and accurate against theChiefs, but these two have a way of unnerving quarterbackswith their relentless pressure and speed.DIVISIONAL MATCHUPSBy JUDY BATTISTAAmerican Football Conference National Football Conference
National Football Conference
6. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Wild Card) at1. ATLANTA FALCONS (South)