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The NFL's divisional playoffs should be renamed the Rematch Round as all four games feature matchups that are repeats of regular-season games. In the case of the AFC, it's the third time these teams have faced off. With all the familiarity, there should be plenty of contempt. Throw that on top of the fact these are some good teams and next weekend should make for a great round of games.
With that in mind, here are 10 questions to consider:
Joe Flacco passes vs. the Steelers.
1. Which of the six under-30 QBs faces the greatest pressure?
While Mark Sanchez(notes), Matt Ryan(notes), Jay Cutler(notes), Aaron Rodgers(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) all have their issues, none is facing the kind of uphill battle that the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco(notes) is up against during next Saturday's road game vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his three-year career, Flacco is 2-5 against Pittsburgh, including one playoff loss his rookie season. Worse, Flacco is 0-5 against Roethlisberger. Baltimore's two wins during that time came when Dennis Dixon(notes) and Charlie Batch(notes) were at the helm for Pittsburgh. While only one of the seven games has been decided by more than four points and five have come down to a field goal, there is little question Flacco has been the difference in a negative way. While he has statistically gotten better over the years, he also has at least one turnover in every game against the Steelers for a total of 11 (four lost fumbles and seven interceptions). He also has been sacked 24 times in those games. If the Ravens are going to win, Flacco is going to have to eliminate his errors.
Aaron Rodgers vs. the Falcons.
2. If Flacco has the most pressure, who's next?
We can probably do this a little bit by process of elimination. Roethlisberger is probably under the least pressure because he has two Super Bowl rings already. He would probably like to get a title to put the aftermath of last offseason further behind him, but he has already quieted much of that mess. Sanchez is probably next on the least-pressure scale because not many people are expecting the Jets to go into New England and win. That leaves Cutler, Ryan and Rodgers. Cutler and Ryan have yet to win a playoff game, so there's some anxiety there. So if you want to find somebody who needs to prove a lot, it's Rodgers, who until he wins a Super Bowl will have to live in the shadow of Brett Favre(notes) in Green Bay. Sure, Rodgers has been terrific the past three seasons, but they still love them some No. 4 in Packerland.
Mark Sanchez battles the Patriots.
3. Is there any way in the world that the Jets can reverse the 45-3 loss they suffered at New England on Dec. 6?
Those with short memories probably forget that the New York Jets actually hammered the New England Patriots 28-14 in Week 2. Of course, that was before the Patriots revamped their receiving corps and got rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes) up to speed. That said, the blowout loss at New England six weeks ago was a classic game that got out of hand early because of a series of Jets mistakes. Once that happened, there was no way that Sanchez was capable of handling the onslaught. If the Jets are going to make a game of it this time, they are going to have to withstand New England's early offensive push and keep the game within 10 points in the third quarter.
Tom Brady faces the Jets.
4. That said, who is the strongest lock to win this week?
Look, it's the Patriots. Though New England doesn't have a great defense, it may not have to be if Sanchez has another erratic game like he did in the playoff opener against Indianapolis and the Patriots offense can get an early lead. The Jets defense was terrific against the Colts, but New England is playing at a much different level right now as Tom Brady(notes) posted yet another amazing season. Of course, some Pittsburgh fans might like to tout that 5-0 mark with Roethlisberger against Flacco and claim the Steelers are the lock, but the games have been way too close to qualify.
5. So, what's the best game of the week?
Aside from the Jets-Patriots game, the other three all have potential to be terrific, even the Seattle Seahawks against the Chicago Bears. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will, as usual, be an epic smackdown which figures to feature at least three injury-related timeouts. But the really fascinating matchup is the Green Bay Packers traveling to face the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers are playing extraordinarily well right now and you have to wonder how the Falcons will move the ball effectively against the Green Bay defense if Philadelphia couldn't. The Falcons don't have the depth of weapons that the Eagles have, but they do have the bullish Michael Turner(notes). Also, this game could feature the best one-on-one matchup as Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White(notes) takes on either Charles Woodson(notes) or Tramon Williams(notes). Great battle of really physical players.
Ray Lewis sacks Matt Cassel.
6. After the Ravens decimated Kansas City, does this mean that Baltimore's vicious defense is completely back?
The Ravens' defense is playing about as well as you could expect over the past eight games, allowing 13 points or fewer in six of those games. In addition, the Ravens won in overtime at Houston on an interception return for a score and did a pretty good job until the fourth quarter against New Orleans. One of the big keys is that the Ravens are doing a solid job against the run, particularly in the second half, after struggling early in the season. In addition, they have settled down in the secondary after some brutal games early on. However, they also have taken advantage of playing against some weak teams, such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Carolina during that stretch. Also, the Chiefs proved Sunday that they're really not that great yet.
James Starks rushes vs. the Eagles.
7. Who the heck is James Starks(notes)?
OK, the obvious answer is he's the guy who just set Green Bay's rookie record for most rushing yards in a playoff game in the dramatic win over Philadelphia. The real background is that Starks is a sixth-round pick out of the University of Buffalo, where he grew up after being born in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Starks didn't get into a game until Week 13 against San Francisco, when he had 18 carries in a blowout victory. He had only 29 carries for the entire regular season and then does this in the first round of the playoffs. Starks runs a little high (he is tall for a running back at 6-foot-2), but didn't seem to take a lot of big hits against the Eagles. The most important thing in all of this is that Starks may be the answer to the running game the Packers have been missing since the injury to Ryan Grant(notes) in the season opener. If so, he could save general manager Ted Thompson from the criticism he has been getting and would continue to get after Marshawn Lynch's(notes) great run on Saturday for Seattle.
The Seahawks and Pete Carroll celebrate.
8. Speaking of Seattle, can the Seahawks really keep this run alive as they head to Chicago?
As improbable as it seemed two weeks ago after the Seahawks left Tampa Bay in disarray, this weird story of a bad team getting hot at just the right time could keep going because the Seahawks face a vulnerable Bears team. The Bears won the NFC North and earned a first-round bye, but they hardly scare anyone and won't frighten a team that beat them earlier this season. Seattle did that on the strength of getting six sacks. Sure, that was part of a two-game, season-worst stretch when Cutler got sacked 15 times. While the Bears obviously got better at pass protection, they also ended the season with six sacks against Green Bay, so the Bears remain vulnerable and Seattle is a team playing on house money.
Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch.
9. Is it true that NFL Films will turn Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch's game-cinching touchdown run against New Orleans into a seven-part series, one part for each of the Saints who missed a chance to tackle him?
All kidding aside, Lynch's effort will go down as one of the greatest jaunts in postseason history, right up there with Super Bowl efforts from the likes of Marcus Allen and John Riggins. It was a thing to behold and a triumphant play for Lynch, a guy who seemed to fight himself more than anything else while he was in Buffalo.
Matt Forte rushes against the Seahawks.
10. Speaking of running backs, who is the most underrated player left in the playoffs?
OK, it's completely unfair to compare Chicago's Matt Forte(notes) to Marshall Faulk, other than initials. Forte is a nice player, Faulk will be a Hall of Famer in less than a month. However, Forte has done a reasonable job of being a poor man's version of Faulk, rushing for 1,069 yards and catching 51 passes for a career-high 547 yards. Anytime a running back averages more than 10 yards per reception despite getting that many catches, he is doing a terrific job. If the Bears are going to get to the NFC title game, Forte is going to have to be at the top of his game.