AFC playoff Q&A: Nothing rivals this
Ravens-Steelers, Jets-Patriots give divisional round a true divisional feel
The AFC truly enters the divisional phase of the playoffs next week. The two games are between divisional rivals.
But the great part is that the AFC divisional round matches two of the conference's best divisional rivals. The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens. The New York Jets and Rex Ryan get to call out the New England Patriots.
"What better than these four teams,'' Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Everybody wanted to see this matchup [the Steelers and Ravens] because [the teams] split during the regular season. This is Armageddon for both teams.''
The Jets split with the Pats, with each team winning at home. The Ravens won at Heinz Field, but the Steelers came back and won in Baltimore. "It's personal between these two cities,'' Suggs said. "It shouldn't surprise you that these teams are at their throats. This is the NFL at its best.''
Here are the 10 biggest questions heading into what should be a memorable weekend of playoff football.
1. Is it rare to have division rivals meet again in the playoffs?
Divisional playoff rematches are becoming more and more common. Since 2000, divisional rivals have met again in the playoffs 17 times. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles 34-14, completing a three-game season sweep of Philly. Following the 2008 season, the Steelers beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, 23-14, and went on to the Super Bowl to face the Arizona Cardinals. "Three-peats'' seem to happen in close divisions such as the AFC North and NFC East, particularly now that the league is broken into eight divisions. The reason is simple. Teams such as the Steelers and Ravens have had stability within their organizations and their rosters and are good enough to win opening-round playoff games to advance. A similar thing is happening in the AFC East now that Ryan is establishing a winning tradition with his Jets. There has been at least one divisional playoff rematch in every year since 2004.
2. What type of game should be expected between the Steelers and Ravens?
Get ready for old-school, hard-hitting football. Also expect a low-scoring game. Since 2007, the Ravens and Steelers have met eight times in the regular season with the scores averaging out to 18-17 in favor of the Steelers. The most points scored by one team in any one game was 27, accomplished by the Ravens -- a 27-21 victory in 2007. This game is personal, though. "I've lost to Ben Roethlisberger seven times,'' Suggs said. "He's definitely my biggest problem I'm facing.'' The key to these games is turnovers. Both defenses are designed to force turnovers. With another low-scoring game expected, the defense that wreaks the most havoc will likely push its team over the top.
3. What type of game should be expected between the Jets and Patriots?
For some reason, the Jets' defense doesn't do well in Foxborough, Mass., and it goes beyond Tom Brady's incredible ability to be successful at home. Ryan is 2-2 against the Patriots, with both his wins occurring at home. Those home games have been relatively low-scoring -- 28-14 this season and 16-9 last season. But Brady has carved up the Jets' defense in Foxborough. The Patriots blew out the Jets 45-3 this season. Last season, the Patriots won 31-14 at home. Part of the discrepancy is explained by the timing of the games. For the past two seasons, the Jets had the home game in September and could devote an entire offseason to preparing for the Patriots. The Patriots have done well in the rematch because they can study the Jets' tendencies, fix problems of their own from the first game and attack with the home crowd behind them. Bill Belichick is a master of adjustments and Brady is a master of everything. In his two home games against Ryan's defense, he completed 48 of 70 passes for 636 yards and five touchdowns. His quarterback ratings in those two games were 148.9 and 98.6.
4. What are the injury situations of the four teams?
All four teams are in pretty good shape. The Ravens came out of Sunday's 30-7 victory over the Chiefs without any problems. Safety Ed Reed played the whole game despite dealing with a chest injury and the situation of his missing brother. Suggs had no trouble with a knee injury that had him listed on the injury report as questionable. Safety Tom Zbikowski (back) and linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder) were inactive because of their injuries and might not be available. The Jets came out of Saturday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts with only Brad Smith's groin injury. Smith was able to come back to play in the second half. The Steelers probably won't have defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps), but the week off gave safety Troy Polamalu (ankle) more time to heal. He played the season finale against the Cleveland Browns. Backup halfback Mewelde Moore (knee) has had an extra week to heal after missing the finale. The Patriots cleaned up their injury list by placing defensive ends Ron Brace and Mike Wright on injured reserve. Guard Dan Connolly has had ample time to recover from a concussion.
5. What's the most interesting trend from the AFC's final four?
All four teams use the 3-4 defense, which may cause more teams to convert next season. The Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips to make them a 3-4, and the 3-4 is now the dominant defensive scheme in the AFC, which is why it's fitting the Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Patriots advanced. The Steelers are coming off one of the best run-stopping seasons in league history. They held running offenses to 68.8 yards per game. It has become apparent that 4-3 defenses that play most of the game in the Cover 2 are becoming beatable. Quarterbacks have become so sophisticated with what they can do in the middle of the field that they carve up Cover 2 teams. The 3-4 defenses, particularly those with the confusing blitz packages used by the Jets and the Ravens, can disrupt the rhythm of quarterbacks and cause them to make mistakes. The Steelers and Jets ranked second and third defensively. The Ravens were 10th. The Patriots were young and finished 25th, allowing 366.5 yards a game.
6. What are the key matchups in the Steelers-Ravens game?
What was very clear in the Ravens' victory over Kansas City is their lack of speed at wide receiver. They have major problems against defenses that play bump-and-run man defenses. The Bengals exposed that problem early in the season, and the Chiefs frustrated Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh on Sunday. Those three receivers have more than 600 career catches each, but they lack great separation skills in man-to-man coverage. The trio combined for only seven catches against the Chiefs. The good news for the Ravens is the Steelers are a zone team. The Jets probably would give the Ravens the most trouble of the four remaining AFC teams. One player to follow is Ravens TE Todd Heap. In the Ravens' Week 13 loss to Pittsburgh, coach John Harbaugh wanted to feature Heap, but he was injured in the first quarter and didn't play the rest of the game. Against the Chiefs, Joe Flacco found Heap 10 times for 108 yards.
7. What are the key matchups in the Jets-Patriots game?
Revis Island may not be a big factor because the Patriots love to spread the ball around so much. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is a master at taking away a team's best receiver. In the Jets' 17-16 win over the Colts, Revis held Reggie Wayne to one catch for 1 yard. To stop the Patriots, you need clones. Go back to the Patriots' 45-3 victory in Week 13. Brady got seven passes to Wes Welker for 80 yards and hit Deion Branch for 64 yards on three passes. Danny Woodhead, the former Jet, had 104 yards on four catches. The Patriots run the two-tight end offense a league-high 39.4 plays a game. Finding a safety to cover Aaron Hernandez won't be easy. Hernandez had three catches for 51 yards and a TD in Week 13. Jets safety Eric Smith had a great game against the Colts on Saturday; he might have to play even better against New England.
8. Which teams have the edge at quarterback?
The Patriots and Steelers not only have home-field advantage, but they have significant advantages at quarterback. Of the AFC final four quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez is the only one who isn't elite, but he's 3-1 in playoff games. Brady and Roethlisberger, though, are tough in these situations. Brady is 14-4 in the playoffs and averages 24.1 points a game. Roethlisberger is 8-2 as a playoff quarterback and averages 26.8 points a game. They also do well against divisional rivals. Brady has completed 62.9 percent of his passes, averages 218.9 yards a game, and has 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his 18 games against the Jets. Roethlisberger completes 57.5 percent of his passes, averages 210.2 yards a game, and has 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 10 games against the Ravens.
9. Why was there so much talk about turnovers after the Ravens' victory over the Chiefs?
Everyone is picking up on the Brady theme of not throwing interceptions. After the Ravens' victory, Ravens players talked about an 85 percent win factor when a team wins the turnover battle in the playoffs. All four teams are good in that regard. The Patriots are plus-28 in turnover ratio, the Steelers are plus-17, the Ravens are plus-7 and the Jets are plus-9. Brady is the best quarterback at protecting the ball. Flacco might be second. Instead of forcing throws that could have resulted in interceptions against the Chiefs, Flacco ran seven times and gained 26 yards and didn't throw any interceptions. During a postgame news conference, he mentioned running and threw in Michael Vick's name. When asked about the Vick comparison, Flacco joked, "One guy runs a 4.3 and the other guy runs a 5.3.'' Of the four remaining AFC quarterbacks, Sanchez and Roethlisberger are more prone to committing turnovers.
10. So what should happen?
It sure looks as though there could be a Steelers-Patriots AFC title game in Foxborough. Home-field advantage will be huge. The Steelers and Patriots have elite quarterbacks and home-field advantage. But playing division rivals is tricky. These teams know each other so well that the games should be close and feisty.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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