- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The wild card of the first round of the playoffs is how familiar all of these teams are with their opponents' game plans. The Seahawks and Rams and the Vikings and Packers are meeting for the third time this year. And St. Louis beat Seattle for the third time this year, this time emerging with a 27-20 victory Saturday to advance.
Division rivals usually have easier times preparing for each other because they know the personnel and tendencies so well. What makes this even easier is that both teams have been at the top of their divisions for two years, so surprises in strategy should be minimized. They know each other too well.
The situation is a little different in the AFC but not by much. The Broncos played the Colts last week and won 33-14. Of course, the Colts showed nothing. They rested starters and used a basic game plan, while the Broncos had to use whatever they could to win. As far as the game plans for both teams go, there isn't much to update. They'll follow the same preparation as the previous week.
Little has changed since Sunday.
The only game that figures to be very different from the first time around involves the Jets and Chargers. The two teams met in Week 2 and the Jets won, 34-28. At that time, the Chargers were just figuring out what kind of team they had. They had installed the 3-4 defense. They were going into the season still wondering when Philip Rivers was going to take over for Drew Brees.
The Jets were figuring out how to adjust to the aggressive coaching of new defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson.
The matchups are all different, but the familiarity between the teams sets up for an interesting first weekend of the playoffs.
New York Jets at San Diego Chargers, Saturday, 8 ET, ABC: The Jets' 34-28 victory over the Chargers in Week 2 didn't really make anyone blink at the time. Sure, the Chargers played hard and surprised the Jets with their offense, but no one figured San Diego would be a division winner. The Jets were also getting started on an impressive 5-0 start that helped carry them to a 10-win season.
Of the two teams, the Jets are struggling heading into the postseason. They appear to be pressing on offense. Chad Pennington is taking a lot of criticism for his lack of arm strength. Never a strong-armed quarterback, Pennington has been struggling since coming back from a rotator cuff injury, with a lot of his throws sailing too high. High throws are fine if the ball is going to a taller receiver such as Justin McCareins. But it's a problem when the ball goes to smaller receivers such as Santana Moss and Wayne Chrebet, who suffered a concussion last Sunday against the Rams.
Pennington will be fine eventually, but the offense won't if he doesn't get better in the red zone. The Jets are settling for too many field goals. The Jets scored only two TDs total in three of their last four games (excluding Week 15 against the Seahawks). Coach Herman Edwards knows that doesn't work in the playoffs, and there is a good likelihood offensive coordinator Paul Hackett could lose his job because of the problems.
What's amazing is that Curtis Martin led the NFL with 1,697 yards rushing, and the Jets don't take advantage of play-action passing.
That's not the case in San Diego. The Chargers work the play-action well off the running of LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 1,335 yards, but should be more effective during the playoffs because he's fully recovered from a groin injury. The Chargers are fresh and confident. They beat the Chiefs and their powerful offense by seven points Sunday, even though they rested five of their most important players -- Brees, Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell, Antonio Gates and Jamal Williams. All will play major roles in this game.
The tough part for the Jets is coming across country and trying to win on the road. The Chargers have a solid 3-4 defense that will try to pressure Pennington with blitzes by Steve Foley, and they have an offense that can put up a lot of points.
Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 ET, CBS: The Broncos learned nothing from their 33-14 victory over Indy last Sunday in Mile High because the Colts barely played most of their starters. Now, the healthy Colts will throw the playbook at them.
The challenge for the Broncos is getting enough pressure on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. The Broncos are primarily a zone-blitzing team, but they traded for cornerback Champ Bailey to give them the ability to match up against an opponent's best receiver during the playoffs. The problem for Bailey and the Broncos is the Colts have three 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown-plus receivers -- Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. Who does he cover?
There is an outside chance the Colts could also have tight end Marcus Pollard healthy for this game. Pollard has been sidelined with a knee injury. His return could be important because fellow tight end Dallas Clark suffered a minor concussion on a hit by Broncos safety John Lynch that cost Lynch $75,000.
The Broncos offensive line will be challenged to contain the pass rush of Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who combined for 26½ sacks and are very tough to block on the RCA Dome turf.
This will be a big game for Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who threw 27 touchdown passes and is excellent throwing on the run. The Colts will try to contain him in the pocket. Containing him in the pocket makes him less effective as a thrower. He's thrown 20 interceptions this year, and the Colts are opportunistic in grabbing the ball. They've forced 17 fumbles and intercepted 19 passes.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 4:30 ET, FOX: The teams met twice in the regular season, with the Packers winning both games by identical scores (34-31). So it makes you wonder why the Vikings are six-point underdogs for this game. What's changed? Why shouldn't this be game be decided by another Ryan Longwell field goal? Longwell had game-winning 33- and 29-yard field goals, respectively, as time expired to decide the first two games.
This should be the same type of game -- high-scoring and close. And based on recent history, signs point to another Green Bay victory. The Vikings have lost their last three games to the Packers and five of their last six away from home. But this is Minnesota's main rival, and though the teams have met 88 times, they have never met in the playoffs. You can believe that coach Mike Tice will be stressing to the Vikings that the Packers don't have a major home-field advantage. The Vikings beat them in Lambeau in the season opener last season, and Green Bay went 4-4 at home this season.
What will be interesting to see is if the Vikings try to run the ball. They've gotten away from the run since losing tight end Jim Kleinsasser and right tackle Mike Rosenthal to season-ending injuries. Even though they have the deepest backfield in the league with four quality running backs, they run the ball only 39 percent of the time. Vikings backs are only getting 24 carries a game.
Given the Packers' trouble on the defensive line, Minnesota might want to emphasize the run. It turns out that defensive tackle Grady Jackson is going to need knee surgery after the season. His presence as a run-stopper is vital to the Packers. With Jackson, the Packers are actually decent stopping the run. He's better than Gilbert Brown, because he's more than just a run-stopper. That's also important since the Packers are having trouble with Cletidus Hunt, who was benched last week because coach Mike Sherman hasn't been happy with his play.
This game should go down to the last few plays because of the great quarterback play of Favre and Daunte Culpepper.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dEric D. Williams
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