Rematches are common in wild-card games
The opponents in the four wild-card contests this weekend have already met six times this season.
This is as incestuous as an opening playoff round can be, with all four of the wild-card contests on Saturday and Sunday featuring combatants who faced each other at least once during the 2004 regular season.
But lest anyone conclude that the intimacy inherent to the first act of this year's Super Bowl derby might make for a weekend of mundane matchups, think again. Familiarity can, of course, lead to contempt. It can also translate, in terms of preparing for the wild-card round, into uncharacteristic convenience.
"Really, it might be a little bit easier, because you know the other guys so well, and there isn't a lot they can do to change all that (dramatically)," allowed Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who on Sunday will face the Green Bay Packers defense for the third time in the past eight weeks. "It isn't like a (divisional) round game, where there is a bye involved, and you can be more ambitious. You know them and they know you. It might be a bit unusual for the playoffs, but you pretty much just line up and do the things that you do, and see who makes the most plays."
In part because of the infamous fourth-and-26 conversion by the Philadelphia Eagles in last year's divisional-round victory, Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman dismissed defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and replaced him with Bob Slowik.
The result: The Packers, who statistically ranked No. 17 in total defense a year ago, fell to 25th in 2004.
For the most part, though, the wild card teams playing this weekend who changed their defensive coordinators for the 2004 season benefited from the switches. There is no overriding common denominator among the eight teams that will compete in the first round of the playoffs, but the defensive coordinator alterations are the closest thing to a trend among the wild card qualifiers.
Five of the eight teams in the first round had new coordinators in 2004, and some of them promulgated dramatic improvements.
The New York Jets, for instance, went from No. 21 in total defense in 2003 to seventh this season under Donnie Henderson, the former Baltimore Ravens secondary coach who was in his first-ever year as a coordinator. The San Diego Chargers rose nine spots, from 27th to 18th, under veteran coordinator Wade Phillips, who installed a 3-4 alignment that worked magnificently.
"He's a fiery, aggressive guy and that rubs off on us," said Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis of Henderson, who loves to attack the line of scrimmage. "You want coaches who will let you play, who will take the leash off and let you run, put you in position to make plays. He's done that this year and it's been a lot of fun."
-- Len Pasquarelli
The weekend's four games will bring to 60 the number of wild-card contests played since the NFL adopted the current 12-team playoff format in 1990. It will also raise to 39, or a surprising 65 percent, the number of wild-card games contested by clubs that faced each other at least once during the regular season.
Only once under the current system, in 1996, were there no wild-card matchups featuring franchises that had squared off in the regular season. In every other season, there were at least two games between familiar foes. The 1992 and 1994 playoffs, like this season, had four first-round games in which all the teams had met earlier.
The results of the "familiar foe" wild-card rounds have been decidedly mixed:
• There have been 17 wild-card games in which the teams were divisional opponents who faced each other twice during the season. In nine of those cases, the franchises split the regular-season series. Eight times, one team had swept the season series, and five of those teams went on to win the third matchup, pretty much debunking the popular notion that it is next to impossible to defeat a team three times in the same season. Pittsburgh, which defeated Cleveland three times in 2002, is the last team to compete the trifecta.
• The wild-card round has featured 18 contests in which teams played once in the regular season. The club that captured the regular-season matchup also prevailed in the wild-card game 10 times.
• There are eight instances in which teams that faced each other in the final regular-season game played one week later in the wild-card round. The results are a split, with the club that won the regular-season game also taking the wild-card contest four times. The most recent examples of such back-to-back games were in 2001, when the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets faced off twice in two weeks. The Eagles won both games. New York defeated Oakland in the season finale but lost to the Raiders in the playoffs.
The last category is pertinent, of course, to the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts, who will play at the RCA Dome on Sunday just one week after having faced off in the regular-season finale at Invesco Field. The Broncos defeated the Colts last weekend in a game in which Peyton Manning worked only three snaps and then retired to the sideline to don a headset and tote a clipboard around.
"But so what?" said Broncos standout middle linebacker Al Wilson. "We know all about Peyton Manning. We know that they are going to run that 'stretch' (off-tackle) play with Edgerrin (James). That they'll go no-huddle and try to raise the tempo. None of that stuff is going to be new to us, you know?"
Indeed, the Sunday game will mark the fourth time in less than 13 months that the Colts and Broncos will face off. In addition to this year's two games, the teams played twice in a short span last season. Denver thrashed the Colts, 31-17, in a regular-season game on Dec. 21, 2003. Two weeks later, the Colts won 41-10, with Manning registering a perfect quarterback rating in that contest.
|“||You're going to be all cranked up anyway, definitely, but playing a team that's in your division, that will get the juices going even more. I mean, here's a team that, by nature, you don't like that much anyway. The last thing you want is for them to knock you out (of the playoffs).”|
|—Seahawks DE Chike Okeafor|
What is unusual about this year's wild-card round is that it will mark just the second time since 1990 that two teams can complete a three-game sweep. In 1997, New England (over Miami) and Green Bay (over Tampa Bay) defeated division rivals twice during the regular season and then in the wild-card matchup. This year, St. Louis and the Packers will have to win a third time against a divisional foe to advance to the second round. The Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks twice and the Green Bay topped Minnesota twice, both times by 34-31 scores, in the regular season.
It isn't likely, even given the fertile minds of the coaching staffs involved in the two NFC wild-card games, that there will be many new wrinkles. And it certainly doesn't matter all that much that the Vikings and Seahawks are stumbling into the playoffs like punch-drunk boxers who took a few too many right uppercuts to the jaw.
If anything, in fact, some of the players in the wild-card round have suggested that the familiarity angle will actually enhance the passion this weekend.
"You're going to be all cranked up anyway, definitely, but playing a team that's in your division, that will get the juices going even more," said Seahawks defensive end Chike Okeafor. "I mean, here's a team that, by nature, you don't like that much anyway. The last thing you want is for them to knock you out (of the playoffs)."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .