- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and Goal" column (in the regular season, it was called "First and 10") takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for other games. Here's his look at the divisional playoffs.
Has Bill Belichick brought the Patriots back to a Super Bowl-level during the second half of the season?
Saturday's rematch against the Broncos will answer that question definitively. If the Patriots are the same team that lost 28-20 to the Broncos on Oct. 16, their season will be over. That Week 6 loss dropped the Patriots' record to 3-3.
In that game, the Patriots looked like a team that was running on empty. Defensive end Richard Seymour hadn't recovered from his knee injury suffered while playing fullback and didn't play. Tedy Bruschi was working behind the scenes trying to make his incredible comeback from a stroke. The secondary continued to struggle with injuries and bad play. Duane Starks was getting torched because he was playing with injuries and eventually ended up going on injured reserve.
In many ways, the Patriots hit rock bottom during that game. The Broncos took advantage of the Patriots' holes and jumped out to a 28-3 lead early in the third quarter.
But one important thing happened for the Patriots in that game. Mike Vrabel was asked to fill the void at inside linebacker, a position he had played only once during his long NFL career. Vrabel admitted after the game that he struggled in his new assignment. An outside linebacker by trade, Vrabel had to adjust to the different angles from which running backs were coming at him.
Belichick had no other choice. He was giving up on Chad Brown as an inside linebacker. Monty Beisel was banged up. From the Broncos game, though, Belichick learned he could go to Vrabel as an inside linebacker, and he's responded with one of his best seasons, leading the Patriots in tackles with 104. Vrabel and Bruschi, who returned in Week 8, ended up being the inside linebackers during a second half of the season in which the Patriots gave up an NFL-low 68.6 yards per game rushing (after giving up 128.8 per game in their first eight games).
It's hard to say how much better the Patriots would have been if they had a healthier defense the first time these teams faced off. But it's safe to say they couldn't have been much worse. After the Broncos jumped out to that 28-3 lead, they coasted to victory (despite the final score). Tatum Bell gashed the Patriots for long runs, including a 68-yard touchdown. WRs Ashley Lelie and Rod Smith beat the cornerbacks covering them for long pass plays.
If anything, the Broncos, who improved to 5-1 with the win, learned that they were a pretty good football team. Shanahan clearly defined his team's ability to attack on offense in that game against the Patriots. Shanahan probes the defense's ability to stop the run with the inside runs of Mike Anderson and the explosive speed of Bell. The Patriots couldn't contain Bell, who broke long runs and ended up with 114 yards on 13 carries. Jake Plummer was able to scramble outside the pocket and get the ball downfield.
Except for improvement in the run defense during the second half of the season, the Patriots still have some of the same problems that plagued them heading into the first Broncos game. RB Corey Dillon remains as much of a question mark as he was in October. Dillon didn't play in the Broncos game, and it's hard to figure what he'll do Saturday. His calf injury is clearly still bothering him. Belichick used Kevin Faulk (51 yards on six carries) more in the wild-card victory over the Jaguars and could be forced to do the same against the Broncos.
Having Faulk is an important plus for the Patriots. He also missed the Week 6 game against the Broncos as he recovered from a broken leg. If the Patriots don't have the consistent inside running they expect when Dillon is healthy, Tom Brady knows he has a more complete passing attack with Faulk, who is effective as a pass catcher and a runner on draw plays.
The Patriots' secondary heading into this game is still thin. CB Asante Samuel can still be beaten for touchdown passes. Belichick has had to use converted cornerbacks at safety. Rookie Ellis Hobbs, who has played well since entering the starting lineup, is at the other corner.
Belichick has done miracles in getting the Patriots into the AFC's final four. Saturday's game will be the test to see if they are good enough to challenge for their fourth Super Bowl ring. They're healthier now, but the Broncos will be a big test.
• Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
During the Bears' 13-3 victory over the Panthers in Week 11, the Panthers taught the NFL how not to play Chicago in Soldier Field. The Panthers handed the Bears a 10-0 first-quarter lead by throwing two interceptions on their first three possessions.
When will NFL teams learn? The Bears scored only 260 points this season (16.3 per game). The Bears had only four games in which they scored more than 20 points. But thanks to their great defense, the Bears still won 11 games. They forced 34 turnovers this season and turned them into 105 points. More than 40 percent of their points came off turnovers. In other words, they need turnovers to score points.
So why would any opposing team be overly aggressive at the beginning of a game and come out passing? It's almost better to have three-and-outs and fight for field position rather than coming out throwing on third-and-long and trying to jump out to a lead. The Panthers can't spot the Bears 10 points early and expect to win. This game figures to be low-scoring, so the Panthers need to get the game into the fourth quarter leading, or trailing by no more than three points. If the Bears can play with confidence and the lead, they will be hard to beat.
Still, the Bears will be facing a better Panthers team than they faced Nov. 20. It took 17 weeks, but coach John Fox finally may have found the right way to get a consistent running game. He went to more cut-back runs in the past two games, and DeShaun Foster has 316 yards rushing over the span, including 151 yards Sunday against the Giants. The Panthers, who had only 16 runs in the Week 11 loss to the Bears, won't be able to win unless they can rush the ball 30 times. Foster doesn't have to get 100 yards rushing for them to win. He just needs the carries and the Panthers need to control the ball.
By keeping the game close early, the Panthers might be able to take advantage of their experience advantage at quarterback. Jake Delhomme is now an experienced playoff quarterback with a 4-1 postseason record. Rex Grossman has played in only eight career games, including just seven career starts. He's thrown only 39 passes this season after returning from a broken ankle in Week 15. The strategy for the Panthers is to keep the game close and hope that Grossman fouls up. The Panthers are a seasoned playoff team. Their defense is getting good pressure on the quarterback, and the balanced running attack is the model for what you need during the playoffs.
Foster's toe injury has to be a concern. If he doesn't have initial explosion at the line of scrimmage, it will be hard for him to beat the Bears' defense, which is noted for its speed. The Bears have the corners who can contain WR Steve Smith.
The Bears proved in the first meeting against the Panthers that they are for real. They went 4-0 against the tough NFC South. But they're facing an improved Carolina team this time around.
• Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
The Seahawks and Redskins are much different teams than the two that met in Week 4. Though the Redskins squeaked out a 20-17 overtime victory, the Seahawks had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Josh Brown's 47-yard field-goal attempt hit the upright and didn't go through.
Following that game, the Seahawks reeled off 11 straight wins, actually becoming better on offense without No. 1 receiver Darrell Jackson, who was injured against the Redskins and didn't play again until Week 15. The Seahawks made do with Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius and D.J. Hackett until Jackson returned.
Now, the Seahawks are a deeper, more confident team on offense. They finished second in the NFL with an average of 369.7 yards a game. They averaged 28.3 points. Matt Hasselbeck was clearly the best quarterback in the NFC, and his ability to run the West Coast offense and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage have made him one of the conference's least-appreciated stars.
Where the Seahawks hold the significant edge is the health of their offensive stars. Hasselbeck is well rested and feeling great. RB Shaun Alexander seems fresh, even though he had a league-high 370 carries. One of the reason's he's so resilient is because he has a unique way of twisting his body and avoiding hard hits.
The Redskins are banged up coming into Saturday's game, and that could be the factor that gives the Seahawks a big advantage. DE Renaldo Wynn was lost last weekend to a broken arm. QB Mark Brunell can't move as well with his knee sprain. Since hurting his knee, he's become a 40 percent thrower the past two weeks. He's less accurate because he can't plant as easily and throw the ball. He can still move away from pressure, but it's hard.
RB Clinton Portis has a banged-up shoulder. He's had to come out of the past two games, and he missed a good portion of Saturday's Tampa Bay game, carrying the ball just 16 times for 53 yards. Portis grows more physical each season. He seems to be as excited knocking down a blitzing linebacker as he is breaking a long run. But the hits are taking a toll. Even though Alexander has more carries than Portis, Alexander is much fresher. If the Seahawks control the time of possession, it will be hard for the Redskins to stay in the game.
The Redskins' defense has carried them through the playoffs, and it will have to do it again. The Seahawks will be testing their former teammate, CB Shawn Springs, who will be coming off a groin injury. Springs has been exceptional since coming to the Redskins two years ago.
Big, physical teams have given the Seahawks problems. The Redskins are big and physical on offense and they hit hard on defense. But are they healthy enough and can they score? The Redskins will need more than 20 points if they hope to beat the Seahawks on the road.
• Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
There is a good likelihood the Colts-Steelers game could end up looking a lot like the Colts' 26-7 win on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12. The key for the Colts is jumping out to a lead.
But that probably won't be as easy as it was in the first game. The Colts can't count on catching Steelers CB Ike Taylor napping on the first play for an 80-yard touchdown pass. Thanks to that opening play and a field-goal drive, the Colts had a 10-0 lead before the Steelers' defense could settle into a rhythm to frustrate the Colts with its nickel defense.
Coach Dick LeBeau's nickel defense is a challenge for Peyton Manning and the Colts. The nickel features two linebackers who rush from the ends and two defensive linemen who line up at tackle. That gives LeBeau seven defenders, mostly defensive backs, to mix into coverage or to blitz from any different area.
The problem facing LeBeau is what the Bengals did to the Steelers' nickel package. In Cincinnati's 38-31 victory over the Steelers on Dec. 4, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski found the best way to frustrate the Steelers' nickel package. He'd line up three receivers to force them into nickel. If the two defensive tackles were Aaron Smith, an end in the 3-4, and Kimo von Oelhoffen, Bratkowski would run the ball with Rudi Johnson because nose tackle Casey Hampton wasn't in the lineup.
That strategy forced the Steelers to go back to some 3-4 alignments, with Hampton in the game to stop Johnson. But when the Steelers went back to that alignment, the Bengals had Carson Palmer try to find the best matchup of a receiver against a Steelers linebacker. That game of chess went on the entire afternoon.
Manning will try to do the same, and he'll have the tapes from the Steelers-Bengals games to try to figure out how to beat LeBeau's complicated schemes. The best guess is that the Colts will stay with the strategy of using TE Dallas Clark as the third receiver instead of Brandon Stokley.
Expect Manning to put Clark in the slot. By doing that, it forces LeBeau to make a decision about where to play S Troy Polamalu. If Polamalu has to cover Clark man-to-man, it could remove Polamalu from the middle of the field, where he is the most effective. Because he lines up everywhere, Polamalu is a threat as an extra run defender or a blitzer or a safety who can help in double coverage.
If Hampton is out of the game, Manning will be content handing the ball off to Edgerrin James with one of the Steelers' best run defenders on the sidelines.
Offensively, the Steelers will be better than the last time they saw the Colts because Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and improving. He's more relaxed now. He showed that in the victory over the Bengals. He won't take the chances he might have in past games. But he might not have the luxury of being patient in this game.
The Colts probably will contain Steelers RB Willie Parker, who had only 43 yards in the first game. The Colts have the quickness on defense to contain Parker. If the Colts jump to a lead, it will take the Steelers out of their running game and force Roethlisberger to throw.
The Colts force opponents to make every possession count. If opponents go a number of possessions without putting points on the board, they usually fall 10 points behind because the Colts move the ball, control the clock and get field goals or touchdowns. The Steelers' defense is good enough to hold the Colts to a few more field goals than touchdowns, but Manning eventually finds the end zone.
With the crowd-noise problems that will plague Roethlisberger and the Steelers, it will be tough for them to put up enough points to pull out this victory.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
John Clayton breaks down the divisional playoffs, in which all four games will be rematches from the regular season.