Lawrence: NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Redux

By Amy Lawrence

The word “rematch” incites a variety of responses in the sports world. A rematch is the opportunity to renew rivalries, extend dominance, secure bragging rights, buck the trends, gauge progress, exact revenge, measure up, find redemption, exorcise old demons, boost confidence, defend the flag or overthrow the evil empire. In the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, rematches also pave the way to championship weekend. For the first time in six years, all four games in the second round pit teams that met earlier in the year.

None of the regular season battles occurred later than Week 6. Safe to say about a million and one things have changed since the Patriots shut out the Texans, the Seahawks grounded the Falcons, the Steelers thumped the Chiefs and the Cowboys tamed the Packers. It’s hard to know what to expect when we’re peering through a lens clouded by several months of personnel changes, injuries, momentum swings, win streaks and losing skids for each. None of the eight teams still standing are the same as they were in September and October — which makes the divisional round even juicier.

Without a doubt, the biggest difference between then and NOW is in New England where Tom Brady just wrapped up an MVP-like season. He wasn’t under center when the Patriots hosted the Texans to kick off Week 3 on a Thursday night. Rookie Jacoby Brissett started in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo who started the year in place of the suspended Brady. The Pats only managed 282 yards against Houston and relied heavily on running back LeGarrette Blount for two of his league-high 18 touchdowns. That game was also the last we saw of reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in uniform. It’s easy to believe we’ll see more production from the New England offense, even against a stingy Texans D powered by Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. But what about Brock Osweiler in his second go-around as quarterback? He needs to take care of the football, and Houston can’t afford three turnovers like their previous folly in Foxborough.

Pittsburgh’s Week 4 blowout of the Chiefs at Heinz Field was as stunning a result as any in the opening month of the season. The Steelers took out all their frustrations on Kansas City days after they were embarrassed by Philadelphia. They scored three touchdowns in the first quarter and blanked the Chiefs until garbage time. Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension to jumpstart the ground game.The Chiefs did everything wrong that day. They got manhandled in the trenches and weren’t prepared for the Steelers’ aggressive play-calling. But they haven’t allowed more than 28 points in any game since. Second-year cornerback Marcus Peters is much improved in pass coverage, and star linebacker Justin Houston is expected back. Plus the Chiefs earned the AFC West crown by saving two of their best offensive performances for last. Rookie Tyreek Hill is far more involved and serves as an explosive force whether he’s catching, rushing or returning. Arrowhead Stadium is primed and ready for its first playoff action in six years, and the home team will need every ounce of energy and intensity from the crowd to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game win streak.

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The Seahawks invade the Georgia Dome for the divisional round instead of getting the high-flying Falcons on their own turf like they did in Week 6. Location may be the primary difference in the rematch. Not only will Seattle be without the 12s on the road, but they’re also without Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to anchor the defense this time around. And the Seahawks hope to rely more heavily on the run. After a season’s worth of shaky offensive line play, that unit played its best game all year against the Lions Saturday night. Thomas Rawls (injured in mid-October) set a new franchise postseason rushing record with 161 yards, and Russell Wilson had time to be patient in the pocket. The Atlanta offense shows no signs of slowing down, though, and Matt Ryan boosted his MVP campaign with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four straight victories to earn the bye. Even more critical is the rejuvenated pass rush with NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley.

When the Cowboys forced a season-high FOUR turnovers by the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 6, we were still on a mission of discovery with Dak Prescott. The rookie quarterback guided an impressive fourth quarter scoring drive and tossed a trio of TD passes. He also faced a Green Bay secondary that featured several rookies. While the focus has remained squarely on Aaron Rodgers during the Packers’ seven-game win streak, the defense is a major key to their turnaround. Clay Matthews is healthy, and the D is thriving on sacks and takeaways. As for the Cowboys, the defense should get a boost from healthy reinforcements like cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive lineman Demarcus Lawrence among others. Dallas will get its first taste of rushing tandem Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael but might avoid wide receiver Jordy Nelson who suffered a pair of broken ribs last Sunday. Of course, the Cowboys want to keep the red-hot Rodgers off the field by putting the ball in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott and extending their own drives.

As quickly as the world turns in the NFL, we can’t expect the four divisional rematches to resemble the initial battles in the fall. But we CAN hope for rematches that offer the same drama, entertainment and jaw-dropping finishes as the college football national championship: a rematch turned instant classic that required every last second to crown Clemson king. Like the Tigers against the Tide, the NFL’s divisional round offers the chance for redemption and revenge. More importantly, the winners get to play on.

A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @ALawRadio.

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