By Mark Sandritter
Cold, Hard Football Facts welcome committee
The NFL filter that seperates pretenders from contenders is working quite well. The eight teams remaining in the playoffs boasted the eight best records in football this year.
So some may say they're the best of the best. The teams themselves may just say ...
Hello ... again.
Each of the four divisional battles is a re-match of sorts with all of the teams meeting for at least the third time in as many years. Jacksonville-New England met in the 2005 playoffs and at the end of last season. Seattle-Green Bay, New York-Dallas and San Diego-Indianapolis will take their frequent regular-season battles to the next level.
The Giants and Cowboys meet in the postseason for the first time in history. It's a remarkable first, considering the two marquee organizations have combined for 81 playoff games since the Cowboys joined the NFL in 1960. The Chargers and Colts meet in the postseason for just the second time, and first since Jim Harbaugh's Colts bested Stan Humphries' Chargers in 1995. The Seahawks and Packers battled in a famous overtime playoff game, but that was back in 2003.
Before we can look ahead to this weekend's slate of action we decided to take a look back at the recent history of each familiar battle.
Jacksonville at New England
Last three years:
New England 28, Jacksonville 3 (2005 wildcard)
New England 24, Jacksonville 21 (2006 regular season)
Vs. 2007 common opponents: Jacksonville, 4-2 (152 PF - 139 PA); New England, 5-0 (190-64)
Recent history says: Jags couldn't even keep pace with the Branch & Caldwell Patriots.
In 2005, Jacksonville traveled to Foxboro for the wildcard playoffs. Three hours later the 12-4 Jaguars left bruised, battered and outclassed, victims of a 28-3 beat down at the hands of New England. And to think, that Patriots team was 10-6 during the regular season.
Last year the Jaguars played the Patriots to the wire, losing narrowly 24-21 in Jacksonville. That game featured a heavy dose of the human bowling ball of running backs, Maurice Jones-Drew, who totaled 200 yards from scrimmage on just 23 touches and accounted for all three Jaguars touchdowns. We also got a preview of things to come from David Garrard: he completed 17 of 23 passes for 195 yards, 1 TD and 0 picks that day, a performance looks quite familiar to anyone who followed Jacksonville here in 2007.
If the Jaguars have a chance this time around they'll need the best they can get from Garrard, along with a huge effort from their two-headed running attack: newly minted Pro Bowl selection Fred Taylor (5.4 YPA) and Jones-Drew (4.6 YPA), who combined for 1,970 yards on the ground this season.
On the Patriots side, don't be surprised if tight end Ben Watson has a big game. In these last two games against Jacksonville, Patriots tight ends have totaled 13 catches for 218 yards and 3 TD.
Then again, those Patriots teams didn't have many other options. Their leading receiver in 2005 was Deion Branch. In 2006 it was Reche Caldwell. Those two, now with Seattle and Washington, respectively, combined for 1 reception and 7 yards last week in the Redskins-Seahawks wildcard contest.
So let's just say that, while this is a rematch, Jacksonville might find that the New England attack does not look very familiar.
N.Y. Giants at Dallas
Last three years:
Dallas 16, N.Y. Giants 13 (2005)
N.Y. Giants 17, Dallas 10 (2005)
N.Y. Giants, 36, Dallas 22 (2006)
Dallas 23, N.Y. Giants 20 (2006)
Dallas 45, N.Y. Giants, 35 (2007)
Dallas 31, N.Y. Giants 20 (2007)
Vs. 2007 common opponents: Dallas, 9-3 (324-250); N.Y. Giants, 8-4 (254-250)
Recent history says: Expect a big game from Eli and a bigger game from T.O.
The Giants have established themselves as the NFL's true road warriors. Including their wildcard win at Tampa Bay, New York is 8-1 when they leave the swamps of Jersey. Now they travel to Dallas, the site of their only road loss, to face the top-seeded Cowboys.
The ups and downs of Eli Manning's career have been well documented. But he has, for the most part, played well against the Cowboys, especially in Dallas. For his career Manning has a poor passer rating of 73.9. That number spikes up into mediocrity against the Cowboys at 81.9. Manning does even better at Texas Stadium, almost resembling the first-round pick he once was, with a passer rating of 87.9.
While Eli plays well against the Cowboys on the road, Terrell Owens plays well against the Giants regardless of the location or the uniform he happens to be wearing.
Owens has faced the G-men nine times in his career, while playing for the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys. He has put in a pretty solid season's worth of work in those nine games:
  • 53 receptions, 881 yards, 16.6 YPC, 11 TD
Those numbers include his nine catches for 177 yards and two scores against New York in the playoffs (a 2002 wildcard meeting when Owens was with San Francisco).
More importantly, those performances have translated into victories. T.O.'s teams are 8-1 against the Giants.
San Diego at Indianapolis
Last three years:
San Diego 26, Indy 17 (2005)
San Diego 23, Indy 21 (2007)
Vs. 2007 Common Opponents: Indy, 9-2 (293-195); San Diego, 9-3 (300-186)
Recent history says: Don't expect the big stars to shine.
No team in the NFL celebrates individual accomplishments with more electricity than the Chargers. If their wildcard win over Tennessee is any indication, even quarterback hurries now deserve their own dance from a team with little else to celebrate outside the regular season.
At the same time, no team outside of New England has had more success against the defending-champion Colts in recent years than the Chargers. This success includes victories in two very memorable games over the past three years.
San Diego ended Indy's quest for a perfect season in 2005, with a 26-17 win over the 13-0 Colts at the RCA Dome. San Diego also handed the Colts one of their three losses here in 2007, with a bizarre 23-21 home victory at a time when the Chargers were a struggling 4-4 team trying to find some direction to their season.
One of the big reasons for San Diego's previous success has been the struggles of Peyton Manning (San Diego, like New England, employs the 3-4 defense that has shown an ability, at least at times, to force Manning into poor performances). In his last two games against the Chargers, Manning has thrown 3 TD and 8 INT, including a career high six picks in the game earlier this season.
His combined performance in those two games looks very Ryan Leaf-esque:
  • 60 for 101 (59.4%), 664 yards, 6.6 YPA, 3 TD, 8 INT, 55.9 passer rating
The numbers tell us the Colts were simply passing the ball far too often, an average of more than 50 attempts in those two games, with just 38 points to show for it. A little more Joseph Addai and a little less Manning might be the answer for the Colts.
But as surprising as Manning's struggles have been, San Diego's big offensive stars, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, have also fizzled against the Colts.
LT has rushed a combined 45 times for 152 yards (3.4 YPA) in those two games (an even 76 yards in each game), while adding another 30 yards on eight catches. His longest play went for just 16 yards. That's 53 touches for 182 yards and 3.4 YPA for the future Hall of Famer and 2006 NFL MVP.
Gates – who might not even play Sunday – was even worse. He's caught 9 passes for 55 yards, with his longest reception for just 14 yards. The two stars have combined for a single TD in those two games.
Seattle at Green Bay
Last three years:
Green Bay 23, Seattle 17 (2005)
Seattle 34, Green Bay 24 (2006)
Vs. 2007 common opponents: Green Bay, 4-2 (124-120); Seattle, 5-1 (160-99)
Recent history says: The gunslinger needs to check his holster at the door before the family reunion.
Green Bay and Seattle are incredibly familiar with each other for teams that play in different divisions. Mike Holmgren, of course, won a Super Bowl coaching the Packers and even has a street named after him (Holmgren Way) outside Lambeau Field.
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was originally drafted by the Packers, while Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson was hired away from the Seahawks.
Brett Favre, meanwhile, developed into a three-time MVP under Holmgren. But the coach certainly feasted on the gunslinger Favre of the past few years. Favre threw just a single TD in each of those two games, against four picks. His combined performance has looked like this:
  • 43 for 73 (58.9%), 525 yards, 7.2 YPA, 2 TD, 4 INT, 67.4 passer rating
Of course, the 2007 version of Favre has been much more productive than the 2005 and 2006 versions, playing ball much like he did back in his MVP glory days under Holmgren.
On the other sideline, Shaun Alexander has gone from fan favorite to common target of the boo birds. He has struggled to regain his MVP form of 2005, but the Packers may be just what he needs.
In their 2005 season finale at Green Bay, Alexander set the then single-season record with his 28th TD. He didn't reach the end zone in the 2006 meeting with the Packers, but Alexander did rush for 201 yards on 40 attempts, the last time he eclipsed 5.0 YPA.