There are a good number of positional battles to keep an eye on in this week's NFL divisional playoffs. Here are the ones that take center stage:
Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck vs. Bears' Jay Cutler: One of these quarterbacks is coming off a terrific performance, has a plus-plus arm, can make every throw, has played in the Super Bowl and has the confidence of every teammate and coach in the organization. The other is Jay Cutler. Interesting, isn't it, how one week, one turn of the prism, can change the way everything looks? There's no question Cutler reached another level in 2010. He put together a big season and showed a previously unseen ability to put his team on his back. Still, his last four games were below-average, performance-wise. The Bears went 2-2, he had as many interceptions as touchdowns and only once completed more than 52 percent of his passes. Hasselbeck, on the other hand, reminded everyone that playoff experience just flat out matters. You know of Hasselbeck's experience; this will be Cutler's first playoff start.
Bears' Julius Peppers vs. Seahawks' Russell Okung: Julius Peppers has been every bit the player and emotional leader the Bears hoped to see when they brought him in for a King's Ransom in the off-season. Except for one glaring exception. Seahawks rookie Russell Okung handled Peppers with relative ease in Seattle's 23-20 win on Oct. 17, limiting Peppers to just one tackle and zero sacks. The Bears as a team, in fact, could not muster a single sack or takeaway in that game, leading to Hasselbeck being comfortable enough to throw 40 times. With great accuracy and a keen ability to check-off to shorter pass routes, Hasselbeck could cut the Bears apart again, if Peppers cannot lead a better pass-rushing assault.
Bears' Lance Briggs vs. Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch: As much as Matt Hasselbeck was marvelous in the Seahawks' wild card upset of the defending champion Saints, he was that much better because Lynch and the Seattle running game came to life. The Bears have been prone to sloppy tackling this year -- particularly when Briggs has not been on the field. He wasn't in the lineup (ankle) in Seattle's win at Chicago. He's back, now. Lynch had one of the greatest runs in NFL playoff history last week and has the power to break through tackles, as he did on the clinching run last week. Briggs, who's made numerous big plays and tackles behind the line, is key.
Packers' James Starks vs. Falcons' Curtis Lofton: This truly is one of the great unknowns on both sides of the ball. Just how much is Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton hurting and how will it affect his game? He is the unquestioned run-stopper, even earning the nickname "The Police" (because you can't run from the police). The Falcons had the No. 10-ranked defense, but was prone to give up the big run. As for Starks, he can make the Packers attack truly wicked with his size, breakaway ability and north-south style. If Starks runs consistently runs like he did last week, the Packers must be considered NFC Super Bowl favorites. But his 123 yards in last week's win over the Eagles was more than he had the entire season. Is he for real? Is Lofton's knee going to hold up?
Packers' Aaron Rodgers vs. Falcons' Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson: The most important hidden stat in the Packers' wild card win over the Eagles was converting 62 percent of their third-downs. That points to one thing -- the quarterback having time to make plays. The Falcons like to bring pressure, but they've had mixed results. It's why their pass defense finished a pedestrian 22nd in the league. Grimes and Robinson certainly will face Greg Jennings and Donald Driver in man-on-man situations that most likely will decide the game.
Falcons' Tony Gonzalez vs. Packers' Charlie Peprah: As much as they'll try to pound the ball with Michael Turner and lean on the Matt Ryan-to-Roddy White big-play connection, the key to it all could be Tony Gonzalez. He's not the same player he once was. But, in these teams' first meeting, it was Gonzalez that exposed a big flaw in Dom Capers' defensive attack -- exploiting linebacker A.J. Hawk when he came out of the backfield and burning safety Charlie Peprah in the middle of the secondary. Don't be surprised to see Packers safety Charles Woodson try covering Gonzalez, but that could lead the Pack susceptible elsewhere.
Ravens' Todd Heap vs. Steelers' Troy Polamalu: Todd Heap literally isn't in Kansas (City) anymore. Of all the battles within the battles, there may not be a better one between difference-making, tough, clutch performers than this one. Heap had a Ravens' record-setting day last week with 10-catches and 108-yards, keying the road victory. Polamalu excels at over-the-middle coverage and playmaking. Both players have fought through injuries, with Heap missing the majority of a 13-10 loss to Pittsburgh earlier this year after pulling a hamstring on the game's first play.
Ravens' Josh Wilson vs. Steelers' Mike Wallace: Ray Lewis may be the heartbeat and Ed Reed the headline-grabber, but over and over again when watching Ravens games, No. 37 always seems to show up on the screen making a play. Wilson has been a mostly unheralded cornerback. Don't expect that much longer, especially if he shuts down Wallace, who had a terrific year, the way he did Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe last week. Chris Carr may get the assignment on Wallace occasionally, but Wilson's speed likely will keep him on Wallace most of the game. Altogether, the Ravens have eight interceptions in their last three games, in large part because of Wilson's cover skills.
Ravens' Ray Rice vs. Steelers' rush defense: Almost everything the Ravens manage offensively will depend on the success Rice and, to a lesser degree, Willis McGahee have against one of the greatest rush defenses in the history of football. The good news is Rice is the only running back in the last 50 games to rush for more than 100 yards against the Steelers. The bad news is that was more than a year ago, and 49 other times the Steelers have put up a brick wall, including the last meeting when Rice gained just 32 yards. The Steelers have allowed fewer than 60 yards rushing to opposing TEAMS seven times.
The Roar vs. The Bore: Yup, Roar vs. Bore is taken directly from the clever headline-writing of the New York Post. But as much as coaches do not take the field, the less-is-more philosophy of Patriots coach Bill Belichick has served him quite well. The same is true for the brash ways of Jets coach Rex Ryan. This HAS become about the coaches. Rest assured, Belichick and Ryan are using the "it's personal" strategy Ryan employed to the fullest extent. In entirely different ways, Ryan and Belichick use their styles and approaches to get the most from their players. Keep an eye open for this, too: If either coach gets a chance to rub it in, they will.
Jets' Wayne Hunter vs. Patriots' Gerard Warren: The Pats' end has been an integral part to the Patriots' success this year, stepping in on a one-year contract and making plays against the run and rushing the passer. With Ty Warren out for the year and Myron Pryor missing practice this week, Warren could be huge. Making it more crucial is Jets starting right tackle Damien Woody was put on IR on Wednesday with an Achilles injury. Backup Wayne Hunter must step in. If the Jets don't get the running game going, pass protection against Warren and perhaps Pryor gets that much tougher.
Jets' Antonio Cromartie vs. Patriots' Tom Brady: The last thing you want to do is poke the bear -- or in this case, the best quarterback in the NFL. But the Jets' style isn't exactly understated and Cromartie challenged Brady to a throwdown this week by calling him an "a--hole" and daring him to throw his way. Oh, he will, Antonio. He will. Brady didn't take the bait, saying Wednesday, "maybe (Cromartie) really likes me." But especially with Darelle Revis on the other side of the field, here comes a big, heaping dose of Brady. Can Cromartie handle it?
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