Every once in a while, we're reminded that maybe the NFL schedule makers really do know what they're doing after all. Week 5 provides us with ample evidence.
Within a few hours on Sunday, we'll be treated to a pair of 2010 playoff rematches that have more in common than first meets the eye. When you look closely at this week's Jets at Patriots and Packers at Falcons revenge-themed showdowns, which feature one-third of last year's 12-team postseason field, you'll notice how some perfect alignment seems to be in place. For example:
• Both games are rematches being played in the same stadium in which the teams met in last January's divisional round playoffs. In both cases, those games produced a No. 6 seed upsetting their conference's No. 1 seed, in stunning fashion. The 11-6 Packers stormed into the Georgia Dome on Jan. 15 and won 48-21, embarrassing the 13-3 Falcons and keeping quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Mike Smith winless in the playoffs in their three-year Atlanta tenures.
The following day, the 12-5 Jets pulled roughly the same trick against the 14-2 Patriots at Gillette Stadium, beating them 28-21 in a game that really didn't feel as close as the final score indicated. New York's second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez actually out-dueled New England superstar Tom Brady in the game, throwing for three touchdowns without an interception. The Jets sacked Brady five times and frustrated an offense that looked nearly unstoppable during the regular season.
• Both games are actually rematches of the rematch, given that Green Bay lost 20-17 at Atlanta in Week 12 of the 2010 regular season, and the Jets had been throttled 45-3 in Foxboro on the Monday night of Week 13, less than six weeks prior to the teams' playoff encounter. The wins by the Falcons and Patriots felt plenty sweet at the time, but they rang quite hollow by mid-January. Now we get our third meeting between these talented NFC and AFC rivals in the span of a little more than 10 months, with the Jets-Patriots headlining the late Sunday afternoon action, and Packers-Falcons taking center stage Sunday night.
• That eye-opening playoff win at Atlanta was when we first began to view Green Bay as serious Super Bowl material, with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing for 366 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing for another score. The ball barely touched the dome's carpet when Green Bay had it that day, as the future Super Bowl MVP completed 31 of 36 passes for a sterling 136.8 passer rating.
As one of the two remaining undefeated teams at 4-0 this season, Green Bay still hasn't been stopped by anyone since the Falcons last saw them. The Packers' winning streak is up to 10 games, counting the six games they won to close out last year's regular season and playoffs. Green Bay leads the NFL in scoring with 37 points per game, and Rodgers is inspiring MVP buzz with his 12 touchdown passes and league-leading 124.6 passer rating.
As for Atlanta, it hasn't looked the same since enduring that postseason beating at the hands of Green Bay. The Falcons have sputtered to a 2-2 start this year, and nearly blew a 27-7 lead last week at Seattle, before holding on to win 30-28. Ryan's game has been just so-so, and with 13 sacks taken in its first three games, Atlanta's pass protection problems have been significant.
With an eye toward matching Green Bay's offensive firepower, the Falcons got bold on draft day and traded way up in the first round to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones and add a more explosive element to their attack. But no one seems to like their chances of winning a slugfest with Green Bay, and there's some belief that Atlanta on Sunday night will return to the Michael Turner-led power running game in order to shorten the game and limit the damage done by the Packers' potent offense.
"For Atlanta to win this game, they have to get back to their formula of last year,'' said Tony Dungy, an NFL analyst for NBC's Sunday Night Football. "Running Michael Turner, pounding the ball, and using Matt Ryan and his play-action game as a complementary weapon. They are not going to win a shootout against the Packers.''
• Flip the script a bit, and you've kind of got the same divergent-paths dynamic at work in regards to the Jets and Patriots since they last met. New York's playoff win at Gillette was the first time we started to think that Rex Ryan and his brash Jets just might own the Patriots for a while in this AFC East rivalry. After all, New York did win two out of last season's three meetings, representing 66.6 percent of New England's three losses last year, and Ryan is 3-2 against the Pats in his Jets tenure.
But it's New England that has used its playoff debacle against New York as its motivational fuel, going on an offseason personnel acquisition spree that has encompassed the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, ex-Jet Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and first-round pick Nate Solder, the team's starting right offensive tackle. The Patriots are off to a 3-1 start and averaging almost 34 points and a whopping 507.8 yards of offense per game. Brady looks like Rodgers' only real competition in the MVP race, with 13 touchdowns and 388.3 yards passing per game, a pace that would see him finish with a league-record 6,212 passing yards. That would shatter Dan Marino's 1984 mark by a mere 1,128 yards.
Ah, but the story seems headed in the opposite direction in New York. After upsetting the Patriots in the playoffs, the Jets weren't crisp in losing the next week in the AFC title game at Pittsburgh, and they enter Sunday's rematch at 2-2, coming off a pair of humbling losses at Oakland and Baltimore the past two weeks -- the first time New York has suffered consecutive double-digit defeats in Ryan's three years as head coach.
Sanchez looks overmatched at the moment, the Jets offensive line has been a mess in the absence of injured Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold (who is expected to return to the lineup Sunday), and New York this week is promising a return to the Shonn Greene-led "Ground and Pound'' running game that has been all but missing in action the past two weeks. (Sound familiar, Atlanta?) Were it not for Tony Romo's fourth-quarter generosity in Week 1, the Jets might be heading to New England a desperate 1-3 team this weekend.
• Both of Week 5's headline games feature one Super Bowl winning coach (New England's Bill Belichick and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy) against a highly successful Super Bowl-wannabe head coach who has turned their franchise around without being able to scale the game's summit (Ryan in New York, and Atlanta's Mike Smith). Between that foursome, the Jets, Patriots, Packers and Falcons have made a combined eight playoff trips from 2008 on, but only Green Bay has recently enjoyed the big confetti shower that comes at the end of the season.
• The juxtaposition of the two MVP candidates (Rodgers and Brady) isn't even the best quarterback sub-plot of Sunday's showdowns. More intriguing are the sudden struggles of Sanchez and Ryan, the two recent first-round picks who seem to have regressed as they begin their third and fourth NFL seasons, respectively.
Ryan has thrown for four interceptions in four games, after having just nine all of last regular season. His 84.8 passer rating is just 15th best in the league, and his play at times has been uneven, and tentative. The pass rush issues have been part of the problem, but Ryan's six touchdown passes are half the total Green Bay has received from Rodgers, who last week against Denver became the first QB in league history to throw for 400 yards, with four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in the same game. It's probably not the best of weeks for Ryan to be resuming his personal rivalry with Rodgers.
But compared to Sanchez's struggles, Ryan is playing at an all-world level. Sanchez put together one of the worst performances ever seen by a playoff-tested quarterback against the Ravens last week, completing just 11 of 35 passes for 119 yards, just 3.4 yards per attempt. And it wasn't just that Sanchez didn't help his team, he seriously hurt it, committing four turnovers (three fumbles lost and one interception), a Baltimore-record three of which were returned for defensive touchdowns by the Ravens.
Getting Mangold back will help the Jets offensive line and buy Sanchez more time to throw -- and he has been under siege in recent weeks -- but look for New York to craft a game plan against New England that returns to its signature running game, thereby taking some of the burden from Sanchez's shoulders. The Jets have thrown the ball on 58.8 percent of their offensive snaps this year, and that's up more than 10 percent from last year, and 20 percent from Sanchez's rookie year of 2009. That's apparently way more of the offensive load than he's capable of carrying.
New York rushed for just 38 yards last week at Baltimore, and the Jets might try and match that output on their first drive against New England. The Patriots can be marched on, and their defense ranks dead last in the league in yards allowed (477.5 per game). The Jets worked out in full pads Wednesday to prepare for New England, with the let's-get-ready-to-rumble anthem "Eye of the Tiger'' being blared from loudspeakers at practice.
"From what we've seen in the past, it will definitely be a change-up week for them,'' ex-Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis told ESPNBoston.com this week. "It will be one of those things where they want to make it a physical game. I've been on that side, I know how they think, so it's going to be one of the ones where they come back and do the things that they do well.
"Obviously it hasn't been working out too well for them (passing). I'm pretty sure Rex said 'We're going to run the ball.' That's what they do best.''