Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Kickoff: Sunday, noon.
TV: FOX (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa)
Keys to the game
Bears QB Jay Cutler was sacked six times in the first meeting as the Seahawks attacked the edges of the offensive line (linebackers and defensive backs accounted for 5.5 sacks). RB Matt Forte had just eight carries that day, but Chicago has since become far more dedicated to a balanced offense and Cutler's protection has improved as a result. The Bears will also roll him out, and Cutler can do damage while throwing on the run. Seattle gave up 397 passing yards last week, so big completions will be there as long as Cutler avoids turnovers.
Seahawks WR Mike Williams was a force in the regular-season meeting with 10 catches for 123 yards. He's the ideal big possession receiver with which to attack the Bears' Cover 2 scheme that does an excellent job of preventing completions over the top. Hasselbeck relies heavily on Brandon Stokley to move the chains and TE John Carlson (two touchdowns) re-emerged in the offense last week. But Hasselbeck had 13 turnovers during a four-game stretch late in the season and will try to force the issue if Chicago can build an early lead.
Fast facts: The Seahawks won, 23-20, at Chicago on Oct. 17 with RBs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett combining for 111 rushing yards. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck seeks to become the seventh player in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive playoff games. ... This is Jay Cutler's first playoff start. Hasselbeck is 5-5 as a postseason starter. ... The Seahawks must win the Super Bowl to finish the season with a winning record. ... Chicago was 0-for-12 on third down in the first meeting.
Inside the Seahawks
He has seen the replay hundreds of times now and still doesn't get tired of it.
Seattle Seahawks bruising rusher Marshawn Lynch's memorable 67-yard touchdown run to seal his team's victory against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild card game last week will go down as one of the best runs in the playoff history.
"When I look at it, I (think), 'Man, I had a lot of help,'" Lynch said. "There were about four or five blue jerseys in front of me. Matt (Hasselbeck) and Sean (Locklear) were right there behind me so it was like they built a wall, kind of like a little force field around me, to make sure nobody took me down. I'm thankful those guys were around me to help me get in there."
Lynch rose to the occasion in his first playoff appearance, finishing with 131 yards on 19 carries, becoming the first Seattle back this season to top 100 yards.
"Well, for my first game, it was everything that the veterans had told me - from my previous team as well as my teammates here," Lynch said. "Just the whole experience, leading up to the game and then game day, it was just unbelievable. (It was) a real great feeling though, especially for my first one and for us to win and then win in the fashion that we did. I heard that we caused a little earthquake so that's pretty cool."
But Lynch believes his team still has work to do, and is focused on Sunday's rematch at Chicago in the NFC divisional playoffs.
"I'm going to do what I'm asked to do for what plays are called," Lynch said. "That's all I can control. But as an overall team going into this game with the focus that we have, I feel pretty confident."
One of the things Lynch has benefited from is Seattle's offensive line stabilizing up front. The Seahawks used 10 different starting offensive line combinations during the regular season, but finally settled on five guys up front, starting the same starting five for three weeks now.
"Well, I don't think it changes the running," Lynch said about the guys up front. "I think it just gives us a sense of security for calling the run knowing that you have the same guys in there and they have a feeling for each other. The timing with those guys and the way that they gelled has been pretty good. Just ride with it."
Inside the Bears
A repeat of the tackle-breaking, 67-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch that clinched the Seahawks' upset of the Saints last week isn't likely to happen against the Bears.
"The thing is, we run to the football," said leading tackler and seven-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. "If there are missed tackles, there are (other) guys coming to hopefully tackle him. That was a good run, but a lot of missed tackles on that play."
Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli considers Lynch a talented runner but not someone who can't be handled.
"He's a good back," Marinelli. "We play good backs every week.
"But it comes down to us. We've got to tackle well. We've got to play our gaps. We have got to work as a team. We've got to have great teamwork together. We've got to swarm to the ball. Any great back we play, nothing changes."
Only the Steelers allowed fewer rushing yards this season than the Bears, who limited Lynch to 44 yards on 17 carries for a 2.6-yard average in Week Six. The Bears' defense was also No. 4 in points allowed and No. 6 in third-down efficiency.
So, as much buzz as the late-season improvement of the offense created, the Bears' postseason success will be linked to the performance of the defense.
That's where most of the team's playoff experience can be found. Ten defensive starters have played in the postseason before, eight of them with the Bears. Just four offensive starters have been to the playoffs. While only three offensive starters have played at least seven years in the league, eight of the defensive starters have played at least that long.
"That's big," Marinelli said. "The intensity picks up. More important than that, is every detail matters, and they understand it."
With experience come expectations, and the defense welcomes the role of big brother.
"It's nice because we don't ever get too rattled," Urlacher said. "Plus our coaching staff's been around for a while as well. There are some exciting times, but we stay pretty even-keeled most of the time."
Because head coach Lovie Smith is a defensive coach by nature, he tends to lean on that side of the ball, according to cornerback Charles Tillman, who's been a starter since the Bears drafted him in the second round in 2003.
When the Bears dropped roughly $90 million on six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers in the offseason, it raised defensive expectations even higher, but that's fine with the group.
"We take on the responsibility," Tillman said. "It also helps that coach Smith is a defensive head coach. Every game, no matter what the offense does, he's always going to put the game on the defense's shoulders. That's just the kind of guy he is. If they can't score points, we win the game, that's his motto. We welcome the responsibility."
While Smith believes "burden" is too strong a word to describe the role of the defense, he does have high expectations for that side of the ball.
"I do expect a lot from the defense," he said. "There are more veteran players that have been in the playoffs for us on that side of the ball."
Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Israel Idonije, Tommie Harris and Tillman have gone to battle together for seven years, and they know what to expect from each other, and from more recent additions who have quickly blended in.
"I know what I'm going to get out of 'Peanut' (Tillman)," Briggs said. "I know what I'm going to get out of Brian, I know what I'm going to get out of Peppers. I know what I'm going to get out of 'Double A' (nose tackle Anthony Adams).
"That's what confidence means to us. We know what we're going to get out of every one of these players."
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
Keys to the game
It's critical for the Jets to avoid falling behind early to keep RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson as the focal point of the offense. QB Mark Sanchez threw three interceptions in the last meeting and his decision making has been wanting for the better part of the past two months. The Jets can't afford to fall behind and force the game onto Sanchez's right shoulder, which is still less than 100 percent from a Dec. 19 injury. The Jets need to set up play-action, but a concern is RT Wayne Hunter replacing injured Damien Woody (Achilles) and how much help he will need in pass protection.
The Jets have to find a way to get to QB Tom Brady, who was hit just three times in the last meeting. It will be a chess match between him and Jets coach Rex Ryan, who will attempt to disguise where pressure is coming from. Brady spent much of the day beating the Jets' linebackers and safeties in coverage, and CB Antonio Cromartie needs to have a better game opposite Darrelle Revis. A major problem for the Jets is the inability to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and Brady has a slew of possession receivers to attack man coverage with.
Fast facts: The Patriots won the last meeting, 45-3, at home on Dec. 6 with QB Tom Brady throwing for 326 yards and four touchdowns. ... New England was 8-0 at home during the regular season. ... The Jets have three playoff wins the past two seasons, equaling their total from 1987-2008. ... Brady has not thrown an interception in his past 11 games.
Inside the Jets
The Jets will be without starting right tackle Damien Woody, who is out for the season with an Achilles' tendon injury suffered in the win over Indianapolis last week. So career backup Wayne Hunter will take over Sunday at New England.
Woody left the Jets' win over Houston on Nov. 21 with a right knee injury, but played through it each of the next two games before being hurt again against Miami on Dec. 12. He then underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed the final three regular-season games before starting and playing most of the Jets' playoff win over Indianapolis on Saturday.
However, he suffered a different injury, one to his left Achilles', on the first play of the Jets' game-winning drive.
So once again the onus is on Hunter, who played well down the stretch against edge pass rushers such as Chicago's Julius Peppers and Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley. Hunter started the last three games of the regular season.
"I think it was just a blessing in disguise that Wayne had to play those games and he could feel confident going into a big game," said right guard Brandon Moore.
"It helped out more than I could put into words," Hunter said of the three starts. "Those three games against great defenses, I was able to play well, build some confidence and find a rhythm."
Hunter, who is in his seventh NFL season, had made only one start before 2010, and that was as an extra tight end on the first play of the Jets' victory over Tampa Bay on Dec. 13, 2009.
"I had a family to feed," said Hunter, who is in his third season with the Jets. "I was getting paid so I was helping out my family, helping out my daughters. So it was fine, (but) as far as the game goes, it was a little bit frustrating, but you don't want guys to get hurt. I was just on teams (at Seattle) that had healthy offensive linemen for a few years. When I left Seattle (after the 2005 season), guys started getting hurt."
Both center Nick Mangold and Hunter could find themselves matched up against New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork at different times Sunday. Wilfork often moves around in the Patriots' schemes, although at 325 (or so) pounds, he's not hard to find.
"Vince is the man," Hunter said. "He's strong, stout (and) hard to move. He's got a quick first move. ... He'll stop the run against anybody."
Inside the Patriots
While talent almost always supersedes experience, it's hard to ignore the edge veteran-laden teams have in postseason football.
The Jets have their share of playoff veterans — LaDainian Tomlinson, for example, played several postseason games against New England during his tenure with San Diego — but no team has more cumulative experience in postseason play than the New England Patriots.
Although they haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, the Patriots have remained competitive through the years and have made it to the playoffs every season except 2008, so, needless to say, there won't be any playoff jitters on their side of the field Sunday.
That's not something gained through experience alone, but rather through the ideology taught by head coach Bill Belichick from Day 1. Every game is as big as the last, and the biggest game on the schedule is always the next one. Therefore, there aren't a lot of emotional ebbs and flows in their locker room.
"I think we've been on an even-keel all year," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Even though with this being the biggest game of the year this week, I think every day we go in knowing how important each day is. I don't think we get too high or too low. It was like that all season, and I don't expect for it to be any different now."
This attitude could be particularly helpful in big spots Sunday (if the game happens to be close). The Patriots have been down this road before, and not everyone on that New York sideline can say the same thing.
"Even though we're playing in the playoffs, we like to approach it the same way," Wilfork added. "We always approach the games the same. We hit it hard. We make sure we know what we're doing out there. We make sure we know exactly what's going on. That's the key. If we can't do that, we're in trouble.
"I think you get a lot of people pumped up, more jacked going through the pre-game on game day, so as of right now, I think we're at even-keel. Right now, we're just relaxed, going through our stuff, making our right preparations (and) getting ready for this game. Come Sunday, I am pretty sure everyone is going to be jacked up, but we've got to make sure we control ourselves because we've got to play football games."