Washington Redskins (11-6) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
SERIES: 14th meeting. Redskins lead 9-4. Washington has won the last four against the Seahawks, all since 2001. Three of the victories were at Washington. The teams have never met in the playoffs. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is 0-4 in games against Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Holmgren has defeated every team in the league except Washington. 2005 RANKINGS: Redskins: offense 11th (7th rush, 21st pass); defense 9th (13th rush, 10th pass). Seahawks: offense 2nd (3rd rush, 13th pass); defense 17th (5th rush, 25th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The running games will tell the tale, and not just because wind and rain are expected to pound the Seattle area through the weekend. The Redskins need to hit on a few big plays against the Seahawks' vulnerable secondary, but RB Clinton Portis has still been the driving force behind the team's six-game winning streak. QB Mark Brunell has been uneven down the stretch and Seattle's strength defensively has been coming up with timely sacks and turnovers. While Portis is beat up from a grueling season, Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander should have fresh legs courtesy of the team's bye week. The key could be the start QB Matt Hasselbeck gets off to. The Seahawks' offense relies heavily on timing, which could be thrown off by the down time. But if Hasselbeck can lead an efficient passing attack, it will prevent the Redskins from loading up against Alexander.
FAST FACTS: Redskins: Lead the series 9-4 and have won the past four meetings. ... Seek first trip to NFC Championship game since 1991. ... Coach Joe Gibbs needs one playoff victory to join Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19) as the only coaches with 18 or more. Seahawks: Are 8-0 at home this season. ... Have not won a playoff game since Dec. 22, 1984. ... Hasselbeck has won 20 of his past 24 home starts.
-- WR James Thrash isn't likely to play with the fractured right thumb he suffered last Saturday at Tampa Bay. If Thrash can't play, WR Jimmy Farris would be activated to take his place while WR Taylor Jacobs would return to the starting lineup. Thrash has just two catches for 46 yards in two starts after missing the better part of four games with a pulled hamstring, but Jacobs has just two catches for six yards the last six games. Farris has one catch in limited duty in four games.
-- In nine career playoff starts, QB Mark Brunell has 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing just 53.7 percent of his passes for 1,566 yards.
-- If the Redskins lose in Seattle, RG Ray Brown's record-breaking 20-year career will end after 273 games and 216 starts.
-- DTs Cornelius Griffin (2000 Giants) and Joe Salave'a (1999 Titans) are the only Redskins on the active roster to have played in Super Bowls. Brown (1997 49ers), Brunell (1996 and 1999 Jaguars), Thrash (2001-03 Eagles), LB Marcus Washington and CB Walt Harris (both 2003 Colts) are the other Redskins to have played in conference championship games.
-- Aside from the retiring Brown (subbing for the injured Randy Thomas), DE Demetric Evans (subbing for the injured Renaldo Wynn), SS Ryan Clark and TE Robert Royal are the only current Redskins starters whose contracts are expiring.
--CB Andre Dyson (ankle) practiced again Thursday and will start Saturday.
--CB Marcus Trufant (back) practiced again Thursday and will start Saturday.
--LB D.D. Lewis (foot) practiced again Thursday and could start Saturday.
--DE Joe Tafoya (hamstring) practiced again Thursday and will play Saturday.
--WR Darrell Jackson is expected to start Saturday after resting a sore knee in the final regular-season game.
--RT Sean Locklear sat out most of practice Thursday with a sore hip but coach Mike Holmgren expected Locklear to be ready for Saturday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The proud Washington defense was embarrassed when it left Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 13 after surrendering 36 points to a not very good Tampa Bay offense.
Given a second chance at the Bucs in last Saturday's Wild-Card game, the defense wasn't going to be denied. Assistant head coach Gregg Williams, the man who runs the defense, told the offensive players that if they managed even a field goal, his boys would take care of the rest.
That they did. In fact, if linebacker LaVar Arrington had been able to take his interception return all the way to the end zone instead of leaving the final six yards to running back Clinton Portis, the Redskins' defense would've outscored both offenses in the 17-10 victory as safety Sean Taylor returned a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown before being ejected for spitting on the Bucs' Michael Pittman in the third quarter.
In Saturday's divisional playoff at Seattle, Washington's defense -- which has forced 20 turnovers during its six-game winning streak compared to just 11 in the first 11 games -- doesn't have redemption on its mind. The Redskins just want to control MVP RB Shaun Alexander. "Shaun's one of those rare backs that has the patience, the speed, the power, the whole package," Williams said before the team flew to Seattle two days early on Thursday.
The Redskins limited Alexander to 12 yards on six carries in the first half of their 20-17 overtime victory over the Seahawks on Oct. 2. The sixth-year back from Alabama finished with 98 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard run and a 3-yard touchdown run.
Washington's defense ranked 13th against the run, allowing 105.4 yards per game, but that average has dropped to 81.7 during the winning streak. Only Dallas gained more than 100 yards. Tampa Bay had 75 yards on 25 carries last week, but the Bucs don't have an Alexander.
"Make no bones about it -- Shaun is a guy that has very few negative-yardage plays," Williams said. "We are going to have to do a good job of tackling and swarming the ball carrier because he's not a guy that is easy to bring down on one-on-one situations."
Added defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "We have to try to minimize Shaun's opportunities by getting as many bodies as we can around him. Other than not having a cape on, he has been a super-stud all season. We're trying to make sure everybody is playing out their role to the fullest in terms of technique and being where they need to be. And we'll take our chances."
The Seahawks finished up the bulk of their preparations Thursday looking forward to taking a healthy roster into the playoffs.
Cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Andre Dyson practiced all week and both were expected to start in the team's divisional playoff game Saturday against the Washington Redskins.
Linebacker D.D. Lewis also practiced and appeared ready to return, although coach Mike Holmgren did not say whether Lewis would start.
"I thought we had good week of preparation," Holmgren said Thursday. "I was a little bit mad at the offense yesterday, but they responded with a very, very good practice today. They practiced and played hard all year. They did the same this week. Good week."
The Seahawks have had nearly two weeks to prepare for this game. The first-round bye allowed them to heal up. Holmgren said Wide receiver Darrell Jackson will start after resting his surgically repaired right knee in the final regular-season game. Right tackle Sean Locklear missed practice time with a hip injury Wednesday and Thursday, but Holmgren said he expected Locklear to play Saturday.
Holmgren chuckled when asked whether his team might have trouble getting back up to speed following the bye week.
"I am glad you didn't use the 'rust' word," he said. "I have been asked that question a lot. It is a little amusing to me.
"You play all season long to get the first-round bye; remember, we all wanted to get the first-round bye. Then the big thing is how we are handling it. It is a playoff game, they know what it is all about. They worked very hard to get here."
Carolina Panthers (12-5) at Chicago Bears (11-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 4th meeting. Bears lead series 2-1. The Bears dominated the Panthers at Soldier Field on Nov. 20 as ex-Panther Muhsin Muhammad scored the game's only touchdown pass in a 13-3 win over the Panthers. The Bears sacked Jake Delhomme eight times and intercepted him twice. 2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (19th rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 9th pass). Bears: offense 29th (8th rush, 31st pass); defense 2nd (11th rush, 5th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Keeping drives alive will be critical in a game that could be determined by field position. The Bears have relied heavily on their running game, but they have converted just 7 of 19 third-and-one situations this season. As with the rest of the offense, the Bears hope the increased passing threat with QB Rex Grossman behind center will make life easier on RB Thomas Jones. The Panthers dominated time of possession against the Giants last week by bottling RB Tiki Barber up early and getting their own running game into a groove. That gameplan should prove much more difficult against a healthy Bears defense allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. Chicago held Carolina to 55 rushing yards during the regular season meeting and while WR Steve Smith caught 169 yards worth of passes, he didn't get into the end zone. The Bears' corners again will be happy to led Smith have the receptions in front of them as long as they prevent back-breaking big plays.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme has a 105.1 passer rating in five career playoff games. ... RB DeShaun Foster has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in five career playoff games. Bears: Defensive linemen accounted for eight sacks in the regular season meeting. ... Seek first trip to the NFC Championship game since 1988. ... WR Muhsin Muhammad is the Panthers' all-time leader with 578 receptions and 7,751 receiving yards.
--RB DeShaun Foster practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable for Sunday's game. He will start against the Bears.
--FB Brad Hoover missed a second straight day of work due to an ankle injury. Hoover has been generally beat up this season, but it would take a minor miracle to keep him out.
--LB Brandon Short was upgraded to probable with a knee injury and will start Sunday.
--G Tutan Reyes practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable. Expect him to be ready for the Bears.
--WR Ricky Proehl remains probable with a stomach bug that has hit the Charlotte area hard in recent weeks.
--CB Jerry Azumah, who has been nagged by a chronic hip injury, will play his usual nickel corner spot but is expected to be replaced by Rashied Davis on kickoff returns.
--ORT Fred Miller has played in eight postseason games, the most of any Bear.
--RB Adrian Peterson is expected to be the Bears' No. 2 behind Thomas Jones Sunday, even though first-round pick Cedric Benson is fully recovered from a sprained knee suffered nine weeks ago.
--S Brandon McGowan, who started the last three games of the season when Mike Brown was hurt, will have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. He hopes, optimistically, to be back in six months.
--ORG Terrence Metcalf will not play Sunday and will be replaced by Roberto Garza, who has started seven games this season, four at left guard and three at right guard, with no discernible difference in production from the starters.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Linebacker Will Witherspoon, the team's leading tackler this season, remains optimistic he will re-sign with the Panthers in the off-season. He's due to become an unrestricted free agent in March. Carolina's other unrestricted free agents include running back DeShaun Foster, center Jeff Mitchell and guard Tutan Reyes.
Witherspoon knows the Panthers won't be able to re-sign everyone, but when asked if he thinks a deal will eventually get done, he said, "I do."
Said Witherspoon: "You've got to have faith in it. Worst-case scenario if it doesn't, so be it. Hopefully that's not the case. We've got nothing but the entire off-season to look forward to and to figure it all out." Witherspoon's best friend on the team, middle linebacker Dan Morgan, received a five-year, $25 million contract extension during training camp. After Witherspoon was unable to reach a long-term deal in the summer, he asked the team not to worry about contract talks until after the season.
"Part of it is I really didn't want to deal with anything while we were playing," he said. "I don't need anything extra except to go out there and play on Sunday." Witherspoon declined to say the deal has been frustrating, and added that in no way does he feel disrespected by the organization.
"It's something you've got to go through," Witherspoon said. "We kind of know what the situation is. We have to see if they really feel like they need to make moves. There's no need to make a big fuss about it. That's not going to change anything."
The Bears' bravado heading into Sunday's Divisional Playoff game against the Panthers doesn't qualify as trash talking or talking smack, but they've been sounding pretty confident when they sound off.
Obviously the Bears expect to win Sunday, but what makes this week different than most is that they haven't been at all shy when it comes to talking about it.
Mention to defensive player of the year Brian Urlacher that the Panthers blame their 13-3 loss to the Bears on Nov. 20 at Soldier Field on underestimating their opponent, and the middle linebacker fires back with both barrels.
"I don't really care," Urlacher said. "We won. If they overlooked us and didn't play their best game, whatever. We didn't play our best game either. They scored 3 points. So we didn't play our best game, obviously. They scored on us. They shouldn't have. They can say what they want to. If they overlooked us, they did this and that, we still went out there and outplayed them. That's what we had to do."
That victory won't mean squat if the Bears don't do it again Sunday.
"This game is more important than that last game, for both of us," Bears defensive left end Wale Ogunleye said. "We know it and they know it, and we'll see on Sunday. It's the playoffs. Winner takes all."
The Bears seem to be lining up to announce that they'll get it done. Ogunleye started on Monday with some blunt honesty. He said the Panthers are getting more credit than they deserve for beating the Giants 23-0 and running for 223 yards against a defense that was decimated by injuries.
"The Giants had their starting linebackers on injured reserve," Ogunleye said. "So this is not going to be the same defense they faced. They know what defense they're facing. To me, it's arguably the best defense in this league, so they know they've got to come in with their hard hats and ready to play against us. We're not too concerned about them running the ball because we think we can control the line of scrimmage."
In the last meeting the Bears' d-line owned it. They had eight sacks of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, all by the defensive line, including three by Ogunleye and two by right end Alex Brown. Those two face the same obstacles this week in Panthers left tackle Travelle Wharton and right tackle Jordan Gross.
"In the back of their minds, they know what they're going against," Ogunleye said. "If we can continue to control the ball the way we did up front and let the linebackers roam about and help out with the secondary, it'll be a good day for us."
Asked about the difficulty of defeating a good team twice in the same season, most Bears brush off the question like a gnat.
"We won the first one; we know we can beat them," strong safety Mike Brown said. "They THINK they can beat us. They haven't done it; not this year at least."
The Bears also believe they're not getting the respect they deserve, but they know how to change that.
"I think most people think they're still the best team in the NFC," Brown said. "We've just got to go out there and prove (we are). We already know it ourselves. We have to prove to other people that we're going to make a serious run."
The whole respect issue is what set Ogunleye off, and he expounded on that topic Wednesday before the Bears returned to practice after on off day Tuesday.
"I don't understand why it's everybody asking us if we're worried about Carolina," Ogunleye said. "I really think that we've been playing well. We've got a great defense, and the offense is starting to click. People asking questions about if we are afraid of Carolina because they're a different team? No, we're not worried. As long as we play our 'A' game, we should be victorious on Sunday."
The Bears' confidence game isn't limited to the defense. Offensive right tackle Fred Miller has one of the Bears' toughest assignments, keeping Panthers two-time Pro Bowl left end Julius Peppers away from quarterback Rex Grossman. In the earlier meeting, Peppers was a non-factor with no sacks, even though Miller played just 13 days after he had his jaw fractured in a fracas with teammate Olin Kreutz.
Miller is anxious for the rematch, even though he'll be in the spotlight, especially if he has a difficult time with Peppers, who has reached double digits in sacks in three of his four NFL seasons.
"I'm very comfortable with it," said Miller, who as a member of the Rams held the Titans' Jevon Kearse without a sack in Super Bowl XXXIV. "This is the thing that you play for. This is what the NFL is all about, having great matchups and going out there in a playoff situation and winning games. I love the feeling of it, and I'm just ready to play and ready to go out there and have a great game because I'm going to come out there fighting like hell.
"I feel like I could block anybody out there, it doesn't matter. Just go out there and play the game. I've been on bigger stages."
The Bears seem confident they'll be playing on a bigger stage a week from Sunday.