Divisional playoffs to provide plenty of pomp

Next weekend's matchups provide plenty of bravado, especially in the AFC, where divisional matchups should offer plenty of pregame smack talk. The NFC at least delivers some regular-season rematches.

If familiarity really does breed contempt, then the NFL is poised for one of the more venomous and entertaining weeks in recent history, culminating in a divisional-round schedule next weekend which figures to be chock full of venom.

Order in extra notebooks, media buddies and invest in some fresh batteries for all those digital sound recorders that have become so fashionable. Usually reporters pray for good sound bites. This week, they're apt to get several mouths full, at least figuratively, in the run-up to the games.

The headline attraction, of course, is the third bloodletting of the season between despised AFC East combatants New England and the New York Jets. The hardly subtle sarcasm of Coach Blowhard has raised the temperature of a rivalry that was pretty much white-hot before his boisterous arrival. And while Rex Ryan suggested late Saturday night that he and his team be permitted 12 hours to savor their wild card-round victory at Indianapolis, some Jets players were already reveling at the prospect of revisiting a Patriots team that humiliated them only five week ago.

"Nobody has to remind us (of the next opponent)," said inside linebacker Bart Scott, whose level of smack-talking might even make the bombastic Ryan blush, if possible.

The vitriol involving the Jets and Pats should be delicious stuff, indeed. But for those requiting a tasty appetizer, the league offers up Baltimore-Pittsburgh in the other AFC semifinal, and that rivalry isn't far behind the New York-New England contretemps. The pair of AFC re-rematches - with the teams having split their series during the regular season - couldn't have been better choreographed had league saber-rattlers tinkered with the wild card outcomes.

But even in the NFC, where there is no pent-up division hatred to fan the flames, the two games offer rematches of regular-season contests.

The Atlanta Falcons defeated the Green Bay Packers at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28, a 20-17 win earned on Matt Bryant's 47-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the game. The winning three-pointer came only 47 seconds after the Pack seemingly forced overtime on Aaron Rodgers' 10-yard pass to wide receiver Jordy Nelson on a fourth-and-goal play.

In the other NFC divisional-round game, the surprising Seahawks again travel to Soldier Field, where they carved out a 23-20 triumph on Oct. 17. Seattle didn't intercept Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the game, but sacked him six times.

"I think we all remember that last game," said Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams, who sealed Sunday's victory at Philadelphia with an end zone pickoff. "It probably does both teams some good. But we'll see."

Actually, such encores are not all that unusual in the league, but this does represent the first time since 2005 that each of the eight divisional-round franchises have faced their opponents in the regular season. In fact, it happened in both 2004 and '05. In every Super Bowl tournament but last year's, there were at least two games that were rematches since the league realigned to eight divisions and implemented the current playoff format. As recently as 2008, there were three.

Rarely, though, has been there been this degree of contempt. That's especially true in the AFC bracket, were familiarity has bred downright bad blood.

Even typically dispassionate New England coach Bill Belichick conceded Sunday, reflecting on the matchup with the Jets, that the two-out-of-three reality which confronts him and his high-octane team is "probably how it should be."

In the New York locker room Saturday night, various Jets players were hardly so under spoken. Noted one: "We flat-out don't like them, and they don't like us."

Ah, yes, let the games begin. Or at least the fiery rhetoric preceding them.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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