Newyorkjets.com is profiling each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the AFC and NFC Divisional Round games to be played Saturday:
(4) BALTIMORE (11-6) at (1) DENVER (13-3), 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
After defeating Indianapolis, 24-9, last week in the AFC Wild Card Round, Baltimore travels west to Denver to face former Colts QB Peyton Manning and the AFC's top-seeded Broncos. The home team enters the contest rested and perhaps the hottest club in the league, riding an 11-game win streak into the playoffs.
"It's been a gratifying regular season, I will admit that," Manning said. "It is certainly more than I expected. I'm grateful and humble for it."
Last week, Baltimore's Ray Lewis announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season. Now in his 17th season, the 37-year-old linebacker produced a game-leading 13 tackles in his final home game Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"My only focus was to come in and get my team a win," he said after the victory. "Nothing else was planned."
Lewis was making his return to the Ravens lineup against the Colts. He'd been sidelined since Oct. 14 with a right triceps injury. The 6"1', 240-pounder has led the Ravens in tackles in all but three of his 17 seasons and is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 career sacks and 30 interceptions.
"From the time I got hurt, everything I've done up to this point has been to get back with my team to make another run at the Lombardi," he said.
While Baltimore will try to extend its leader's career another week, Manning and Denver will attempt to put it to rest.
In 2011 Denver started 1-4. This season after five games the Broncos were hardly better at 2-3. However, at the end of both seasons, they had captured AFC West titles.
"It's an accomplishment," Broncos head coach John Fox said, "but it's something that was a lot of people's work. It wasn't one guy."
This year the Broncos were division champs even with RB Willis McGahee missing the final 6½ games of the regular season with a strained MCL and compound fracture in his lower leg. Despite getting hurt, McGahee is Denver's leading rusher with 731 yards and four touchdowns. Because he was placed on IR with a designation to return, he is not eligible to play Saturday, but could play the following week if Denver were to advance.
After spending the first 14 years of his career in Indianapolis, Manning joined the Broncos in March. His first season in Denver was excellent, especially considering he missed all of 2011 recovering from neck surgery. The 36-year-old finished the season with 4,659 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and a 105.8 passer rating, proving he's still one of the games elite QB's.
Fox described Manning's first season in Denver as historic.
"As I have mentioned many times, what he has done, to be coming off that kind of rehab, that type of injury at his position in a new city with a new team, is unprecedented," Fox said.
If the Ravens pull the upset, they'll likely use their ground attack led by RB Ray Rice. Even though Rice, a former Rutgers star, rushed for only 38 yards on 12 carries when these teams met back in Week 15, expect him to respond with a positive performance.
Denver ranked third in the NFL in pass defense and its 52 sacks tied for the league lead with St. Louis. LB Von Miller ranked third individually with 18.5 sacks and DE Elvis Dumervil had 11.
In the regular-season meeting, Baltimore trailed, 10-0, late in the first half before QB Joe Flacco threw a costly red zone interception. The INT, which was returned 98 yards for a TD by S Chris Harris, was a momentum changer.
"I made a mistake," Flacco said at the time. "No other way to say it."
While the Broncos won that Dec. 16 game, 34-17, the Ravens will have three defensive starters who missed that game available in Lewis, LB Dannell Ellerbe and S Bernard Pollard.
"We beat them pretty bad and they're going to be ready," Broncos S Mike Adams said. "I'm up for the challenge."
Baltimore had won the two meetings prior to this season, defeating Denver at home in 2010 (31-17) and '09 (30-7). The Ravens lead the series, 6-4, but the Broncos are 3-1 at home.
The only other time the teams met in the postseason was in the 2000 AFC Wild Card Round. Baltimore advanced that day behind RB Jamal Lewis' 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns, en route to the 34-7 win over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
If the Ravens win, they will be in the AFC Championship Game for the second year in a row. Last year, New England ended their season in the conference title game. The Ravens' all-time playoff record is 11-7.
Denver defeated Pittsburgh in overtime in the AFC Wild Card Game last season but lost at New England the following week. In their 35-year history, the Broncos have played in six Super Bowls and have come away victorious twice (XXXII and XXXIII). Their all-time playoff record is 18-16.
S James Ihedigbo left the Jets for the Patriots last August and stayed the season. The Pats made him a final cut this year, so he moved over to the Ravens, for whom he played in all 16 games (three starts) this season, plus 20 special-teams plays in Sunday's wild-card win over Indianapolis. Ravens WRs coach Jim Hostler was the Jets' QBs and WRs coach in 2003-04.
Prior to joining the Jets in 2009, head coach Rex Ryan was a member of the Ravens coaching staff from 1999-2008. Secondary coach Dennis Thurman was also in Baltimore for six of those seasons.
Denver S Jim Leonard was a Jets starter from 2009-11, although his final two seasons with the team ended on IR. Denver TE Joel Dreessen was drafted by the Green & White in the sixth round in 2005. Broncos assistant secondary coach Sam Garnes finished his seven-year NFL career by making 34 starts at SS for the Jets in 2002-03.
Jets backup QB Tim Tebow was Denver's first-round draft selection in 2010 and led the Broncos to the AFC West title and a home playoff win over Pittsburgh last season.
(3) GREEN BAY (12-5) at (2) SAN FRANCISCO (11-4-1), 8 p.m. ET, FOX
This is a battle of redemption for two great-then-great-again NFL franchises, not against each other so much as against the memory of last season, when both sides dropped home postseason games to the Giants.
"We lost the NFC Championship Game at home last year," San Francisco SS Donte Whitner said, recalling the 20-17 overtime loss to the Giants. "We want to take that next step this year and that's our goal. Win the first playoff game, win the second, then go to the Super Bowl. We feel like we're a top team in the NFL."
There's plenty of anticipation surrounding the QBs in this one. Aaron Rodgers quietly (considering the playoff hoopla surrounding Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) led the NFL with a 108.0 passer rating fashioned around his 39 TD passes and just eight INTs. Then he maintained his still-postseason-record 104.9 rating through last Saturday night's Lambeau Leap over the Vikings.
Meanwhile, the betatted Colin Kaepernick has added dash to the Niners since replacing Alex Smith. "Kap" was the winning pitcher in five of his seven starts, protected the ball the best among all qualifying NFL quarterbacks with a 6.2% turnover drive rate, and averaged a dynamic 6.6 yards per carry — just two ticks off RGIII's 6.8.
Kaepernick's aware of his opposite number, and not just because Rodgers has invited all the Cheeseheads in Chico, Calif., his hometown, to come on down to Candlestick Park for the game.
"Aaron is a great quarterback," he said. "You see what he does on the field and you see performances he's been having, so you can't say enough about the guy. We're going to have to go out and put up points."
"I touch the ball every play, and guys are counting on me to play well," said Rodgers, who lost to the Giants in the divisional round, 37-20, a year ago. "I take that to heart, and I know my role as a quarterback and a leader, and I try to go out and play well for my guys."
Green Bay has an arsenal of talented receivers to help Rodgers with that goal in WRs Randall Cobb (team-leading 80 catches and 954 yards), James Jones (NFL-leading 14 receiving TDs), Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings. The Pack's WRs have caught 35 of Rodgers' TD strikes, the most by any NFL team's wideouts this season and a test for the SF secondary led by CB Carlos Rogers and S Dashon Goldson.
But WR Michael Crabtree (85 recs., 1,105 yards, 13.0 avg., 9 TDs) and TE Vernon Davis are equal dangers to the Packers' secondary, led by eight-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson, now at SS, and ballhawking CB Casey Hayward (6 INTs to lead all NFL rookies).
The Packers protection is 28th in the league at protecting Rodgers from sacking mayhem, and the Niners have one of the best at collapsing the pocket in LB Aldon Smith (NFC-best 19.5 sacks). SF also gets the return of injured DE Justin "The Cowboy" Smith to the lineup for this game.
Despite the QB hype, which favors Rodgers, the game may also turn on ground success, which leans hard San Francisco's way. The 49ers, led by Frank Gore (258 atts., 1,214 yards, 4.7 avg., 8 TDs), were fourth in rushing offense vs. the Packers' 17th rush defense. And the Pack's nondescript rush offense, 20th overall, will try to find crevices against LB Patrick Willis and the SF defense, fourth overall vs. the run.
Perhaps this sums up the Battle by the Bay: Green Bay was third in the NFL with a 26.3% touchdown drive rate on offense in the regular season. San Francisco was third with a 14.4% TD drive rate on defense.
San Fran punter Andy Lee led the NFL with a 43.2-yard net average (he was fourth with his 48.1-yard gross). David Akers is the Niners' venerable left-footed kicker who's suffering through the worst season of his 15-year career — his 69.0% FG accuracy on 29 of 42 tries was his lowest since his first year as a full-time K with the Eagles in 2000, and his three blocked tries gives him an NFL-leading 11 blocked FGs since 2008.
GB kicker Mason Crosby struggled even more than Akers. His 63.3% accuracy (21-of-33) was the lowest by a kicker with at least 30 attempts since 2003.
This is the sixth playoff meeting between the franchises but their first in 11 years. The Packers have held the upper hand, winning four of the five in a seven-season span. In 1995 the Packers, the third seed that year, went to San Francisco, the second seed, in the divisional round and came away with a 27-17 verdict.
The next year the Pack hosted the 49ers in the divisional round and won, 35-14, en route to their SB XXXI triumph over Bill Parcells' Patriots. They also won in '97 (23-10 @ SF) and '01 (25-15 @ GB) and lost in '98 (30-27 @ SF). In the five games Green Bay has a plus-10 turnover margin and a point margin of 137-86.
The Niners, with their 30-22 opening-day win at Lambeau Field, broke the Packers' grip on the teams' alltime series. Before that game, the Packers had won eight in a row and still hold a 34-27-1 record in the rivalry that dates to 1950, San Fran's first season as a member of the NFL.
San Francisco C Jonathan Goodwin, the Jets' fifth-round draft pick in 2002 and a four-year backup O-lineman, has had a fine career in the NFC since leaving the Green & White after the '05 season. He started for three seasons, including all 19 games in his Super Bowl and Pro Bowl season with the Saints in '09, and for the last two seasons he's started every game in the pivot for the 49ers.
Some long-time Jets nemeses are on the Frisco roster, including Whitner (Bills), WR Randy Moss (Patriots), and Ted Ginn Jr., who had those two KO-return TDs in the third quarter of the Dolphins win at the Jets in 2010.
As for coaches, two on Jim Harbaugh's staff have ties to Pete Carroll's 1994 staff with the Jets — Brad Seely, the 49ers special teams coordinator and assistant head coach, who guided the Jets' teams in '94, and secondary coach Ed Donatell, who made his NFL coaching debut as the Jets' DBs coach from 1990-94 and returned to the Green & White in '07 as a special assistant.
Packers starting C Jeff Saturday, questionable for this game with neck/shoulder injuries, did battle against the Jets a number of times from 1999-2010 as Peyton Manning's center on the Colts, the last time in the 2010 AFC Wild Card Game won by the Jets, 17-16. Chad Morton, Green Bay's special teams assistant, tied the NFL record with two kickoff-return TDs in the same game, including the gamewinner with the overtime KO, when the Jets topped the Bills, 37-31, on opening day in 2002.