Matchups to Watch  

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Once more into the breach for these familiar foes

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Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce will be following Brian Westbrook all over the field in their divisional playoff game.


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All four of this weekend's divisional playoff games are rematches of meetings from the regular season. In three of them, this week's home team won the first meeting. The fourth game -- Eagles-Giants -- marks the third meeting of the season between these teams. Overall, in the five games that featured these four matchups in 2008, the combined point differential was 19 points. The largest margin of victory was six points, when the Eagles beat the Giants, 20-14, on Dec. 7 game at Meadowlands.

Over the past 10 season, teams coming off byes have won 29 of 40 games in the divisional round of the playoffs. That said, the familiarity between these teams should negate some of the home-field advantage. Also, there hasn't been a divisional round in which all four home teams won since 2004.

Here are some key matchups to watch in the four games, along with statistical comparisons for some of the critical factors that lead to success in the NFL:

Baltimore LB Terrell Suggs vs. Tennessee LT Michael Roos

These teams have met 18 times -- they split 16 in regular-season games, and each has won one playoff game. In the 16 regular-season games, the Ravens have outscored the Titans by 29 points.

The Titans game plan most likely will be to utilize two tight ends and two running backs against Baltimore's 3-4 version of the 46 defense. That three-man line is really the only difference between the defense run by Ravens coordinator Rex Ryan and the defense that was popularized by his father, Buddy Ryan. That said, it's worth noting Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher was a player and then a coach under Buddy Ryan -- so he has a good understanding of this defense. On the other hand, the confident Baltimore defense will create big problems for Tennessee if veteran center Kevin Mawae is unable to play.

Inside the numbers
Category Ravens Titans
Point differential: plus-141 plus-141
Sack differential: plus-17 plus-32
Turnover margin: plus-13 plus-14
3rd-down conversion pct.: 37 36

Both teams have very good coordinators on both sides of the ball. It should be a low-scoring game, and this will be the biggest test of the year for Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

Both Suggs and Roos have been selected to play in the Pro Bowl. In the Oct. 5 meeting between these teams, Suggs was held to three tackles, with no sacks, against Roos in a 13-10 Titans victory.

Suggs is very athletic, and he can rush the pass or drop into space. The NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2003 was the Ravens' franchise player this year and he led team with eight sacks. In his six years with Baltimore, Suggs has recorded 53 sacks and been voted to three Pro Bowls.

Roos is pivotal in the Titans' zone blocking. Tennessee likes to run and control the ball, using counters, leads and lead-stretch plays. Roos is a very good run blocker and above-average pass blocker. He has started 64 consecutive games for Tennessee. He's very athletic with long arms and good feet. Born in Estonia, Roos didn't move to the U.S. until he was 10, and he played just one year of high school ball, as a tight end.

Arizona CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Carolina WR Steve Smith

These teams met Oct. 26, with Carolina coming from behind to win 27-23. Carolina is 8-0 at home this season and the Panthers have never lost a divisional playoff game (3-0). Carolina loves to run, averaging 153 yards per game, which ranks third in the NFL. Arizona, meanwhile, loves to pass -- ranking second in the league with an average of 292 yards per game. In last week's win over Atlanta, Edgerrin James ran for 73 yards, while the Cardinals defense did a great job of stopping Falcons running back Michael Turner.

Inside the numbers
Category Cardinals Panthers
Point differential: plus-1 plus-85
Sack differential: plus-3 plus-17
Turnover margin: even plus-6
3rd-down conversion pct.: 41 39

Most likely, the key to stopping Carolina's run game will be linebacker Karlos Dansby, who had eight tackles, including three for a loss last week. Arizona has not played well on the road this year, though the Carolina game was close. Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, in the last nine weeks of the season, had seven 100-yard games and 16 TDs. For the year, Williams had six TD runs of 30 yards or more -- tied with Jim Brown for second-most in NFL history.

Rodgers-Cromartie is a rookie with great speed and athletic ability for his position. He has outstanding quickness and is a good tackler, but his best attribute is his ability to locate the ball. He was Arizona's leading tackler in last week's win with 10, to go along with an interception and three passes defensed. He will most likely play head-on against Smith wherever he lines up.

Smith has excellent hands and quickness, wins a high percentage of the time in one-on-one battles, and has a flair for catching deep ball -- in the Week 8 game against Arizona, one of his two touchdowns was a 65-yard reception. For the season, Smith averaged 18.2 yards on 78 receptions.

Carolina wants to run and Smith is somewhat of a second option when the run game is not working. He can also be a dangerous punt returner if needed. Obviously, the attention teams must pay to Smith helps the Panthers' running game. But fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammad also is a big help. Muhammad is a unique player -- not only the strongest receiver in NFL, but also the best blocking receiver.

Philadelphia RB Brian Westbrook vs. N.Y. Giants LB Antonio Pierce

The Giants won by five in Philadelphia in Week; the Eagles won by six at the Meadowlands in Week 14. These teams have combined for a total of 83 playoff games, yet this only the fourth time they are meeting in the postseason. The Giants are 2-1 in the previous matchups.

The Giants are very balanced -- they ran the ball 502 times this season and passed 491 times. The Eagles, on the other hand, pass about 65 percent of the time. Donovan McNabb threw 571 passes this season. He racked up a career-high 3,916 passing yards, which also happens to be an Eagles single-season record.

Inside the numbers
Category Eagles Giants
Point differential: plus-127 plus-133
Sack differential: plus-25 plus-14
Turnover margin: plus-3 plus-9
3rd-down conversion pct.: 41 43

Defensively, these teams are very similar, as Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo worked under Jim Johnson in Philly. Both coordinators like to blitz a high percentage of the time.

Westbrook might be the toughest matchup in the NFL because of his running and pass-catching ability. He runs inside with quickness and explosion, outside with speed. He's very good in the passing game -- his six career postseason TD receptions are the most in team history. In the Week 14 game against the Giants, Westbrook had 203 yards from scrimmage.

Pierce is the Giants' leading tackler and he has tremendous play recognition. Spagnuolo spent eight years with the Eagles, and his familiarity with Andy Reid's offense should be a help to Pierce in this game. One thing that the Giants will look to avoid this time around is leaving Pierce alone in man coverage on Westbrook, who beat Pierce on a 40-yard TD pass in that situation the last time.

A key mini-matchup in this game is Giants punter Jeff Feagles vs. Eagles return specialist DeSean Jackson. The rookie receiver had 109 yards in punt returns last wek in Minnesota, a new playoff record for the Eagles. Feagles is going to the Pro Bowl and is very good at pinning teams deep. The Eagles need to win the battle of field position.

One other angle to watch here: Former Giant Michael Strahan claims that you can watch Eagles tackle Jon Runyan and know whether the Eagles are callng a run or a pass based on his heel placement.

San Diego OTs Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary
vs. Pittsburgh LBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley

Pittsburgh won the Week 11 meeting between these teams by the never-before-seen final score of 11-10. The Steelers got a 32-yard field goal from Jeff Reed with 11 seconds remaining to win. It's very hard to run on Pittsburgh, so regardless of LaDainian Tomlinson's health, the Chargers will need to have success through the air if they are going to win this game. The November game was Philip Rivers' worst of the season, as he completed 15 of 26 attempts for 164 yards. He was sacked twice and threw two interceptions.

Inside the numbers
Category Chargers Steelers
Point differential: plus-79 plus-124
Sack differential: plus-16 plus-2
Turnover margin: plus-9 plus-4
3rd-down conversion pct.: 50 41

One of the great off-field matchups in this game will be between Chargers coach Norv Turner, who is an outstanding play-caller, against Pittsburgh's veteran defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, who is a master of calling the right defense at the right time.

As for the on-field matchup, McNeill plays left tackle and Clady is on the right. Both are tall with long arms, but they lack the outstanding foot quickness needed to block Pittsburgh's speed rushers. Turner will look to help them with tight ends when possible.

Harrison is the NFL's defensive player of the year -- he had 16 sacks from his right outside linebacker spot. He is a natural leverage player who gets under blocks against both the run and the pass. He is most effective as a blitzer. Woodley, the left outside linebacker, is very strong and powerful, with very good pass-rush moves. His motor never stops, he hustles, and he does a good job handling blockers. It's critical for the Steelers that Harrison and Woodley get pressure, because they can't let Rivers get comfortable, otherwise he'll have a field day.

And Pittsburgh cannot afford to slip on defense, because there is no guarantee they will score a lot of points: Eight AFC teams have scored more points than Steelers.

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