Rivalries. Familiarity. The four divisional-round matchups are flavored with those traits.
The Ravens moved to Baltimore in 1996. The Titans moved to Tennessee in 1997. And from 1997 through 2001, before the last NFL divisional realignment, the Titans and Ravens met annually twice a year in the old AFC Central. The signature game in the series was Baltimore's 24-10 upset, divisional playoff victory at Tennessee in 2001 en route to its Super Bowl XXXV championship. Baltimore in 2001 streaked to Tampa to win it all. That is where Super Bowl XLIII will be played on Feb. 1.
In Ravens-Titans and Eagles-Giants, there is an innate and intense level of grit and brawl, a mutual exchange of respect and envy, a heightened awareness of personal matchups and a taste of satisfaction that shoots beyond standard victory fare. Thus, expect these two playoff games to be the most physically grueling and emotionally charged.
Five most-prepared coaches
Thomas George gives us five playoff coaches who will have their teams most prepared for the divisional playoffs:
1. John Fox, Carolina
He faces the high-flying Cardinals receivers and the courageous passing of Kurt Warner. But Fox has excelled in postseason matchups at devising layered, pressurizing defense that gets to the quarterback and hits him hard and habitually. I see Fox presenting a Carolina defense that will pound and control Arizona.
2. Tom Coughlin, Giants
His message of execution and detail and team-oriented play is clear and accepted among his players. His coordinators -- Kevin Gilbride on offense and Steve Spagnuolo on defense -- are among the game's best. I see the Giants winning the battle of creativity here, especially in their pass rush vs. the Eagles pass protection.
3. Jeff Fisher, Tennessee
See John Fox. Fisher will create inordinate pressure through scheme and through persistence on Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. It will come early, it will come late and it will be too much for Flacco or the Ravens offense to handle.
4. Norv Turner, Chargers
He has turned the games over to quarterback Philip Rivers and it shows in play-calling and in the overall attack. Turner lately is looking more like the successful play-caller and orchestrator of offense that he was during his Dallas Cowboys offensive-coordinator, Super Bowl-winning days. Pittsburgh's defense has the edge, but Turner will make the matchup of his offense against the sturdy Pittsburgh defense clever and entertaining.
5. John Harbaugh, Baltimore
He has managed the Ravens and united them in a special way and rode his stellar defense to become the last rookie head coach standing in the playoffs. The effort and will and composure will be there early -- if not late -- for the Ravens vs. the Titans and Harbaugh will be a chief reason why.
Coaches often must compile a mountain of video in dissecting their playoff opponents. Oftentimes that video spans several seasons. Oftentimes the opponent is odd and alien. Not this time -- all around. These coaches can focus on this season's past meetings to correct or tweak their game plans.
Thus, in such scenarios, coaching becomes even more paramount.
You hear coaches frequently talk about how they never called a play that mattered, how the game is in the hands of the players and it is all about their execution. This is not the case in this divisional round. Just as players are pressured to step up their games in the playoffs, in these scenarios where you are repeating a recent in-season matchup, more onus falls specifically on these playoff head coaches and their coaching staffs.
If you won the last time, do you change much this time? If you lost, do you know exactly why in terms of your initial game plan and do you know what to alter to effect change? Can you use familiarity to lull the opponent into mistakes -- make them think they know what they are getting on a play based on the last time but completely reverse it, flip it? Can you use familiarity in exacting fashion to discern, then bleed, an opponent's weakness while more adeptly camouflaging your own?
This is the chess match. This is part of the essence of coaching.
All eight head coaches left in the playoffs will learn more about their own talents, their own blueprints this time around. All eight will learn plenty more about just what they have in their offensive and defensive coordinators.
And what makes each coaching matchup even more alluring is the week of preparation and game plan input must be complemented by several in-game, on-the-fly schemes and options. Every NFL game offers this, but rematch games do more so because familiarity leads to more emphasis on creativity, to more counter this and counter that.
The coaches with the toughest challenges?
Fittingly, because both men and their teams looked frozen and lifeless late in the regular season. San Diego was 4-8 after 12 games. Philadelphia was 5-5-1 after 11 games. Now both -- offensive-minded coaches who will face higher-seeded, defensive-inspired teams -- must take their teams in cold weather on the road in raucous stadiums. Both are facing rested, confident divisional champions. Both are crafting offenses against defenses that can nearly single-handedly win games.
But Turner and Reid are hot. Both have devised running games that are balancing their preference for the pass. Both have had their teams in playoff-caliber mode for the last month. Both games will be primarily impacted by the success of Turner and Reid in their team's offenses versus those defenses. It is an uphill battle that neither is likely to win.
If both do, however, two running backs will figure prominently. San Diego's Darren Sproles and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook made winning, scoring plays in overtime and in the fourth quarter, respectively, in their teams' wild-card playoff victories. This gives Turner and Reid a late-game offensive hammer that in close games will serve them well. Especially Westbrook in pass coverage against the Giants linebackers. Any way you slice it, that is a mismatch. Will the Giants counter by having safeties or cornerbacks in specific pass coverage on Westbrook?