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Multitude of rematches make for interesting Wild-Card Weekend

Now you see them … now you see them again.

Thanks to an anomaly created by the NFL's regular-season schedule and playoff seeding, three of this weekend's four wild-card games are Week 17 rematches. That is a first. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format, there have been nine occasions when two teams played in the final week of the regular season and again in the first round of the postseason.

And, in some cases, it has caused the coaches involved to become mindful of just how much of their "real" strategy to put on display for fear that it could and likely would be used against them in the postseason.

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Kurt Warner. **More ...**

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For instance, once he discovered that the Minnesota Vikings had secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt promptly went to a vanilla game plan on the way to a 33-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

With nothing significant at stake, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis no doubt had similar thoughts during a 37-0 loss to the New York Jets, whom they would be facing again in only six days.

Only the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, playing for the NFC East championship, presumably were focused more on beating each other than revealing too much (although that outcome resembled the others: Dallas 24-0).

Coaches are always concerned about tipping their hand to the opposition. But at no time does that paranoia run higher than when they share the same field with a team they'll face in six or seven days in the playoffs.

"It's a fascinating dynamic," former Ravens coach and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick said. "Sometimes we coaches can definitely outthink ourselves and make it more complex than we need to. But I think the fact that you have so many teams involved in this circumstance is fascinating and it's going to make for an interesting weekend."

When a club has to win a regular-season finale for a postseason berth, it can't afford to hold too much back. Unlike Lewis, the Jets' Rex Ryan had little choice but to make use of large portions of his offensive and defensive playbooks to give his team the best possible chance of coming out on top.

Although the Packers' Mike McCarthy had every reason to minimize how much strategy he revealed to the Cardinals, he did play to win by having his starters on the field the whole game. McCarthy thought keeping his players "razor sharp" was worth the risk.

The Cowboys and Eagles also approached their game as they would any regular-season game that mattered because of what was on the line. Besides, as divisional opponents, there isn't a whole lot they don't know about each other.

For the non-division foes, however, there is plenty that coaches are able to hide one game and unleash the next.

"In every phase of it," Billick said. "Protection schemes ... pressures. If you really feel good, after all this analysis, about a particular pressure that you can bring, you're going to say, 'I'm not going to pull that trigger here.' It gets very interesting with your third-down package, because it's a limited field and there are certain concepts that you're going to put in because you think that they will convert, but you don't want to give the other team a 'tell.' "

Said former NFL quarterback and CBS Sports analyst Rich Gannon, "It's just being smart with the game plan; you scale it back. It's almost like a preseason plan. You're still installing at that point, so you put your base concepts in and it's a pretty watered-down, vanilla plan that the rookies can run as opposed to a 10-year veteran."

In the regular-season finale between clubs that will meet again in the wild-card round or have a chance of meeting in the postseason, some offensive plays are called with the idea of merely seeing how the other team responds. "You say, 'Let's probe this a little bit, let's see what they do and see if we can get a little bit more information to game plan for the next week,' " Billick said.

Part of what influenced McCarthy's uninhabited approach against the Cardinals, according to Gannon, was the sheer enormity of the Packers' offensive and defensive playbooks.

"He doesn't care," Gannon said. "He's got so much volume and so much to turn to and veteran players and a quarterback that can handle it, that he says, 'We've got 60 snaps in a game and I've got 180 plays I can throw at you in any given week.' "

An advantage to facing a team in the playoffs one week after meeting in the regular-season finale is that it makes preparation significantly easier for the coaching staff. All of the videotape study is complete and that information is incorporated with first-hand knowledge from the game just played.

"You had a plan of attack and how you thought you were going to approach them, you implemented it, and it either worked or it didn't," Billick said. "So now you have even more information that, depending on what happened in the previous game, you can eliminate more readily or say, 'This had some success, so how are we going to disguise it for the next time? We showed it to them this way; let's show it to them another way.'

"The hardest part is, if your team played straight up, such as Philadelphia, now you've got to stand in front of your team and say, 'OK, that plan that we thought was going to work so well and we got our butt kicked? Well, here's a better one.' And you know the players have got to be thinking, 'Why didn't we have this one the first time?' There's that element of doubt."

Observation points

» Sean Payton is a master motivator. He's going to make good use of the fact his New Orleans Saints ended their season with a three-game losing streak and, despite their No. 1 seed in the NFC, are no longer viewed as a dominant force.

In employing the psychology he learned from one of his greatest mentors, Bill Parcells, the Saints' coach loves all of the criticism and doubts directed toward a team that once had realistic aspirations of a perfect season. It gives him plenty of material with which to prod his players as they prepare for their Jan. 16 divisional-round playoff game. Just like Parcells did when he prodded the likes of Lawrence Taylor as coach of the New York Giants. During one of Taylor's rare slumps, Parcells would make a point of goading him at practice with lines like this: "We're just going to have to change your name to 'What's the matter with ...' Because all I ever hear from everybody is, 'What's the matter with Lawrence? What's the matter with Lawrence?' "

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Payton made no effort to avoid finishing on a negative note; he rested Drew Brees and other starters in the Saints' regular-season finale vs. Carolina. The Saints, he insists, are in a good place ... even if no team has advanced to the Super Bowl after losing its last three regular-season games.

» It's easy to get excited about the Packers' chances for postseason success. They won seven of their final eight games, including a 2-0 finish. They have one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers. They have one of the league's greatest playmakers in cornerback Charles Woodson.

What the Packers don't have is a single game at Lambeau Field between them and the Super Bowl, unless, of course, they somehow are matched up against sixth-seeded Philadelphia in the NFC title game. How large a concern should that be?

Not very, at least where the Packers' offense is concerned. Green Bay became the league's first team to produce an average of 400-plus yards on the road in a season (401 to be precise). It is only the second time in the Packers' long and rich history that their offense generated at least 300 yards per game on the road.

» Here's one for the famous-last-words department. This is what Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry told reporters before his team faced the Packers: "It's too hard to win in this league to try and take your foot off the gas. We're going to try to keep that thing going on into the playoffs." Uh, yeah, about that. But Bertrand might not have all that much to worry about. When the Cardinals pulled their starters against the Packers, they stopped blitzing, which allowed Rodgers the sort of comfort in the pocket he isn't likely to have when the teams meet in the playoffs. The Cards' team-oriented defensive approach resulted in 43 sacks by 13 players this season.

» Losing Wes Welker for the postseason with a knee injury figures to put greater pressure on the Patriots' running game. Welker effectively served as the Pats' rushing attack by catching so many short and intermediate throws to move the chains. Now, New England might be forced to lean more on its running backs to actually carry the ball. And it can't be the most comfortable thought.

Laurence Maroney, the Patriots' most talented runner, found himself on the bench after a goal-line fumble against Jacksonville in Week 16. He and Kevin Faulk were inactive in Week 17 against Houston. The Patriots have seen solid play lately from veteran Fred Taylor. He had a pair of touchdowns against the Texans, but also lost a fumble at the New England 1 that Houston's Bernard Pollard recovered for a touchdown. Sammy Morris, who is back from an early season knee injury, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also have performed respectably.

But should the Patriots be convinced that group will be enough to pick up the slack left behind by Welker? If they were, then Welker wouldn't have led the NFL with 123 receptions.

Wild-card rankings

Fan rankings

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  1. Dallas: They've gone from December flops to a team that has mastered crunch time. Now, Wade Phillips needs to shake his next demon: the inability to win a playoff game.
  1. Philadelphia: The Eagles can quickly undo the embarrassment of their season-ending loss at Dallas by bouncing the Cowboys from the playoffs.
  1. Green Bay: OK, so the Cardinals weren't giving their best effort in Week 17. But that still was an impressive way for the Packers to get ready for the teams' rematch in the postseason.
  1. Baltimore: As if the Ravens need any more motivation to beat the Patriots, they're seeking vengeance for a regular-season loss they felt was at least partly influenced by questionable officiating.
  1. Arizona: After learning the Vikings had locked up the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Ken Whisenhunt decided to go vanilla vs. the Packers. He can only hope that the "real" Cardinals show up in the playoff rematch.
  1. New England: Rookie Julian Edelman was impressive after Wes Welker's devastating knee injury vs. Houston, but he's still a former college quarterback finding his way as a receiver and Welker leads the league in catches.
  1. Cincinnati: OK, so the Bengals weren't putting much effort into a meaningless regular-season finale. But the fact they were trampled by Jets' running game and manhandled by their defense doesn't exactly inspire confidence of a dramatic turnaround when the teams meet in the playoffs.
  1. N.Y. Jets: The NFL's top-ranked defense and the league's No. 1 rushing attack are impressive credentials, but a rookie quarterback and a first-year coach figure to ultimately make these guys playoff pretenders.
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