If familiarity breeds contempt -- and it often does in football -- then this weekend's Divisional Round playoff games promise to be fascinating studies in hostile return engagements. Three of this weekend's contests will be rematches of games played earlier this season. That aspect raises a series of pertinent questions:
How much can you draw from previous meetings? How much time will coaches spend focusing on the previous game with players? How will game plans change the second time around?
In general, the first game seldom is a strong indicator of how the second meeting will go. For evidence, look no further than the 38-7 beatdown that Seattle administered to Minnesota in the first week of December. Then contrast that with last weekend's wild-card round rematch. In December, the Seahawks amassed over 430 yards of total offense, and scored on six of their first eight possessions. In the rematch, they managed just 10 points, gained fewer than 230 yards and, but for a missed chip-shot field goal by the Vikes, would have been one-and-done in the postseason. Minnesota's ability to fight Seattle to what was essentially a stalemate was helped by the return of key defensive players to something approaching full health.
It's not that previous games don't matter at all. But when you played during the regular season, and who participated in that game, has a great deal to do with how much a first game tells you about a subsequent meeting. A Peyton Manning-less Denver team lost to the Steelers in mid-December, so Sunday's meeting will be a different game. Carolina logged a tight win over the Seahawks this season -- but the game was played in Seattle, and it was way back in Week 6. Those games might not have the same relevance as the fact that Green Bay is only three weeks removed from looking utterly inept against the Arizona Cardinals.
How will the game plans change? Not as much as pundits like to suggest. It's a fallacy to think you must entirely change your approach, and ill-advised to try to move away from the things your team has done best over the course of a season. One of the biggest mistakes coaches make is to assume that if something was really successful -- a blitz, a certain type of run, etc. -- an opponent naturally will spend a good deal of practice time getting ready for it, and therefore it won't work anymore. I frequently reminded my assistant coaches, before a rematch, that I wanted to see if our opponents could indeed handle what had hurt them the last time, before we got away from it.
Scouting/game-planning is both an art and a science. Certain special situations -- inside the 10, sudden change of possession and the like -- will be such small sample sizes that you won't have a lot of data to draw from, and how your opponent reacted earlier in this situation can be vital. But you also have to avoid turning yourself into a pretzel with tactical machinations: "We know that they know that we know they'll do this ... but they know that!"
How much will the coaches reference the previous showdowns to their teams? Typically, they'll minimize such references, whether the prior outcome was good or bad. Bruce Arians will be cautioning his Cardinals that they should expect a different sort of game from Green Bay this time around. And though Mike McCarthy will find some coaching points from that Week 16 debacle, he'll essentially throw it out and remind his players that they get a free shot at the Cardinals again. In general, if you played well, you don't want to revel in it, but rather focus on the fixable errors. If it was a bad outing, you may go back to show how much better you are playing now -- or show individual mistakes that, if not repeated, can lead to a different outcome.
With that as the backdrop, let's take a game-by-game look at the Divisional Round, which includes three rematches from the 2015 regular season, as well as one bout that harks back to a memorable result from the 2014 campaign:
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
The Chiefs and Patriots did not play this season -- but it was Kansas City's 41-14 rout of New England early in the 2014 campaign that led some to foolishly predict the end of the Belichick/Brady era. New England has pointed to that game as the one that turned around their season -- lo and behold, the Patriots went on to a 13-2 run to another Super Bowl title.
Tom Brady had two interceptions that Week 4 game, while Alex Smith was nearly perfect, completing 20 of 26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs ran for more than 200 yards, but remember that Jamaal Charles was pivotal in that game, and it was played in Kansas City. Different year. Different personnel. Different venue. Different game.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Of all the repeat games this weekend, this one looks to be the most likely to stick to the previous script. Aaron Rodgers had a poor game in Week 16, with Green Bay going just 5-for-17 on third down. Even that percentage might be hard to beat on Saturday, going against a Cardinals defense that's excellent in third-down -- particularly third-and-long -- situations.
The matchup problems that existed for Green Bay in late December -- the Cardinals' excellent corps of receivers against a sketchy Packers secondary -- remain there. Despite racking up 127 total yards, Cardinals running back David Johnson had just nine rushing attempts and three receptions in Week 16; he should get a much bigger workload the second time around. Green Bay's hope is that the renaissance that the Packers realized on Wild Card Weekend can be sustained.
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers
Even though the Panthers were 4-0 when they traveled to Seattle in October, they were still lightly-regarded. In that context, the road victory over the Seahawks was a statement game, with Carolina serving notice that it would be a serious contender in the NFC.
Most notable in that game was Cam Newton taking his team on two long drives in his last two possessions to eke out the 27-23 win. The win underscored a recurring problem for the Seahawks -- a weakness in covering tight ends. Greg Olsen caught seven passes for 131 yards, including the game-winning, 26-yard touchdown. Seattle got a good rushing day from Russell Wilson (53 yards) and also picked off Newton twice. The Seahawks probably need a repeat of both of those elements if they hope to knock off the top-seeded Panthers in Charlotte.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
It will be hard for Pittsburgh to draw too much from the first game these two teams played. For one, Brock Osweiler started for the Broncos, and now Peyton Manning will be back in place. For another, Ben Roethlisberger, who has cemented his status as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, will be fighting through a significant shoulder injury. It'd be foolish to count out Big Ben, but there's no way he'll be at 100 percent (if he does indeed play).
The first game, in Week 15, was streaky. After Denver fumbled the ball on just its second play from scrimmage -- leading to Pittsburgh's only touchdown of the first half -- the Broncos went on a tear by scoring touchdowns on their next four possessions (which included three long drives). Then the Broncos were shut out in the second half, as Osweiler couldn't adapt to the Steelers switching from their zone schemes to a more physical man-to-man. The Steelers had to abandon the run after going down big (ending up with just 17 rushing attempts vs. 55 throws), and they'll surely want a better balance in the rematch. This will be a whole new game.