Rematches have been a hot topic this week, sparked by Monday night's BCS title game between Alabama and LSU. The Tigers won the regular-season meeting, but the Tide took round two and left New Orleans with a national championship.
In the NFL, rematches dominate the divisional round, with three of the four matchups being repeats of regular-season affairs -- Denver-New England, Houston-Baltimore and Giants-Green Bay. It is always interesting to look at playoff games between two teams that have played previously during the season. You have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions, but it would be a mistake not to consider some of the key factors that led to one team winning or losing.
Last season, all four divisional round games were rematches. Two of those games were between opponents (Baltimore-Pittsburgh and Jets-New England) who split in the regular season. Both of the non-division games were lost by the regular-season winners -- the Seahawks lost to the Bears after beating them 23-20 in Week 6 of the regular season, and the Falcons lost to the Packers after beating them 20-17 in Week 12.
Since 1990, teams that won (or swept, in the case of division opponents) in the regular season are 65-46 in a playoff rematch. In the divisional round specifically, teams that won the first meeting (or swept) are 27-13.
In the first meeting, a 41-23 win by New England, Denver had a Tebow-esque game with 252 team rushing yards and 141 yards passing. Tebow completed 50 percent of his passes (11-of-22) and didn't have a TD or INT. This is noteworthy because the Broncos usually win when Tebow doesn't throw an interception (it should be noted that the Broncos did lose three fumbles). Also significant is the fact that the Patriots ran for 141 yards on 36 carries while Brady was going 23-of-34 for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez had a season-high nine receptions while Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker combined for eight. This tells me that Denver focused on stopping Gronkowski and Welker, which opened the door for the running game and Hernandez.
More importantly, teams seem to play the Broncos very well the second time around. Kansas City, after losing 17-10 to the Broncos in Week 10, held them to under 260 yards total offense in the sequel in Week 17. Also, the Patriots seemed to get better and figured out the Broncos as the game went along. They got gashed in the first three series, allowing drives of 80, 82, and 63 yards for two touchdowns and a field goal. The rest of the game, the Broncos could only muster a meaningless scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
In the first game, a 29-14 win by Baltmore, there were some telling indicators. The Ravens held the Texans to less than 100 yards rushing. Matt Schaub had a solid game (21-of-37 for 220 yards) but had only two plays of more than 20 yards. Baltimore had a balanced attack with Ray Rice rushing for 101 yards on 23 carries and Joe Flacco going 20-of-33 for 305 yards. The Ravens were a top 10 team in third-down conversions, but were only 3-for-11 against the Texans in Week 6. If the Ravens shut down the Texans' running game, and there is no reason to believe they won't, I don't believe T.J. Yates will be able to make up the difference. Cincinnati is a good defense but have no dominant players to account for. In Baltimore, Yates is going to be staring down Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
Breer: Embracing expectations
The best rematch of the weekend is this one. In Week 13, a 38-35 win by the Packers, both Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning had great days throwing for a combined 716 yards and seven touchdowns. The Giants ran well, but not well enough, going for 100 yards on only 20 carries. The biggest difference in the game was Green Bay's ability to chew up the clock. They ran 77 plays, had the ball for 33 minutes and converted 7-of-11 third downs. Rodgers hit 10 different receivers and always had an answer for whatever the Giants dialed up. The game ended when the Giants, after tying the game, left too much time on the clock and Rodgers drove the Packers 70 yards in 58 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal. This game could very well be the same. Whoever has the ball last, wins.