Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Records: Seahawks 8-9 overall, 2-6 on road; Bears 11-5 overall, 5-3 at home
Weather: Mostly cloudy, low 20s, 20 percent chance of snow. Time/TV/radio: 1; Ch. 13; 1010-AM Line: Bears by10
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Records: Jets 12-5 overall, 7-2 on road; Patriots 14-2 overall, 8-0 at home
Weather: Mostly sunny, high to mid 20s, 10 percent chance of snow. Time/TV/radio: 4:30; Ch. 10; 1010-AM Line: Patriots by 9
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down today's NFL division-round games:
Seahawks: We mentioned last week how KR Leon Washington was a player to watch, seeing as how he tied for the lead in the NFL this season with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. Last week against the Saints, he returned four kicks for a 19.8 average and just one punt for 12 yards. Going against a defense as good as the Bears, the Seahawks might need a special teams play to get on the board.
Bears: Speaking of returners, there is none better than Chicago's Devin Hester. He returned three punts for scores this season and has 10 for his career, as well as four kickoffs. One of those punt returns for a touchdown came against Seattle this season. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says he will kick the ball to Hester today, which leads us to ask, "Is he crazy?''
Seattle's Pete Carroll might be the NFL's most optimistic coach, and he certainly has his Seahawks believing they can win after pulling off the stunning upset of the defending champion Saints last weekend. On the other side, the most interesting coach isn't Bears head coach Lovie Smith, but offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Knowing that QB Jay Cutler is prone to mistakes, it will be interesting how much he will open up the game plan for Cutler, especially early.
The Seahawks will win if:
They can stop Chicago's running attack. Seattle did that in the victory at Chicago earlier this season, holding Bears RB Matt Forte to only 11 yards on eight carries. If the Seahawks can force the Bears to throw, they're confident Bears QB Jay Cutler eventually will make a mistake. Stopping the run also could put the Bears in plenty of third-and-long situations, and it is interesting to note that when Seattle beat Chicago this season, the Bears were 0-for-12 on third-down conversions.
The Bears will win if:
QB Jay Cutler doesn't go haywire. When Cutler protects the ball, the Bears are a tough team to beat. But when he convinces himself that his arm is stronger than it is or that he can make a play out of nothing, he gets in trouble and throws interceptions, especially in the red zone. He did a better job in 2010 of protecting the ball, throwing 16 picks after tossing 26 a season ago. But there's always this fear that he is going to wait for the worst possible moment to make the worst possible throw.
Three key matchups
1. Seahawks WR Mike Williams vs. Bears CB Charles Tillman
The Seahawks' best receiver, out of Plant High, has caught key touchdown passes each of the past two weeks and just killed the Bears when Seattle beat them 23-20 on Oct. 17 in Chicago. In that game, Williams caught 10 passes for 123 yards. Tillman, probably Chicago's best cover corner, covered Williams that day, though not very well. Tillman is a physical corner, but that doesn't work so well against Williams, who is 6-5, 235 and physically dominates every corner he faces. Tillman will get help occasionally, but he also will have plays where he must stop Williams in single coverage.
2. Bears DE Julius Peppers vs. Seahawks LT Russell Okung
Peppers, re-established as one of the best pass rushers in football, has made a huge difference in turning the Bears into Monsters of the Midway again. When Seattle beat Chicago earlier this season, Okung held Peppers without a sack and allowed Peppers to make only two tackles. However, Okung is nursing two sore ankles and if he can't stop Peppers, Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck will be in for a long day.
3. Seahawks blitz packages vs. Bears pass protection
Seattle loves to blitz, especially with S Lawyer Milloy. Though he didn't register a sack, he pressured Saints QB Drew Brees last weekend. The Bears didn't do a good job picking up Milloy and the blitzers in October (Seattle had six sacks), and you have to think the Seahawks will send the house again today.
Three things you might not know
1. QB Jay Cutler's worst game of the season came in the loss to Seattle on Oct. 17. He completed only 43.6 percent of his passes (a season low), did not throw a touchdown and was sacked six times. The Bears have had trouble all season protecting Cutler, who was sacked 52 times.
2. The Seahawks are a much different team on the road than when they're at home in front of their "12th-man'' crowd. The Seahawks have lost 14 of their past 17 on the road, and all 14 losses have been by at least 11 points. Six of those losses have been by 21 or more. In its playoff history, Seattle has only one road victory and has lost seven in a row on the road. QB Matt Hasselbeck is 0-3 on the road as a starter.
3. Bears QB Jay Cutler hasn't played in a postseason game since his senior year of high school. In college at Vanderbilt, he never played in a bowl game, and he failed to make the playoffs in his first four NFL seasons.
Jets: If this gets into a shootout between quarterbacks, the Jets' Mark Sanchez simply can't go toe-to-toe with Tom Brady. So the Jets are going to need to get some points out of their defense or special teams. The best hope might be returner Brad Smith, left, who had two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. The Patriots have done a good job this season against Smith. Bad new for the Jets is Smith has a quadriceps injury and is nowhere near 100 percent.
Patriots: For years the Patriots had, perhaps, the greatest clutch kicker ever in Adam Vinatieri, but the kicking game could be the weak link on this New England team. Shayne Graham, left, took over for the injured Stephen Gostkowski in early November. Graham went 12-for-12 in field goals, but he missed two extra points in 41 attempts. Maybe this game won't come down to a field goal, but if it does, it won't be automatic for Graham.
It's hard to argue that New England's Bill Belichick is not the best coach in the NFL. Meantime, the Jets' Rex Ryan is either the smartest man in America or the dumbest. All week, his words have poked a stick into a New England hornet's nest. He has said he is up to the challenge of facing Belichick and questioned Tom Brady's work ethic. He either has the Patriots worked into a frenzy that will break their concentration or just fired up a team that already clobbered him once this season. But you get the feeling that riling up the Patriots is not the best idea he has ever had.
The Jets will win if:
They can run the ball. Actually, the Jets have had success running against the Pats this season. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 128 yards in the first game against New England and 111 yards in the second game. However, many of the yards in the second game came after New England had opened a sizeable lead. The point is, the Jets cannot rely on second-year QB Mark Sanchez to provide all of the offense. Plus, if the Jets want to keep the Pats and QB Tom Brady off the field, they'll need to chew up time and yards by running the ball.
The Patriots will win if:
They show up. Seriously. New England's 45-3 victory against the Jets on Dec. 6 was so convincing that it's hard to imagine the Jets can stay with the Patriots this time either. As long as the Patriots play their usual game, don't turn the ball over and don't get caught up in New York's trash-talk, victory should not be an issue. The only way New England loses — well, other than an injury to QB Tom Brady — is if it loses the turnover battle badly. And that seems unlikely after the Pats led the NFL in turnover margin this season at plus-28.
Three key matchups
1. Jets CB Antonio Cromartie vs. Patriots WR Deion Branch
Let's assume the Jets will assign all-world CB Darrelle Revis to Pats catching machine Wes Walker most of the time. That leaves Cromartie to cover Branch. In the Patriots' blowout victory against the Jets, Branch torched Cromartie for two early scores. Cromartie talked serious trash, calling Brady a name last week that we can't repeat here, so you know Brady wants to go after him. Plus, it just makes sense. Brady did not throw once in Revis' direction in the Patriots' victory against New York.
2. Jets LB Jason Taylor vs. Patriots LT Matt Light
If the Jets have any hope at all at slowing Tom Brady, they have to get pressure on him. Taylor has 13 career sacks against Brady, and his sack in the second week of the season clinched the Jets' 28-14 victory. In Week 13, however, Taylor was hardly noticed as the Patriots shut him down — no sacks and only one tackle.
3. Jets TE Dustin Keller vs. Patriots pass coverage
Check out the difference between the Jets' victory against the Pats this season, and the Jets' loss. In the victory, Keller caught seven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. In the loss, Keller had three catches for 27 yards. If the Patriots are vulnerable in one area, it's pass defense. They gave up more than 258 yards a game in the air. Only two NFL teams gave up more. Dangerous WRs Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes become way more effective on the outside when Keller is chewing up yards on the inside.
Three things you might not know
1. Jets QB Mark Sanchez, with two playoff appearances in his first two years, has had solid success. But not in Foxborough. In two games at New England, Sanchez has completed only 45 percent of his passes for a total of 300 yards with one touchdown and seven interceptions.
2. Patriots QB Tom Brady has gone 11 games without an interception, the longest streak for a starting quarterback since the NFL merger in 1970. He has thrown 335 passes since his last pick. He also has gone 11 consecutive games with a TD pass, the longest NFL streak in six years.
3. Speaking of Brady, here are some surprising numbers. In his first 10 postseason games, he went 10-0 with 14 TDs, three interceptions and a passer rating of 91.1. In his past eight postseason starts, he is 4-4 with 14 TDs, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 79.4.