There will be a familiar feel to the NFL playoffs next weekend: Every divisional-round game will be a rematch from the regular season, the first time that’s happened in six years.
In the NFC, it’s the Green Bay Packers at the Dallas Cowboys, and the Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta.
In the AFC, it’s the Houston Texans playing as huge underdogs at New England, and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City.
The first times around, Dallas beat Green Bay 30-16 in Week 6, Seattle beat Atlanta 26-24 in Week 6, New England beat Houston 27-0 in Week 3 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, and Pittsburgh beat Kansas City 43-14 in Week 4.
Not that those results necessarily mean much now, especially because none was more recent than October.
The Steelers know how much things can change.
After all, they lost to the Dolphins by 15 points during the regular season, then advanced Sunday with a 30-12 victory against Miami in the wild-card round for their eighth victory in a row.
“We’re not trying to settle vendettas and things of that nature. They beat us fair and square in Week 6. You tip your cap to them for that performance,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “Today was today. And it’s going to be the same going forward. What happened during the regular season is of little importance.”
Here’s a closer look at next weekend, when each game features one starting QB who has won the Super Bowl (Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger):
Packers at Cowboys,
3:40 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 4
That loss to Dallas nearly three months ago was part of Green Bay’s 4-6 start. But ever since Rodgers spoke about trying to “run the table,” NFC North champion Green Bay has won seven consecutive games, including 38-13 over the New York Giants in the wild-card round.
Rodgers has 19 TD passes and zero interceptions during the unbeaten run, but one question now is whether favorite target Jordy Nelson, hurt against New York, will be available.
Green Bay’s pass defense, shaky and beset by injuries, might not have an easy time against Dallas QB Dak Prescott, a preternaturally poised rookie who threw for three TDs in the October matchup. The No. 1-seeded Cowboys’ other first-year sensation, Ezekiel Elliott, gained 157 yards in his first game against the NFL’s eighth-best run defense.
Seahawks at Falcons,
3:35 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 4
All-Pro quarterback Matt Ryan, a leading MVP contender, and wideout Julio Jones put up NFC South champion Atlanta’s high-powered offense against NFC West champion Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense, which is missing injured safety Earl Thomas but still features Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
In the first meeting, Ryan threw for three TDs, while Jones finished with seven catches for 139 yards and a score. But most memorable was an incompletion on fourth down with 90 seconds left, when Sherman grabbed Jones’ arm on a deep pass. Definitely a one-on-one matchup to keep an eye on this time.
Also worth monitoring: How Atlanta’s so-so defense deals with Seattle’s offense, which seemed reborn as Thomas Rawls ran for 161 yards in a 26-6 win over Detroit in the wild-card round.
“Such a hard-nosed, tough coach, and his team embodies him out there,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said. “It’s like playing ourselves.”
Texans at Patriots,
7:15 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 11
New England is one of the biggest betting favorites in a playoff game, and here’s why: Bill Belichick’s Patriots have outscored protege Bill O’Brien’s Texans by a combined 54-6 in their past two head-to-head games.
As good as Houston’s top-ranked defense has been — Jadeveon Clowney’s interception set the tone for a 27-14 win over Oakland in the wild-card round — there is a world of difference between facing a rookie QB making his first NFL start (Oakland’s Connor Cook) and a three-time Super Bowl MVP (Brady). And Belichick will surely dream up some schemes to bedevil Texans QB Brock Osweiler.
Steelers at Chiefs,
12:05 p.m., Sunday, Ch. 5
What might matter and might not: Steelers QB Roethlisberger needed a walking boot after hurting his right foot against Miami. If he’s fine next week, it will be fun to watch him, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell take on Marcus Peters, Eric Berry and the rest of Kansas City’s formidable defense.
On the other side of the ball, Steelers LB James Harrison and Co. should be able to handle Chiefs QB Alex Smith, but the question is how Pittsburgh’s defense and special teams will corral rookie speedster Tyreek Hill.