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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – American Football Conference (AFC) Divisional Games
No. 6 New York Jets (12-5) at No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2)
Kickoff: Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m. ET, Foxborough, Mass.
To the winner: A game against the No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (13-4) or the No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 23.
Players with Latin American ties: New York Jets: Mark Sánchez has become a cult hero among Latin Americans throughout the United States, as the quarterback with Mexican heritage is playing to his lofty expectations. This season, he has thrown for 3,291 yards and 17 touchdowns. New England: none.
What you need to know: New York: The Jets avenged a postseason lost last year by eliminating the Indianapolis Colts, 17-16, on Nick Folk’s field goal as time expired last week. But against New England, Sánchez and the Jets have had mixed results. In the teams’ first meeting, the Jets posted a 28-14 win, but the Patriots thumped New York, 45-3, in a Monday Night Football matchup in December. No team has ever won a playoff game against an opponent it lost by 32 or more points to during the regular season.
New England: The Patriots have won eight straight games, a streak that includes victories over five playoff teams. New England also has claimed three Super Bowls since 2002 and quarterback Tom Brady has won 14 of 18 career playoff games. The Patriots also are the only team in the league to win nine or more games each of the past 10 seasons and joined the San Francisco 49ers this season as the only franchise to win 14 games in four different seasons.
Keep an eye on: New York: LaDainian Tomlinson. The running back was one of the Jets’ few effective weapons against New England this year, amassing 123 yards on 21 carries in the two games. In the win over Indianapolis last week, he ran for 82 yards with two touchdowns on 16 carries. If he can keep the chains moving and the ball away from Brady, the Jets have a chance at the upset.
New England: Deion Branch. He’s one of Brady’s all-time favorite receivers, and has made a smooth transition in his return to the Patriots, who acquired him in a deal with the Seattle Seahawks just before the trade deadline. Branch, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, made three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Jets. He has 61 total catches for 818 yards and six touchdowns this season.
The game likely comes down to: Brady. The quarterback has the playoff experience and poise to dice the Jets’ defense. He has confidence in his ability to read blitzes quickly, which should allow New England to move the ball, score points and advance to the conference championship game.
No. 5 BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-4) at No. 2 PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4)
Kickoff: Jan. 15, 4:30 p.m. ET, Pittsburgh, Pa.
To the winner: A game against the No. 6 New York Jets (12-5) or the No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2) in AFC Championship game on Jan. 23.
Players with Latin American ties: None for either team.
What you need to know: Baltimore: The Ravens advanced to the second round by posting a dominating, 30-7 win at AFC West Division champion Kansas City last week. Baltimore held the Chiefs to just 161 total yards, as the Ravens became the only team in the NFL to win a postseason game each of the past three seasons. The Ravens also split the season series against the Steelers, winning 17-14 in Pittsburgh earlier this season.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers clinched a first-round bye via winning the AFC North Division by having a superior division record to that of the Ravens’. Pittsburgh has won two of the past five Super Bowls, giving it a league-high six. The Steelers ended the Ravens’ season in 2008 by beating them, 23-16 in the AFC Championship Game in the Steel City. Baltimore has never defeated the Steelers in the playoffs.
Keep an eye on: Baltimore: Todd Heap. The tight end pulled his right hamstring during his first play in the Ravens’ 13-10 loss to the Steelers in Baltimore on Dec. 5. Against the Chiefs, Heap was a huge factor in Baltimore’s moving the ball down the field, finishing with 108 yards on 10 catches. His ability to get open against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked scoring defense will be critical for the Ravens.
Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger: The quarterback has won his past six starts against the Ravens – he was suspended during the loss to Baltimore earlier this year – and has amassed 3,200 yards with 17 touchdowns against five interceptions this season. In 10 career postseason games, Roethlisberger is 8-2 and has accounted for 17 total touchdowns.
The game likely comes down to: Stamina. The Steelers didn’t play last week, but the Ravens are on a short week heading into their biggest game of the season against their most-hated rival. The Steelers have a history of winning close games against the Ravens – a trend that should continue on Jan. 15.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (NFC) DIVISIONAL GAMES
No. 6 Green Bay Packers (11-6) at No. 1 Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Kickoff: Jan. 15, 8 p.m. EST, Atlanta, Ga.
To the winner: A game against the No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (8-9) or the No. 2 Chicago Bears (11-5) in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 23.
Players with Latin American ties: Atlanta: Tony González. The tight end with a mother of Mexican descent and a father of Portuguese decent has set nearly every receiving record for his position. He is the all-time tight end leader in receptions (1,069), receiving yards (12,463) and touchdowns (88). Green Bay: none.
What you need to know: Atlanta: The Falcons haven’t won a playoff game since a 47-17 win in the divisional round over the St. Louis Rams during the 2004-2005 season. Atlanta has three straight winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and has won nine of its past 10 games. Atlanta also beat the Packers earlier this year in Atlanta, 20-17, on a last-second field goal. Green Bay: The Packers are coming off a convincing, 21-16 win over the NFC East Division champion Philadelphia Eagles in Pennsylvania. Green Bay won the game by controlling the ball for 32 minutes compared to 28 for the Eagles and forcing Philadelphia into long field goals that kicker David Akers failed to convert.
Keep an eye on: Atlanta: Matt Ryan. The third-year quarterback out of Boston College has earned the nickname “Matty Ice” due to his clutch play under pressure. This season, he has thrown for 3,705 yards with 28 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. But he lost his only playoff game, in 2008, and needs to prove his 20-2 career record inside the Georgia Dome is legitimate. Green Bay: James Starks. The undrafted rookie free agent running back out of the University of Buffalo didn’t play until Week 13 but has been a force in the postseason. In the win over the Eagles, he set a team rookie playoff record 123 yards on 23 carries, enabling Green Bay to control the clock and slow the Philadelphia pass rush. During the regular season, Starks averaged 3.5 yards per carry, but against the Eagles, he averaged 5.3.
Bottom line: The Falcons still aren’t ready to win in the big time. The Packers have been in must-win mode for the past four weeks and that style of play has made them one of the best teams entering the postseason. Their record is deceiving, as Atlanta will find out on Jan. 15.
No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (8-9) at No. 2 Chicago Bears (11-5)
Kickoff: Jan. 16, 1 pm EST, in Chicago, Ill.
To the winner: A game against the No. 1 Atlanta Falcons (13-3) or the No. 6 Green Bay Packers (11-6) in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 23.
Players with Latin American ties: Chicago Bears: Roberto Garza. The guard is one of the biggest advocates of Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL. He was born in Texas, but his family is of Mexican descent. Garza starts on the right side of the Bears’ offensive line and helped pave the way for 1,616 rushing yards and 10 scores this season. Seattle: J.P. Losman. The quarterback, who is of Mexican heritage, has yet to see game action this year, but has 6,211 yards and 33 passing touchdowns in his career.
What you need to know: Chicago: The Bears earned a first-round bye via winning the NFC North Division by a game over the Green Bay Packers. Chicago finished the regular season by winning seven of its final nine games. The Bears haven’t played in the postseason since advancing to Super Bowl XLI in 2006. That year, Chicago eliminated the Seahawks, 27-24, in overtime in the opening round of the playoffs.
Seattle: The Seahawks became the first team in league history to win a playoff game after finishing the regular season with a losing record when they upset heavily favored New Orleans, 41-36 last week. The elimination of the defending Super Bowl champions propelled the Seahawks to the second round for the first time since 2007, when the team was drilled by the Green Bay Packers, 42-20. Seattle already defeated Chicago earlier this season, 23-20, in the Windy City.
Keep an eye on: Chicago: Matt Forte. The versatile running back has accounted for 1,619 total yards of offense and nine touchdowns this season. But in the loss to Seattle earlier this year, he was the team’s third-leading rusher with a mere 11 yards on eight carries and just three catches for 40 yards. He needs to have an even bigger impact for his team to advance to the conference championship game.
Seattle: Matt Hasselbeck. The 35-year-old quarterback was questionable against New Orleans with a hip injury, but he delivered his finest performance of the season by throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns against an interception. In his 14 other starts this season, he didn’t throw for more than two scores. In the win over Chicago earlier this year, he completed 25-of-40 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. He needs to be even better to upset the Bears for a second time.
Bottom line: The Bears have had time to prepare for the Seahawks and should be able to limit the team’s passing game with their superior defense. There is no way Chicago plays as bad as it did in the team’s first meeting and should reach the NFC Championship Game.