AFC North: quick take
These teams had an exciting game during the 2009 regular season. The Steelers edged the Packers, 37-36, with a touchdown catch by Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace as time expired. Most of the core players from both teams will play in this rematch.
There's a lot of irony with Pittsburgh playing in the first Super Bowl at the new Cowboys Stadium. There is a long rivalry between the Cowboys and Steelers. Pittsburgh has six Super Bowl wins, one better than Dallas. This could be a nightmare scenario for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones if the Steelers are able to widen the championship gap and do it on the Cowboys' home turf.
Expect a lot of talk about the quarterbacks leading up to this game. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers are both solidifying themselves as the next pair of elite quarterbacks to join stalwarts Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Roethlisberger has a chance to tie Brady for Super Bowl wins with three. This will be Rodgers' first Super Bowl appearance, but he has played at an elite level all season.
1. The road to the Super Bowl now goes through Pittsburgh. The Steelers caught a break Sunday night with the Jets' upset win against the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh, the AFC's No. 2 seed, will play host to the conference title game for the second time in three years. The Steelers said Saturday night that they were confident regardless of the opponent. But playing at home in the postseason is always a preference, and the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady have had Pittsburgh's number in recent years.
2. Don't forget the Jets beat Pittsburgh too. While the Steelers avoided a trip to New England, the team with the best record in the regular season, they will face a Jets team that went into Heinz Field on Dec. 19 and handed Pittsburgh a 22-17 defeat. New York outplayed Pittsburgh in Week 15, particularly on special teams. The Steelers also were without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the game with a calf/Achilles injury.
3. There are tons of AFC North connections in this game. This will be a big week for Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, whom Pittsburgh traded this offseason to New York. Holmes will make his second trip to Pittsburgh this season, but this time a ticket to Super Bowl XLV is at stake. Jets coach Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and defensive lineman Trevor Pryce are among those who joined New York from the Baltimore Ravens' organization. Receiver Braylon Edwards was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, and the Browns traded their No. 5 overall pick to the Jets in 2009 to allow New York to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez. Jets safety Brodney Pool also played five seasons in Cleveland.
1. It's time to settle the score. With similar records, there has been plenty of debate about which AFC North team is better this season, and Steelers-Ravens III will be the deciding factor. Both teams won on the road during the regular season. But Pittsburgh won the tiebreaker with a 5-1 division record, compared to Baltimore's 4-2 mark. That was the only way to separate these teams, which resulted in the Steelers getting a first-round bye and a home playoff game. But now it's time to settle it on the field and put this debate to rest. "I’ve lost to Ben Roethlisberger seven times,’’ Baltimore's Terrell Suggs said of the Steelers' QB. "He’s definitely my biggest problem I’m facing."
2. The Steelers are as healthy and well-rested as they've been in months. Pittsburgh ended the regular season with a lot of bumps and bruises to starters but took advantage of the bye week. Pro Bowlers Troy Polamalu (Achilles) and Maurkice Pouncey (stinger) were among the key starters banged up. Polamalu has played in only one game since Dec. 12, a 41-9 victory against the Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale. Pittsburgh starting defensive end Aaron Smith, who had triceps surgery in October, also has a chance to return.
3. Lately, Baltimore's defense is playing at a Super Bowl level. In the past two games, the Ravens have forced an astounding 10 turnovers and held their opponents to 14 total points. Of those 10 turnovers, Baltimore has forced five fumbles and five interceptions. The Ravens are very hard to beat when their defense is this dominant. That also takes pressure off the Ravens' offense, which has been up and down this season.
1. Manning a detriment: Only a handful of quarterbacks have given Baltimore's tough defense trouble over the years, and Peyton Manning is definitely one of them. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback is 7-2 all time against the Ravens, which includes a 17-15 victory over the Ravens on Nov. 22. In nine games against Baltimore, Manning has thrown for 17 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
2. Stay hot: Baltimore is a very tough out in the postseason, and that breeds a lot of confidence. The Ravens are 3-1 in their past four postseason games dating to last season. They defeated the AFC East champion New England Patriots on Sunday and division champs Miami Dolphins and Tennessee in 2008. All three victories were on the road. Baltimore second-year head coach John Harbaugh seems to have the right playoff formula to get the Ravens motivated and peaking at the right time.
3. Secondary is key: The Ravens don’t have a lot of holes, but one glaring weakness throughout the season has been the play of their secondary. But Baltimore’s most maligned unit responded well against New England, forcing three interceptions and holding Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady to just 154 passing yards. Players such as Ed Reed, Dawan Landry, Domonique Foxworth and Frank Walker all made big plays Sunday. Manning will throw a lot as well. So it will be important for Baltimore's secondary to build off that momentum and continue to play well.
1. Cincinnati needs to shrug off Sunday’s loss.
Blame it on lack of urgency. Blame it on playing vanilla. But the New York Jets gained a lot of confidence in pounding the Cincinnati Bengals, 37-0, Sunday night.
Cincinnati (10-6) already clinched a playoff berth before this game. But New York (9-7), in a must-win situation, looked impressive by jumping out to a 27-point halftime lead when Cincinnati's starters were on the field.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer struggled mightily, completing one pass for zero yards and an interception. Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis shut down receiver Chad Ochocinco (zero catches), and Cincinnati also struggled to stop New York's running game.
These are all building blocks for the Jets in preparation for next week.
2. Bengals need to get physical.
Cincinnati won 10 games and the AFC North division this year by establishing their physicality. But in the past month, the Bengals have lost their edge.
Both the Jets and the Minnesota Vikings dominated the Bengals at the line of scrimmage in two recent losses.
This is a major concern for Cincinnati. New York is another blue-collar team, which punches you in the mouth on both sides of the football. The Bengals need to be better prepared for it.
3. Can the offense get back in rhythm?
Cincinnati's offense has looked shaky down the stretch. The Bengals are averaging just 12.75 points in their past four games.
New York is bringing the NFL's top defense to Cincinnati for the playoffs. The Bengals got a taste of it Sunday night, as they gained just 72 yards of total offense and five first downs. But Cincinnati should play much better offensively at home.
1. Baltimore knows New England well
Although it's outside the division, the Baltimore Ravens (9-7) are developing a good rivalry with the New England Patriots (10-6). This is the third meeting between Baltimore and New England in the past three years, and the Patriots won the first two by just nine combined points.
In 2007, New England won the infamous "flag toss" game, 27-24, where the Ravens believed controversial calls kept the Patriots' undefeated regular season alive. Baltimore also dropped a 27-21 meeting to New England this season on Oct. 4.
2. Welker's injury is huge
With a playoff berth already clinched, the Patriots will receive a lot of heat this week for playing their starters in a 34-27 loss to the Houston Texans. As a result, New England lost leading receiver Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,336 yards) Sunday to a season-ending knee injury in the first half.
Baltimore's biggest weakness this year has been its pass defense, but Welker's injury will help narrow the playing field. The Ravens still have to worry about Randy Moss, who will be much easier to double-team with Welker out of the lineup.
3. Is 'Joe Cool' ready?
A quarterback duel in the playoffs against Tom Brady can be intimidating. But if anyone has the even-keeled mentality to pull it off, it is Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
The second-year quarterback didn't seem fazed in his first meeting against Brady, who is a three-time Super Bowl champion. Flacco threw for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a losing effort. Last year Flacco also became the first rookie quarterback to win two road playoff games.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Cincinnati Bengals put up a valiant effort but remain winless on the season following Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to the New York Giants.
Giants kicker John Carney made a 22-yard, game-winning kick in the extra period to seal the victory. It ended a well-played game where neither team committed a turnover.
Unfortunately for the Bengals (0-3), they needed this win more than the Giants (3-0). It could be tough sledding for Cincinnati over the next month.
The Bengals have a brutal upcoming schedule with a home date against the Cleveland Browns (Sept. 28), followed by games at the Dallas Cowboys (Oct. 5), at the New York Jets (Oct. 12) and against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Oct. 19). After dropping its first three games, it appears unlikely that Cincinnati will be able to climb back to .500 anytime soon.