Who Wins When They Play It Again, Sam?


Sequels frequently flop in Hollywood, but in the NFL, they’re box-office magic.

That’s why the league is eagerly awaiting this weekend’s Part II party. All four divisional playoff games are showdowns between teams that met during the regular season: Washington at Seattle, New England at Denver, Pittsburgh at Indianapolis and Carolina at Chicago.

That’s the kind of instant replay everyone can get behind.

Back when the stakes weren’t win or else, the Redskins beat the Seahawks, the Broncos beat the Patriots, the Colts beat the Steelers and the Bears beat the Panthers.

But only the foolish will be breathing easy this weekend.

“There’s a very fine line between confidence and complacency,” said Dave McGinnis, defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. “If you win the first game against a team, the worst thing you can do is fool yourself into thinking the second game will be easier. You don’t want guys having that mind-set.”


As football coaches often say, it’s hard enough to beat a team once during the season, let alone twice. That said, all four of last season’s divisional playoff games were rematches too, and the four teams that won -- the Steelers, Falcons, Eagles and Patriots -- also won the regular-season matchups.

So, if we were going by the 2004 script, the Redskins, Broncos, Colts and Bears would be battling for two Super Bowl spots. But this is football, where the only script is the list of plays a quarterback wears on his wrist.

There are sure to be some unpredictable twists in this weekend’s slate of sequels.

A look at the deux-or-die games:

Washington at Seattle

What happened the first time: In Week 3 at Washington, the Redskins edged Seattle in overtime, 20-17. The difference was quarterback Mark Brunell, who was fantastic in clutch situations. On third down alone, he completed 11 of 15 passes for 138 yards, and converted two third-and-13s, two third-and-10s and a third-and-nine. The Seahawks were in position to win at the end of regulation, but Josh Brown’s 47-yard field-goal attempt -- a kick he later called “perfect” -- smacked the upright.

What has changed for the losers: First of all, they have healthy receivers. Bobby Engram suffered two cracked ribs on the opening series against the Redskins, and Darrell Jackson was playing with a sore knee that would sideline him for the next nine games. If the Redskins plan to pack players in to stop Shaun Alexander -- and most defenses have tried that strategy -- quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will try to make them pay with quick slants to Engram and Jackson.

The most notable change on defense is that rookie linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill never leave the field. They used to come off when the Seahawks went to the nickel package, but they have both proven themselves too valuable to be watching from the sideline.

Prediction: Seattle 20, Washington 10.

New England at Denver

What happened the first time: In Week 6 at Invesco Field, the Broncos built a 28-3 lead through 3 1/2 quarters before the Patriots began clawing back. With injured cornerback Champ Bailey out for most of the half, Tom Brady picked apart the Bronco secondary in the fourth quarter and mounted a comeback that fell just short. Denver hung on for a 28-20 victory.


What has changed for the losers: The Patriots are a different team, particularly on defense. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, both of whom missed the first game against Denver, are back. So are running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk.

However, New England’s secondary is still suspect. The safeties are inexperienced and could fall victim to an efficient quarterback. Remember, the Patriots have looked good in recent weeks, but those victories have come against the likes of quarterbacks J.P. Losman, Chris Simms, Brooks Bollinger (twice) and a rusty, hobbled Byron Leftwich. When the Patriots faced Kansas City’s Trent Green in late November, he completed 19 of 26 for 323 yards and a touchdown.

Green isn’t going to the Pro Bowl, but Denver’s Jake Plummer is.

Prediction: Denver 24, New England 21.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis

What happened the first time: The Colts took control of their Week 12 Monday night home game from the start, when Peyton Manning hit Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown on their first offensive play. The Indianapolis defense, once the team’s weakest link, held the Steelers to 197 yards and a touchdown. The Colts won, 26-7, handing Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger his first road loss.

What has changed for the losers: Roethlisberger, with a second season under his belt, is a far better quarterback now than he was this time last season. Now, it’s “Win the game, Ben,” instead of, “Don’t lose the game, Ben.”

Things have changed on the offensive line for the Steelers too, with Marvel Smith back in his role as starting left tackle. He played about 1 1/2 quarters of the Colt game before hobbling to the sideline with a twisted ankle. He was replaced by rookie Trai Essex, who did a good job against Dwight Freeney, keeping him from getting a sack, but Essex isn’t the run blocker Smith is.

What the Steelers weren’t prepared for was the noise. Roethlisberger had problems communicating with the rest of the offense, and he now says that was one of the reasons the Steelers lost. Since, they have gone to a silent snap count, which they will use Sunday.


Prediction: Indianapolis 21, Pittsburgh 17.

Carolina at Chicago

What happened the first time: At Chicago in Week 11, cornerback Nathan Vasher poured the foundation for the Bears’ sixth consecutive victory by intercepting two passes, both of which set up scoring drives. Chicago’s defense held Carolina scoreless for 3 1/2 quarters, and the Bears went on to win, 13-3.

What has changed for the losers: The Panthers, who couldn’t run the ball for most of the season, are starting to get the hang of it. DeShaun Foster has replaced Stephen Davis, and, despite an injured toe that requires a painkilling shot before each game, the former UCLA star is doing a lot of damage. In the last two games, Carolina has rolled up 229 and 223 yards rushing. The team’s offensive line is working together better than ever.

The first time they played the Bears, it was as if the Panthers bought into the notion that Chicago was merely a half-decent team in a bad division. If they didn’t have a great deal of respect for the Bears then, they sure do now -- especially with quarterback Rex Grossman running the offense.

Prediction: Carolina 10, Chicago 7.