After a week out of the spotlight, the New England Patriots are back in its glow. They're three games away from 19-0 and an NFL title, but one loss away from losing a lot of the luster a 16-0 regular season brought them.
That hasn't changed Bill Belichick.
"We've treated it one week at a time all year, so this week it's Jacksonville," the Patriots coach intones. "Each week has it's own unique challenges and that's definitely true this week. I don't think any of those other games really have a whole lot of bearing on this one."
Same old song.
New England rested last week, as did the other top seeds in the NFL's postseason festival: No. 2 Indy and the two top NFC teams, Dallas and Green Bay. They all face first-round winners in the latest test of whether it's better to have momentum or rest.
But the Patriots probably rested less than most.
Even in a bye week, Belichick always gives his players something to work on. That's in contrast to Dallas' Wade Phillips, who told his players to take three days off. So Tony Romo went to Mexico with his celebrity inamorata while the Patriots studied playbooks.
The Patriots have reason to believe that Saturday night's game will be difficult.
The Jaguars (12-5) won in Pittsburgh for the second time this season, losing a 28-10 fourth-quarter lead, then rallying to win 31-29 on Josh Scobee's late 25-yard field goal. It was set up a by a 32-yard fourth-down run by QB David Garrard, who was the team's leading rusher in the game.
Normally, Jacksonville depends on Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl this week as an injury replacement an honor long overdue. They combined for just 77 yards rushing in Pittsburgh, but
Jones-Drew had a 96-yard kickoff return to set up a TD and a 43-yard score on a short pass from Garrard.
Jacksonville probably will have to open up its offense against a team that set a regular-season record with 589 points (almost 37 a game). That, of course, was due to league MVP Tom Brady, who set a record with 50 touchdown passes; Randy Moss, who had a record 23 TD catches; and Wes Welker, who tied for the NFL lead with 112 receptions.
"I think they've got really an all-star cast," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio says. "I think you've got some certain Hall of Fame players. You've got a whole slew of all-stars and Pro Bowl-type guys, and the coaching staff is very strong. We've got a lot of respect for what they've been able to accomplish."
So does everyone else.
SAN DIEGO (12-5) AT INDIANAPOLIS (13-3) (11 a.m. Sunday): There has been so much focus on the Patriots that the reigning champion Colts have been low-profile this season, something they don't mind at all. They've also had time to heal injured players, although Marvin Harrison, who's missed much of the season with a knee problem, is still uncertain.
Still, this team may be stronger defensively than any Tony Dungy has had with the Colts. And the offense has been without Harrison for so long that Peyton Manning has gotten used to working with new receivers, notably rookie Anthony Gonzalez.
San Diego also has a problem with one of its stars: TE Antonio Gates, who sprained his big toe last week and is day to day.
The Chargers started 1-3 under Norv Turner, but go to Indy with a seven-game winning streak, including last week's 17-6 first-round victory over Tennessee one more playoff win than the departed Marty Schottenheimer had with last season's 14-2 team.
The Chargers beat the Colts 23-21 in San Diego on Nov. 11 in a fluky game.
Manning threw six interceptions, San Diego got TDs on punt and kickoff returns by Darren Sproles, and yet the Colts should have won. Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in NFL history, missed a 29-yard field goal with 1:31 left.
The better model may be the game two seasons ago, when San Diego won 26-17 in Indy, handing the Colts their first loss after a 13-0 start. They did it by pressuring Manning, a pattern Pittsburgh followed when it beat the Colts in the playoffs that season.
The normally placid Turner showed some emotion last week, dancing on the sideline after the Chargers' first playoff win since they beat Pittsburgh and went to the Super Bowl after the 1994 season.
"That first one's the hardest one," Turner said. "Just like when you start a game sometimes, that first score is the hardest one to get and then you get going. Hopefully, this jump-starts all of us."
NEW YORK GIANTS (11-6) AT DALLAS (13-3) (2:30 p.m. Sunday): These teams have played 91 times, although this is the first time they've met in the playoffs.
The Cowboys won both regular-season meetings: 45-35 on opening night and 31-20 at the Meadowlands on Nov. 11. That loss in Dallas is the last time the Giants were beaten on the road. They have won eight straight, including a 24-14 win in Tampa last week, their first playoff victory since they beat Minnesota to go to the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.
They also have more momentum than the Cowboys, who lost two of their last three and got those days off earlier this month. Dallas hasn't won a postseason game since 1996.
Tony Romo, whose relationship with Jessica Simpson seems to interest folks more than his on-field activities, finished poorly: one touchdown and five interceptions in his last two regular-season games. The maligned Eli Manning was much better for the Giants with six TDs and one interception combined in the Tampa Bay win and the near-miss 38-35 loss to New England in the regular-season closer.
Dallas' most pressing problem is the health of Terrell Owens, who has a high ankle sprain. He has practiced this week, but Phillips says his status is a game-time decision. Terry Glenn, out almost all season with knee problems, could help fill the hole, but he could be rusty.
One reason the Giants have improved offensively is the play of several rookies: fifth-round TE Kevin Boss, replacing the injured Jeremy Shockey; seventh-round RB Ahmad Bradshaw; and WR Steve Smith, a second-rounder who missed much of the season with injuries.
SEATTLE (11-6) AT GREEN BAY (13-3) (2:30 p.m. Saturday): Mike Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl coaching the Packers, points to last season's overtime loss to eventual NFC champion Chicago to demonstrate why his Seahawks are equipped to play in cold weather.
"No one gave us the slightest chance to even come close and we played a very fine football game; lost the football game, but played a good game and had a chance," he says. "We know the challenges, but it kind of gets you going. It kind of gets the juices flowing a little bit to say, 'OK, here's what we're up against now. Let's see what we can do.' That's a healthy thing. That's a good thing."
The key for Seattle will be to get a rush on Brett Favre. Patrick Kerney was second in the NFL with 14 1/2 sacks and the Seahawks were fourth overall with 45. But traction at Lambeau Field could be a problem; a wet or slippery field often causes defenses as many problems as it causes offenses.
There are connections between these teams. Not only did Holmgren win that title and an NFC championship in Green Bay, but he is credited with making Favre a star, and "Holmgren Way," named after him, is adjacent to Lambeau Field.
Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck was once Favre's backup. And in a 2004 playoff game in Green Bay, he was caught by a microphone after the overtime coin flip saying: "We want the ball and we're going to score!"Instead, he threw an interception that was returned for the Packers' winning TD.
NFL playoffs on TV
Seattle (11-6) at Green Bay (13-3), 2:30 p.m., Ch. 13
Jacksonville (12-5) at New England (16-0), 6 p.m., Ch. 2
San Diego (12-5) at Indianapolis (13-3), 11 a.m., Ch. 2
N.Y. Giants (11-6) at Dallas (13-3), 2:30 p.m., Ch. 13