New year, same old matchups

Welcome to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

No introductions required.

Next weekend's four games, two from each conference, pit teams very familiar with each other. On Saturday, it's Seattle at Green Bay, and Jacksonville at New England. And Sunday, it's San Diego at Indianapolis, and the New York Giants at Dallas.

The opponents who know each other best are the Giants and Cowboys, NFC East rivals who played two shootouts this season, both won by Dallas. The franchises have never met in the playoffs.

Since losing their opener at Dallas, the Giants have won each of their eight road games, including their wild-card game Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"I think as a team we seem to perform better on the road," defensive end Michael Strahan told reporters. "I didn't know we won eight in a row. That's a great thing, because when it's the playoffs, if we're going to go as far as we want, we have to win every game on the road."

Although the Cowboys are the NFC's top seed, they have never beaten a team three times in the same season. The only time they got a chance to do so was 1998, when they swept Arizona in the regular season before losing to the Cardinals, 20-7, in a wild-card game. That was the last postseason game at Texas Stadium.

The Seahawks-Packers showdown is a homecoming for Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl in Green Bay, where the city has named a street after him. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is making a return, too, considering he was drafted by the Packers in 1999 and spent his first two seasons with them.

In January 2004, when a wild-card game between the Packers and visiting Seahawks went to overtime, Hasselbeck had the now-famous line, picked up by the referee's microphone: "We want the ball, and we're gonna score!"

To the delight of Packers and their fans, Hasselbeck's prediction fell flat when Green Bay's Al Harris tore off a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown to win the game.

In recent years, San Diego has had a rich history with Indianapolis. The Chargers beat the Colts earlier this season, intercepting six Peyton Manning passes &

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and narrowly escaping with a 23-21 victory at Qualcomm Stadium when Adam Vinatieri, the normally clutch kicker for the Colts, missed a 29-yarder down the stretch.

Two years ago, the Chargers derailed the perfect-season bid of the 13-0 Colts, handing them a stunning defeat at the RCA Dome. The season before, Indianapolis beat the visiting Chargers in overtime, 37-34, a game in which Manning broke Dan Marino's record for single-season touchdown passes.

This season, the Patriots joined the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only modern-era teams to win every regular-season game. Now, New England begins its march to a fourth Super Bowl championship since the 2001 season.

Counting Saturday's game, Jacksonville will have played New England in three consecutive seasons and four of the past five. The Patriots have seldom ventured from the victory column, winning all but one of the seven meetings with the only loss coming in 1999.

Powered by the 1-2 punch of running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars have the AFC's best ground game. Last season, even without the services of Taylor, Jacksonville gained 144 yards rushing in a three-point loss to New England.

"They are a real physical team," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said Sunday night in a conference call. "Any team that runs as well as they do and stops the run as they do, they are able to do real good job on the line of scrimmage on both sides of ball."

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