|Eli and Aaron meet again this weekend. (Getty Images)|
Every year, the NFL schedule makers help create myriad storylines during the regular season. But even the most carefully-planned crafter of matchups couldn't have worked up what we're seeing in the 2011 playoffs.
Not only are all four playoff matchups rematches of contests from earlier in the season (the Saints and 49ers went head-to-head in the preseason), but there's a smaller -- albeit more intriguing storyline -- that goes along with each. Let's examine.
The Matchup: Patriots (-13.5) vs. Broncos
The Grudge: Josh McDaniels vs. Tim Tebow
Actually, there's no "grudge" between McDaniels and Tebow, per se. In fact, McDaniels is probably happier to see Tebow's success than anyone in the Broncos organization.
Their stupefying march to New England is borderline miraculous and made even more surprising by the fact that McDaniels tenure in Denver -- which lasted a scant 28 games -- was supposed to bottom out the franchise for years to come.
Tebow was the answer for Denver because things were too be too bad to bother with convention. Instead, he provided the spark that gave the Broncos their first division title and first playoff berth since 2005.
McDaniels, who also drafted Demaryius Thomas in the first round of the 2009 draft, can't (and won't) be totally redeemed yet, because Denver's still picking up some pieces from his time spent in the Mile High.
And forget forgiveness, even if the Broncos win, especially since he retreated back to the dark side in an official capacity just moments after the Broncos toppled Pittsburgh in Denver on Sunday.
Broncos fans, members of the Denver media, Broncos players and even Patriots players believe that McDaniels has some magic elixer up his sleeve to stop the Broncos. He might know the personnel on the roster, but they're operating under John Fox.
That still won't change the motivation for both sides, though.
|Leach could be the key against his old team. (Getty Images)|
The Matchup: Ravens (-7.5) vs. Texans
The Grudge: Vonta Leach vs. Texans
Leach isn't the only ex-Texan looking to get back at his old team -- Pete Prisco correctly nailed the motivation that will fuel safety Bernard Pollard when he faces his old team, especially with the strides they've made on defense. Leach's deal with Houston goes deeper than just changing teams, and he'd tell you that himself:
"Bottom line #texans did not offer me a fair deal or my worth and I found a home in bmore and I'm happy #Ravens!" Leach tweeted on January 7th.
In case you missed it, Arian Foster (who joked with Leach on Twitter about grabbing a meal while he was in town on "business") led the league in rushing with Leach as his fullback last year. Leach was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro last year, and with the Texans deciding that they could handle their business on the ground sans his presence can't sit well with the ECU grad.
While many believe this game will come down to whether T.J. Yates or Joe Flacco can make more plays, I wholeheartedly disagree. The winner of this game will have more rushing yards and longer touchdown runs, and Leach will be the guy motivated to make sure that Ray Rice ends up with a bigger game than his old teammate Foster.
The Matchup: 49ers vs. Saints (-3.5)
The Grudge: Jim Harbaugh vs. Sean Payton
When the Lions and Saints squared off last week, the idea was that an upset by Detroit might create Handshake Gate 2.0.
But the reality is there might have been a bigger rivalry stewing between Payton and Harbaugh all season long, thanks to Payton releasing his entire pound of hounds at Alex Smith before the season began in a game that ultimately didn't count.
Both coaches downplayed the preseason kerfuffle this week, but what else would you expect?
Harbaugh's talk leading up to Wild-Card Weekend as if the Saints were his only focus, and it's a) hard to blame him (they're the better team/likely opponent) and b) have you seen this guy with revenge on his brain? It's terrifying.
Payton ain't exactly the last guy who'd stick it to someone, but we could see some epic-level celebration if San Francisco wins. Like, Harbaugh could end up doing the Truffle Shuffle at midfield.
At the very least, we could see some Schwartz-level fist-pumps.
The Matchup: Packers (-7.5) vs. Giants
The Grudge: 2007 vs. 2011
Everyone automatically assumes the easy reference for this game is the Giants 2007 season, when they beat the Packers in Lambeau (after losing to an undefeated team 38-35 during the season) en route to winning a Super Bowl.
But these teams (the exact same ones!) already played this year, when the Packers won in New York.
In that game, Eli was working his way to elite status by leading the Giants back. Only Aaron Rodgers got the ball last and when that happens the Packers typically win. In this case, they did, and it's something that's sitting on the minds of both teams.
The Giants want revenge for an earlier loss in the season, obviously. But the Packers are motivated for a different reason: no one is talking about them. We mentioned earlier this year that the Packers are the most dominant team in NFL history to fly under the radar. It remains that way for a number of different storylines.
The Giants might not have forgotten the previous game from 2011, and maybe they haven't forgotten 2007. But don't think for a second that the Packers have either. Both those games are still fresh on their mind. And, we're willing to bet, serving as more than enough motivation to take care of business against New York in Lambeau.
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