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NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEWS: Pats, Bears wary of underdogs

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Stop the chatter. It's time for the sound that really matters.

The opening whistle.

"I think all the stuff that will be said up to that point won't make a difference," Deion Branch said.

The New England Patriots wide receiver heard the volleys from the New York Jets leading up to Sunday's divisional playoff game. That pumped up the volume on a rivalry between teams that split their two regular-season meetings but differ dramatically in pregame vocabulary.

"People can say and do what they want," Jets linebacker Jason Taylor said. "I don't think it has much bearing as to what happens on the field."

To recap:

Jets coach Rex Ryan said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning studies more than Tom Brady. He also tacked a personal note onto the newest clash between teams with an avowed dislike for each other-- it's Ryan vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Then cornerback Antonio Cromartie used a word found in no respectable dictionary, calling Brady an expletive.

The Patriots largely refrained from entering the fray, preferring to read and react. A pokerfaced Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker made several references to feet in his news conference Thursday, interpreted by some as a dig at recent foot-fetish reports involving Ryan.

"I'm not going to discuss it," an unusually reticent Ryan said, "but I can take it."

But can the Jets take what the Patriots dish out on the field -- the passing of Brady and an improving young defense that gave the Patriots an NFL-best 14-2 record, eight wins to close the regular season and a league-leading 32.4 points per game?

New York will have to do a much better job than it did six weeks ago in its first visit to Gillette Stadium this season. The Patriots won 45-3 as Brady threw four touchdown passes. Ryan implied that Brady pointed at the Jets sideline or looked there after scoring, saying Brady "took a shot at me by his antics on the field."

Not me, Brady said.

"It's certainly not my intent. I'm sure there's 50,000 cameras on the game. If I did that I'm sure they'd show it," he said. "I don't think I've ever pointed at anybody. That's not my style."

A favorite for the MVP award, Brady can handle such verbal blasts. Even Branch, his own teammate, leveled a good-natured jab at Brady's intense study habits, calling him a "nerd" five days before the rout of the Jets in a much-hyped Monday night game on Dec. 6. He followed that up last Wednesday, smiling as he used the word "dork" to describe his friend.

"Did he really?" Brady said, a look of surprise on his face. "Maybe, yeah. I could see that, you know? I'm flattered."

That's how his coach said he felt before the last game against the Jets when the back-and-forth between the teams was actually civil. Ryan said no one is close to Belichick in coaching ability and Belichick responded by saying that was "flattering" and heaping praise on Ryan.

The messages also were pretty mild before their first meeting, a 28-14 Jets win on Sept. 19. Brady declined to expand on his comment a month earlier that he hates the Jets. And the most New York tackle Damien Woody, a Patriot from 1999-2003, would say was, "I think it would be even more intriguing if we could win the division because they've kind of dominated it for years."

The Patriots did it again this season, winning the AFC East for the eighth time in 10 years and second in a row. But last season they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round, 33-14 in Foxborough, while the Jets went on to the AFC championship game where they lost to Indianapolis 30-17.

Last Sunday, they ended the Colts season with a 17-16 win on Nick Folk's 32-yard field goal on the final play.

And now the Jets can avenge their 42-point blowout by the Patriots and move just one more win away from the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

The first appearance -- a 16-7 upset of the Baltimore Colts behind another big talker, Joe Namath -- came in 1969 in only the third Super Bowl ever. Namath guaranteed a Jets win despite their huge underdog status. Ryan echoed that on Friday about the Patriots.

"We do not fear them," he said. "We respect them and we're going to win the game."

He was right -- only partially -- when he said on Monday "This is about Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan."

It's also about Brady vs. the Jets stingy pass defense and LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene against the Patriots run defense.

Brady led the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes (36) and fewest interceptions (4). His NFL-record streak of passes without an interception is at 335 and counting. But finding openings against cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Cromartie should be tough.

"Revis is a great player. They have a great secondary and they are the one of the best defenses we face," Brady said. "The way they shut down the Colts offense is pretty impressive because we know how good that offense is."

The Jets rely on the run, which should be more important Sunday since a successful ground game can keep the ball away from Brady and take pressure off second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez.

"I feel good," said Tomlinson, who ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts in one of his best postseason games. "Obviously, coming off a game like I had last week, it's motivation to continue."

By Sunday night only one of the teams will have that chance.

The Patriots -- and the Jets, for that matter -- might be wise to listen to the advice of New England's 10-year veteran tight end Alge Crumpler.

"Prepare as good as you can and go out there and play," he said, "because, ultimately, regardless of what's said throughout the week -- and, as we know, there's been a lot said -- you've got to play the game."

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BEARS WARY OF SEATTLE:

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears know firsthand how dangerous the Seattle Seahawks can be.

Yes, the 8-9 Seahawks, the first team with a losing record to win a division.

Seattle came away with a win in its visit to Soldier Field earlier this season, and Chicago must be more prepared when the Seahawks return for Sunday's divisional playoff game.

"We know what happened in the first game," Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs said of the surprising 23-20 loss on Oct. 24.

Losing to the Seahawks again would be a huge letdown for the Bears (11-5), who won the NFC North and gained a first-round bye. Even though Seattle upset the defending Super Bowl champion Saints last week, the Bears are taking nothing for granted.

They saw Seattle's Marshawn Lynch running through and tossing aside at least a half-dozen defenders on a touchdown run in a 41-36 win over New Orleans at Qwest Field. They saw Matt Hasselbeck come up big, throwing four TD passes and winning over the fans after getting booed off the field in his previous home start against Atlanta. He sat out the Rams game with a hip injury.

"The fact that the expectations have been very low for us in these games, I can understand that based on our early performance during the season," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Other than that, we realize there aren't many people that give us a chance to win these games. But that's not the battle cry. The battle cry is to get prepared to play really good football and see if we can throw a game out there that gives us a chance to beat a great opponent."

The Bears are wary of the Seahawks.

"They're used to being in that spot," Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers said. "They didn't have a great season record-wise, but they're used to being in the playoffs. They played like they were."

No one needed to remind the Bears that Jay Cutler got sacked six times and that a usually reliable defense had its issues in that loss to Seattle, failing to force a turnover or sack Hasselbeck.

It didn't help the Bears that Peppers was a non-factor or that Briggs sat out with a left ankle injury. As bad as that performance was, the Bears took another turn for the worse when they followed that with another home loss to Washington.

That sent them stumbling into their off week with three losses in four games, but the team that emerged had a different look, a different approach -- particularly on offense.

The Bears settled on a starting offensive line and abandoned their pass-happy ways. Improved blocking and a commitment to the run helped reduce the pounding on Cutler and sparked a dramatic turnaround.

They won seven of eight before closing the regular season with a loss at Green Bay and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 team's Super Bowl run.

The Bears caught a break in the season opener against Detroit when officials ruled Calvin Johnson didn't complete the play after catching what looked like the go-ahead TD, and there were some more breaks during their season-saving surge.

They faced third-string quarterbacks in wins over Miami, Detroit and Minnesota (after Brett Favre left with a concussion). There was also a disputed unnecessary roughness call against Ndamukong Suh right before Cutler threw the go-ahead TD pass to Brandon Manumaleuna in that second game against the Lions. When the Bears beat Philadelphia, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel sat out with a knee injury.

Now, Chicago gets a team that barely made the postseason and could be short-handed. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu (concussion) had not been cleared to play as of Friday afternoon and was questionable.

"I was here when we were winning our division -- we were owning our division -- year after year after year after year after year," Hasselbeck said. "That's a great feeling. It's a great place to be in."

It wasn't easy for the Seahawks this time.

They were ridiculed along with the rest of the NFC West, and they dropped three in a row before beating St. Louis to win the division.

They're a work in progress.

Seattle made more than 280 roster moves in its first year under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, including several big moves before the first Chicago game.

Deion Branch, the former Super Bowl MVP wide receiver with the Patriots, got dealt back to New England. The Seahawks acquired Lynch from Buffalo, hoping he would spark the running game, and released Julius Jones.

"You've got a lot of scrap heap guys that have been thrown aside by other teams and guys with chips on their shoulders and I love that," said receiver Brandon Stokley, who signed with the Seahawks in late September after being released by Denver. "We're going to fight and claw and give everything we have and I'll go to battle with those kind of guys any day."