Romeo Crennel toiled in his office before Thursday's practice for Saturday's home playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Crennel took another peek at the Chiefs offense and another glance at his Houston Texans defense. He gave the appraisal expected from a chiseled NFL coach: "They have a West Coast offense in style and flavor that has adapted to the skill of their players. We have a defense that has multiplicity to it and players who have gained some confidence. But we have to do it again. We're just trying to win another game."
Playoffs? You bet. But just try to win another game. There was simplicity and beauty in the way Crennel, the Texans defensive coordinator, said it.
His voice was sturdy over the phone, his mind ripe with ideas on how he and his defensive staff will counter Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Reid's offensive staff in tactics and in wits.
This is the signature coaching matchup of this weekend's playoffs.
Crennel's 34 years of NFL defensive acumen versus Reid's 24 years of NFL offensive prudence.
That is a myriad of NFL games, a glut of NFL play calls, a near lifetime of give-and-take, of fast-and-loose in-game tinkering by these two coaches.
It is a Crennel defense that has recreated itself to help Houston rise from a 2-5 start to a 7-2 finish with three consecutive victories entering the playoffs. It is a Reid offense that was a culprit in the team's 1-5 start but coalesced and helped boost the Chiefs to 10 consecutive victories.
These are the longest winning streaks of any playoff teams.
And there is no combination of play-callers in this weekend's playoff games, who total 58 years of NFL insight.
They opened the season against each other in Houston. That was a Chiefs 27-20 victory.
Both teams are vastly different now.
"Experience is important," Crennel said. "Andy has a philosophy about the way he is going to do things, he sticks with it and I believe in the same approach. They want to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly to the skill players. When Andy had Donovan McNabb at quarterback, they threw it downfield a little more. Now, with Alex Smith at quarterback, they execute the offense a little differently and Andy understands the concept of offense, defense and special teams working in harmony.
"We play some two-gap defense, so our guys up front have to stay on their blocks a little longer and use good judgment on when to come off. Our guys are serious about football. It's a team game. It's got to mean something to you. Every year you lose players, you gain players and you have to develop and grow chemistry. We got off to slow start in that area, but the players resolved after the Miami game to do their job rather than to try to make every play."
That game on Oct. 25 in Miami saw the Dolphins lead 21-0 in the first quarter and 41-0 at halftime. The Texans lost 44-26. Crennel said the lessons stuck.
Defensive end J.J. Watt did more. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus soared. And nose tackle Vince Wilfork became a solid rock in the middle. Everybody knows about Watt, but Crennel said Mercilus and Wilfork, in particular, have become critical anchors.
Crennel is quick, though, to credit his entire group.
"Relying on fundamentals and technique at each position, focusing on that, is what you have to rely on," Crennel said. "So many of these NFL games nowadays come down to the fourth quarter and I have found that the main thing you need on defense in those tense times is fundamentals, foundation and technique. That's how you pull those games out. That's how you win a game."
Steelers-Bengals has gotten nasty recently -- division rivals who are fed up with each other. I saw the first two games of this series this season, the Bengals 16-10 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 1 and the Steelers 33-20 victory at Cincinnati on Dec. 13. The fact that both teams won on the road indicates how hyped both teams got when they played at home and literally worked themselves over. Self-control will be a key factor in their playoff matchup on Saturday night in Cincinnati.
When the Bengals won at Pittsburgh, the Steelers hardly acknowledged them. When the Steelers won at Cincinnati, Steelers cornerback William Gay made a pick and crawled on his knees to the Steelers sidelines, where he met Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter doing the same thing.
When the Bengals won at Pittsburgh, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was making his return from injury. When the Steelers won at Cincinnati, they helped knock out Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Also in Cincinnati, both teams skirmished during warmups and were fined $147,000 by the league.
Cincinnati intercepted Pittsburgh three times in the first game. Pittsburgh intercepted Cincinnati three times in the second game.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was clear this week: "I hate Pittsburgh," he said.
He is not alone among the Bengals. And the feeling is mutual in Pittsburgh.
Additionally, the Steelers still view the Bengals as pure wannabees. Like annoying gnats.
This is a playoff game all about how much execution wins over tempers.
On the run
We will see this weekend's most mobile pair of quarterbacks when Seattle plays at Minnesota on Sunday.
Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater combine for the most pair of rushing first downs (48) by any first-round playoff quarterback duo. Wilson is tops with 31.
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We have seen the best and most productive offenses this season keep drives alive by employing quarterbacks, when all else fails, who have the wheels to pull it down, take off and scamper for first downs. It is not always perfect on offense, no matter how much scheming or execution is offered. Quarterbacks running for first downs will factor heavily across all of the playoff games, as it has all season.
The key remains quarterbacks who are crafty enough to know when to do it and nimble enough to pull it off.
It was clear from this season's earliest moments, even in their opener despite a home loss to Miami. Washington had one specific player who stood out from the start: tight end Jordan Reed.
It wasn't just his size (6'2,237) or his hands. It was the way he moved so freely. The way he blocked so stoutly. His passion and desire. And by season's end, Reed had 87 catches and a franchise single-season tight end record 952 yards. He caught 11 touchdown passes.
When Green Bay plays at Washington on Sunday night, the Packers have to deal with Reed. They will do so with variety, with linebackers and safeties, with physicality, with a push and shove at the line of scrimmage to knock him off. This matchup is going color this game. If the Packers cannot contain Reed, they will not win.