Page 2 staff

In case you turned off the games this weekend, here's an update . . .

Peyton just threw another TD pass.

Favre just threw another pick.

And Eric Barton is still hugging Doug Brien.

The men under center were truly the gamebreakers this weekend. Well, unless you're from Seattle -- where the guys who couldn't catch were the difference.

But enough with the weak wild-card wrap-up. NFL Nation is moving on to the Divisional games, and Snap Judgment is more then ready to tell you what we think.


AUDIBLES FROM OUR QBS
 
Patrick
Hruby

Jeff
Merron

Eric
Neel

Skip
Bayless
QB with the hardest week of preparation ahead of him is: Manning, since he'll have to go through some sort of "Eternal Sunshine" memory dump before facing the Pats. Culpepper. Going into Philly a week after playing away at Lambeau has got to be tough. Peyton, but he'll relish it. Peyton Manning, by far.
After three weeks with very little game action, Donovan McNabb will: Look especially fresh throwing the ball away when his receivers can't get open. Be better able to adjust to life without T.O. Wish he had a few more ... however long it would take for you-know-who to get healthy. Wonder how good he is without Owens.
After three weeks with very little game action, Michael Vick will: Remain as likely to run for more yards than he passes for. Be scary quicker. Be glad he's playing the Rams. Feel healthier than he has since August.
Drew Brees without Marty Schottenheimer is: Pretty likely if the free agent price is right. A QB with a better chance for a playoff win. Tracking Nate Keading like Boba Fet on the heels of Solo, looking to carbon freeze his behind. Drew Brees
Marc Bulger under no pressure from a pass rush is: Awfully good, like almost every other professional quarterback. Rich Gannon-lite Hasselbeck at home Marc Balsa.
Matt Hasselbeck with receivers who catch the ball is: Still playing football this season. A Super Bowl champion. ... I'm sorry, there are just some things I can't imagine. Playing at Atlanta.


First down: Peyton Manning vs. New England. Again. In Foxboro. Again. Clearly, it's next weekend's premier matchup. This time, Manning won't have to contend with DB Ty Law or DL Richard Seymour, both injured. Is this the game in which Peyton finally solves the Patriots? And if not now, after the season the Colts' offense has had, is there any hope at all that Manning will ever shake the "can't win the big one" rap?

Eric Neel: I think the question is, will the Colts defense solve Brady and Company? Forget last year's AFC Championship Game. It was a freak event. Peyton won't be anywhere near that bad this time around; in fact, he'll be real good, maybe three or four TDs good. Will it be enough? That's the thing. The Colts' D is 15th in the league against the pass and 13th against the run. That sound you hear is Tom and Corey giggling at the prospect. Well, it's that, with a little bit of Peyton teeth-gnashing laying down the bass line.

Jeff Merron: Even if the Colts lose in Foxboro again, there's a lot of hope. Elway couldn't win the big one, either -- until he won two. Most people thought Jim Plunkett was washed up, unable to lead a champion -- and then he led the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory. That said, the Colts will win in Foxboro, not because Peyton "solves" anything, but because he's got more options than ever. And the Colts D will be just good enough.

Patrick Hruby: Second question first: Manning is just entering his prime, so no matter what happens Sunday, he has plenty of time to shake the "big one" rap (and plenty of time to re-acquire it, if he goes the way of Brett Favre).

On to the game. Forget New England's dinged defense. According to the 10-day forecast at Weather.com, next Sunday in Foxboro promises to be cold but clear, with a high of 30 and no chance of precipitation. That gives Manning his best chance yet to top the Pats. Like the St. Louis Rams of a few years back, the Colts are built for pretty, precise, fast-paced indoor football; stick 'em in a freezing, driving rainstorm, and they're far less formidable. Case in point? Last year's playoffs. Coming off a thrashing of Denver -- sound familiar? -- Manning appeared unstoppable, until bad weather and physical, hockey-style play from New England's defensive backs rendered him as effective as his little brother. The latter factor shouldn't be an issue this time around, not with an NFL crackdown in full effect. As for the former? Keep an eye on the sky, since extended forecasts are notoriously inaccurate.

Skip Bayless: If this game were at a neutral site -- say, on the Superdome's fast track -- this could get as ugly as Manning 49, Denver 24. If this game were played on paper, Manning's many weapons would make paper planes out of guys named Earthwind Moreland, Randall Gay and Don Davis trying to cover them.

But this game will be played outdoors in Foxboro, where the Patriots have won 19 in a row. And Bill Belichick has had two weeks to build another funhouse for Manning, filled with deceptive mirrors and trapdoors. No, the Patriots won't have Ty Law, who snatched three of the four interceptions Manning threw in last year's playoff game in Foxboro. And yes, enforcing the no-contact-after-five-yards rule will make it that much tougher on the Patriots.

But the keys to controlling Manning are confusing him with pre-snap looks, then keeping him from setting his feet by sending blitzers from unexpected angles or getting consistent pressure with down linemen. Belichick will do that. His offense will control the ball. Don't blame Manning if he loses this one. Praise Belichick.

Aaron Schatz: Oh, geez, not this again. As a football fan, of course I want to see another round in this great rivalry but as someone who runs a football website and as a Boston resident this is like a nightmare. Sports radio is going to be unlistenable for the next week -- a good number of the hosts on the local station completely lose all sense of reality when talking about Peyton Manning. And Brady-Manning debate has a tendency to take over any NFL discussion on the Web, no matter the original subject. There are a number of Patriots fans who are obsessed with the idea that Brady doesn't get respect and that he is a better quarterback than Manning and you cannot get away from them. We've actually created a specific discussion thread at Football Outsiders for nothing but Brady-Manning nonsense because any discussion of any AFC team turned into Brady-Manning debate. And check out the Colts message boards at the Indianapolis Star sometime -- half of the posters there are Patriots fans trying to annoy the Indianapolis people. Honestly, it is embarrassing to me as a New Englander.

Is this the game where Peyton finally solves the Patriots? No, because there doesn't need to be a game where Peyton "finally solves the Patriots." The Colts have lost to the Patriots three times over the past two seasons. Manning only played badly in one of those games, the AFC Championship Game. In this year's opener, he threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns and had the Colts in position for a game-tying field goal only to see Mike "Money" Vanderjagt honk it. Last year during Week 13, he threw for 278 yards and four touchdowns and marched the team down to the goal line to win the game only to have Edgerrin James stuffed three times. Manning isn't losing to the Patriots by himself. This is a team effort.

I don't think there is any question that things are going to be easier on Manning without Ty Law or Tyrone Poole in the lineup for the Patriots, and with Richard Seymour possibly playing at partial strength. (Most local reporters seem to feel that there is a good chance he will play on Sunday, although it is impossible to tell at what level of effectiveness.) But according to our Football Outsiders ratings, guess what -- the Patriots also had a top five offense this season. The Patriots offense is like the Colts offense with reduced carbs: few turnovers, smart quarterback, no single go-to receiver, two strong tight ends, great running back, they even get the backup running back involved, they just score a little bit less. If Manning plays a great game, but Brady and Dillon also play a great game, the Colts might lose anyway. But if Manning throws for four touchdowns but the Pats win 31-28, I hope we don't have to hear about how Manning can't win the big one.


Second down: What, if any, reservations do you have about Chad Pennington as a championship quarterback? And how many of your reservations were put to rest in San Diego on Saturday night?

Eric Neel: I like him just fine, presuming the shoulder stays sound. I like the way he throws the screens, dump-offs, and short routes, most of all, like he's maybe going to throw the deep ball or zip one over the middle. It's the equivalent of a Maddux changeup -- same motion, same slot, same speed, and with the same touch of art about it. I hope he stays in this thing, just so I can see him throw a few more of these beauties.

Jeff Merron: Earlier in the season, we compared Pennington to Tom Brady, which makes sense. Pennington's never going to be spectacular, but, like Brady, his flip side is steadiness. The Jets won't get past Pittsburgh next weekend, but I think it will be a close game -- if the Jets offensive line can give Pennington some protection. Despite the long toss to Moss on Saturday night, it's not clear that he can zip it time after time. But if Chad knows he can set up a little in he pocket, he can bring it a little.

Patrick Hruby: Let me start by noting that it is a privilege to even address this question. Really. Gracias and thanks. Do I have reservations about Mr. Pennington holding the Super Bowl trophy? Yes and no. Despite his penchant for soft-tossing, Pennington is bright enough to lead a championship-caliber club -- give me a weak-armed quarterback who makes good decisions over a strong-armed but erratic signal-caller any Sunday of the season. That said, I'm not sure the Jets ever will surround Pennington with enough talent to put him in the big game, let alone give him a chance to win it. Look at it this way: Pennington made all the right throws during the Jets' game-winning overtime drive against San Diego. But you would really take his supporting cast over Manning's? Daunte Culpepper's? Marc Bulger's? John Elway tortured Marty Schottenheimer, too -- and even he couldn't win a title without major help, despite physical gifts to shame Pennington's.

To answer the question much more directly, yes, Pennington can lead the Jets to a Super Bowl victory, especially with Herm Edwards as head coach and a strong defense. Maybe next year, or the year after.

Skip Bayless: Now we know that an arm or shoulder injury was not Pennington's problem. His problem was with his psyche. What happened in San Diego was that, with everyone shooing the Chargers into the divisional round, all the pressure built on the Chargers, who aren't too far removed from having last year's worst NFL record. For three and a half quarters, the Chargers played as if they were scared to death to lose.

Meanwhile, the Jets turned Pennington loose from the start. He launched the ball downfield. He zinged outs with more confidence and authority than he has in weeks. Pennington played like the weight of the world was on Drew Brees' shoulders -- like he, Pennington, had little to lose. The result was a beautifully managed no-turnover game.

But this week the media and fans will expect more from Pennington. This week at Pittsburgh, expect more of the Pennington who doesn't have quite the velocity or mental toughness to beat a powerful team on the road.

Aaron Schatz: I've felt that Chad Pennington was one of the strongest young quarterbacks in the NFL for three seasons now, and my reservations about him in the 2004 playoffs were entirely due to the poor quality of his throws since he came back from his rotator cuff injury at midseason. I don't know if he borrowed someone else's shoulder for the night, but he certainly didn't look like the same quarterback on Saturday that he had been in the last couple of Jets games. That throw to Santana Moss was just shocking, given how he has been throwing the ball recently. I think Chad Pennington could definitely lead a team to a championship, but it just so happens that the team around him isn't as good as the team that will be on the other side of the ball next weekend.


Third down: You're a defensive coordinator. Who scares you most: Marc Bulger's offense on a roll or Daunte Culpepper's offense on a roll?

Eric Neel: Daunte's, and it isn't even close. Seriously, isn't Bulger the fundamental opposite, the photographic negative, of "scary"?

Jeff Merron: Culpepper's offense, every time. Daunte's a big and fast force all on his own, and when the Vikes get psyched, like they did yesterday at Lambeau, watch out. Nate Burleson, Jermaine Wiggins, Marcus Robinson, and, of course, Moss can confound any secondary. And Onterrio Smith can break out and have a big game when he gets enough touches. That's a lot to watch out for.

Patrick Hruby: Here's what really scares me: Daunte Culpepper on a scrambling rollout. He's too big to bring down with a single blitzer, and too fast to spy with a plodding plugger. Plus, every second Culpepper can buy with his feet is one more second Randy Moss and company have to get open. Stay in coverage? Culpepper will tuck, run and truck you downfield. Break off to pursue? Culpepper can throw it deep, throw it tight, throw it across his body if needed. Bulger needs protection to be effective; Culpepper can turn a broken play or surefire coverage sack into a touchdown toss to Moe Williams. Just ask the Packers.

Skip Bayless: Definitely the Culpepper Express. No matter what you think of Moss' class -- or disgusting lack thereof -- he and his quarterback provide the Vikings with something no other team in the playoffs has.

Two physical "freaks." Two guys who are so overpoweringly gifted -- Culpepper with mountainous size and a strong, accurate arm; Moss with speed, spring and hands -- that no scheme can stop them when they're in sync. Can Moss play on his sprained ankle? Will he feel like playing if he's healthy? Will he do or say something this week that will finally force Paul Tagliabue to suspend him? Who knows?

But Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson cannot be sleeping soundly.

Aaron Schatz: Culpepper, without question. He's a better quarterback, he throws fewer picks, you have to worry about his scrambling, plus his weapons are more varied than Bulger's are. He throws more intermediate length passes, uses his tight end more, and had a more effective running game this season. (He made a couple nice cuts Saturday, but Faulk is nowhere near the player he once was, and that rib thing is seriously hurting Jackson's effectiveness.)


SNAP JUDGMENT'S QB RANKINGS FOR WILD-CARD WEEKEND
Quarterback Skinny DPAR
1. Peyton Manning
27/33, 457 yards
4 TDs, 1 INT
Scores higher than any regular-season game by any quarterback this season. 23.3
2. Matt Hasselbeck
27/43, 341 yards
2 TDs, 1 INT
Would be even higher if dropped passes could be accounted for. If you were Hasselbeck, why would you even want to re-sign in Seattle? Wouldn't you want to go to a team where the receivers could catch the ball? How about Arizona? 10.9
3. Chad Pennington
23/33, 279 yards
2 TDs, 0 INT
47-yarder to Moss was his longest TD of season; only has five passes over 25 yards since return from injury. 10.8
4. Daunte Culpepper
19/29, 284 yards
4 TDs, 0 INT
Honestly, I enjoyed Sideshow Randy's childish antics a lot more when he was Krusty the Clown's sidekick. 9.0
5. Marc Bulger
18/32, 313 yards
2 TDs, 1 INT
Rams will be petitioning league for 10 timeouts per half next week. 9.0
6. Drew Brees
31/42, 319 yards
2 TDs, 1 INT
16 of 19 for 205 yards on second downs (one interception), including 6 of 6 on second with more than 10 yards to go. 7.6
7. Jake Plummer
24/34, 284 yards
2 TDs, 1 INT
I'll miss his playoff beard. Not to mention his regular-season beard. 5.2
8. Brett Favre
22/33, 216 yards
1 TD, 4 INT
Boy, was Bill Simmons spot-on in his Playoff Manifesto 3.0 last week. "He's at a different point of his career; if anything, he can single-handedly kill his team like no other quality QB in the league." No kidding. -14.6


Fourth down: On third down in the red zone near the end of the first half in Green Bay, Brett Favre flipped a pass into the end zone rather than take a hit after he was a good four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and then walked off the field smiling. (The Packers missed a field-goal attempt on the next play.) Wouldn't the old Brett Favre have sacrificed his body and dived for the first down at the 2? Or at least come off the field full of fire and brimstone, angry at himself for the penalty, the loss of down and the missed opportunity to get Green Bay back into the game? Did we just witness Favre abdicate the throne as the grittiest win-at-any-sacrifice quarterback in the game?

Eric Neel: I was looking at him (a TV close-up) during the moment of silence for Reggie White, and I was thinking, "Man, the man's been through a lot lately." Put his personal losses, his ring, and his world of experience all together and you have a guy who doesn't get rattled when the big game comes around. Maybe you also have a guy who isn't playing with the same sense of urgency, or even concentration. I don't know. But it seems to me that knowing what he's dealing with, and knowing that he pretty much willed this team to 10 wins, we ought to be a long way off from saying he's abdicated the gritty throne.

Jeff Merron: I'm not sure that even Favre knows what happened on that play, and he may have just been smiling at the incredible weirdness of it. Whatever, Favre had a terrible day but still, in the second half, did anyone count Favre and the Packers out? Certainly, Favre has to figure out how to adapt to the simple fact that he's getting older, and the idea that it may not be such a great idea to sacrifice himself physically if he decides to play on. But that's not what was going on there.

Patrick Hruby: Hey, it's possible to smile after doing something stupid, if only to avoid smashing your forehead into a concrete support pillar. After seeing what happened to Gus Frerotte, I do it all the time. So don't jump to conclusions.

Besides, I love Favre. Really. Love the toughness, the arm, the whole "he plays the game like a kid" thing, no matter how many times I have to hear it. Which is way too much. But here's the thing: Bad Brett Favre -- and by bad, I mean body-snatched by Jake Plummer -- has been making annual winter appearances for a couple of years now, like that fat, over-feted groundhog in Punxsutawney. He fires into coverage, takes chances, looks to make a play where others might throw the ball away. He's always been a gambler -- it's just that as he's grown older and the Packers have stagnated, his margin of error has narrowed. As such, I think the Favre of the "Something About Mary" era would have attempted the same play. But he would have let go of the ball about four yards farther behind the line of scrimmage.

Skip Bayless: Any quarterback but Favre would have been ridiculed for what, in truth, was a pretty gutless bush-league play at such a crucial moment. Obviously, he knew he was four yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- and that he was risking a big collision if he launched himself the extra two yards for a first down. But remember what John Elway did in a similar predicament when he beat Favre in the Super Bowl? He launched himself, got helicoptered and came down for the first down.

The old Super-Bowl-or-bust Favre would have gutted it up and made that first down. His Packers would have scored the touchdown that cut Minnesota's halftime lead to 24-17. He wouldn't have taken the silly five-yard penalty that forced a field goal, which was missed. And the Vikings wouldn't have gone running toward the locker room with the confidence that would warm them throughout the second half.

Aaron Schatz: I honestly have no idea what was going through his head. It didn't look to me like he was trying to avoid getting hit, it looked like he saw the guy in the end zone and on instinct thought he could get a touchdown instead of just a first down without even thinking about the fact that he was four yards past the line of scrimmage. But how on earth could a quarterback not realize he was so far past the line of scrimmage? It makes no sense at all.

You know, in all the celebration of Brett Favre, has anyone noticed that he's had bad games in the playoffs for four straight years now? The last four playoff losses for the Packers were his four-pick game yesterday, the terrible interception he threw in OT at Philly last year, a 20-for-42 performance with two interceptions when the Falcons upset the Packers at Lambeau in 2002, and that Krenzelian six-interception disaster against the Rams in 2001.


Overtime: Do we all agree that Manning vs. Brady is the headliner next week? Good. Then which one of the other matchups -- McNabb vs. Culpepper, Bulger vs. Vick or Pennington vs. Roethlisberger -- most piques your interest, and why?

Eric Neel: Pennington vs. Roethlisberger is the one for me. Both guys working through/coming off injuries. Both guys unlikely leaders. Can Pennington pull the Jets out of mediocrity and into a full-blown story? Can Roethlisberger cement this amazing year with a postseason win? Will either of them look strong enough to make us think Brady or Peyton is in for a legit challenge the following week? This is a game that feels like it's a part of the Super Bowl (championship picture). The other matchups feel like JV tilts by comparison.

Jeff Merron: Both Pennington and Roethlisberger are big question marks. Their running games and defenses take a lot of the pressure off, and what I'm going to be watching for most in this matchup is who's playing with precision. Not very exciting, but mistake-free football is going to determine the winner. I've said it before and it's worth repeating: What's most impressive to me about Roethlisberger is that he's cool and is able to improvise under pressure. But a playoff game is an entirely different matter, and the Jets will be looking to exploit his smallest vulnerabilities.

Patrick Hruby: All three. I want to see McNabb with out T.O., Roethlisberger in his first playoff game, Vick because, well, he's the biggest highlight-waiting-to-happen since Barry Sanders. How's that for non-committal?

Skip Bayless: Has to be Culpepper vs. McNabb, mostly because of McNabb. Where will his head be after basically being shut down for a month in a sports-tormented city that cried doom over the loss of Terrell Owens? Coach Andy Reid chose to barely play his offensive regulars at St. Louis, then didn't play many of them in the regular-season finale.

So who's his go-to guy? Freddie Mitchell? Todd Pinkston? Brian Westbrook? Will McNabb wonder if his team has turned back into the one that has lost three straight NFC title games? Will he be rusty -- wild low or high? Will he have gained a few pounds that will seem heavier and heavier as he's forced to win the game with his legs? Will Donovan McNabb be able to match strengths with a massively talented counterpart coming off perhaps the best game of his career?

Aaron Schatz: McNabb versus anyone would be the most interesting matchup, just because we all want to see if McNabb is going to be able to make that offense work without Terrell Owens. But as an added benefit, we might see McNabb without Owens against Culpepper without Moss. We already know from midseason that Culpepper can score a good number of points without Moss, and we know from this week that even gimpy Moss can score two touchdowns if the opposing defense thinks they can get away with loose coverage on him.


Best Throw of The Week:
Eric Neel: I liked that Daunte-to-Moe-Williams improv for the first Vikings score. Reminded me a little of Plunkett-to-Kenny-King.

Jeff Merron: Chad Pennington's 47-yard arrow to Santana Moss in the third quarter.

Patrick Hruby: Manning's play-action touchdown toss to Dallas Clark, dropped in between three defenders. So much for that upgraded Broncos secondary; if the season was any indication, they should have dealt Clinton Portis for the rest of Washington's defense.

Skip Bayless: Had to be what seemed like one of the longest home runs ever hit in what used to be San Diego's baseball stadium -- Pennington to Santana Moss. For a quarterback with subpar arm strength, Pennington certainly threw an effortless bomb, nearly 65 yards in the air. It beat double coverage, barely soaring over Quentin Jammer's fingertips and settling perfectly into Moss' hands for the most shockingly beautiful play of the weekend.


Worst Throw of The Week:
Eric Neel: The last-second heave from Brees, just because the Chargers shouldn't have let themselves get in a position to need that play.

Jeff Merron: Favre's flip. Too strange.

Patrick Hruby: Favre's illegal forward pass. What do the Packers study, Aaron Brooks game tape? After the game, Mike Sherman noted that his quarterback "was trying to make a play." Yeah. A dumb one.

Skip Bayless: Not to beat a dead, uh, Bronco, but Jake the Snake turned back into Jake the Flake right on cue. No, coach Mike Shanahan didn't stick with his running game, as he should have. And yes, Shanahan should have risked going for a fourth and one at his 41 after Denver fell behind 7-0.

So now it was 14-0 and all Peyton was about to break loose. On third and six from Denver's 35, Jake Plummer threw a pass no more than 10 yards over his receiver's head. The Colts' Mike Doss intercepted it. The rout was on.