Mike Sando's game balls
Game 1: San Diego 28, Indianapolis 24
San Diego's Philip Rivers
tossed three touchdown passes against the NFL's stingiest defense. The Chargers averaged a whopping 13.9-yard gain every time Rivers attempted a pass.
Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson
caught passes on three of San Diego's six third-down conversions, including an 8-yard scoring pass to answer the Colts' first touchdown.
Backups Billy Volek
, Michael Turner
and Darren Sproles
made significant contributions for the Chargers. Volek, who finished the game after Rivers left with an injury, scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard keeper. Turner rushed for a game-high 71 yards after the Chargers lost NFL rushing champ LaDainian Tomlinson
. Sproles' 56-yard scoring reception put the Chargers ahead as the third quarter ended.
San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie
forced a fumble and picked off a pass, both in Chargers territory.
San Diego safety Eric Weddle
atoned for the holding penalty that wiped out a touchdown on Cromartie's interception return late in the first half. Weddle's one-armed interception at the Chargers' 2 protected a 14-10 lead midway through the third quarter. Weddle made the pick while falling to the ground and tangling with Colts center Jeff Saturday
Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper
finished with 16 tackles. The official gamebook listed Cooper as the only tackler on nine plays, including five that failed to produce first downs.
With the Chargers' season on the line, linebacker Shawne Merriman
pressured Peyton Manning
to throw incomplete on fourth-and-goal from the 7.
• Special teams:
Chargers punter Mike Scifres
averaged 59 yards per punt with a 43.7-yard net average. His
66-yarder in the final two minutes forced the Colts to take over at their own 32 instead of at midfield.
Game 2: N.Y. Giants 21, Dallas 17
Giants quarterback Eli Manning
did it again in the playoffs, performing nearly error-free for most of the game. He averaged 9.1 yards per attempt with a 132.4 rating despite the absence of a strong ground game. Manning had two touchdowns, giving him four in the playoffs, with no interceptions.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
led all players with seven catches for 81 yards. His quick thinking and route adjustment allowed quarterback Tony Romo
to find him with a flip pass as Dallas tried to rally late in the game. Witten's blocking also helped Marion Barber
top 100 yards rushing in the first half.
's 4-yard scoring reception right before halftime gave the Giants momentum heading into the second half. Toomer caught four passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns. He was open in the left flat on a key third-down play late in the game, but the Cowboys' pass rush prevented Manning from throwing to him.
Giants defensive linemen Osi Umenyiora
, Justin Tuck
and Michael Strahan
were relentless deep into the game even though New York's defense had spent far too much time on the field. The three combined for five quarterback hits. Strahan came out of the game for stretches, and Tuck needed help coming off the field during the final drive, but they persevered. Strahan had eight tackles.
Giants defensive backs Gibril Wilson
and R.W. McQuarters
don't always inspire confidence in coverage, but they are fighters. Wilson broke up a potential touchdown pass to Anthony Fasano
in the third quarter. The Cowboys settled for a field goal on the drive. McQuarters picked off Romo in the end zone as time ran out on Dallas.
• Special teams:
McQuarters' 25-yard punt return late in the third quarter put the Giants in position for the go-ahead touchdown drive. Both punters were mostly effective, but Dallas' Mat McBriar
came through in the fourth quarter with a 58-yarder to the New York 3. The punt precipitated a three-and-out series by the Giants, putting the Cowboys' offense in position near midfield on the next Dallas possession.
• Scouts Inc.'s Buzz
Chargers 28, Colts 24:
Norv Turner's game plan was to rely on running backs LaDainian Tomlinson
and Michael Turner
to set up QB Philip Rivers
and the Chargers' play-action attack. However, with the injuries to LT and Rivers, the San Diego offensive line dominated the trenches, and punter Mike Scifres
was flawless in the hidden yardage that resulted in the outcome. -- Keith Kidd
Giants 21, Cowboys 17:
This was an evenly fought battle between two very well balanced offenses that allowed their respective offensive coordinators many options with the play calling. As the game went on, Dallas could not capitalize on some single coverage on the back end, having an increasingly difficult time protecting Tony Romo
. -- Doug Kretz
• Experts' picks: How did we do? Sunday Countdown | ESPN.com
An early look at looming story lines:
1. Tough draw for Cromartie, Chargers:
Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie
has proved himself as one of the NFL's finest shutdown cornerbacks. Cromartie can cement that status if he shuts down New England's Randy Moss
while leading San Diego to an upset victory in the AFC title game. Shutting down Moss could be far easier than that other part. Moss caught one pass against Jacksonville on Saturday, but the Patriots still won by double digits. Opponents held Moss below five catches four times in the regular season. New England won those games by scores of 34-17 (Cleveland), 49-28 (Miami), 52-7 (Washington) and 27-24 (Baltimore).
2. Brady won't hold the ball: Peyton Manning
held the ball and nearly took a key fourth-down sack when the Colts were trying to rally against the Chargers. Manning threw incomplete and short of the first-down marker as Chargers pass-rusher Shawne Merriman
took him down. As tough as Manning can be to sack, Brady possesses what one rival defensive coach called a "spider sense" in the pocket. He won't be waiting for Merriman to take him down, in other words. The Patriots' offensive line has earned the praise it receives, but quarterbacks are often the key to avoiding sacks, and few have handled pressure as well as Brady.
3. Favre won't hold it, either:
A similar story line could play out in the NFC title game at Green Bay. The Giants frustrated Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo
, who took extra punishment by holding the ball in a desperate attempt to make plays. Packers quarterback Brett Favre
took only 15 sacks during the regular season. Green Bay took fewer sacks per pass attempt than New England, and the Packers eliminated the Seahawks' pass rush in the divisional round.
4. Reflections on the 2004 draft:
Two of the top four picks from the 2004 draft are leading their teams deeper in the playoffs than experts said they would. The Giants' Eli Manning
(No. 1 overall) and the Chargers' Philip Rivers
(fourth overall) remain linked by the draft-day trade that sent Manning from the Chargers to the Giants for picks San Diego used to draft Rivers, Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding
. Nine of the 11 players San Diego drafted that year remain on 53-man rosters. Green Bay, New England and the Giants drafted 21 players in 2004, but only eight were on active rosters heading into the divisional round.
-- Mike Sando
• NFL playoffs schedule