Thursday, January 9
Two steps from San Diego
By John Madden
Here is my look at the teams, players and coaches for Saturday's two playoff games.
Click here for my preview of Sunday's games.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET)
This contest is going to be about being able to run the ball and being able to stop the run. I just think it's going to be that kind of game. In their last meeting in Week 11, the Steelers weren't able to run the ball and they're going to need to be able to do that this time. That won't be easy, though, against that good Titans' defense.
Pittsburgh had to play a tough game last Sunday against Cleveland and come from behind to win. And sometimes momentum from that does help you. You can get confidence and those kinds of things from a game like that.
Maddox has had a heckuva season and wide receiver Plaxico Burress has really played well since Maddox took over as the team's starting quarterback. Hines Ward is a guy who catches a lot of balls, and rookie Antwaan Randle El can make some plays, too.
The Steelers have a lot of different ways to go. If you stop running backs Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, they still have a lot of other guys that can make plays offensively. No matter what the score is, they're never out of any game and they showed that in beating the Browns.
But Tennessee has more of the advantages in this one. The Titans didn't play last weekend because they had a bye and they're playing at home, and those are things they earned by having the better record.
They also have the confidence from the last time they played 'em and beat 'em, and they have confidence from being able to handle the run in that win. They allowed 45 yards rushing in that contest and you'd have to feel that they think they can do the same thing again.
Tennessee has been outstanding with quarterback Steve McNair leading the way. Just some of the things that he's been able to do without practicing have been amazing. He not only plays in the games without practicing, he takes the whole team on his shoulders and that's been something to watch. With his running, his throwing and his competitiveness, he's a special guy who has had a special season. And I don't know that it's going to be stopped now.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
Having said that, however, Vick has impressed me in that he can make those decisions. And it's a tough deal if you blitz and he gets by you. If you bring seven players, all you have are four left and he goes to work on those four. He's really tough to defend. He can stay in the pocket and throw the ball, or he can move and throw the ball, or move and run with the ball. And he can do those things faster than anyone you have on your team. And that's what Philadelphia's going to have to deal with.
And when Vick's not using his speed and quickness, running back Warrick Dunn is using his, and for short yardage and goal-line situations, the Falcons bring in big, ol' T.J. Duckett. They have some pretty good things going on offense.
Defensively, under coordinator Wade Phillips, they don't have a lot of superstars, but they do play well together as a group and they played that way in beating Green Bay.
Donovan McNabb will be the Eagles' starting quarterback for this game, and you wonder how he'll be after not playing since mid-November. I don't think he'll be that rusty. He played quite a bit in the regular season before he got hurt and he's been studying a lot since then. He's a really smart guy. He's also a gutsy guy. I remember that game with Arizona when he got hurt early, yet he stayed in there and threw four touchdown passes. That was amazing.
While he was gone, Philadelphia got used to doing a lot of other things and using a lot of other players. Running back Duce Staley stepped up and played well, their defense stepped up and did a good job, and they proved that they weren't the one-man gang that a lot of people thought they were. They became a better team, and now that they get McNabb back, that's going to help him because he knows that it doesn't have to all be on his shoulders. He knows that his team can win without him having to make every play. And that's going to be pretty good for him.