Sunday Countdown online: Your weekly NFL guide

Updated: January 17, 2008

Weekly Picks

Mike Ditka Keyshawn Johnson Emmitt Smith Chris Mortensen Tom Jackson
  Ditka Johnson Smith Mortensen Jackson
San Diego @ New England San Diego New England New England New England New England
N.Y. Giants @ Green Bay Green Bay Green Bay Green Bay Green Bay Green Bay
Wild Card Record 2-2 2-2 2-2 2-2 2-2
Overall Record 171-93 175-89 173-91 167-97 174-90
More picks: Our other experts' selections | SportsNation: Pick Conference Championship Games

Countdown Confidential

by Rachel Nichols, Sal Paolantonio, Bob Holtzman and Ed Werder

One-gloved wonder: If Eli Manning resembles Michael Jackson on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisc., it's not because he's auditioning for "American Idol." The New York Giants quarterback is just trying to keep warm.

Manning will not wear a glove on his throwing hand. "I have never done it before, and I am not going to start now," he said. But he has been practicing with a glove on his left hand, just in case he decides he needs more insulation from temperatures that could drop to minus-2 degrees by kickoff. As a group, the Giants also have been trying to prepare for the cold by practicing outside. That's something they didn't do before some of the cold-weather games they lost earlier this season.

Still, there is only so much any of them can do. Coach Tom Coughlin says he's not putting any balls in a freezer, or going to any other extreme steps to simulate cold conditions against the Green Bay Packers. And the Giants' offensive line doesn't seem to think it's going to be that cold in the first place. Forget gloves; most of the linemen say they will play without sleeves.

"Sleeves," says center Grey Ruegamer, "are for skill-position players."

-- Rachel Nichols

Lessons learned? Forget, for a moment, that the San Diego Chargers are going to travel all the way across the continent to play the AFC Championship Game on Sunday in single-digit cold.

Forget, too, that the Chargers lost to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 16 by more than three touchdowns.

Also, set aside for a second that San Diego's big three -- Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates -- are dealing with injuries of varying degrees of seriousness.

The cold reality is this: If Tom Brady is going to be allowed to complete 92.9 percent of his passes -- like he did last Saturday night against Jacksonville -- the Chargers might as well just stay on the West Coast.

Bill Bradley/Ted Cottrell/Antonio Gates

Kevin Terrell/Getty Images

What does Ted Cottrell (center) have planned for the Patriots' offense?

The Jaguars' defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, decided it was too risky to blitz Brady regularly -- but the result was Brady's historic night. Brady was sacked on the first play, then he played seven-on-seven, often patting the ball not once, not twice, but three times while he waited for Wes Welker or Kevin Faulk to wriggle free.

The Patriots had only eight drives, but three of them went for 10 plays or more. Indeed, even though the Patriots had the fewest possessions this season, they led the NFL with 41 drives of 10 plays or more. (That's 15 more than the league average of 26.)

The Chargers' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell runs a more aggressive 3-4 scheme than the Jaguars. San Diego did sack Brady twice back in September. But Brady also hit Randy Moss eight times, including two touchdown passes. (Moss was limited to just one catch for 14 yards by Jacksonville.)

Certainly, Cottrell watched that horror film of Saturday night's game. So, he must find a way to pressure Brady without exposing his secondary to the incandescent Moss, because another night of near perfection from Tom Terrific means the Patriots will continue their pursuit of history in Arizona.

-- Sal Paolantonio

Watch those words: Before the Chargers beat the Tennessee Titans 17-6 in the wild-card round two weeks ago, Tennessee center Kevin Mawae told me, "there is a healthy dislike for [the Chargers] around the league because they talk so much."

Even with the undefeated Patriots ahead, the Chargers still are talking.

This week, when asked about facing the Patriots, Chargers defensive lineman Igor Olshansky told a San Diego television station, "Who? New England? Seriously, they're more worried than we are, I promise you. Believe me, they know what's up."

Igor Olshansky

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Igor Olshansky aims to back up the tough talk.

Chargers head coach Norv Turner wasn't amused. I'm told Turner addressed Olshansky's comments with the team on Monday and urged players to speak carefully with reporters the rest of the week.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who will spend much of Sunday locked up with Randy Moss, is playing it safe. Cromartie said he'd post a sign up in his locker -- "no interviews."

-- Bob Holtzman

Cold Favre facts: When the game-time temperature approximates the number on his Green Bay jersey -- as is forecast for Sunday's NFC Championship Game -- Packers quarterback Brett Favre is virtually unbeatable. Favre's record at Lambeau Field in single-digit temperatures is 3-0, and he is 9-1 at home when the high temperature is 20 degrees or less.

Head coach Mike McCarthy attributes that success to the fact Favre holds the football with 10-inch hands, which is extremely large. That improves his grip on a hard, slippery surface when other quarterbacks struggle even when wearing gloves. Favre says it is simply a matter of mental toughness and understanding that every movement must be carefully executed and nothing assumed.

"Everything you do has to be thought about,'' Favre said. "You just can't come back and hand off. You can't just toss the ball without thinking about it. You just can't drop back and make a throw.'"


Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

Brett Favre excels in the cold, in part due to his huge hands.

The Giants should be forewarned that Favre delivered his best cold-weather performance in the 1996 NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns in 3-degree temperatures and sub-zero windchills. Afterward, Favre laughed and said, "I put Vaseline in places I didn't know you could put Vaseline."

The perception that Favre prefers harsh conditions is false, although he recognizes the advantage it provides his team and therefore views the complications that come with playing as more of a challenge than a hardship. Not to mention an occupational hazard for every successful Green Bay quarterback.

"Someone has to do it," Favre said. "I've always said they'll pay someone else to do it if not me and I enjoy doing it, and I consider it a huge challenge. For those three hours you have to be better than the next guy. I don't know if I've played that outstanding in bad weather. I guess better than the next guy."

The next guy Sunday is another Southerner: Giants quarterback Eli Manning, whose performance steadily diminishes in direct correlation with falling mercury.

-- Ed Werder

Divisional Playoffs: Numbers Crunching

by Aaron Schatz,

Each week, Football Outsiders takes a look at every game with a mix of interesting numbers and in-depth statistical analysis. Football Outsiders stats explained here.

Chargers at Patriots (Sunday), 3 p.m. ET The New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers had the top two red zone offenses in the league in the regular season, according to DVOA.

The Chargers also had the top defense in the red zone, which was astounding, considering they had the worst red zone defense in 2006. In addition, the Chargers had the best defense in the next 20-yard area, when their opponent was between the 21- and 40-yard lines. New England's offense ranked fourth in this area. The Indianapolis Colts, whom the Chargers beat last Sunday, had the best offense in this area.

The Chargers ranked seventh in DVOA against No. 1 receivers and first against No. 2 receivers, but 30th against other (i.e., slot) receivers. The San Diego pass defense dramatically improved at midseason against the starting receivers, but only slightly against other receivers. This is not a good weakness to have against Wes Welker.

• More Chargers-Patriots: Intel Report | EA Simulation | Preview ESPN Video

Giants at Packers (Sunday), 6:30 p.m. ET

According to Adjusted Sack Rate, the Green Bay Packers had the best offense in terms of avoiding sacks, while the New York Giants had the best pass rush.

We can attribute the upswing in the Packers' rushing performance almost entirely to Ryan Grant. After Week 6, when Grant became a factor, the Packers' average yards per carry by running backs improved from 3.57 to 4.90, but their Adjusted Line Yards (which filters out longer runs in an attempt to better measure the offensive line) only improved from 3.58 to 4.12.

The Packers did not blitz very often. According to our game-charting numbers, only three defenses were less likely to send more than four pass-rushers. The Packers might want to try blitzing a little more in this game. During the regular season, Eli Manning struggled more when the defense big-blitzed, averaging a yard per play less.

• More Giants-Packers: Intel Report | EA Simulation

More Conference Championship previews from Football Outsiders


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Ask Sunday Countdown

On This Week

Sun., 11 a.m. ET
  • Brett Favre sits down one-on-one with Chris Berman to discuss Green Bay's magical season and Favre's renaissance on the field.

  • Injury news, weather updates, everything in between -- reporters stationed with all four teams on championship weekend -- to deliver the latest news.

  • The "E-SPN True Hollywood Story" on Pats QB Tom Brady -- the secret life before his football career -- as the fourth brother on "The Brady Bunch."

  • Ravens LB Ray Lewis joins us in-studio to break down championship weekend.


Chat Wrap

with Chris Mortensen

Philip Rivers

Mike (Minneapolis): Why are people making such a big deal of Philip Rivers talking trash when other players do it just as often? Rodney Harrison makes Rivers' smack talk look like child's play but he gets a free ride?

Mortensen: It's because he's a quarterback and I don't believe Rodney Harrison talks more smack than Rivers. It's funny, when Rivers came out for the draft I asked a coach on that staff (who loved Philip) to tell me the one thing about him that nobody knows. He told me Rivers was one of the biggest trash talkers anyone will ever see. Quarterbacks are supposed to be different.

Henry (Silver Spring, Md.): Is Gregg Williams the No. 1 coaching choice for the Redskins? If not, who is?

Mortensen: I have assumed Williams is the leading candidate but watch out for Jim Mora. He will interview very well.

Denny (Atlanta): Kind of under the radar, but I think a good move by the Browns in getting rid of Todd Grantham for Mel Tucker [as defensive coordinator]. Have you heard anything about what went down there?

Mortensen: I heard it was more about personality and chemistry than anything else.

David Garrard

Terrence (Jacksonville, Fla.): Mort, does David Garrard make Tony Romo or Matt Schaub money next year? Are the rumors true that Larry Fitzgerald or Chad Johnson could end up wearing Jaguar teal in 2008?

Mortensen: I would hope the Jags would do the right thing and give Garrard a contract that compares to Romo and Schaub. I don't know about the receivers. That would have to take a trade and it's a little early.

Larry (Boston): Mort, do you see ex-Nebraska coach Bill Callahan getting back into the NFL this year as an assistant?

Mortensen: I expect it, maybe even back with the Bucs as an assistant head coach or with somebody else as line coach.

Falcons Fan: Who do you see out there that would be crazy in being interested in the head coaching job? After all, all we have going for us is that we have an owner that is willing to do whatever it takes to be successful!

Mortensen: Rex Ryan will take it. Jim Caldwell will, too.

Adam (Lakefield, Minn.): Big, frustrated Vikings fan. Do you think Tarvaris Jackson is the short-term answer with our aging defense, to take us to the playoffs, or does the team need to look at free-agency next year. If so, what are some good options?

Mortensen: I think they need to bring in an upgrade with a veteran, but still with the idea that Jackson is the starter until he plays himself out of it. The Vikes have a shot to be a playoff team, without question.

Matt (Philly): Is Jim Harbaugh a candidate for any head coaching positions?

Mortensen: No, but his brother John Harbaugh (Eagles) has an excellent shot at the Ravens job if Garrett passes.

Complete chat transcript  

Notes from the Film Room

by Gary Horton

After spending the week in the film room here are just a few of the things I saw heading into the AFC and NFC Championship Games:

Chargers D is much more aggressive

The Chargers' defense has completely changed since playing the Patriots in Week 2. During that game, the Chargers were in a bend-but-don't-break scheme and never pressured Tom Brady nor challenged the Patriots' WRs. Even more surprising, LBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips were dropping back and playing man-off zone coverages rather than attacking the quarterback. This soft defensive scheme is how the Chargers played up until Week 10.

After being destroyed in Week 9 by the Vikings, San Diego changed its defensive philosophy the next week against the Colts. The Chargers became more aggressive. Merriman and Phillips started attacking off the edges and getting pressure on the quarterback. During this game Peyton Manning threw six interceptions, including three to CB Antonio Cromartie, who took over the starting role. With Cromartie starting, the Chargers had three quality cover corners because CB Drayton Florence became the nickel back. With three good CBs the Chargers have been able to play more tight man-to-man coverage schemes with two safeties in zone over the top. This is very important because it doesn't compromise the team's ability to pass rush.

Since the Chargers' defensive turnaround, they are attacking more, creating a great pass rush, running some creative schemes and using zone blitzes. They are even bringing Merriman and Phillips through the same gap. Overall, the defensive adjustments the Chargers have made make them a better team.

Cut-back running will be key in Green Bay

The Packers' running game was dominant against Seattle on the semifrozen field. RB Ryan Grant ran for three TDs on 201 yards and gained the majority of his yards off cut-back runs. The Packers' offensive line did a great job with its zone-blocking scheme. They squared up and filled the zones well, which allowed Grant to have a big day. Grant would often follow his fullback off tackle and Seattle's over-aggressive defense would key on him, while the Packers' offensive line sealed the back side. This allowed Grant to cut back against the grain and pick up huge chunks of yardage.

This strategy should be very effective again Sunday versus the Giants because their defense is also very aggressive. The Giants defenders need to make sure they stay home and don't overpursue, especially if Lambeau Field is frozen. Because footing will become an issue and it will be that much tougher to stop, change directions and pursue Grant.

Complete Gary Horton column