Chargers, Colts look to restore order
Upsets have ruled so far in the AFC, but Rivers and Manning await their say
Can the upset specials continue in the AFC as the playoffs move to the divisional round?
Peyton Manning of the Colts and Philip Rivers of the Chargers will have something to say about that. The fifth and sixth seeds in the AFC advanced with the Jets upsetting the Bengals 24-14 on Saturday and the Ravens blowing out the Patriots 33-14 on Sunday.
Home-field advantage hasn't meant a lot in recent years in the AFC playoffs, but the Chargers and Colts are two of the better home teams.
The Chargers-Jets game next Sunday should be the most physical. The Colts-Ravens game Saturday night could be the closest -- their regular-season meeting was a 17-15 Colts victory in Baltimore. Colts-Ravens is the headliner because of the big names: Manning, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and others.
Here are the 10 biggest questions on Round 2 of the AFC playoffs.
1. What's happened to home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs?
Since 2004, AFC home teams are only 12-11 in the playoffs. In the divisional round, AFC home teams, refreshed with a bye week, are only 5-4. The Colts lost two years ago at home in the divisional round to the Chargers.
On paper, you'd have to figure that the trend should change this year. The Jets will try to match a rookie quarterback and a low-scoring running attack against Rivers and the high-scoring Chargers. The Ravens lost a home game to the Colts in November and now must win in Indianapolis to advance.
In recent years, great quarterbacks have given the road teams an edge in the divisional round. Tom Brady, Manning, Rivers and Joe Flacco -- who beat Kerry Collins and the Titans in the playoffs last year -- were the quarterbacks who pulled off road wins in the divisional round. In 2009, it's all about the quarterbacks, and the Colts and Chargers have the better quarterbacks, plus the home crowd.
2. How healthy are the teams going into next week's games?
All four teams are in reasonably good shape. In the regular-season finale, the Colts had a dozen players whom trainers advised not to play. The only questions heading into this week of preparation are left tackle Charlie Johnson (foot), right tackle Ryan Diem (elbow) and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson (shoulder). All three should be able to practice before the end of the week and, if they do, they will be able to play. Colts coach Jim Caldwell has decided to use veteran kicker Matt Stover and scratch Adam Vinatieri, who has been out most of the season with a knee injury.
The Chargers don't expect to have any problems. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson rested a foot injury all last week and should be fine. A week off also has helped the foot problems of linebacker Shawne Merriman, who sat out the regular-season finale. The Chargers will be without backup linebacker and special-teamer James Holt, who was placed on injured reserve last week.
Jets linebacker David Harris played against the Bengals despite an ankle injury. Safety Eric Weddle should bounce back from his knee injury. Jets punter Steve Weatherford missed Saturday's game with an irregular heartbeat and hasn't been cleared to play -- place-kicker Jay Feely handled the punting against the Bengals. Cornerback Donald Strickland missed the Bengals game because of a quad injury and might be a question mark for the divisional round.
The Ravens don't have many injury issues. Safety Ed Reed is back from a groin injury. Wide receiver Derrick Mason's knee is fine. Flacco has battled injuries and was flat against the Patriots, but he should be ready. Tight end Todd Heap suffered a neck stinger on Sunday but said he was fine after the game. Jets linebacker Bart Scott suffered an ankle injury that will limit him in practice this week, but he's expected to play against the Colts.
3. Can rookie QB Mark Sanchez be like Flacco in 2008 and take the Jets to the AFC title game?
It's hard to think that Sanchez can beat Rivers on the road. Two things are working against the Jets. First, they must fly across the country and play on a short week. Second, Sanchez must almost play a perfect game, and even a perfect game might not be good enough because Rivers -- like Manning -- can beat teams with a late fourth-quarter drive. Sanchez was almost flawless against the Bengals. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards, but 41 running plays enabled him to execute the play-action pass to perfection -- he was 5-of-6 for 108 yards on play-action passes. He would have had six play-action completions but Braylon Edwards dropped a touchdown pass in the first half.
New York, however, is a threat against San Diego because of its ability to run. The Chargers aren't good at stopping the run -- they give up 117.6 yards a game on the ground and 4.5 yards per carry, and are down to their fourth-string nose tackle, Ian Scott. The Jets will use the running formula next week to try to pull off the upset.
4. Who will Darrelle Revis match up against and what impact will that have on the game?
Revis will likely get Vincent Jackson, one of the more interesting matchups for Revis this season. Rivers loves to throw the ball high to the 6-foot-5 Jackson and the rest of his tall pass-catchers, even if there is tight coverage. Revis has had an incredible season -- he's gone against Wayne, Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith of the Panthers and Chad Ochocinco. Ochocinco caught two passes for 28 yards in two games against Revis. None of those star receivers had better than a 35-yard day against Revis. Still, Jackson is big and physical. Revis will have his hands full.
5. Who has the coaching advantages in this round?
A new wave of coaches has taken control of the AFC. John Harbaugh of the Ravens is now 3-1 in the playoffs and has been to a conference championship game. Norv Turner has a 3-2 playoff record with the Chargers and is the dean of this round. He has beaten the Colts in each of the past two years. The Jets' Rex Ryan is 1-0 after beating the Bengals. Caldwell will be making his playoff debut.
The interesting twist is in the Jets-Chargers game. Had San Diego general manager A.J. Smith not given the job to Turner in 2007, Ryan might have been his choice. When Ryan didn't get the Chargers job, he stayed in Baltimore as defensive coordinator and hoped the Ravens would elevate him to head coach if anything happened to Brian Billick. Well, Billick was fired after the 2007 season and the Ravens hired Harbaugh over Ryan. Instead of pouting, Ryan helped Baltimore advance to the AFC title game and then took the Jets' head coaching job.
6. Aside from trying to stop Manning, what is the biggest worry for Harbaugh and the Ravens?
They are going to need a better game from Flacco. Maybe it's a quad injury, maybe it's a multitude of injuries he played with during the season, but Flacco has been flat in recent weeks, forcing the Ravens to rely more on the running game. Flacco completed only 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards and had a 10 quarterback rating against the Patriots.
Regarding his leg injury, Flacco said: "I have to make sure I take the next couple of days to give it a little rest and then get ready for Indianapolis. I feel like I'll be feeling great and moving 100 percent when we get there next week."
In the Nov. 22 meeting between the Colts and Ravens, Flacco was pretty good. He completed 23 of 35 passes for 256 yards. Since then, he's had four games in which he's completed less than 60 percent of his passes and his numbers have been gradually decreasing. He's had four sub-200-yard passing games since playing the Colts and has thrown for 166, 102 and 34 yards in his past three games. Fortunately for Flacco, the Ravens' running game has picked up the slack: The Ravens ran for 234 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries against the Patriots.
Early in the season, the Ravens relied more on the pass, figuring it was easier for Flacco to navigate through a tough schedule filled with run-stopping 3-4 defenses. Flacco's struggles have the Ravens back to where they were a year ago, when they averaged 37 carries a game. They are going to need Flacco to be better because Manning threw for 299 yards in the first meeting and the Ravens' secondary is thinner than it was in November.
7. How important will kickers be in this round?
Very important because the Ravens might have had a better record had they re-signed Stover and not gone with Steven Hauschka. Harbaugh, a former special-teams coach, preferred the young leg of Hauschka over Stover. Hauschka missed four critical field goals that cost the Ravens two games and was cut. Billy Cundiff replaced him and has been moderately successful, going 12-for-17 during the regular season and 2-for-2 on Sunday.
Stover was signed by the Colts to fill in for Vinatieri and he went 9-for-11 in the regular season. The Chargers have arguably the best kicker in football, Nate Kaeding, who has made 32 of 35 field goals. The Jets' Feely, who made 30 of 36 field goals in the regular season, is the second-best kicker in this round. (What's more, Feely bailed out the Jets on Saturday and handled the punting duties when Weatherford wasn't cleared to play because of an irregular heartbeat.) And if you don't think kicking is important, consider this: In November, the Ravens scored their 15 points against the Colts on five field goals by Cundiff.
8. What type of defensive schemes dominate the AFC divisional round?
The Colts are the only team in the AFC final four with a 4-3 defense. The Jets, Chargers and Ravens run the 3-4, but all three lack dominating nose tackles. The Chargers lost nose tackle Jamal Williams for the season, the Jets lost Kris Jenkins for the season and although the Ravens have one of the most dominating interior defensive linemen in football in Haloti Ngata, they start Kelly Gregg at the nose.
As stated above, the Chargers have trouble stopping the run, and will probably have problems trying to stop Jets running backs Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. The Ravens, who allowed 93.3 yards a game in the regular season, and the Jets, who allowed 98.6, are very at good stopping the run. The Jets are the most active blitzing team in the league. Rivers will feel the heat.
9. Will officiating play a big role in this round?
Absolutely. During the regular season, only 13.9 penalties were called a game. Referee Ed Hochuli called 23 in the Cowboys' victory over the Eagles, and Bill Leavy called 15 in the Jets' victory over the Bengals. The team that has to worry the most about a closely officiated game is the Ravens. They had 115 penalties called against them during the regular season, tied with the Cowboys and Eagles as the third-most-penalized team in football.
A closely officiated game is usually low scoring, but the Ravens tend to help opposing offenses with numerous defensive penalties -- personal fouls, interference and others. The Ravens had only three penalties against the Patriots, but the game was a blowout from the first quarter. The Colts were the second-least-penalized team with 74, the Chargers were tied for sixth with 78 and the Jets tied for 12th with 88.
10. Which team and which player are feeling the most pressure in this round?
The Colts and Manning have the most pressure to win. Because the organization opted to bench starters and give up the chance at a 16-0 season, the Colts will be ripped by the local media and fans if they lose. The pressure is on Manning to get the team to the Super Bowl. He's 7-8 as a playoff starter. This is a game he must win.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2009 NFL PLAYOFFS: ROAD TO MIAMI