Plenty to watch in the NFC divisional playoffs
Can the Panthers keep up with the Rams? Will injuries hurt the Eagles? Those are just two things to watch in the NFC.
Here are five things to look for in the upcoming NFC divisional games:
1. Scoring. In this regard, this game is a mismatch. The Rams averaged 33.6 points a game in the Edward Jones Dome. The Panthers averaged 23.5 points in road games, but needed a 37-point season finale against the Giants to boost their average above 21. In other words, the Panthers can't get into a high-scoring shootout with the Rams. There were only three games this season in which the Panthers scored more than 23 points. The Rams lowest scoring home game was 27 points. At home, the Rams are heavy favorites.
3. Bulger was a Saints afterthought at quarterback who never had a chance to compete for a backup job. Jake Delhomme is a former backup Saints quarterback on which the Panthers staked a playoff run. And that's not to downgrade Aaron Brooks and Todd Bouman, who currently are the Saints No.1 and No. 2. Whatever it is about their styles, Bulger and Delhomme are winners. Bulger is an accurate passer who is 18-4 as a starter. Though he doesn't have a great deep arm, Bulger completed 63.2 percent of his passes and had 22 touchdown throws. Delhomme isn't as accurate, but he makes up for it with tenacity. He's brought the team from behind in the fourth quarter of games and he enabled the Panthers to set an NFL record by winning seven games by three points or less.
4. The Rams may not have to use their 4-1-6 defense because the Panthers aren't a West Coast offense team. The 4-1-6 gives the Rams plenty of speed on the field. That defense, which features only one linebacker, seemed to inspire a great finish from defensive end Grant Wistrom. The Panthers don't flood defenses with receivers. They are a running team that picks and chooses the times that they will send Steve Smith downfield. For the Rams, that's a good matchup as long as they can stop halfback Stephen Davis.
5. The best matchup of the divisional weekend might be Rams defensive end Leonard Little against Panthers right tackle Jordan Gross. The Panthers drafted Gross to be their left tackle of the future. But he was not only the best rookie right tackle in the NFL this season, he might have been the best right tackle in the NFL. Little has become one of the league's best defensive playmakers. Had he played 16 games, he might have been considered one of the defensive player of the year candidates. Little had 12½ sacks in 12 games. Gross doesn't give up many sacks.
1. What an amazing transformation these two teams have made. After two weeks of horrible games by Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, coach Andy Reid went against his instincts and ran the ball 50 percent of the time for the remainder of the season. Traditionally, the Eagles like to throw it 60-65 percent of the time. Packers coach Mike Sherman changed the emphasis of his offense by making Ahman Green's running the feature instead of Brett Favre's passing. Favre still led the league with 32 touchdown passes, but he only threw 471 passes to get those touchdowns. "Our offensive production has gone off the charts," Favre said. "I led the league in touchdown passes and I threw less than ever."
2. Injuries are affecting the Eagles more than the Packers. Losing halfback Brian Westbrook indefinitely with a torn triceps muscle was huge. Next to McNabb, Westbrook might have been the Eagles most exciting offensive player. He averaged 5.2 yards a carry, and he energized the team with his returns. Westbrook has been to three specialists, but season-ending surgery remains a possibility. Another key injury is the loss of linebacker Carlos Emmons for the season. Emmons was the Eagles best coverage linebacker. With Emmons gone, Favre will be able to throw more passes in the middle of the field to tight ends or running backs.
3. This is a matchup of two of the most aggressive defensive coaches in football. Eagles coach Jim Johnson is known for his aggressive blitzing packages. Packers cornerback Al Harris, traded to the Packers from the Eagles during the offseason, said Johnson's philosophy is to get 11 defenders going after the quarterback. Ed Donatell of the Packers runs an aggressive system that has defenders aggressively rushing into gaps. This is a scheme that usually has a defense ranked high in turnovers and sacks.
4. The Eagles biggest weakness has been stopping the run, and that's what the Packers do best. Green finished the season with 1,883 yards on 355 carries and a 5.3 yard average. The Eagles, who finished a surprising 20th in overall defense, allowed 129.4 yards a game on the ground and a staggering 4.5 yards a carry. The Packers will try to establish the run early because they are on the road.
5. Favre will try to fix his problems from the 17-14 loss to the Eagles in Lambeau on Nov. 10. It was wet, cold and rainy, and Favre was playing with a broken thumb. Favre had the ball slip from his hands three times. He wore a protector on his thumb that caused problems. The thumb is fine now, but Favre has elected to wear the thumb protector in games. He removed the protector in practice last week and plans to practice without it this week. Still, he's worried that he might re-injure the thumb by hitting a helmet, so he plans to wear the protector against the Eagles.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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