Packers looking to avenge earlier loss

The divisional round features four great matchups, with the Packers rematch against the Eagles leading the way.

Updated: January 11, 2004, 8:53 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's "First ... And Goal" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the weekend followed by primers for the other three games.

First ...

  • Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 4:45 p.m. ET, FOX): The Packers can't get the visions of their Nov. 10 loss at home to the Philadelphia Eagles out of their minds.

    Donovan McNabb
    Donovan McNabb led the Eagles past the Packers in Week 10.
    Sure, the Packers felt they outplayed the Eagles on a sloppy, cold, wet Monday night game. Ahman Green rushed for 192 yards, and until the end of the game the defense contained quarterback Donovan McNabb.

    But mistakes killed the Pack. Brett Favre had three fumbles fall from his hands. The Packers had six fumbles overall, losing two of them. McNabb hit Todd Pinkston with a 6-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds left to win, 17-14.

    The Packers will have to try to get their revenge Sunday on the road. While the Eagles are the top seed in the NFC, they don't have that aura of dominance around them. For one, they are injured. Since that November game against the Packers, the Eagles lost their sparkplug on offense -- Brian Westbrook -- and their best coverage linebacker -- Carlos Emmons. The only plus is that they should have cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent back together, something they didn't have in that November Monday night game.

    The two keys for the Eagles are McNabb and their run defense. McNabb bounced back from a horrible two-game start to finish as a Pro Bowler. Though his games may not be pretty, McNabb has done enough to win. With a completion percentage of 57.5 percent and just 16 touchdown passes, McNabb had a quarterback rating of only 79.6 (ninth in NFC and 16th in NFL).

    All of this gives the Packers some confidence and some hope of pulling the upset on the road. Sure, the Packers fear McNabb and they should. It was McNabb who led the comeback at Lambeau in November. What they don't fear is the Eagles receiving corps.

    Packers cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Al Harris, just came through a tough game against two receivers -- Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson of the Seahawks -- who are more dangerous than the wide receivers on the Eagles. James Thrash and Pinkston are solid pass-catchers, but they don't have that big-play potentital.

    Meanwhile, the Packers enter the game on a roll. Favre has been a hot quarterback in December. As he did a year ago, wide receiver Javon Walker saved some of his best performances for the end of the season and the first game of the playoffs.

    But this matchup comes down to the Eagles run defense containing Green. Early season injuries to the Eagles defensive line left them vulnerable against the run. On the season the Eagles have given up 129.4 yards a game on the ground (No. 22 in NFL) and a ridiculously high 4.5 yard per carry average.

    Green finished with 1,883 yards and a 5.3 yard average, and if the Eagles copy the Seahawks game plan of rushing the safeties to the line on every play, Favre will send Green and fullback William Henderson into pass routes for short passes.

    The Eagles are favored and should be, but the Packers feel as though they can pull off an upset. Their defense is better now that five new starters have picked up all the nuances of their defense. Only the Patriots finished the second half of the season allowing less points.

    ... And goal

  • Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS): Can the Patriots be stopped?

    Though they don't look like a dominating team, New England has been unstoppable. Bill Belichick has stressed team and won 12 straight games to finish 14-2. Sure, there isn't a 1,000-yard runner. There aren't any Pro Bowl receivers. Their offensive line doesn't have a Pro Bowler.

    All the Patriots do is win. They have a great defensive scheme, sensational defensive role players and quarterback Tom Brady, who is gaining more respect as one of the game's most valuable players.

    What's amazing about the Patriots is that they can win any type of game. They can get into high scoring affairs against the Colts and Titans. They can win low scoring defensive struggles. They just win. Their record against teams with winning records this season was 7-0.

    Still, the Titans have a chance. They lost to the Patriots in Week 5 38-30. In that game, Titans quarterback Steve McNair was picked off by cornerback Ty Law, who returned it 65 yards for a touchdown with 1:49 left to give New England a 38-27 lead.

    That's what gives the Titans hope. McNair usually makes the touchdown play not the interception. McNair's calf and ankle are bothering him. Twice during last Saturday's playoff victory over Baltimore, McNair re-injured the ankle that has a bone spur and a crack.

    That injury affected his throwing, particularly on the long throws and McNair ended up with three interceptions. Eddie George has a bad ankle and a dislocated left shoulder.

    This game comes down to McNair versus Brady. McNair looks back on the first meeting as a game that slipped away. Brady looks back at it as just another win.

  • Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS): The Kansas City Chiefs needed the bye week. Their defense dropped off so much during the second half of the season that players needed an emotional break, just to get away.

    Facing the Colts isn't the best tonic, though. The Chiefs' inability to stop the run and the pass down the stretch was well documented. Though they won 13 games and clinched a playoff bye, the Chiefs finished with the worst defensive numbers of all the playoff teams. They were 29th for yardage allowed (356.7). They gave up 146.5 yards on the ground and through the air, they allowed 210 yards per game and 19 touchdown passes.

    Dick Vermeil eased a lot of minds on the team by deciding to return for another season. The players love Vermeil because they've watched him build something special over the past three seasons.

    But did the week off allow the Chiefs defense to fix their problems? Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James can take advantage of all the things that have been wrong with the Chiefs defense.

    Manning is coming off his first playoff victory, a five-touchdown passing performance in ripping apart the Broncos. As good as the Colts were last week, they believe their offense plays better on the road.

    Weather conditions aren't expected to be a problem for the Colts passing offense. Temperatures are expected to be in the 40s. What makes the Colts offense so dangerous on the road is that they seem to focus better with their no-huddle offense away from home.

    Manning is an expert at calling plays at the line of scrimmage and in road games, offensive players have fewer false starts than at home.

    The Chiefs' biggest challenge will be pressuring Manning, who was only sacked 18 times. If the Chiefs blitz and don't get to him, Manning could pick them apart for big plays.

    Vermeil said the most impressive part of the Colts offense is its number of long, time consuming drives. They don't have many three-and-outs. So the Chiefs have to pressure Manning to get him out of rhythm. But Vermeil can't afford to give up the big plays.

    Big plays have been what has killed the Chiefs defense.

  • Carolina Panthers at St. Louis Rams (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX): Mike Martz runs a high-risk offense. He loves taking chances. Quarterback Marc Bulger threw 22 interceptions (tied for the most in the NFL) yet the Rams finished with the second seed in the NFC.

    High-risk means high-scoring and that's the type of game the Panthers can't play. If the Rams score 27 or more points, the Panthers may be blown out. Their game is ball control. They take time off the clock with the running of halfback Stephen Davis. Jake Delhomme works the ball down field in short spurts. His main receiving target is Steve Smith, one of the smallest receivers in the NFL at 5-9.

    It's no wonder the Rams come into this game thinking the only way they lose is if they beat themselves. But that's exactly what Panthers coach John Fox is hoping for.

    Fox had a lot of success against the Rams offense when he was defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. He had ways of applying pressure to the quarterback without sacrificing too much coverage.

    But this is a different Rams offense than anything Fox has faced in the past. Fox has perhaps the league's best defensive line, featuring ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. This line is great against the run and the pass.

    But since putting Bulger in as the starting quarterback, Martz has done more max protection packages, keeping six or seven blockers to give Bulger time to pass. Four-man rushes shouldn't beat extra blocking, so if the strategy works in the Rams favor, Bulger will take advantage of the Panthers weakness -- pass coverage.

    Cornerbacks Ricky Manning Jr., Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin can't be asked to stay with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and whoever is the Rams third receiver for three or more seconds. If Bulger gets three seconds to throw, he'll find an open receiver.

    That puts Fox in the position of sending extra defenders to rush the quarterback, and that weakens the coverage. In the old days when Fox was in New York and Kurt Warner was the Rams quarterback, Martz would only keep five in to block for him and that played into Fox's hand.

    For the Panthers to stay with the Rams, they have to play a flawless, turnover-free game in which they dominate the ball on the ground and keep the Rams offense off the field.

    Of the four matchups this weekends, the Panthers have the toughest challenge just to stay in this game.

    John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

    John Clayton

    NFL senior writer
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