Plenty to watch in rematches from Week 13
Indianapolis' goal-line offense and the health of Stephen Davis are among the intriguing storylines of next weekend's title games.
The NFL's Final Four is all about growth. Who advances to Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston could be determined by which foe has improved the most since meeting the other on Nov. 30.
Of the four, the Colts might be coming together the best. Peyton Manning is one of hottest quarterbacks in NFL history. Edgerrin James may not have all of the running authority he had two years ago before his knee reconstructions, but he is relaxed and he's running in a groove.
The Eagles are like the Patriots in the sense that their games often don't look pretty. Opposing running backs have a field day against them. Donovan McNabb sometime has to be the Eagles best running back, but he does what is necessary to win games. The Eagles have won 11 of their last 12 games and are in their third consecutive NFC title game.
The Cinderella team is Carolina. The Panthers play a style of football that brings out the worst in opponents. They run the ball well on offense. Their defense keeps games close, and the Panthers find a way with quarterback Jake Delhomme to win. Delhomme is clearly the least appreciated quarterback in the playoffs.
All he does is win. He directed six fourth-quarter comebacks this season.
Here are five things to watch in each of next weekend's conference championship games.
1. The big question is whether the Colts have improved their goal-line offense since losing to the Patriots, 38-34, in Indianapolis on Nov. 30. In that game, the Colts lost tight end Dallas Clark and two fullbacks for the season. A neck injury to guard Steve Sciullo forced a major change in their "Jumbo" offensive line package. Tony Dungy has answered with a rookie fullback, Tom Lopienski and backup tight end Joe Dean Davenport. Will it be good enough? The Colts were stopped four times from around the Patriots 1-yard line in the final minute in Week 13 and lost. Dungy believes the Colts can now score from the 1.
2. Manning is 0-4 in road games against the Patriots. But this is a different Manning. He's on fire. Thanks to the development of the Colts no-huddle offense, they have become the NFL's best road team, winning eight of nine games this season. They didn't have an offensive penalty in the 38-31 playoff victory over the Chiefs, and they've been so efficient that they haven't punted in two playoff games. Still, Belichick brings out the worst in quarterbacks with his schemes. Manning had four touchdown passes and 278 yards against him in the first meeting.
3. The Ty Law-Marvin Harrison matchup is one of the best in football. Harrison respects Law more than any cornerback in football, and that's saying something. Harrison usually trashes opposing cornerbacks with his performances. In the Nov. 30 game, Harrison caught seven passes for 88 yards and a touchdown, but it was a relatively quiet performance by Harrison's standards. Now a Super Bowl is on the line. Will he find a way to burn Law?
4. The Colts new secret weapon is wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who is being used in the slot in three-receiver sets. Stokley caught 16 passes in the final four regular season games. He has eight playoff catches, and he has six touchdown passes during his past six games. Belichick might have to match up rookie cornerback Asante Samuel against him.
5. The Patriots have to feel as though they will score a lot of points on the Colts defense, which added separated shoulders (middle linebacker Rob Morris and safety Idrees Bashir) to their woes. Brady beat the Colts for 236 passing yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting. In the two playoff games, the Colts have allowed an average of 365 total offensive yards and a staggering 6.1 yards a carry on the ground. Too bad the Patriots aren't a running team.
1. Though the Panthers haven't created a lot of buzz, they will probably keep the game close. In the Nov. 30 meeting against the Eagles, the Panthers lost, 25-16, by giving up 12 points in the fourth quarter. This was a game in which John Kasay missed three field goals and a PAT. McNabb was efficient, but only threw for 182 yards in a road game. He'll be at home in the championship game.
2. The Panthers defense won't be intimidated by McNabb's running. After all, they have to play Michael Vick twice a season, so running quarterbacks don't scare them. McNabb ran only two times in the first meeting. The Panthers sacked him three times. This is a good matchup for the Panthers in the sense that they won't be forced to blitz all the time to pressure McNabb. The Panthers are at their best when they can pressure with their four-man defensive line.
3. The Stephen Davis quad injury could be a big problem for the Panthers. Sure, DeShaun Foster is good enough to come off the bench and get 100 yards, but Davis is the main running threat. He had 115 yards against the Eagles in the first meeting. The Eagles' blitzing scheme could give Foster more trouble than Davis because Foster is the better outside runner. Davis gets his yards on the inside. Davis believes he can play, but coach John Fox will have to watch him during the week to see if that can happen.
4. The Eagles may have a hard time running on the Panthers. Brian Westbrook provided a spark in the first game by rushing for 64 yards on 12 attempts, but he's out for the season with a torn triceps. Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley may not scare the Panthers as much as Westbrook. If the Eagles can't run, they will struggle in the time of possession. The Eagles had only 57 offensive plays in the first meeting, and the Panthers love to limit opposing offenses to two possessions a quarter.
5. There actually will be more pressure on McNabb than Delhomme in this game. Delhomme is the Cinderella quarterback with two playoff wins behind him. Every step for him is well ahead of what people expect. For McNabb, the pressure is intense because he's lost in two NFC title games already. Another loss could give him that unfair brand of not winning the big game. McNabb has ignored all the pressure since his early-season problems, but a poor start could bring out the boo birds among the Eagle fans.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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