Plenty to watch in the AFC divisional playoffs
The matchups to watch in the AFC include Steve McNair vs. Tom Brady and Priest Holmes vs. the Colts D.
INDIANAPOLIS -- He has started in 18 postseason contests and, while Sunday might have represented his final NFL appearance of any kind after 14 stellar campaigns, Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe knows all about playoff football.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about Sharpe understands the most prolific tight end in league history is ever-ready to share an opinion. So asked what component of the game might ultimately determine the AFC champion, Sharpe spoke briefly about defense, quarterback play, running attacks, coaching decisions and roster experience.
And then settled on turnovers -- the diligence in avoiding them and the aggressiveness needed to create them - as perhaps the key factor in the remaining playoff contests. It seemed rather appropriate, too, that the choice came after a game in which the Broncos posted a minus-2 turnover differential in the season-ending loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"You always focus on the run at this time of year, on both sides of the football, but the turnovers are big difference-makers," Sharpe said. "Let's face it, when you get to this point of the (postseason), there isn't much difference between the teams. Every team still playing is good, that's just a fact, right? But nothing will do you in quite like a turnover at a bad time. And nothing gives you a boost like creating (a turnover)."
Fittingly, the four franchises remaining in the AFC bracket rank among the NFL's best clubs in turnover differential. It is one of the few statistical measuring sticks in which all four teams rank in the NFL top 10. In fact, all four teams are in the top six, and Kansas City, New England and Tennessee, respectively, are first, second and third.
The AFC final four averages plus-15 in turnover differential. With pressure defenses, they are adept at creating short fields for their offenses, and their offenses take care of the football like it is a precious diamond. Clearly, players with previous playoff experience realize that every postseason miscue is exponentially magnified, and that turnovers can mean momentum seized or squandered.
"You don't want to ever give the ball up but, in the playoffs, turnovers seem to always be even more critical," said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. "It's probably not a coincidence the teams still on the field are teams that have a positive (turnover) ratio."
Notable is that in New England's victory over Tennessee in the regular season -- the clubs meet again Saturday evening, at Gillette Stadium, for a berth in the conference title game -- it was a timely takeaway that sealed the win. With the Titans trailing 31-24 and driving for the potential tying score, Pats cornerback Ty Law stepped in front of a Steve McNair pass, and returned it 65 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
It was the lone turnover of the game, one that settled a bloodletting between a couple of the NFL's premier teams, one that should serve as a cautionary note for the clubs that are still vying for the AFC title. "Sometimes one turnover," said Sharpe, "is one too many."
Since there don't figure to be many turnovers in the two AFC matchups next weekend, here are five things to look for in the games:
1. It isn't that the Patriots don't run the football, they just don't run it well, that's all. New England ranked No. 27 in rushing offense and was third-worst in the league with an average carry of just 3.4 yards. The Titans, on the other hand, were the NFL's best unit against the run, permitting an average of only 80.9 yards per outing, and demonstrated just how suffocating they can be in stuffing Baltimore star Jamal Lewis in Saturday's wild card victory. There are times when New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will use screens, slip-screens and hitches to compensate for his running games woes. If he can get the ball outside quickly to one of his speedy wideouts, especially when the Titans have committed eight to the run, New England might make some plays. But Tennessee is a very sound defense overall, one that doesn't beat itself, and which plays with a superb degree of discipline.
2. The starting quarterbacks, Steve McNair for Tennessee and New England's Tom Brady, certainly have contrasting styles. Brady is a point guard in cleats, a guy who dishes off the ball to the open man, as exemplified by the fact that New England had an NFL high 16 different receivers in 2003. Brady is incredibly accurate in the 18- to 20-yard intermediate zone, loves to work between the hashes, but will lose something off his fastball when forced to throw the deep out or gun the ball vertically. McNair has developed nice touch on the deep ball and, with big and physical receivers now, will go for the home run more often than he did earlier in his career. Tennessee was among the NFL leaders in yards per pass play and yards per attempt and all of its wideouts are capable of the acrobatic catch. The Titans are going to have to play a lot of "nickel" coverage, something with which they were not confronted against Baltimore, and their "sub" defensive backs are suspect in the eyes of some pro scouts. New England coach Bill Belichick will rotate coverage toward Tennessee wideout Derrick Mason, the "go to" guy for McNair and a big-play performer with whom he is comfortable. The matchup of Mason and Ty Law should be a battle.
3. Tennessee center Justin Hartwig, in his first season as a starter, has played well at times but also struggled for stretches in 2003. At some point Saturday, if the Titans are to really be effective running the ball, the coaches may have to provide him some help versus Pats nose tackle Ted Washington, a human Mount Everest, capable of absolutely clogging up everything inside. Washington missed much of the year with a broken leg but, with him back in the lineup over the final month, the Pats were even more diverse with their front seven than before. Depending on the New England front, the Titans might have to choose some spots to double Richard Seymour, who plays both end and tackle. On the flip side, the Patriots really like rookie snapper Dan Koppen, but he will be tested by the Titans' defensive tackle tandem of Albert Haynesworth and the underrated Robaire Smith.
4. So weakside linebacker Keith Bulluck finally made it to the Pro Bowl and he has become Tennessee's unquestioned leader at the position. But most fans still don't have an idea as to who he is, or the complete game he brings to the table. For the Pats, whose defense really revolves around linebacker play, Mike Vrabel has enjoyed a career year, even though he is still eclipsed at times by Willie McGinest in the eyes of some. Vrabel has, in the absence of the injured Rosevelt Colvin, become a legitimate sack threat. The 'backers for both defenses will be key.
5. We're still trying to figure out how the venerable Gary Anderson converted that 46-yard game winner for the Titans at Baltimore on Saturday. After all, at this point of his career, there are some who suspect the leading scorer in NFL history can't even see 46 yards. Heck, he's 46 years old, isn't he? Ooops, sorry, Gary, only 44. What is key is that Anderson isn't likely, especially in the swirling winds of Gillette Stadium, to knock home a long field goal. On the other hand, there are few better clutch kickers than Patriots' star Adam Vinatieri, and he is eminently familiar with the gusts in his home stadium. Should the Titans be forced to attempt a really long field goal, coach Jeff Fisher might use punter Craig Hentrich, who has a much stronger leg. If this is a tight game, and it is determined by who has the guy that can make a long three-pointer at the edge, it's advantage Pats.
1. The Kansas City wide receivers are making more plays than they did earlier in the year, but the two key performers remain tailback Priest Holmes and tight end Tony Gonzalez, and that means the Indianapolis outside linebackers and both safeties are going to have to be very involved in coverage. Stopping the slashing Holmes, who this season established a new record for touchdowns, is tough enough in the running game. Having to go out and stop him "in space," out in the flat or sometimes even up the field, is a nearly impossible chore. David Thornton, the second-year veteran in his first season as a starter at the key "Will" linebacker in the Indianapolis scheme, is an athletic and active defender. He might want to steal a look at the video from Cincinnati's victory over Kansas City to see just how the Bengals linebackers blanketed Holmes in the flats and funneled him back to the middle, where the safeties got involved. Even when they are playing "cover two," the Colts safeties aren't great in pass coverage, and the Chiefs are almost certainly going to try to get Gonzalez the ball early between the hashes, to open up the outside passing attack for quarterback Trent Green. There's no doubt the Indianapolis front four needs a big game, but the "backside" defenders will have to be exceptional, too.
2. Despite the solid play of their three interior linemen in Sunday's playoff victory, the Colts will be tested by the Kansas City defensive tackles, and in particular second-year veteran Ryan Sims. The former first-rounder, who drew the wrath of Dick Vermeil when he held out for virtually all of training camp in 2002, is both athletic and strong, the kind of player who might command double-team attention at times. Jeff Saturday is a very good, but undersized, center for the Colts. Second-year Tupe Peko has started only two games and left guard Rick DeMulling has problems with the bull rush. Sims and partner John Browning are versatile and can come out a blocker in a number of ways. They may not be the big, 320-pound tackles some teams prefer, but they can take plays on, run to the ball, and cause some problems. As usual, look for the Colts to run the "stretch" off-tackle play for which they are so famous, and to try to go at the Chiefs' ends. If Kansas City is without middle linebacker Mike Maslowski, a real blue-collar plugger, it will be an advantage for the Indianapolis running game.
3. Chiefs return ace Dante Hall hasn't scored on a runback in 11 games but remains a real danger to the Colts, whose coverage units are good, but not great. A real problem for the Colts is that punter Hunter Smith too often outkicks his coverage. Do that with Hall and his touchdown drought could end. And Mike Vanderjagt, never strong on kickoffs, has taken to drilling the ball flat, without much hang time. Vanderjagt consistently kicked the ball to the corners on Saturday, trying to hem in the Denver kickoff returners, and did a good enough job. But the low trajectory also means the Indianapolis special teams stars, like Cliff Crosby and Mike Doss, barely crack the wedge. In a close game, the mercurial Hall could play a significant role.
4. Injured over the first half of the season, Brandon Stokley has emerged as a dangerous No. 3 wide receiver for Peyton Manning, not only as a possession pass-catcher, but also as a guy capable of making plays up the field. An incredibly polished route-runner, and very clever in double-move situations, Stokley figures to be on the field a lot. The two-tight end set remains the Colts' basic offense, and they opened Saturday's game with it, but quickly went to more three-wideout alignments. That is key, because the Chiefs are somewhat suspect at the "nickel" spot, and on third down in general. Strong safety Greg Wesley has improved in coverage, but neither he nor Jerome Woods has ever been noted as great cover players, and Kansas City coaches have to devise a way to cope when the Colts spread the field with Stokley in the slot.
5. While the Chiefs have frequently disappointed fans at home in the playoffs, Arrowhead Stadium remains a difficult place to play, a venue at which visitors can be daunted by the volume of people and the decibels the crowd produces. Don't be surprised if the Colts use a lot of no-huddle sets. That might seem incongruous, since Manning might have trouble checking off, but the quick-snap approach also keeps a deafening crescendo from building. In many cases, Manning uses hand-signals anyway, to communicate with receivers, and he is constantly pointing out potential blitzers to his linemen.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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