Offensive keys for each playoff team

Check out Eric Allen's offensive keys for each team in the playoffs.

Updated: January 2, 2004, 11:53 PM ET
By Eric Allen | ESPN.com

AFC playoff teams
Key To Denver's Offense: The Broncos have a fantastic running game that isn't predicated on the running back as much as it is the offensive line. The Broncos line is one of the most dominating, physical lines in the NFL and the guys playing don't care whose running for them. No matter who it is, they'll get great holes and protection. Because of their style of play, the linemen don't get their due, but it doesn't matter because they are the key to this offense.
Key To Defending It: The key to defending against the Broncos is penetration. The defensive line has to penetrate quickly to muffle chop blocks and to force the running backs to dance in the backfield instead of hitting the hole. The defense also should use one-gap assignments to force the action because if the linebackers wait for the play to come to them, the Broncos will run all over them.

Key To Indianapolis' Offense: This offense's success is solely predicated on timing. It's very precision-oriented and extremely complicated. The Colts have three great football players (Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning) who continue to put up staggering numbers every week. James has finally started to look like the running back he was before his knee injury and shouldn't be bothered by the cold weather this postseason. The trainers will do a good job keeping him stretched and keeping his knee warm before the game by keeping him loose and active. Meanwhile, Harrison may be the most dangerous receiver in the playoffs. There seems to be nothing he can't do whether its using his speed to go downfield or going across the middle and making the tough catch. But Manning is the key because he is the maestro of this offensive symphony. He has the intelligence to change plays at the line of scrimmage and the arm strength to make almost any throw.
Key To Defending It: The key to successfully defending this offense is to be smart and intelligent. Take advantage of Manning's ability to change plays by giving him dummy looks at the line of scrimmage to force him to change into a play that is easier to defend. When I played for the Raiders, we used to give him fake looks constantly to have him change to a play that worked to our benefit. The reason we knew what he would change to is because while studying in the film room, we found plays that he would checkdown to in certain situations. That's the best way to defeat this difficult Colts' offense.

Key To Baltimore's Offense: Jamal Lewis is the key to this offense. I wasn't around when Jim Brown played, but after seeing old tape of him I'm convinced Lewis is the same type of runner. Lewis is a big guy (245 pounds) with a rare combination of speed and physical play. There have been other runners like Jamal Anderson who had the same type of size and speed, but didn't have the same kind of physical style that Lewis possesses. He isn't afraid to make the front seven pay with punishing hits, while also blazing past the secondary. Lewis is also lucky enough to have a great offensive line playing in front of him. The Ravens have one of the biggest O-lines in the NFL and it perfectly matches Lewis' physical style of play. The linemen aren't afraid to play physical football and will be a handful for any defense to handle.
Key To Defending It: Opposing defenses are going to have to force the Ravens to pass the ball. Anthony Wright has never quarterbacked a team in the playoffs and I'd force him to have to win one by stacking the line of scrimmage. Wright has played up and down this year and he'll make mistakes if a blitz is in his face while he's throwing the ball. When he does make mistakes, make him and the Ravens pay.

Key To Tennessee's Offense: The key to this offense is quarterback Steve McNair. He plays excellent football and makes the correct decisions all the time. There seems to be nothing that he can't do whether he's hurt or not. He also has running back Eddie George there to keep defenses honest and off his back. George won't give the dominant performance we're used to seeing in the playoffs, but he will give them enough offense to help.
Key To Defending It: Opposing defenses have to try to limit McNair's weapons from being effective. They need to stop Justin McCareins and Derrick Mason from making big plays by switching the use of double teams. It's impossible to stop McNair so outthinking him is the only option. Defenses should play tight coverage on the outside to force McNair to have to think everytime he gets ready to throw the ball. If given the chance to just throw the ball quickly without having to worry about the coverage, McNair will shred any defense and take his team to the next level of the playoffs.

Key To Kansas City's Offense: The Chiefs have great balance and are one of the few offenses in the playoffs with that type of exceptional balance. Their receivers block very well, while running back (Priest Holmes) is a great receiver. This balance keeps defenses off guard because it's impossible to key on one guy. The coaching staff has set this team up to take advantage of defenses' weaknesses and they do a great job doing that.
Key To Defending It: Force the Chiefs into playing a nasty football game. Over the past few weeks, they've turned into a finesse team and that needs to be used against them. I'd blitz a lot and make sure my linebackers took a shot at tight end Tony Gonzalez as he goes downfield and do whatever it took to take out the receivers. Because this isn't a physical team, I'd try and force the Chiefs to run the ball every down since Holmes can't dominate a game by just running the ball.

Key To New England's Offense: Tom Brady is the key to the Patriots offense. He knows this offense back and forth and does a great job leading the Pats offense on and off the field. He's a winner and has the ability to play in any weather condition. Also, the Patriots have started to work the running game back into the offense, which adds another dangerous element to this multifaceted team.
Key To Defending It: There are two keys to defending the Patriots offense. The first is keeping them off the field because if an opposing team doesn't, then the Pats will keep that team off the field with their grind it out offense. Also rattling Brady is key to any successful defensive effort. Keep him under duress by consistently blitzing from the edges and up the middle. I'd also have the cornerbacks play off the receivers and not play any bump and run to give them the chance to make a play on a badly thrown ball.

NFC playoff teams
Key To Carolina's Offense: Running back Stephen Davis is the key to this team's success. He did a great job bringing smash mouth football to Carolina. Early in the season he was a MVP candidate, but he's been slightly injured the past few weeks. He's a dynamic player who opens everything up for the Panthers offense with his physical style. Also the Panthers have backup running back DeShaun Foster to spell Davis. Foster has the potential to be a great back and won't be a downgrade when he's playing.
Key To Defending It: It's easier said than done, but stop the run. Defenses have to say what the heck and put nine men in the box and force quarterback Jake Delhomme to beat them through the air. He hasn't done it consistently this season so defenses have to hope the playoffs will be too much pressure for him to handle. The cornerbacks should play off the receivers to have an opportunity to make plays on the ball when Delhomme makes mistakes.

Key To Dallas' Offense: QB Quincy Carter is the key to this offense. When he's comfortable, he can be dangerous in conjunction with his talented receiving corps (Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn and Antonio Bryant). Those receivers are game breakers and when Carter is playing well, he gets them the ball downfield for big plays. He also has the ability to make plays with his legs and has done a fine job keeping drives alive by running when needed.
Key To Defending It: The Cowboys are methodical and try not to go out of their comfort zone. I'd play off them and try not to give up the deep ball to the receivers. Keep the cornerbacks in front of the receivers at all times and keep pressure in Carter's face to capitalize on mistakes. Carter is young and has trouble throwing timing routes so keep him off balance by blitzing from the corners to disrupt his timing.

Key To Green Bay's Offense: The Packers success begins and ends with running back Ahman Green. He's been a dynamo this season and is now the Packers' leading rusher. He's going to get a lot of carries and can always be counted on to play well. His presence allows quarterback Brett Favre to make plays in third and short situations. That in turn gets Favre into a rhythm where he can catch fire and take a game over.
Key To Defending It: The week before the game I'd work on stripping the ball and try to get one or two early fumbles from Green. His effectiveness is limited when he's thinking about holding onto the ball and not running forward. Also force Favre to throw the ball over 35 times because lately when he's had to throw the ball a ton of times he's been prone to throw interceptions. Never forget that he's a gunslinger who believes every pass will be completed.

Key To Seattle's Offense: This is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's team. He's flourished in coach Mike Holmgren's version of the West Coast offense and has graduated to the middle tier of quarterbacks. He has no fear and plenty of confidence in his ability and the ability of his receivers. Also the 'Hawks have stud running back Shaun Alexander. He's a second option for Seattle, but he must be accounted for because he can dominate a game.
Key To Defending It: The key is to get the Seahawks on the road because when they are away from home, they're an entirely different team. They don't make the plays they make at home and are a weaker running team. They get into dink and dunk passing and ignore the deep ball. Teams have to take advantage of that passive mentality and get up early to take the Seahawks out of their game plan.

Key To St. Louis' Offense: The key to this team's success is the success of running back Marshall Faulk. If he gets 20-25 touches, the Rams look unstoppable because he opens the offense up. When Faulk is running the ball, he keeps defenses honest and forces them to make a decision on either stacking the line or playing normally. If the defense chooses to play normally, then Faulk will destroy it and if the defense stacks the line of scrimmage, it gives the receivers room to make big plays.
Key To Defending It: Defenses should force the offense to throw the ball by putting eight men in the box. For some reason, once coach Mike Martz gets into the rhythm of calling passing play it's rare to see him go back to throwing the ball. Defenses should key in on that and get him to start ignoring Faulk because if he doesn't get his touches, it becomes easier to defeat the Rams.

Key To Philadelphia's Offense: Donovan McNabb is the offense. Early in the season he had a few bad games, but he's stepped up his play and has led the Eagles to home field advantage. He must stay healthy and utilize his arm strength by throwing perfect passes to his receivers. His receivers aren't the fastest and have trouble separating so McNabb's passes have to be spot on perfect for him to be successful.
Key To Defending It: Opposing defenses have to put pressure on the receivers by playing tight man-to-man coverage. Also use a linebacker solely to stop the run because that will force McNabb to have do everything himself. The key maybe putting all the pressure of the game on his shoulders. When he has to force plays, he will make mistakes and may make enough of them to lose the Eagles the game.

Eric Allen

NFL studio analyst
Eric Allen, a 14-year NFL veteran and was one of the NFL's premier defensive backs, joined ESPN in August 2002 as an NFL studio analyst. His primary role is providing analysis for ESPNEWS' Monday Quarterback.

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