Keys to Sunday's title games
Check out Eric Allen's answers to key questions for the AFC and NFC title games.
Who will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII?
This game is going to come down to special teams and right now the Colts have the better unit. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt hasn't missed a field goal (37-for-37) or extra point (46-for-46) all season. Meanwhile, Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri has been inconsistent this season. I believe that will be what puts the Colts in a position to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This won't be an offensive shootout as some may hope, but the Colts offense is good enough to put 21 points on the board, which will be enough to win the game. This is the first time we've seen the Colts offensive trio (quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison) in a championship game and it probably won't be the last time. A lot of the credit for the Colts' success has to go to offensive coordinator Tom Moore. He's done a great job with this team and will be rewarded with a Super Bowl appearance and maybe more.
Friday, Jan. 16
Can the Patriots pull out another win without a big game from the rushing attack?
Yes. Because of the weather situation, the Patriots will be able to pull it off. They have an extraordinary short-passing attack that is a true extension of the running game. Unlike most West Coast offensive variations, the Pats use a lot of five-yard shallow crossing patterns and keep them in the middle of the field. That keeps the clock running and gives the Patriots offense second and third down short-yardage situations. So instead of running the ball on first down and facing second down with six or seven yards to go, they face second down with two or three yards to go. That in turn gives quarterback Tom Brady options to either hand the ball off or try to take a shot downfield because the defense will be anticipating a run. Keeping the clock running is going to be a huge asset against the Colts for a couple reasons. One, their defense is an undersized unit that doesn't want to be out on the field all day. It's going to be physically tiring for the Colts to have to stay on the field trying to stop the offense. Also, if the Colts defense is on the field for a long period of time, then the offense won't be and that's a big key to beating the Colts. During the postseason, quarterback Peyton Manning hasn't had to come from behind yet. When he's behind and feeling pressure, he has the tendency to try to force the ball to wide receiver Marvin Harrison and that's when he's most prone to mistakes.
Thursday, Jan. 15
How much do you expect special teams to factor into the outcome of this contest?
Because of the weather situation, this game may come down to the play of the kickers and punters. Normally, Adam Vinatieri would easily win a battle of kickers in bad weather, but because of his inconsistency this season, the advantage goes to Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt. He's been perfect this season and should win this matchup. If this game comes down to a big kick for the win, I'd put money on Vanderjagt winning the game. The punters are going to be very important in this game because they must pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory. In this kind of weather, teams with shorter field position have an awesome advantage so it's up to the punters to take it away. Colts punter Hunter Smith hasn't punted since Week 17, but that mini-vacation will come to an end on Sunday. Look for Smith and Patriots punter Ken Walter to punt the ball seven or eight times each in this game.
Wednesday, Jan. 14
How much will the injuries to Bashir and Morris affect the Colts defense?
The injuries won't hurt the defense that much because this isn't a great defense to start with. This isn't like Baltimore losing Ray Lewis or the Titans losing Jevon Kearse. At this point in the season it should be obvious the Colts are going to be led by their offense and not the defense. While the defense is on its way to respectability, it's still an offseason away from being where coach Tony Dungy wants it. Right now, the coaching staff has to hide the defensive warts with smoke and mirrors. In the end the Colts' chances to win will come down to Manning's ability to direct the offense. If he's able to consistently score on the Patriots then the pressure will be on the Pats offense to play catch up. When that happens the Colts defense looks good because they're able to take advantage of the mistakes that offenses make when they try to force things.
Tuesday, Jan. 13
Why have Belichick's defenses had so much success against Manning?
This is an intelligent coaching staff that coach Bill Belichick has put together and they've had phenomenal success against the Peyton Manning for a few reasons. It all starts at the beginning of the week when the coaches are in the film room. They review plays and look for the pre-snap reads that Manning makes and also what audibles he likes to switch to. Manning is a great QB, but he has plays that he likes to switch to in certain situations. The coaches do a great job relaying this information to the defense and using practice to put them in positions to force Manning into mistakes. Also, the Pats play the Colts so often that the Patriots veteran defensive players are able to almost instinctively make their own pre-snap reads on the offense. When a defense can look at a formation before the ball is snapped and have a pretty good idea of what's going to be run, they have a huge advantage. Finally, this is an extremely talented and intelligent defense. They play with a lot of pride and are always prepared for what's coming at them. They take great pride in holding down opposing offenses and will look forward to this opportunity.
Who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII?
I fully expect the Eagles to pull off the win. Donovan McNabb will find a way to keep this game close and put it in kicker David Akers' hands to win. This will be a very physical game that will feature some big hits by two fierce defenses. Because of that and the weather, I believe the special teams unit will be a major asset and that's where the Eagles have an advantage. Also, McNabb is experienced in these situations whereas Jake Delhomme is not. If this game is still close late in the fourth quarter, the experience of the two QBs may be the difference.
Friday, Jan. 16
How much will the quad injury affect Davis and Carolina's rushing attack?
The injury to Stephen Davis could be a big blow to the Panthers' chances. Right now, they have two backs that are able to carry the rock and get first downs against the Eagles. If Davis is limited, they'll have to rely on backup DeShaun Foster to take over. Foster has done a good job in the past and should be able to handle the job. He'll work hard and gain over 100 yards against the Eagles. But the Panthers coaching staff would rather have both backs to keep the strain off just one. I believe the Panthers passing game is pivotal to the success of the Panthers rushing attack. If the passing game is able to attack downfield, the backs will be in excellent shape to make some plays.
Thursday, Jan. 15
How do the Eagles go about limiting the effectiveness of Delhomme?
The best way to limit Jake Delhomme's effectiveness is to stop the run and put the game in his hands. The Eagles can't be afraid of Panthers wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad because they aren't nearly as effective without a good running game. If running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster are able to get six or seven yards on first down, then Delhomme is left with an opportunity to throw downfield in a short-yardage situation where the defense is more prepared for a run. If the Eagles can keep Davis and Foster averaging under three yards per carry, then Delhomme will be put into third-and-long situations where everyone in the stadium will know he's throwing. The Eagles haven't done a good job stopping the run at a championship level and can't expect to keep letting running backs run for big yardage and still win. To accomplish this goal, the Eagles should bring safety Brian Dawkins down on run blitzes. He's one of the best in the league at blitzing from the safety position and can also keep pressure on Delhomme when he's passing. The Eagles have to show an increased vigilance towards stopping the run or it'll haunt them for the entire offseason.
Wednesday, Jan. 14
Can the Eagles survive another week by putting so much of the load on McNabb?
The only way the Eagles will survive another week is if they put the load on Donovan McNabb's shoulders. He's their diamond and is the key to their offense. Last week against the Packers, he was only one play away from elimination and found a way to convert a fourth-and-26. That's the type of player McNabb is and the type of plays he makes in the clutch. He makes those plays because of his remarkable poise. Against the Packers, McNabb ran 11 times for 107 yards, while he won't run that successfully against the Panthers he should be able to keep them on their toes. The Eagles offensive coordinator will probably attempt to run some bootlegs for him to take advantage of his speed on the edges and also slow down the fearsome pass rush. The past few weeks, emerging receiver Freddie Mitchell -- who is suddenly overcoming a slow start to his career -- has helped McNabb. Mitchell doesn't have great separation speed, but he's running very good routes and making big catches. If McNabb can continue to get help from Mitchell or fellow wide receivers James Thrash and Todd Pinkston he'll be in good shape to lead the Eagles to victory.
Tuesday, Jan. 13
What major adjustment do you see the Panthers making from their first meeting?
The major difference between the Week 13 version of the Panthers and this one is the evolution of their offense. Wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith have been the perfect tandem with Muhammad's size and athleticism complementing Smith's speed. Now instead of opposing defenses feeling they could just load up the line of scrimmage and double the primary receiver to win, they have to respect the receivers. Some credit has to go to Jake Delhomme for taking advantage of situations when they present themselves and playing good, safe football when they don't. With the emergence of the passing game as a threat, opposing defenses have been forced to adjust their previous strategy. That allows the running backs to get more room to run. The Panthers 29-10 victory over the Cowboys in the wild card matchup is a perfect example of what can happen when Carolina is able to have a balanced attack. Running back Stephen Davis ran for 104 yards and a touchdown, while Muhammad and Smith both caught over 100 yards in passes.
Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.
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