- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The model for winning the Super Bowl is simple. Run the ball well, play good defense and don't commit turnovers.
Not since the Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1983 season has a team that didn't rank among the top 10 defenses for points allowed or yardage allowed won the Super Bowl. There is a different air about these playoffs. It's an offensive year. Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes. Scoring is up to 43 points a game, almost two better than last year. Running backs are having unprecedented success getting 100-yard games and there are more 4,000-yard quarterbacks than ever.
The league plans to call the illegal contact and pass interference penalties tight to follow what happened during the regular season. It opened up offenses and created more high-scoring games. This could open the door for a Colts run to the Super Bowl.
Plus, more teams have question marks at cornerback. Many of the top cornerbacks in the game had tough seasons because quarterbacks weren't afraid to throw at them. If a cover cornerback was locked one-on-one with a top receiver, quarterbacks made the throws. Hey, it's rare great receivers get single coverage.
Here are the top question marks for each of the playoff teams:
AFC question marks
How will Big Ben respond in the playoffs?
Ben Roethlisberger will win Rookie of the Year honors this week because of his 13-0 regular season record and incredible 98.2 quarterback rating. It's the greatest rookie season since Dan Marino. Now, the question remains -- can he repeat those performances in the playoffs where the intensity and speed of the game changes? His rib injury shouldn't be much of a problem because Roethlisberger was cleared to play this weekend if the Steelers needed him. Fortunately for him, the offensive game plan asks so little of him that he has a decent chance to succeed in the playoffs. For one, the Steelers drop back to pass only 23 times a game. They run the ball a league-high 61 percent of the time. But as the Steelers have found in so many AFC title games, winning with just a running game and a good defense sometimes isn't enough. You need a passing game. For the Steelers to win games against good 3-4 defenses like the Patriots' or Chargers', they will need to take advantage of eight-in-the-box alignments at the line of scrimmage and work the play-action passes. For the Steelers to win with Roethlisberger, they will need to do what they did last week against the Ravens: throw the ball deep to Plaxico Burress early to force their opponents into Cover 2 schemes, taking that safety out of the box.
Can the Pats' patchwork secondary hold together?
Bill Belichick doesn't know what he has in the secondary. Ty Law has missed most of the season with a broken bone in his foot, and he won't be able to test it out in a game until the second round of the playoffs. One of Belichick's toughest decisions is whether to start him out as a nickel defensive back or a starter. Without Law, the Patriots don't have a shut-down cornerback. They can use the bye week to rest Asante Samuel (shoulder), Eugene Wilson (thigh), Earthwind Moreland (abdomen), Randall Gay (arm) and Dexter Reid (shoulder). The Patriots were so banged up in the season-finale that they had to start linebacker Don Davis at strong safety. For two months, the Patriots have been able to get by with Davis as a nickel safety and Troy Brown as a nickel cornerback. Can they get away with that in the playoffs against a top offense like the Colts? That's the big question. Further complicating things is the knee injury to defensive end Richard Seymour. When he was hurt in Week 16, the initial diagnosis was a three-to-six week injury, giving the team hope -- but no guarantee -- of having him for their first playoff game. Taking their most dominating defensive lineman out of the mix would make it even tougher on the secondary because they would have to stay in coverages longer.
Can the Colts win outside in the elements?
The Colts' biggest challenge will be how their defense responds on the road. For yardage allowed, the Colts rank among the worst teams in the league (No. 28). They allow around 243 yards per game through the air, and a good running team can usually figure on getting 120 yards a game. Tony Dungy keeps his defense in their zones and blitzes less than any other team. The Colts have some similarities to Dungy's old teams in Tampa Bay. He has the pass-rushers in defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the mobile linebacker in David Thornton and a decent three-technique defensive tackle in Montae Reagor. Their John Lynch-in-development is safety Bob Sanders, but he hasn't played enough to be considered a major factor in the playoffs. On the road, though, the Colts lose a little bit of the speed and anticipation they have in the RCA Dome. There are no AFC domes ahead for them once they leave Indianapolis. They will have to play on grass to get to the Super Bowl. For that to work, though, they will need to play with the lead so they can rely a little more on their pass rush. If they trail, it will be tougher. This is a small defense built for speed. Against good offensive lines, they could have problems. The Steelers might be a worse matchup for them than the Patriots because they know they can score on the Patriots. Those games are usually high-scoring affairs. A low-scoring game in Pittsburgh in which the Steelers are pounding the ball could be hard for the Colts to win.
Can the Chargers keep their hands off in the secondary?
Of all the teams in the playoffs other than the Patriots, the Chargers are the most affected by the enforcement of illegal contact by defensive backs after five yards. This summer, Marty Schottenheimer had his cornerbacks wear boxing gloves hoping it would help them avoid using their hands and getting a lot of contact penalties. The gloves didn't give them enough of a fighting chance to succeed. The Chargers have given up just over 245 yards a game through the air. But then you have to look at the penalties. Cornerback Quentin Jammer more than lives up to his name. He's a jammer but he doesn't get away with it. He has a league-leading eight interference penalties and four illegal contacts. As a team, the Chargers have 11 illegal contacts, the most of any team in football. One of the reasons the league reinforced the existing rules on contact after five yards is what happened during last year's playoffs. If the officials call it as tight as they have during the regular season, that could be a big problem for the Chargers. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will do the best he can to cover up those problems.
Will red zone woes ground Jets?
The Jets have a high-priced offense. Chad Pennington is a $64 million quarterback. Curtis Martin is one of the best paid running backs. Justin McCareins was a nice grab out of restricted free agency and Santana Moss and tight end Anthony Becht are former first-round picks. But the Jets aren't getting enough points out of their offense, and it makes everything a question mark as they enter the playoffs. In three of their past four games, they've produced only two offensive touchdowns. The problem is in the red zone. As well as Martin runs the ball between the 20s, the Jets don't do much play-action. Because safeties and linebackers don't have to worry about play-action, they can stay in some zone coverages and not worry that Pennington is going to catch them guessing on a running play. Plus, Pennington doesn't have a strong arm. Since injuring his right rotator cuff, the Jets quarterback hasn't been very consistent. In seven of the Jets' final 10 games, they scored 17 points or less. That' just not good enough.
Will 'Good Jake' or 'Bad Jake' show up in Indianapolis?
It all comes down to quarterback Jake Plummer. Plummer is the leader of the offense. His players love him. He's a great leader. He has a swagger. His play has convinced Broncos ownership to exercise a $6 million option in his contract that will keep him as the starting quarterback next year. But as Plummer goes, so go the Broncos. The book on Plummer is to keep him in the pocket. As a pocket passer, Plummer isn't as accurate. His game is running around and making plays. It seems as though teams that play 3-4 defenses do better against Plummer because they can rush linebackers to keep him in the pocket. Because he is one of the league's shorter quarterbacks, he needs to move around to keep passing lanes open. Part of the problem in Denver is the inconsistent play of Plummer's young receivers. Darius Watts is talented but he still drops too many balls. Ashley Lelie averages almost 20 yards per catch, but he's extremely inconsistent. Rod Smith is the only consistent receiver they have. It still comes down to Plummer. The Colts will flood him with zone defenses to try to contain him, but the key is keeping him in the pocket.
NFC question marks
Can the offense thrive without Terrell Owens?
That's the biggest question, and the final two games of the regular season offered no clue. Andy Reid didn't risk Brian Westbrook, keeping him along the sidelines. Donovan McNabb has had little time to experiment with his receivers. Terrell Owens' presence has been worth about a nine percent increase in McNabb's completion percentage this year. Those numbers might not be as strong during the playoffs unless he drops off more passes to Westbrook. Pinkston has 36 catches and an 18.8 yard average, but he has only scored one touchdown. Freddie Mitchell starts but he has only 22 catches. In fact, Owens caught more passes than the rest of the Eagles receiving corps combined. The Eagles can rely on a better defense than last season because they have more playmakers. Jeremiah Trotter helps the run defense. Hugh Douglas and Jevon Kearse help with the pass-rush. The Eagles probably won't maintain that 25-point per game average they had during the regular season, but they should be able to win some 20-10 games. Last year, no defense feared the Eagles wide receivers, but there is a twist this year. There aren't many fearsome cornerback combinations the Eagles will face in the playoffs. That might not give the Eagles an advantage, but it minimizes the disadvantage they'll face without T.O.
Are the Falcons too reliant on Michael Vick?
Can so much of the offense revolve around one player in the playoffs? Michael Vick is like no other player. Not only is he the Falcons' best passer, but he's their best runner, too. But his team has the least potent offense among the playoff teams. the Falcons ranked among the 12 worst teams in terms of yards and scored just under 21 points per game. Everything revolves around Vick. That's good and it's bad. For one thing, the Falcons have almost given up the notion of getting the ball to the outside wide receivers. Vick's main target is tight end Alge Crumpler. That restricts the offense to the middle of the field. This creates a lot of games in which the offense is either hot or it isn't. The Falcons have had six games in which they scored 14 or less points. The Falcons can be contained unless Vick gets outside of the pocket and makes big plays with his arm upfield. His presence is much like that of Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. The game is more for the run than it is the pass. The Falcons are pretty predictable. They run 60 offensive plays a game. About 32 of them will be running plays, roughly eight of them will be running plays by Vick. That leaves 28 pass plays, but you figure Vick gets sacked about three times a game. That leaves 25 pass attempts. Vick usually completes about 14 of those passes but because so few go to the wide receivers, he doesn't have a lot of 200-yard passing games.
Can the Packers' pass defense hold up?
It's pretty clear that the Packers have the offense to go to the Super Bowl. Brett Favre was cheated by not going to the Pro Bowl, and Ahman Green should be a big factor with his ability to run that old Packers sweep play. But, it's the defense, particularly the pass defense, that's the biggest question mark. The Packers can score, but can they stop teams? Of course can anyone in the NFC stop anyone? Except for Al Harris, the Packers are young at cornerback and it shows in their numbers. A few weeks ago, the coaches made cornerback Ahmad Carroll wear boxing gloves in practice because he's had too many penalties. He's been called for eight holding penalties, three pass interferences and an illegal contact. Like the Chargers, they could have a lot of problems if the games are called close by the officials. Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Packers have the worst numbers against the pass. They gave up an incredible 33 touchdown passes. That's worse than the Kansas Chiefs, believe it or not. What hasn't helped is that safety Darren Sharper has been slowed all year because of a knee injury. The defense was set up for Sharper to be a big playmaker. He missed a lot of starting time because of the injury. They need a healthy Sharper during the playoffs just to balance the youth at the cornerback position. The Packers are still struggling to determine if they are better with man or with zone coverages. Trying to find that out in the playoffs is tough.
Can Seahawks overcome weakness on defense?
People don't realize how thin the Seahawks' defense really is. The linebacker corps is a skeleton crew. Minus defensive end Grant Wistrom, the Seahawks don't have a true pass rusher. Their inability to create much pressure with four-man rushes puts them in position to blitz more and leave their cornerbacks out on an island. With linebacker Anthony Simmons out for the season and linebacker Chad Brown fighting multiple injuries, the Seahawks may have about the worst group of blitzers in football. They love to rush the middle, but now the blitzes are usually being picked up. Still, this defense plays hard. The matchup against the Rams is bad because wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce eat up bad coverage at safety. Former starting strong safety Terreal Bierria was torched so often by the Rams in their two meetings that he was benched in favor of rookie Michael Boulware, a converted linebacker. Ken Hamlin is a hard-hitting safety, but he has had troubles in coverage. Where the Seahawks seem to really falter is in the final two minutes. Teams drive up and down the field against them. Their inability to stop last-minute drives have cost them a couple of games and have given coach Mike Holmgren headaches and heartaches numerous times this season. While at home, the Seahawks blew a 17-point lead to the Rams early in the season. If Seattle builds a big lead again, Holmgren might be sweating through another tough finish.
Can Rams DTs stop the run?
The Rams have three first-round choices at defensive tackle. The linebacking corps is filled with first-day draft choices, including first- and second-rounders. Yet, stopping the run is the biggest question mark. Though it has taken the entire season, the players are starting to understand the defense. It's a completely different scheme than last year. Lovie Smith, now head coach of the Bears, ran the Cover 2. It was simple. Players didn't have to think as much. They just had to react. This defense calls for more adjustments and understanding of multiple schemes. Since moving Jimmy Kennedy back to starting defensive tackle next to Ryan Pickett, the Rams are a little more active at defensive tackle and are a better threat to stop the run. Still, Curtis Martin ran for 153 yards on 28 carries in the season finale. For the season, the Rams have given up 136.2 yards a game rushing and a 4.5 yard average. On Saturday, Shaun Alexander figures to run for 150 yards. He usually does against the Rams. But the Rams generally come up with enough big plays to win against the Seahawks. However, they might not have the same good fortune against other teams with strong running games. The Rams have a high-powered offense, but turnovers prevent them from getting the 30 points a game they used to score a couple of seasons ago. If the Rams can do a better job of stopping the run in the playoffs, that might help.
Can the linebackers make enough plays?
Everyone knows the Vikings' defense is a weakness. And an area that appeared to be a strength at the beginning of the season has become a problem. It's the linebackers. Dontarrious Thomas and E.J. Henderson dominated the preseason with their speed and agility. However, they have killed them at times this season with their inconsistency in lining up properly and getting out of position on cutback plays. The loss to the Giants symbolized what was wrong with this linebacking crew. The Giants thrive on the cutback runs and their offensive linemen seemed to constantly catch the Vikings linebackers out of position. Henderson and Thomas are major-league talents. They have speed and ability to take control of games. But the Vikings have consistently shown that their defense makes mistakes early in games and forces the offense to play from behind. Coach Mike Tice and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell have juggled the lineup. Henderson is too talented to be benched, but the Vikings have tried different combinations at Thomas' spot. Chris Claiborne has done a solid job on the strong side. He's a free agent after the season, and it's debatable whether or not they will re-sign him. With Henderson and Thomas, the Vikings have some of the best young linebackers in the division. But there are growing pains. Henderson and Thomas have their biggest problems on running plays. If they can solve them in the playoffs, then good things will happen. If not, it could be a problem during the playoffs.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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