Plenty to watch in the NFC Divisional Playoffs
Breaking down the matchups to watch in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Here are five things to look for in the upcoming NFC divisional games:
• St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons (Saturday, Jan. 15, 8 p.m.)
|A closer look|
• X-factor: The X-factor will be turnovers. The Rams made the playoffs with a turnover ratio of minus-24, but they can't afford to have more turnovers than the Falcons if they want to win on the road. The Falcons forced opponents into 32 turnovers. The loser of the game will be the quarterback -- Michael Vick or Marc Bulger -- who makes the most mistakes.
• X-and-O factor: Mike Martz usually tears apart teams that have problems with coverage at safety. That's why he's beaten the Seahawks three times. He works Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt against the safeties to push them back and have them backpedaling in zones. The Falcons counter with two decent coverage safeties, Cory Hall and Bryan Scott, who was a cornerback when he entered the league.
• Rx factor (health): Both teams are in pretty good shape. The bye week allowed Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler to recover from a sprained knee. Hall is coming off a concussion. Vick's left shoulder should be fine. Falcons defensive tackle Ed Jasper has had time to test different stances and ways of playing with a broken bone in his left hand. Rams guard Tom Nutten plans to play on a torn medial collateral knee ligament that gave out on him in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against the Seahawks. Rams defensive end Tyoka Jackson missed Seahawks game with an ankle injury and his status is uncertain. Leonard Little appeared to have no troubles with a groin injury that has been bothering him.
• Numbers cruncher: It's hard to believe, but the Rams might have one of the most improved defenses heading into the playoffs. After Week 12, they were 28th overall in defense and 15th in the NFC, allowing 27.2 points a game and 364 total yards, including 145.9 yards a game on the ground. The Rams finished the season by allowing only 18.6 points, 269.8 total yards and 114.8 yards a game on the ground over their last five games. They finished the season No. 17 in overall defense. In the final five weeks, they have 15 sacks, compared to 19 during their first 11 games.
• The Falcons will win if: They can get 30 to 35 running plays and not turn the ball over. Jim Mora counts on winning by getting a 50-50 run-to-pass ratio and getting about 167 yards a game on the ground. They play solid defense and don't allow opponents to score too many points.
• The Rams will win if: They get the Falcons into a high-scoring game. The Rams have an offense that can score quickly through the passing game. Bruce and Holt are tough for any team to stop, and the Falcons' zone could be a welcome site. The Falcons don't want to get into a high-scoring game because their offense is too methodical.
-- John Clayton
2. The Rams, believe it or not, may give the Falcons' offensive line problems. Former Broncos assistant Alex Gibbs has one of the league's lightest offensive lines, and their movement and zone blocking usually give opponents fits. But the Rams have three hot defensive linemen, who are playing some of their best football of the season. Defensive end Bryce Fisher has been on a tear the past few weeks and is averaging a sack a game and several big tackles. Second-year defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, a former first-round pick, has become a force as the three-technique interior lineman and is drawing more double teams. If those two linemen are playing well, it could free up the Rams' best pass-rusher, Leonard Little, for some single blocking and big plays.
3. Playing in the Georgia Dome could be an advantage for Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. He's comfortable working in domes and he won't have any problems with weather or malfunctioning communication devices affecting his play-calling and game execution. Bulger is getting hot at the right time and he has carried the Rams offense into the playoffs. In his last three games, including the playoffs, he's completed 67 of 98 passes for 988 yards and six touchdowns. He's playing his best football at the right time.
4. The Falcons don't need to get too fancy. They have the league's best running offense with Vick and running backs T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn. Too bad they keep losing fullbacks. They've gone through about four fullbacks in the past month, and that could cause a bit of a problem Saturday. But will it matter against the Rams, whose weakness is stopping the run? The Rams have improved against the run of late, but are still giving up 136.2 yards a game on the ground. This is a weakness the Falcons will definitely look to exploit.
5. The biggest mismatch of the game may be the Falcons defensive line against the Rams offensive line. The Rams are patched together along the offensive line. They are young at right tackle with Blaine Saipaia. Tom Nutten came out of retirement to fill in at left guard and probably can't go the whole game because of his knee injury. The Falcons have a Pro Bowl defensive end in Patrick Kerney, who had a monster season with 13 sacks. They have this season's best interior pass rusher in Rod Coleman, who came over from Oakland and had 11½ sacks.
• Vote: Who will win?
• Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, Jan. 16, 1 p.m.)
|A closer look|
• X-factor: Eagles halfback Brian Westbrook. He is their secret weapon on offense. Westbrook is more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield, but he's also an elusive runner, averaging 4.6 yards a carry this year. Westbrook could be the Eagles' MVP on offense in this game.
• X-and-O factor: How will Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson use defensive end Jevon Kearse? The signing of Kearse gave Johnson a lot of flexibility when facing mobile quarterbacks such as Daunte Culpepper. Kearse has the range and speed to affect the play of Culpepper.
• Rx factor (health): The Vikings were banged up against the Packers. The biggest worry is an ankle injury to Randy Moss, but Moss has been fighting ankle problems all season. The Eagles won't have Terrell Owens at wide receiver, but the bye week gave defensive linemen Hollis Thomas and Derrick Burgess a chance to come back and add depth.
• Numbers cruncher: The Eagles are a blitzing team, and that plays to Culpepper's strength. Against the blitz this season, according to Stats Inc., Culpepper has completed 101 of 159 passes for 1,217 yards and 15 touchdown and only one interception. He has been sacked 18 times against the blitz, but his quarterback rating was 115.7, topped only by Peyton Manning.
• The Eagles will win if: Their defense contains Culpepper. Culpepper controlled most of the action during their first meeting in Week 2. The key is not giving up touchdowns. The Vikings have a high-powered offense. But if the Eagles can hold them to 16 points like they did in the first meeting, they should be able to win.
• The Vikings will win if: They can get off to a quick start like they did against the Packers. They jumped to a 17-0 lead against the Packers and it changed the whole outlook of the game. The Vikings have a high-risk, high reward offense, but it works better with the lead.
-- John Clayton
2. The Eagles really don't know what type of passing attack they will have without Terrell Owens. Donovan McNabb barely played in Week 16 and didn't play at all in Week 17, so he didn't get to experiment with his receiving group without Owens. A year ago, the Eagles receivers were a liability because they caused no fear in defenses. Todd Pinkston is light and tends to shy away from contact in the middle of the field. Freddie Mitchell lacks speed. The Eagles beat the Vikings 27-16 in Philadelphia in Week 2, but they had Owens then. It will be a much bigger challenge to score 27 points this time around.
3. Culpepper remembers the Vikings squandering a number of chances to score in their first meeting with the Eagles. Once, he fumbled at the Eagles' goal line going in for a touchdown. Another time, center Matt Birk was called for a holding call on a play in which Culpepper was running into the end zone. The Vikings missed a field goal attempt after the penalty moved them back. Another time Culpepper was stopped at the goal line and Tice settled for three points. That could have been 21 points and instead was three. Culpepper knows he can't afford to make mistakes. A two-interception game probably means a Vikings loss. Penalties have to be minimized. Because the Vikings don't run the ball all that much any more, Culpepper carries the load of trying to win this game.
4. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has some interesting decisions to make in regards to covering Randy Moss. Moss beat Packers cornerback Al Harris twice for touchdowns even though Harris had coverage help from safety Darren Sharper. Lito Sheppard is the Eagles' Pro Bowl cornerback and may draw the man-to-man assignments against Moss, but Johnson will probably swing a lot of double coverage his way. The Eagles like playing man, but Culpepper and Moss usually eat up man coverage, especially in the end zone, where Moss is the best at catching underthrown or overthrown passes.
5. Tice let the Vikings defense be aggressive against the Packers on Sunday, but will they have the same freedom against a better Eagles team? Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell doesn't usually blitz very much. Against the Packers, though, he had success blitzing linebacker Chris Claiborne, who caused Brett Favre to constantly throw off his back foot. Blitzing McNabb could be dangerous. He's an elusive runner and can turn third downs into first downs if Claiborne is caught in the backfield.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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