- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
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.)
1. Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has carried the offense all season, but he was banged up heading into the end of the regular season with a bruised shouder and a recent case of the flu. The bye week gave him a chance to rest and reflect. Though the coaches would like him to get the ball more to his outside receivers, Vick will be content to scramble to the outside and get the ball to tight end Alge Crumpler, who was the Falcons' leading receiver during the season with 48 catches for 774 yards and six touchdowns.
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.
• Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, Jan. 16, 1 p.m.)
1. Talk about a transition. Going into the season, Mike Tice designed an offense that was supposed to be heavy with the run and feature the passing of Daunte Culpepper. They finished the season as a pass first, pass second and run third team, even though they have the deepest set of talented running backs in professional football. Part of the problem was the season-ending injuries to tight end Jim Kleinsasser and right tackle Mike Rosenthall. They meant a lot to the running game. Tice said teams need to score a lot of points to win playoff games, so he's going with a heavy passing game. The problem is that they don't run the ball well with the lead. That will make it hard to hold onto a lead late in the game especially against a team like the Eagles.
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.
Breaking down the matchups to watch in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.