Focus on stars opens door for others
Even with all the stars in the playoffs, teams frequently turned to secondary options last week.
With all due respect, Narond "Roc" Alexander is a nice enough fellow, but he's no Champ Bailey.
The Denver Broncos' third cornerback, an undrafted free agent rookie, frequently found himself lined up opposite the Indianapolis Colts' Reggie Wayne in last week's AFC wild-card game. With Bailey -- the best cover corner this side of a healthy Ty Law -- exclusively covering the peerless Marvin Harrison and Kelly Herndon, the right side starter, matched up opposite Brandon Stokley in the slot, the dangerous game of Roc, Scissors, Paper went to the Colts.
That, from the Indianapolis perspective, was the whole idea.
"It's nothing against Alexander," Manning said after last week's 49-24 razing of the Broncos. "Anytime any one of our guys gets a third corner, we like that matchup."
While Harrison was held to a pedestrian four catches for 50 yards -- and a memorable block on Bailey near the goal line to help Wayne score -- Colts tight end Dallas Clark also had a terrific game, catching six passes for 112 yards and a 19-yard touchdown.
"When I was in Indianapolis recently, Peyton Manning was going through a streak of 11 touchdown passes with none going to Marvin Harrison," said ESPN analyst Tom Jackson from his Cincinnati home earlier this week. "'If they're going to take him away,' Peyton told me, 'we'll just go to the open guy.'
"The Rams of a few years ago, with Kurt Warner, that was a great group. And you can go back to Dan Fouts and the Chargers but I've never seen anything as productive as this group Peyton has around him."
And while the Colts are an anomaly of sorts -- they produced 522 points in the regular season, the fifth-highest total in NFL history -- Wayne's World is not a phenomenon restricted to Indianapolis. In the playoffs, with defenses working so hard to take away the opposing offense's No. 1 threat, they tend to overlook No. 2 and, sometimes, No. 3.
In addition to Wayne's historic and surreal numbers, the other three wild-card games featured break-out performances by second (and third) bananas that helped ensure victory:
• With the Seahawks occupying Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Kevin Curtis -- who played only four games as a rookie last year after breaking his leg in the preseason -- torched Seattle with four catches for 107 yards.
• With the eyes of the world on Randy Moss (and his bony backside), Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson caught four passes for 60 yards, one of them a 19-yard touchdown. Third-down back Moe Williams reeled in two passes for 72 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown.
And, clearly, with the new rules emphasis restricting defensive contact five yards past the line of scrimmage, the time was never better to be a second banana.
"If you roll coverage to somebody like Randy Moss, try to keep a safety over the top of Moss, they've made it so difficult to play defense that the guy who is singled up with Nate Burleson -- he doesn't have a chance," Jackson said. "And, from what we've seen, it's harder in the playoffs. The officials are calling it to the letter of the law; they won't allow a single bump after five yards."
And so, the trend is likely to continue in this weekend's four divisional playoff games:
Colts at Patriots
Yes, the New England Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls. And, sure, the Colts' defense is still a work in progress. But, it must be said, Indianapolis' great strength plays well against the Patriots' weakness at cornerback.
With Ty Law, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, and Tyrone Poole both on the injured reserve list, New England is operating without its two starting corners. Law, you might remember, intercepted three Manning passes in last year's AFC Championship Game -- the result almost certainly would have been different if he hadn't played. It is not likely that the signing of Hank Poteat -- a journeyman who has played with the Steelers, Buccaneers and Panthers the last three seasons -- has thrown the Colts coaching staff into convulsions. Imagine if the Patriots' No. 7 cornerback finds himself matched up with Stokley or Wayne.
So here's what the Patriots have to counteract Harrison, Wayne and Stokley: Asante Samuel, who had started one game coming into his second season, rookie free agent Randall Gay, practice squad regular Earthwind Moreland and wide receiver Troy Brown. Needless to say, safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson will be exceedingly busy.
"Their skill position players are the most productive in the league," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick observed on Monday. "Teams try to take away one guy and the other guys go wild. It isn't like [Manning] can't look out there and see who is covering who. They make you defend their formation and they see where you are and then they decide what they want to do.
"Can you disguise a little bit and try to move around a little bit? Yes, but there are only so many ways you can defend a spread-out formation like they have."
Belichick has deservedly earned a reputation as a defensive genius. With a thin core of cornerbacks and some of the oldest linebackers in the league, he and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (soon to be departing for the Browns?) will earn their paychecks this week. The key for the Patriots is controlling the ball with Corey Dillon on offense and pressuring Manning with three and four pass rushers. Even if the Patriots successfully help Gay and Samuel with their safeties, it could open things up for Clark and Edgerrin James.
And which overlooked receiver will step up for the Patriots? Despite possessing the best offense Belichick has had in New England, not one of the Patriots' wideouts approached the numbers of Harrison, Wayne and Stokley. David Givens and David Patten were more productive than Deion Branch, who was injured, but Branch and tight end Daniel Graham will have to surpass their supporting cast status if the Patriots are to win.
Jets at Steelers
Chad Pennington's first pass against San Diego last week was thrown not to Santana Moss, but Justin McCareins. It was a 30-yard heave down the field and, although it fell incomplete, the Chargers took note. The Jets will never be confused with those old pass-happy Chargers teams on offense but, in their own modest way, they took it to San Diego.
With the Chargers focused on stopping Moss and running back Curtis Martin, McCareins made the tough catches, almost always in traffic across the middle.
"What we do as a team is take advantage of whatever you give us," Moss said after the game. "This was the best game where we took advantage of the things that were presented to us."
Moss caught four passes for 100 yards, but his 47-yard scoring play was supposed to be a throw to McCareins.
"It was a call for me to clear out for Justin but if the safety takes one false move and doesn't get back in time, we always know to throw it deep," Moss explained. "When I saw the safety not respecting the deep route, I looked up and saw the ball coming my way."
The Steelers have a few candidates for glory on Saturday against the Jets. Ben Roethlisberger will need all the help he can get; only one rookie quarterback has won a playoff game during the Super Bowl Era. Hines Ward (80 catches, 1,004 yards) was the Steelers' leading receiver, but that was partly because Plaxico Burress (35 catches, 698 yards) was injured. The Jets are likely to place corner David Barrett on Burress, who is more of a deep threat, leaving Donnie Abraham on Ward. That could open things up for No. 3 receiver Antwaan Randle El, who is likely to be covered in the slot by linebacker Mark Brown or nickel back Terrell Buckley.
Rams at Falcons
Going into last week's NFC wild-card game, Kevin Curtis was not a likely candidate for a triple-digit receiving game.
Playing with Isaac Bruce (11,000-plus career receiving yards) and Torry Holt (8,000-plus), Curtis -- with his 434 career receiving yards -- seemed an afterthought. He was a third-round draft choice in 2003, but that broken leg limited him to four catches last season. This year, he was the Rams' No. 4 receiver behind Holt, Bruce and Shaun McDonald with 32 catches for 421 yards.
So how did he manage to catch those four passes for 107 yards against the Seahawks? For starters, it was not an isolated situation; Curtis caught six passes for 99 yards in the Rams' pivotal 32-29 overtime victory over the Jets that landed them in the playoffs. Three of his four catches against Seattle were instrumental in scoring drives.
"It just kind of worked out that way," Curtis said after the game. "I've had some more balls thrown in my direction, and I've been able to contribute a little more."
The Falcons expect to get back tight end Alge Crumpler, who missed the last two regular-season games with a knee injury. Strong safety Adam Archuleta will cover him most often, but while the Rams are watching Crumpler and Peerless Price 45 catches, 575 yards), watch for wideout Dez White to slip above the radar.
Vikings at Eagles
While the nation's media has been obsessing much of the week on Randy Moss' would-be mooning incident at Green Bay, it is his sprained right ankle that bears watching.
If Moss is effective at Philadelphia, he's more than capable of matching last week's four-catch, 70-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Packers. If that happens, the Vikings may again go to Burleson to take the pressure off quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
Four months ago, the Eagles held Moss to only 69 yards in a 27-16 victory in Week 2.
"The biggest difference from that game," said Brown, "is Burleson. He's playing with confidence."
With leading receiver Terrell Owens still out with a broken ankle, the Eagles' offense is fairly manageable. The two starting wide receivers, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell, combined for only 58 catches during the year, and the Vikings are likely to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. Tight ends L.J. Smith and Chad Lewis should benefit from that attention.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.