Plenty to watch in the AFC Divisional Playoffs
The matchups to watch in the AFC feature two run-oriented offenses in Pittsburgh and Peyton vs. Belichick.
Here are five things to look for in the upcoming AFC divisional games:
• New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (Saturday, Jan. 15, 4:30 p.m.)
|A closer look|
• X-factor: Will New York right defensive end John Abraham, one of the game's best upfield pass rushers but a guy who hasn't played in a month, be able to go? Abraham didn't exactly endear himself to teammates by not dressing out the wild-card game. If he plays, the Jets could generate a solid rush, since end Shaun Ellis is on a roll right now.
• X-and-O factor: Pittsburgh had only two sacks in its last four games, but ever-crafty defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau feels hits on a quarterback are just as significant, and he will show the Jets offensive line a lot of different looks. LeBeau essentially created the "zone blitz" scheme, still uses it more than other coordinators, and will count some on the element of confusion in this matchup. Plus, he's had some extra time during the bye week to conjure up some exotic stuff.
• Rx factor (health): The bye helped Pittsburgh get healthier, as WR Plaxico Burress, LB Clark Haggans and CB Chad Scott are expected to be ready. It isn't certain if LB Kendrell Bell will be recovered from groin surgery but, even if he is, he won't start. Abraham remains the big question mark for the Jets. The smart money is that Chrebet will play.
• Numbers cruncher: Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw just three interceptions and was sacked only seven times in his first six starts. Over the final seven starts, he had eight interceptions and went down 23 times. In only one contest was he forced to throw more than 28 passes.
• The Steelers will win if: They simply play their game, which means imposing their will on the Jets defensive front seven in the running game, and holding the marvelous Curtis Martin, a Pittsburgh native, to 75-80 yards.
• The Jets will win if: The team that finished second in the league in turnover differential, with a plus-17, can harass Roethlisberger the way it did in the regular-season meeting, forcing a few interceptions.
-- Len Pasquarelli
2. Pittsburgh intercepted Jets quarterback Chad Pennington three times in a regular-season victory on Dec. 12. Even though Pennington displayed in this weekend's wild-card upset win at San Diego that his rotator cuff isn't bothering him as much, the Steelers might not be convinced the New York quarterback can really drive the ball into the small creases in the secondary. The Steelers cornerbacks aren't great, but they are physical, and Pittsburgh will get former starter Chad Scott back from a quadriceps injury to play in nickel cover situations. The Steelers usually play a lot more zone in the secondary, and that likely will hold true next week. But don't be surprised if strong safety Troy Polamalu cheats a bit and tries to help out with Justin McCareins, the long, angular wide receiver who will have a size advantage over the Steelers cornerbacks. Polamalu is a superb "in the box" player, will play close to the line early to try to slow down tailback Curtis Martin, but he can be spectacular in his mid-field range as well. If the Jets permit Polamalu to roam around too much, and allow him to chase the ball at will, he's apt to author a big play.
3. For all his aggressiveness, Jets first-year defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson isn't as big a blitz-quota coach as perceived. But he is very creative in getting pressure without bringing big numbers, counts mightily on his ends to get up the field, and had his charges buzzing around Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pretty good in the regular-season meeting. Roethlisberger was sacked only twice in that game, but struggled to get his feet set, and was flushed out of the pocket on at least eight other occasions. The red-hot pass rusher for New York right now is left end Shaun Ellis, who had 6½ sacks in his final four regular-season outings, including half a sack versus the Steelers. He is a pretty tough matchup for Pittsburgh right tackle Oliver Ross. Suffice it to say, Ross is a far better run-blocker, and he is facing one of the NFL's best two-way ends. New York will get a real bonus if its other end, John Abraham, can play after missing the past month after spraining his knee. But everyone felt Abraham would be ready for the San Diego game and he didn't play, conceding that his financial future as a pending unrestricted free agent was a factor, and so there is a chance he won't be ready next weekend, either. Looking for Pittsburgh to get a pass-rush boost? Left outside linebacker Clark Haggans, who missed the last month of the season but who comes strong off the edge, is healthy again. If he is 100 percent, Haggans will be a difficult draw for Jets right tackle Kareem McKenzie, who has not played as well in 2004 as he did a year ago.
4. Hard to overlook two guys who rank among the five most prolific rushers in NFL history, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, isn't it? But the two teams in this game defend the run so fiercely, one would assume it will take some big plays in the passing game to make a difference. Keep an eye on the nickel receivers in the contest. Antwaan Randle El, who almost always plays in the slot and draws single coverage, has emerged during the absence of the injured Plaxico Burress. Pittsburgh is expected to have its full contingent (Burress, Randle El and Hines Ward) for the game, and Ward is the consummate go-to receiver, but Randle El has made a ton of big plays the last three outings. His quickness makes him a difficult player to cover, he runs well after the catch, and is becoming very polished in his double-move routes. New York could be without one of the all-time best slot receivers, if the veteran Wayne Chrebet doesn't play, and he sat out the wild-card game against the Chargers with a concussion. Pennington is growing fond, though, of rookie Jerricho Cotchery, a physical receiver who can break arm tackles.
5. Neither of these teams allows much scoring. The Steelers led the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (15.7) and New York was fourth (16.3). It's cliché to suggest, in any playoff matchup, that little things might make a big difference. But as stingy as the Jets and Steelers can be, and with both teams unlikely to light things up offensively, it might take a turnover, a special teams play, a late field goal even, to prevail. Keep an eye on Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. In his first season as the Steelers' play-caller, he didn't rely on gimmicks nearly as much as predecessor Mike Mularkey, and the team responded nicely to his few-frills style. But over the past month, Whisenhunt has begun to dig a bit deeper into his bag of tricks: things like direct snaps to Randle El, a former college quarterback, and reverses to Ward. In fact, one of the key plays in Pittsburgh's regular-season victory was Bettis' halfback pass for a touchdown.
• Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Sunday, Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m.)
|A closer look|
• X-factor: In his last two games against the Colts (he missed the AFC Championship contest last year because of injury), Bethel Johnson has returned 10 kickoffs for a 29.9-yard average, including a 92-yard runback for a touchdown in the 2003 regular-season matchup. The explosive Johnson averaged 24.8 yards this season, ninth-best in the NFL, and could be a real problem. The Indianapolis coverage units are solid but kickoff depth has been a season-long shortcoming.
• X-and-O factor: What a great chess match. The defensive ploys of the Patriots versus the game plan of highly regarded but little heralded Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore. The Colts try to create lopsided matchups with personnel packages, formations, motion. Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are masters of subterfuge and few defenses better camouflage pass rush and coverage packages.
• Rx factor (health): Both of the Pats' starting cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, are on injured reserve and done for the season. Probably the biggest question mark for New England is star defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who plays end in the 3-4, tackle in the 4-3, and is disruptive no matter where he lines up. Given the cryptic manner in which the Patriots report injuries, there is no way of knowing yet if Seymour, who is believed to have suffered a sprained knee ligament, will be ready. An injury to watch for the Colts, and which occurred late in Sunday's wild-card victory, is a possible sprained knee that was suffered by situational pass-rush end Robert Mathis. The Colts weren't saying much on Sunday evening about the severity of the injury.
• Numbers cruncher: Regarded by many as strictly a "dome team," the Colts are actually 18-9 on the road during coach Tony Dungy's three-year tenure. Of course, all nine of the defeats were outdoors. The Colts haven't won in Foxboro since 1995 and have dropped seven straight meetings there.
• The Pats will win if: They slow Colts tailback Edgerrin James, force Indianapolis to be one-dimensional and confuse the pass protection blocking scheme.
• The Colts will win if: Quarterback Peyton Manning throws three touchdown passes, has no interceptions, and divines where the New England pass rush is coming from.
-- Len Pasquarelli
2. You think Belichick has been the bane of Manning's existence over the past couple of seasons? Well, it seems like Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest has been the scourge of the Colts' offensive line. The 11-year veteran, who is certainly the kind of hybrid "edge" front seven player Belichick has popularized with his schemes, has come up with a lot of big plays, particularly in the last three meetings. In the wild and wooly regular-season meeting between the two teams at the RCA Dome on Nov. 30, 2003, it was McGinest, who ran onto the field just before the snap and after limping off with an apparent leg injury, who knifed through to smother tailback Edgerrin James on a fourth-and-goal play. In last year's conference title game, McGinest had five tackles and one-half sack, to go with three quarterback pressures. And then in the season opener this year, he posted four tackles, one sack, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery. It might seem as if Colts right offensive tackle Ryan Diem, who had a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign early in the season before slumping a bit later in the year, would have the responsibility of blocking McGinest in most situations. But, the problem is, McGinest isn't aligned in the same place on every snap. Belichick will move him around, force the Colts to identify exactly where he is, and then adjust their blocking schemes on the fly. Manning ticked off the names of the Patriots defenders, on Sunday evening, who have authored big plays against the Colts recently. Not surprisingly, McGinest was the first guy he mentioned.
3. Versus a New England secondary missing both cornerbacks from last season, Ty Law (who had three "picks" of Manning in the conference title game) and Tyrone Poole, the Colts' passing game figures to have some mismatches. That should particularly be the case for slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who might just be the X-factor in the game, and who might work much of the day against a safety. It's difficult enough to imagine how the undermanned Patriots will attempt to check outside receivers Marvin Harrison and emerging star Reggie Wayne. Normally, free safety Eugene Wilson, a college corner, might draw Stokley in the slot. But injuries have forced Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel to move Wilson back outside in some coverage schemes. That could leave the clever Stokley, who is very adept at locating the void in a zone defense and uncovering himself, working against rookie safety Dexter Reid on some occasions. It would also seem that Manning could get tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard deep up the seam against the New England secondary. Then again, his red zone interceptions on the opening drive of the AFC title game and the regular-season contest this year came when he attempted to force the ball inside to a tight end. Manning and coach Tony Dungy reiterated on Sunday that they don't go into a game planning to exploit a particular defender, or to get the ball to one receiver. But the guess here is that, if the Colts win at Foxboro, one big reason will be Stokley's performance.
4. Even with a new dimension this season, the power running game provided by tailback Corey Dillon, the guess is that Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will throw early and often at a suspect Indianapolis secondary. Two-time Super Bowl most valuable player Tom Brady is at his best in a rhythm passing game, where he is getting the ball out on three- and (at most) five-step drops, and just taking everything that's available to him in the short hook and flat zones. Because the Colts predominantly play a Cover 2 type of umbrella zone, those throws should be there for him. You don't often see the Indy corners creeping up to play "press" or to try to get their hands on receivers and perhaps redirect their routes. Weis has called games in which he threw on 25 straight snaps, and such a strategy can be both deflating and fatiguing for a defensive front forced to rush that many times in succession. Also, just a hunch, but we're betting that Dillon, who had only 15 catches during the season, will be utilized a bit more in the passing game. And look for the Pats to dump the ball to nickel tailback Kevin Faulk and force the Colts linebackers to tackle him in space.
5. Both teams have exceptional kickers, Adam Vinatieri for New England and Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts, but it's going to take touchdowns and red zone efficiency, to win this game. Vanderjagt, by the way, missed the potential game-tying field goal in the season opener this year at Gillette Stadium. If you've got to trot out the kickers too often on Sunday, though, you might be in trouble. The Colts have been amazingly productive inside the 20-yard line in 2004, with Manning's ballhandling wizardry and play-action fakes a key to their success. He'll need to avoid, as noted previously, the kind of red zone turnovers that plagued him the last two games in Foxboro. The Pats struggled in scoring territory in the AFC Championship Game last season and probably can't afford to squander as many opportunities against an Indianapolis team that figures to put points on the scoreboard. Most people forget that, after the Pats scored a touchdown on their first possession of the conference title game in 2003 (a seven-yard pass to wide open wideout David Givens), they never got back to the end zone. Their final 17 points came on five Vinatieri field goals and a safety when the Colts had a punt snap sail out of the end zone. Seven scores and just one touchdown among them? That kind of reverse largesse could get the Patriots beat this time.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.