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.

Updated: January 13, 2005, 2:27 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

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
SteelersJets• 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
1. Both teams are among the top five in the NFL in running game differential, with the Steelers averaging 81.2 more yards on the ground than they surrender, and the Jets with an average of plus-51.3 yards. Why such huge advantages for the two teams? There are a lot of reasons but, not surprising, both teams are strong in the middle. Centers and nose tackles are characteristically among the most anonymous players in any game, but the Saturday matchups at the hub will be key in this contest. Pittsburgh lost Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle Casey Hampton to injury just six games into the season but fourth-year pro Chris Hoke, who had never even appeared in a regular-season game until 2004, has done an admirable job clogging things inside. The youngster will have his hands full with wily veteran snapper Kevin Mawae, but the Jets star hasn't been quite as good this year, and probably earned a Pro Bowl berth more on reputation. The player who beat out Mawae for the starting center spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team, Jeff Hartings, was a key to the Steelers' No. 2-ranked rushing offense. After a 2003 marred by knee problems, Hartings came back strong. He doesn't pull and get out in front of the screen as well as some of his predecessors in Pittsburgh did, but Hartings is a tough in-line blocker who uses his hands well. New York plays a 4-3, so it does not have a nose tackle in the purest sense. Tackle Jason Ferguson will typically align over the center, however, and has enjoyed a resurgent 2004 campaign. The old saying that it's what is up front that counts, holds true. It's the middle, and who wins the trench warfare there, that will help determine Saturday's outcome. If you do sneak a peek at the inside blocking, you'll note two of the NFL's premier guards as well, in Alan Faneca of Pittsburgh and the Jets' Pete Kendall.

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.

• Vote: Who will win?


• Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Sunday, Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m.)

A closer look
PatsCols• 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
1. Look, there's no getting around it, right? Everyone assumes the key matchup in this game pits the genius on the field (Colts quarterback Peyton Manning) against the genius off it (Patriots coach Bill Belichick). So who are we to go out and challenge conventional thinking? We're not among the pundits who have suggested that Belichick can get inside the head of Manning, not the way he has some other quarterbacks, such as Drew Bledsoe of Buffalo. But there is little doubt that Belichick relishes the task of conjuring up a game plan to slow Manning and the high-octane Indianapolis offense. And just as little doubt that Manning, one of the mentally toughest and certainly most studious quarterbacks in league history, will be equally pumped by the prospect of trying to decipher just what the Patriots and their defensive staff have designed for him this time around. In all his games against other opponents, counting postseason appearances, Manning has a passer rating of 94.4. He has completed 63.8 percent of his passes, averaged 7.73 yards per attempt, and has a touchdown pass-interception ratio of 1.96-1. But in the 11 games in which the future Hall of Fame quarterback has faced Belichick as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Manning's quarterback rating is 20 points lower, at 74.3. He has completed 58.8 percent of his passes, with 6.62 yards per attempt (a full yard less than against all other teams), and he has thrown one more interception (19) than touchdown passes (18). All of those differentials are significant and, you can bet, Manning is aware of all of them. On Sunday evening, following the Colts' wild-card victory over Denver, the Indianapolis star allowed he played like "an absolute dog" in his team's AFC Championship Game defeat at Gillette Stadium a year ago. It's almost as if Foxboro has become a personal house of horrors for the Colts, and for Manning, but don't expect the visitors to be looking over their shoulders and waiting for misfortune to arrive in the Sunday rematch. Manning has been uncharacteristically generous in the red zone at Gillette Stadium, throwing an interception in the end zone on the opening series of the 2003 conference championship game, and then repeating the mistake in the regular-season opener this year. It's almost as if the unflappable Manning tries a bit too hard to force things against the Pats. So he must play within himself this time around, be more careful with the ball in the "plus" areas, and just react to what he sees. Hard to believe Manning will throw four picks again, as he did in the AFC title game last season. What isn't hard to believe is that Belichick, who comes up with all sorts of esoteric gambits (for some snaps last season, he had just one defensive lineman on the field) for Manning, won't have something up his sleeve this time as well. Given the state of his injury-ravaged secondary, Belichick will have to be especially sinister to slow down a Colts offense that is even more potent than it was in 2003.

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.

• Vote: Who will win?

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE