Manning, Moss, Vick hard to contain

All four divisional playoff matchups this weekend feature players or units that appear unstoppable at times.

Originally Published: January 12, 2005
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

One of the many much-appreciated services rendered by the brilliant folks at NFL Films is their creative utilization of camera angles to help tell a story.

So for any insomniac out there who was awake late Monday evening, and watching the NFL Network's revisiting of a Sept. 20 regular-season matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings, the celluloid evidence of the battle featuring wide receiver Randy Moss and the young cornerbacks trying to cover him was a highlight that was delightfully rehashed through a mind-boggling variety of prisms.

Most notable, though, were the shots that emanated from behind the Philadelphia defense because the viewer was reminded time and again (almost bludgeoned, in fact) of the disparity in physical dimensions between Moss and cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. And, no, the fact Moss appeared Goliath-like as he stood across the line of scrimmage, towering over and glowering at Brown and Sheppard before the snap was neither optical illusion nor trick photography.

There are a lot of angles in every one of the (divisional-round) games but, yeah, there is also one big matchup that sticks out in all of them, too. It's never as simple as, like, 'OK, do this one thing and you'll win.' But there are spotlight (matchups) in these games where winning the battle might also mean a big leg up toward winning the game.
Packers S Darren Sharper

At 6-feet-4 and 204 pounds, Moss owns a six-inch height advantage on both Sheppard and Brown, and an average edge of eight pounds over the Philadelphia cornerbacks. And the hour-long NFL Films package provided ample graphic evidence of that. It also served as a reminder that, while the Eagles' defense limited Moss to eight receptions for 69 yards and one late-game touchdown catch of four yards in the regular-season contest, the unit probably must successfully repeat that sterling performance for Philadelphia to advance to a fourth straight NFC Championship Game.

There are, indeed, some common denominators that run through each of this weekend's four divisional-round contests. The most obvious is that all four represent a reprise of a regular-season outing, and all four will be played in the same venues as the earlier games. The most notable, though, is that all four contests include an irresistible-force versus immovable-object element as well.

Philadelphia might defeat underdog Minnesota even if Moss posts big numbers, but the task will be considerably easier if the game plan of Eagles defensive coordinator and resident guru Jim Johnson keeps the Vikings star out of the end zone. St. Louis must find a way to contain Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. The New York Jets, who have never won in Pittsburgh, will likely be 0-6 by Saturday night if they can't slow a Steelers running game that has imposed its will on opponents. If the makeshift Patriots secondary is toasted by Peyton Manning and his trio of 1,000-yard receivers, New England won't get an opportunity to defend its Super Bowl title.

"There are a lot of angles in every one of the (divisional-round) games but, yeah, there is also one big matchup that sticks out in all of them, too," acknowledged Green Bay safety Darren Sharper. "It's never as simple as, like, 'OK, do this one thing and you'll win.' But there are spotlight (matchups) in these games where winning the battle might also mean a big leg up toward winning the game."

A review/preview of the four game-within-a-game battles:

FalconsRams• St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons, Saturday, 8 ET: In the Falcons' 34-17 victory over St. Louis on Sept. 19, Vick posted one of his more accurate passing games, connecting on 14 of 19 attempts for 179 yards and a touchdown. But the league's most exciting performer, and arguably the "X-factor" in every game in which he plays, Vick also ran for 109 yards on 12 carries.

Michael Vick
Quarterback
Atlanta Falcons
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
321 181 14 3 12 78.1
How complete was the performance? It marked the second most rushing yards and the second most carries for Vick all year. In only one other game did he have a completion rate higher than against the Rams, and it was one of just four games in which Vick was not sacked at least twice. "You name it," said Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta, "and he did it. He just took over and dominated."

Over the last month, the St. Louis defense has improved, particularly in the consistency of its linebacker play, but the unit will need to make a quantum leap on Saturday night to contain the slippery Vick. The conundrum for the Rams is the same one that confronts every team with Vick: With a quarterback who often holds the ball too long, feeling he can always make a play even when nothing seems available, Vick is susceptible to being blitzed and is sacked once every eight "drop backs." Rush him recklessly, though, and he will find a running lane. And as a runner, he's more dangerous than as a passer.

EaglesVikings• Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia, Sunday, 1 ET:
Moss groused on the sideline in the Sept. 20 game at Philadelphia over what he termed the "GP." Translation: He didn't like the offensive game plan. In that contest, according to the official play-by-play, quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw 10 passes to Moss and he caught eight of them for 69 yards. By comparison, Culpepper threw 13 times to tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

Randy Moss
Wide Receiver
Minnesota Vikings
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Rec Yds TD Avg Long YAC
49 767 13 15.7 82 187
Their size disadvantage aside, the Philadelphia cornerbacks used their hands well against Moss, got into his body early in patterns, and tried to funnel him inside, where there was safety assistance. The strategy was effective. While there wasn't much "press" coverage on Moss, the Eagles seemed to mix some "off-man" looks with their zones. The Moss touchdown came on a lob pass on which he went up over Sheppard and, clearly, when he is in the "red zone," the Vikings star is most dangerous. Remember, this early-season game was before Moss sprained his ankle, an injury that severely slowed him, and which remains a factor.

The Eagles cornerbacks are a pretty fearless tandem and don't mind mixing it up with the bigger receivers. Both Sheppard, who made the Pro Bowl, and Brown, who should have, play with natural leverage. One key on Sunday will be to keep Moss off the boundary and to once again force him inside the numbers, where there is help.

PatriotsColts• Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots, Sunday, 4:30 ET: How can the battered and beleaguered New England secondary, which has used a career linebacker (Don Davis) at safety and started an undrafted rookie (Randall Gay), a "street" free agent (Earthwind Moreland) and its best "nickel" back (Asante Samuel) at corner, even begin to slow the league's most prolific passing attack?

Peyton Manning
Quarterback
Indianapolis Colts
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
497 336 49 0 10 121.1
If we had the answer to that one, we would be on Bill Belichick's speed-dial, that's for sure. But it isn't, despite the evidence from last year's AFC Championship Game, the New England secondary that is most essential to checking Peyton Manning and his impressive cast of playmakers. As demonstrated in the regular-season opener, in which the Patriots took a lot of body blows but still managed to prevail, the front seven sets the tone for trying to bamboozle the brainy Indianapolis quarterback.

Manning was 16-for-29 for 256 yards, with two touchdown passes and an interception in the season-opening loss at Foxboro. He turned the ball over with an interception on the very first series. Tailback Edgerrin James twice fumbled in the "red zone." All three of those takeaways were basically authored by New England front seven defenders. Since the Pats play an amoeba-like 3-4 front, one constantly in flux and with a ton of confusion, the variables are myriad.

Sure, cornerback Ty Law had three interceptions in the conference title game a year ago, but examine the last few meetings between the teams, and names like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi keep popping up, too.

SteelersJets• N.Y. Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers, Saturday, 4:30 ET: The Jets have never won in Pittsburgh and their latest defeat came in a 17-6 loss Dec. 12. It came, too, despite the fact the Jets defense limited Ben Roethlisberger to just nine completions while harassing him all afternoon, and while holding Pittsburgh to just 120 rushing yards, its fourth-lowest output of the season.

Jerome Bettis
Running Back
Pittsburgh Steelers
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Rush Yds TD Rec Yds TD
250 941 13 6 46 0
But the Steelers offensive line, the only blocking unit remaining in the playoffs on which all five players started every game this season, has demonstrated that it can dominate a game, and impose its will on a defense. The Steelers had both tailbacks, Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, healthy the last time around. Neither rushed for more than 60 yards. To have a chance on Saturday, the Jets can't allow the Pittsburgh running game to simply take over.

Just as important is that the Jets buzz around Roethlisberger, who is a rookie making his first playoff appearance, and who threw two interceptions in the first meeting. This might be the most closely contested game of the weekend, perhaps a repeat of the Dec. 12 game in which the Steelers needed some gimmickry, a Bettis touchdown pass, to win.

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

ALSO SEE