- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Here are five things to look for in next weekend's AFC divisional-round games:
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (Saturday, Jan. 14, 8 p.m. ET)
1. Would you believe the NFL's best run defense in the second half of the season was the Patriots? It's true, and that defense will get a great test against the Broncos. The Patriots gave up only 68.6 rushing yards per game in the second half of the season. In the first eight games, the Patriots were gashed for 128.8 yards a game. During that time, they were without defensive end Richard Seymour -- a disruptive force along the line -- for four games because of a knee injury. It also helped getting Tedy Bruschi back, although he missed Saturday's playoff game against the Jaguars with a calf injury. Probably just as significant was that nose tackle Vince Wilfork improved in the second half of the season. Earlier in the year, Wilfork was being pushed back with one blocker in a lot of instances. Of course, a lot of the Patriots' second-half success stopping the run came at the expense of their weaker AFC East rivals. The Jets and Bills couldn't do anything against the Patriots in the four games in the second half. The Patriots come into the game with a lot of confidence, but they still have some fundamental problems.
2. The Broncos matchup is a bad one for the Patriots, who lost in Denver 28-20 on Oct. 16. It's a bad matchup for two reasons. First, the Broncos' running game will be hard for the Patriots to stop. The Broncos gained 178 yards on the Patriots on 34 carries, and they gashed the Patriots for long runs. Center Tom Nalen will be a tough challenge for Wilfork. Plus, Tatum Bell has the speed and power to burn them again. In many ways, Bell is the most dangerous runner for the Patriots to stop. As long as he doesn't dance at the line of scrimmage, he can hit holes with speed and power. This is why the Patriots will need Bruschi's experience at inside linebacker. The combo of Mike Vrabel and Monty Beisel will have a hard time preventing Bell from ripping big runs through the middle of the defense. Mike Shanahan will start Mike Anderson, but Bell will see a lot of action.
The other reason the Broncos are a tough matchup is because they can get the ball deep. Ashley Lelie is a deep threat and he's big. Rod Smith got deep on the Patriots, and before long, the Broncos led 28-3 in the first game. With six New England defensive backs out for the season, the secondary is vulnerable to teams with the ability to get the ball deep. Jake Plummer will scramble to buy time for those long attempts.
3. Corey Dillon's injuries have made the Patriots' rushing attack inconsistent all season. Dillon missed a decent amount of the Jaguars game, and the running offense was bailed out by Kevin Faulk, who is effective as a runner and a pass catcher. The Patriots averaged only 94.5 rushing yards per game and a mere 3.4 yards per carry. The Patriots had only five regular-season games in which they had more than 100 rushing yards as a team. In many ways, the Patriots' offense is closer to the first two Super Bowl teams than last year's. Dillon could be counted on getting 100 yards individually in 2004. It's become a Tom Brady offense, with limited support from the running game. Few defenses have frustrated Brady this season, but for this game, the Patriots need Dillon. Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer does a nice job designing zone-blitz schemes but sometimes relies on them too much. The best way to beat a zone-blitzing team is to run, which his why the Patriots need much, much more from Dillon or Faulk.
4. The Broncos' acquisition of four former members of the Cleveland Browns' defensive line improved the depth and the defensive fortunes of the Broncos, but it didn't do much for the pass rush. The Broncos had only 28 sacks as a team, including only 10 sacks by Cleveland castoffs Ebenezer Ekuban, Courtney Brown, Michael Myers and Gerard Warren. Last year, the Broncos had 38 sacks, including 10½ by departed defensive end Reggie Hayward. The most dangerous player on the line is defensive end Trevor Pryce, who surprisingly had only four sacks. Pryce should be able to dominate Patriots rookie left tackle Nick Kaczur. Pryce is physical and quick. He can beat a blocker with power or speed. Well-rested because of the bye week, Pryce could be extra dangerous. The Patriots will probably have to put a tight end on Kaczur's side to help block Pryce. If not, Brady could be forced into making some quick throws and potentially some mistakes. Watch for Pryce to be a big factor in the game.
5. With the extra week to prepare, it will be interesting to see what new things Mike Shanahan comes up with to try against the Patriots' defense. It wouldn't be surprising if he uses his tight ends -- Jeb Putzier and Stephen Alexander -- to test the coverage ability of the Patriots' safeties. The Patriots' defense hasn't been the same without Rodney Harrison, who was one of the main leaders of the defense. Eugene Wilson does a good job in coverage, and he is physical. Because of the injuries, the Patriots have been converting other cornerbacks into safeties like Artrell Hawkins. While Hawkins is known for his coverage, Shanahan could try to test his ability to make tackles down field against Putzier and Alexander. The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL that has gone "four corners." Because of their injuries, they've had no choice. That may help in some coverage matchups, but it hurts in tackling. If running plays get into the secondary, they could result in longer runs. If the corners-turned-safeties don't match up against the tight ends, that's a problem. We'll see if Shanahan will try to test that.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, Jan. 15, 1 p.m. ET)
1. The Steelers' offense looked lost in the 26-7 loss to the Colts in November. None of the Steelers could handle the crowd noise. Steelers offensive linemen had too many false starts in the first meeting. Steelers players complained the RCA Dome is one of the loudest places they've ever experienced. In fact, they complained the Colts piped crowd noise through the on-the-field speakers, a claim that was found untrue after an investigation by the NFL office. The Steelers know this will be a tough challenge, and the Colts sense blood. Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers will try to use a silent count this time. Roethlisberger believes the silent count will slow down the Colts' pass rush, which is well-rested. The Steelers' line is playing much better now than it was in the first Colts game. Left tackle Marvel Smith is healthy again, while Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca are again playing at a high level. Roethlisberger is doing a better job of managing the game in the pocket and throwing to check-down receivers if the deep receivers are covered.
2. The extra week of preparation can be a big boost for the Colts' offense. They've had a lot of time to think. In the last meeting against the Steelers, Peyton Manning hit Marvin Harrison for an 80-yard touchdown against cornerback Ike Taylor on Indy's first play from scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore thought the play would work when he devised it earlier that week. Taylor was surprised by the play. The Colts know Taylor will be wary of a long pass early in the game. Maybe Moore will try to hit a couple of short passes to Harrison if Taylor plays him for the long ball. Harrison has been getting more long balls of late because he's getting a little more single coverage. Teams are cheating a defender out of coverage to try to stop halfback Edgerrin James. The Taylor-Harrison matchup is one of the most important of the day.
3. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did have an impact on the Colts' offense. Even though he didn't beat the Colts, he frustrated them at times. After giving up 10 points in the first two possessions, the Steelers' defense settled into a nickel approach that used only two defensive linemen. This may be a small lineup, but it gives the Steelers more speed and more coverage options than they normally have in the 3-4. Several times during the game, Manning struggled to find open receivers down field. Occasionally, he came to the bench frustrated. Reggie Wayne came to the sidelines upset that he couldn't get the ball. Even though the Colts dominated in a 19-point win, the Colts couldn't put the ball in the end zone, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns on a number of drives. The Colts had 59 offensive plays in that game. They had 366 total yards, but only 286 yards after their 80-yard touchdown pass. The Colts have one of the most efficient offenses in years. The Colts usually get 10 possessions which Manning turns into four touchdown drives. But the Steelers played them well in the red zone. The Colts have had an extra week to look at what happened and try to find ways to beat the Steelers.
4. The Colts may be a little rusty at the beginning of the game. Indy rested as many as five defensive starters during the final three weeks and the main offensive starters were pulled after two series in the final two weeks. That means it might be a little tougher to get off to their usual fast start. Of course, the Colts rested a lot of starters during an 0-5 preseason and won 13 in a row to start the regular season. The Colts are just good. They practice well. Their offense is based on timing and execution, but it's timing and execution that can be accomplished in practices. If you watch Colts practices in training camp, there is a lot of pitching and catching. Manning works his routes to Harrison. They have been doing that for weeks in practices and should have no problem translating that into this matchup with the Steelers. There could be one problem, though. There may be too much energy on defense. Among the strengths of the defense this season has been its hustle and intensity. Because they've been waiting to play a big game for weeks, the Colts' defense might over pursue a little and be vulnerable to cutback plays by halfback Willie Parker. The Colts did a great job of containing Parker in the first meeting. In that game, the Steelers admitted that they lost their confidence in the running game. That confidence is back. But so is the confidence of the Colts.
5. Now that he's rested for a couple of weeks, Edgerrin James should be ready for 25-30 carries. He had 29 carries and 124 yards in the first meeting against the Steelers. It will be interesting to see if the Colts copy something the Bengals did against the Steelers. To counter three-receiver sets, the Steelers take defensive tackle Casey Hampton out of the game and use Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith as the only two defensive linemen on the field. The defensive ends are replaced by linebackers. What the Bengals did was run Rudi Johnson up the middle off the three-receiver sets and try to force the Steelers to put their 3-4 defense back on the field. When the Steelers got back to the 3-4, Cincy used the mismatch of a wide receiver against a linebacker. Of course, the Colts will prevent a lot of switching because they run the no-huddle offense, usually 62 plays per game. Manning is a master of making the right reads, and the Steelers are masters of disguising coverages. What the Steelers don't do well is matching up in man coverage. It will be a chess match.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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