Here are five things to look for in next weekend's NFC divisional-round games:
Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m.)
When the Seattle offense gets into tempo, and coach Mike Holmgren is dialed in with his play-calling, it is one of the most efficient units in recent league history. Obviously, Williams, who demonstrated in the Redskins' wild-card victory at Tampa Bay that he is worth every penny of the $8 million contract extension owner Dan Snyder gave him last week, can't wait for third down to spring whatever surprises he might have in his deep grab bag. The Seahawks, who averaged 6.25 yards on first down, just aren't in very many disadvantageous down-and-distance situations. Williams might have to try to force the action on earlier downs. This is a more high-octane Seattle offense than the one that the Redskins limited to 17 points in an Oct. 2 overtime win at FedEx Field, and the Redskins' defense will have to be even better than it was that day.
2. Is it better to have one dominating wide receiver or a full contingent of lower-profile yet consistent wideouts who seemingly come at you in waves? This game might help answer that question. Clearly, the most explosive big-play performer in this game will be Redskins wideout Santana Moss. The five-year veteran gave the Redskins the vertical dimension the offense sorely needed in '05. His 17.7-yard average was second-highest among players with at least 60 receptions, and Moss had 10 catches of 40 yards or more. Six of his nine touchdowns were 32 yards or more, and he averaged 43.7 yards per scoring catch. But the Redskins didn't have another wide receiver with more than 22 catches, and no one stepped into the No. 2 complementary role. Tight end and H-back Chris Cooley had 71 receptions and seven touchdowns, and he is very clever in the red zone.
The Seahawks really miss safety Ken Hamlin when it comes to devising coverage schemes against intermediate receivers such as Cooley and will probably try to bracket him with some linebacker help. But look for Seattle to double-team Moss all day and to try to get cornerback Marcus Trufant locked on him, because no other Washington wide receiver scares anyone. In long-yardage situations, it's a given that Washington quarterback Mark Brunell will look for Moss. Seattle ranked 25th versus the pass this season, so its D has some holes. The cornerback spot opposite Trufant, where both Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson have taken turns as the starter, has been especially suspect. On the flip side, injuries to starting wideouts Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson, both of whom missed considerable playing time, meant Hasselbeck had to distribute the ball almost like a point guard. Engram still had 67 catches, but four other wideouts registered double-digit receptions -- and Joe Jurevicius, signed as a free agent to play the slot role, had a huge year. Jurevicius scored 10 times on just 55 catches, a phenomenal ratio, and no defense wants him running crossing routes unchecked through a secondary. It's key that the Redskins get a body on the long, gangly Jurevicius and that they get up on him early in red-zone situations. Washington really needs cornerback Shawn Springs, the former Seattle first-rounder who missed the wild-card game at Tampa Bay with an injury, to be available for the divisional round.
3. Redskins weak-side linebacker LaVar Arrington, often accused of freelancing, will need to play one of the most disciplined games of his career if the Redskins are to contain league MVP Shaun Alexander. The Seahawks love to run their star tailback to the left, behind the Pro Bowl duo of tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson, and that will put Arrington squarely in the middle of the action. Alexander is tough enough to corral, but when linebackers get sealed inside and can't hold containment on the perimeter, he starts turning 3- and 4-yard carries into longer gains. In the wild-card victory, Washington's linebackers totaled 32 tackles, and they're going to have to run to the football and surround Alexander to have a chance to spring another upset. In the regular-season matchup, Washington "held" Alexander to 98 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. We're betting D-coordinator Williams would take those numbers again. If you want to see some old-fashioned trench warfare, keep an eye on Hutchinson's battles against the Washington tackles, each of whom had superb outings in the wild-card triumph. Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a are tough-minded and intense, penetrate surprisingly well, and won't back down. Once the quickest 310-pounder in the league, Griffin isn't as fast as he was earlier in his career, but he's a difference-maker in the middle of the line. Salave'a is a journeyman who has finally found his niche. The inside line play, especially when Seattle is on offense, won't be for the fainthearted.
4. The Redskins got plenty of pressure from their front four in their wild-card win, blitzed sparingly and preferred to play a drop-and-cover game. But they had just 35 sacks in the season and Seattle surrendered only 31 sacks. Washington right defensive end Phillip Daniels is certainly the team's hot pass-rusher, with six of his eight sacks in the regular season coming in the final three games. He'll be matched up against Walter Jones in most situations. It wouldn't be surprising to see Williams use Arrington a little more as a rush end in an attempt to pressure Hasselbeck. Meanwhile, despite not having a single defender with double-digit sacks, the Seahawks led the NFL with 50 quarterback takedowns and had 12 different players with at least one sack. Seattle isn't a big blitz-quota team but will send rookie linebacker LeRoy Hill off the edge sometimes. The bet here is that Seattle will try to focus on 43-year-old right guard Ray Brown, starting in place of the injured Randy Thomas, and see if it can force him to pick up some inside blitzes, likely from first-year middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who probably should have been the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
5. Beware Redskins backup tailback Ladell Betts. Yeah, we said Ladell Betts. In games like this one, featuring a pair of premier backs like Shaun Alexander and Washington's Clinton Portis, it's occasionally the No. 3 runner in the game who makes some plays. And Betts, an effective nickel tailback who logs more snaps than many No. 2 tailbacks in spelling Portis, can make plays. Not a lot of big plays, but the kind of little ones that add up. Betts ran for 338 yards on 89 carries and, in a game that doesn't exactly feature a lot of return threats, he might be a factor on kickoff runbacks. Betts averaged 25.9 yards and scored a touchdown on kickoff returns this season. As an inside runner, he's got some punch and can break tackles. A message to Seattle defenders: Don't let down too much when Portis goes to the sideline for a breather.
Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears (Sunday, Jan. 15, 4:30 p.m.)
1. Plenty of focus will be on the offensive tackles, Chicago's John Tait and Fred Miller and Carolina's Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross, in another NFC division matchup featuring teams that also played during the regular season. In the Nov. 20 game at Soldier Field, the Bears registered eight sacks, all by defensive linemen -- five by ends Adewale Ogunleye (three sacks) and Alex Brown (two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles). Ogunleye abused first-year starter Wharton in the Bears' 13-3 victory, and it won't be surprising to see the young tackle get some help from a tight end as he tries to keep the Bears away from quarterback Jake Delhomme. Carolina defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker aren't exactly slouches, either, but the Bears did a superb job of protecting then-starter Kyle Orton in the first meeting. Carolina didn't have a sack, and Peppers and Rucker combined for only three tackles and one pass deflection. Peppers is an unusual player, a guy who had 10½ sacks this season and is going to the Pro Bowl. But he wasn't nearly as dominating as some pundits thought he would be, especially after a breakout 2004 campaign. All of Peppers' sacks came in six games, which means he had 10 games with no sacks, and that is indicative of his career. He is a streak shooter, a rusher who collects sacks in bunches and who is capable of being shut out or posting a three-sack game. On Sunday, the Panthers need him to author one of his big games. Miller was coming off an injury the first time he matched up with Peppers, and he got some help in passing situations. Expect the Bears to do some double-team blocking on Peppers this time, as well.
Two tremendous front-four units fuel their respective defenses, and they are very similar in that they are quick on the edges and stout inside. Each team features a relatively unknown anchor-type tackle, Jordan Carstens for the Panthers and Ian Scott for the Bears, and those two might be more important than anyone realizes, particularly versus the run. Scott is far more consistent than fellow tackle Tommie Harris, who is spotty despite earning a Pro Bowl invitation. Carstens stepped into the void created by the season-ending injury to Kris Jenkins and has performed nobly in just his second season.
Now on to Smith and how the Bears might attempt to slow him: In the regular-season game, Chicago kept Smith out of the end zone, but he still had an amazing 14 catches for 169 yards, one of three double-digit catch games for the season. It was one of those games where Smith didn't even seem like he was running set patterns, but rather getting into the secondary, finding voids, and settling into them. It's easy to say Smith got a lot of catches at "garbage time," but that wasn't necessarily the case. The Bears have one of the best cornerback groups in the game, in the trio of Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Jerry Azumah, but just having players isn't enough against Smith. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who called a great game the first time around when he blitzed Delhomme into a pair of early interceptions and then opted to play coverage after the Panthers went to max protection, will have to surround Smith and push him to the sidelines. Permitted to run free between the hash marks, Smith is a big play just waiting to happen. Think about this: Smith had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns, the first NFL player to win the wide receiver "triple crown" since Sterling Sharpe in 1992. The rest of the Carolina wide receivers totaled 64 catches, 910 yards and eight scores. None of the other wideouts managed more than 25 catches. So it should be easy, right, to shut down one player? Apparently not, given the season Smith had, so Rivera and his secondary will have to be at the top of their game.
3. Even with Grossman back in the lineup, the centerpiece of the rudimentary Chicago offense remains Thomas Jones, maybe the league's most overlooked tailback. Only a couple years ago, the former Arizona Cardinals' first-rounder was labeled a bust. All he does now is bust through tackles, bleed every yard out of every carry, and finish off every run. Jones ran for a career-best 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns in 2005, and in his sixth season has become a viable force. Chicago also has an underrated backup in Adrian Peterson, a superb special teams performer who typically gets about six or seven touches per game, and who averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The main man for the Bears, though, definitely is the workmanlike Jones, and he ran for 87 yards in the first game against the Panthers, and allowed Chicago to dictate tempo once it got an early lead. Carolina ranked No. 4 against the run (even higher than the Bears, who finished 11th in defense versus the rush) and the Panthers like to crowd the line of scrimmage and call plenty of run blitzes to compress the area between the tackles. Jones is a very patient runner and, while he's not a home-run hitter, he did have a dozen rushes for 20 or more yards this season.
Now, if you want a home-run hitter, the Panthers have one in DeShaun Foster, who, counting Sunday's upset victory over the New York Giants, has rushed for 316 yards and a 7.0-yard average in his last two starts. Foster was throttled by the Bears, who held Carolina to 55 rushing yards in the regular-season game. But even playing with a sore toe that has required a painkiller injection before each of the last two games, Foster is hitting stride at the right time. He gives the Panthers a different style runner than the between-the-tackles pounder Stephen Davis was, but he can't afford to dance so much against a swarming Chicago defense. How these two teams run the ball, and how they defend the run, will be a key element in this game.
4. For the past year, ESPN.com touted the Bears' Lance Briggs as one of the NFL's best, if unheralded, weak-side linebackers. Having earned a spot in the Pro Bowl this season, and considerable acclaim, the prefix "unheralded" can now be expunged. Briggs simply is one of the best outside 'backers in the league. But on Sunday, he'll be one of just two excellent weak-side linebackers on the field, because our new pet project has become trying to get some props for his Carolina counterpart, Will Witherspoon. A four-year veteran, and a superior athlete eligible for unrestricted free agency this spring (Briggs, it should be noted, could become a free agent after the 2006 campaign, but only if there is an extension to the collective bargaining agreement by then), Witherspoon is a classic chase and pursue defender. His all-around statistics -- 81 tackles, two interceptions, 12 passes defensed and 2½ sacks -- were not all that dissimilar to Briggs' numbers. The difference is, people are paying attention now to Briggs, scheming to stay away from him. Witherspoon could use this playoff series to enhance his profile, and given his pending free agent status, to fatten his checking account, too.
Both weak-side 'backers bear watching in this game. The Bears almost certainly will try to run the ball right at Witherspoon, who is better as a chaser than an anchor. And if the Carolina coaches get a good look at the video of the last portion of the season, they may take their chances, too, going after Briggs a little. There is a suspicion that Briggs has eroded a bit physically down the stretch, when he missed about a dozen tackles in the last month of the season. Both weak-side linebackers play well in space, so look for the respective offenses to try to keep them closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a closed area. They are, in general, two of the quickest linebacker corps in the league. Beyond Briggs and Witherspoon, the two middle 'backers, Brian Urlacher of Chicago and Carolina's Dan Morgan, can run with just about anyone. Urlacher was named the NFL's top defensive player for the '05 season and is dangerous coming up inside on the blitz.
5. Vasher had two picks of Delhomme in the first game, both when the Carolina quarterback threw off his back foot, and there is no doubt the Bears will come after Delhomme early again. He is the kind of guy who can make big plays for his own team or for the opposition, and he sometimes allows his passion to get the better of him. If the wild-card weekend reinforced anything, it's that turnovers are magnified in the playoffs, and Delhomme threw 16 interceptions during the regular season. About as confident a quarterback as there is in the league, Delhomme will take some chances because he believes in his arm and feels he can get the ball there under any circumstances. But he will have to be mindful of his occasionally poor mechanics and of the wind at Soldier Field next weekend. Both defenses thrive on takeaways and on being able to provide their offenses a short field. Carolina has a tremendous cornerback trio in Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Ricky Manning Jr. (who always shows up big in the playoffs), and the Panthers had 42 takeaways in 2005. That was second-most in the league and helped the Panthers to a plus-16 differential. Chicago had a plus-six differential but finished second in the NFL with 24 interceptions. Throw up a "cripple" and Vasher will snatch it and take in back the other way. Needless to say, ball security will be key Sunday afternoon.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.