Taking a second look at the playoff games

It was easy to rush to judgment after the playoff pairing were set, but John Clayton reexamines and breaks down this weekend's wild-card playoff games.

Originally Published: January 4, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As soon as the playoff pairings were decided Sunday night, people rushed to conclusions. But the dust has settled after a few days and it's time to reexamine the four wild-card playoff games.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC

The Chiefs' matchup against the Colts was considered Indy's worst-case scenario. Everyone knows the Colts can't stop the run. Tony Dungy has a defense built for speed, not bulk, and injuries at defensive tackle and safety allowed opposing backs to run for 159.3 yards a game.

Larry Johnson
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesLarry Johnson will get his 100 yards, but that doesn't guarantee the Chiefs will beat the Colts.
Naturally, Larry Johnson should get 100 yards against them. He gets 100 yards against everyone. The Chiefs' big, physical back rushed for 1,789 yards on an NFL record 416 carries. Johnson is a problem for the Colts, but playing the Chiefs isn't Indianapolis' ultimate nightmare.

Still, it's a compelling matchup. Herman Edwards let Johnson carry the Chiefs into the playoffs, but to think this one aspect of the game will project ultimate gloom and doom for the Colts is silly. Despite being horrible at stopping the run, the Colts were 7-2 when they gave up 100 yards to a running back. They were 8-3 against teams with winning records.

To beat the Colts, the Chiefs will have to do more than just run the ball, and Edwards knows that. If Johnson runs for 120 yards and the Chiefs can't convert those ground-oriented drives into touchdowns, they won't win. It's that simple.

Plus the Chiefs aren't a very good road team. They were 3-5 away from Arrowhead and for some reason, not nearly as efficient on offense. On the road, the passing offense lost downfield ability, averaging 6.34 yards an attempt compared to 8.29 at home. On the road, the Chiefs averaged 3.9 yards a carry, compared to 4.4 at home.

Edwards knows the problems he faces against the Colts. Running the ball is important because it keeps Peyton Manning off the field, but to run and not score touchdowns translates into a defeat. Manning strategically likes to get nine to 10 possessions a game. Usually, he'll get three touchdown drives and two field goal drives. That puts the pressure on the Chiefs to come up with 27 points out of the same number of drives.

The Chiefs enter the game knowing quarterback Trent Green was hit hard in the season finale against the Jaguars. His ankle is sore and he was pretty groggy after one of the hits. Edwards hinted that if Green struggles early, he might go to Damon Huard.

Dungy should have safety Bob Sanders back on the field to inspire the run defense. But one player probably won't turn the Colts into a good run-stopping unit. The Colts have tackled so poorly this season, it's going to take an offseason of evaluation to fix that.

Johnson probably will get his 100 yards, but that might not automatically give the Chiefs a victory.

Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks
Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC

Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren each have 11 playoff victories. They are considered two of the best big-game coaches in the NFL. But the teams they are taking into the playoffs this season have the veteran coaches scratching their heads.

Holmgren conquered one jinx by being the first Super Bowl loser this century to not only have a winning record but to make the playoffs the following season. But his team has been cursed with injuries. In the past two regular-season games, the Seahawks lost three cornerbacks: Marcus Trufant, Kelly Herndon and Jimmy Williams. Seattle enters Saturday's game with rookie Kelly Jennings starting at cornerback, surrounded in the secondary by safeties or castoff cornerbacks signed off the street.

The Seahawks have been scrambling all season. Shaun Alexander missed seven games with a broken foot. Matt Hasselbeck missed four games with a medial collateral knee sprain. The offensive line has been patched with different lineups ever since Steve Hutchinson left for Minnesota.

Parcells' problems are even more baffling. He's had the healthiest team in the NFC. Conditioning has been great. Parcells can't remember fining more than one player this season for being overweight, and that fine came in the opening weeks of the season. So how can a defense this well-conditioned and this healthy lose its way this badly down the stretch?

Things have been so bad on early downs, Parcells had to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the Cowboys' final regular-season game to get pressure on the quarterback. Opposing quarterbacks are throwing for more than 110 yards a game against the Cowboys on first downs, completing 64 percent of their passes with a 107.2 quarterback rating. Part of the blame goes to the season-ending loss of Greg Ellis. Ellis provided early-down pass-rushing ability on the other side of DeMarcus Ware, but no one has filled that role since he's been out.

The other problem has been at safety. The inability to stop big pass plays because of poor pass coverage at safety left the Cowboys' defense vulnerable to 14 touchdown passes in the past four games. The Cowboys gave up 25 touchdown passes all season.

A year ago, the Seahawks weren't sure if Holmgren was going to come back for 2006, but the Super Bowl season eased those tensions. Holmgren will be back next season with an $8 million salary. Parcells might be a different story. He might step down if the Cowboys lose. Weeks ago, Parcells appeared to be a lock to return. But the headaches of dealing with Terrell Owens and the collapse of the defense leave Parcells' return a question mark.

New York Jets at New England Patriots
Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

During his run of three Super Bowl championships, everyone wanted to get into the head of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots' coach was fascinating. His teams were prepared for everything. He designed the perfect defensive game plan for every offensive challenge. His offensive approach was aggressive and fun.

Belichick stood on the sidelines wearing a hooded sweatshirt, but he was strategically dressed to kill. The fascinating part of Sunday's matchup is he's facing the first coach who can get into his head: Eric Mangini. Mangini worked by his side during those great days. He coached the secondary and eventually became the Patriots' defensive coordinator after Romeo Crennel left for the Cleveland Browns.

Mangini's departure for the Jets angered Belichick. First, Belichick thought it was too early for Mangini to become a head coach. What made it worse was he went to a Jets ownership Belichick disliked so much that he quit as their head coach shortly after taking the job. To make matters worse, the Jets entered late negotiations for holdout receiver Deion Branch and set the value so high that the Patriots had to trade him to Seattle.

Mangini shocked the world by winning 10 games, even though the Jets' statistics were average. Like Belichick, Mangini used more backups in key roles and developed his defense. His game plans were sharp. He let Chad Pennington use the no-huddle and got the most out of his offensive talent. The Jets were to the AFC what the Saints were to the NFC.

The two Jets-Patriots games have been close and hotly contested. The Patriots won 24-17 in Week 2. The surprise came in Week 10, when Mangini went to Foxborough and squeaked out a 17-14 victory.

Going into the season, I thought Nick Saban would close the Patriots' edge on the AFC East, and I was wrong. Saban, a Belichick disciple, didn't have the decisiveness to be a successful NFL head coach and wisely crawled to Alabama. The surprise is how Mangini has become the one trying to close the gap.

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday, 4:30 p.m., FOX

Andy Reid and the entire Eagles organization should take a collective breath and enjoy. After winning four consecutive NFC East titles at the beginning of the new century, the field toughened. Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin and Joe Gibbs entered the division to try to dethrone him.

Last year, Terrell Owens destroyed the Eagles' locker room and Donovan McNabb's sports hernia killed their chances. The Eagles fell to 6-10 and the Giants won the division.

Now, despite the loss of McNabb to knee surgery, the Eagles took the best shots the NFC East could deliver and reemerged back atop the division. They did it with great teamwork, and Jeff Garcia at quarterback. While they can sit back and enjoy, the rest of the division could be looking at some big changes this offseason.

It's not out of the question for Parcells to step down if the Cowboys are eliminated from the playoffs. Gibbs is going to give it another try in Washington next year. And Reid holds Coughlin's fate in his hands Sunday.

No one can say for sure whether Coughlin will be back in 2007. Going 2-6 in the second half of the regular season put his job in jeopardy. Eli Manning has struggled. The defense is decimated with injuries. And, in a lot of ways, the two games played between these two teams captured the ups and downs of the Giants' season.

In Week 2, the Eagles went no-huddle and were blowing away the Giants. But the Eagles couldn't put it away in the second half, allowing the Giants to rally from a 17-point deficit to beat the Eagles in overtime, 30-24. Game 2 was a more level battle, but the Eagles put on the late surge to beat the Giants at home, 36-22.

Even if the Eagles lose, it was a great season. They have reestablished themselves as the team to beat in the division. McNabb will be back next season and the Eagles are loaded up with good, young offensive and defensive linemen. The Giants are fighting for survival and the Eagles could help themselves now and for the future if they beat New York Sunday.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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