Commentary

First look at the AFC divisional round

Here's Jeffri Chadiha's early look at the two NFC divisional round games, Seattle at Green Bay and the Giants at Dallas.

Originally Published: January 6, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Fred Taylor and Tedy BruschiScott Boehm/Getty Images/Rich Kane/US PresswireJags RB Fred Taylor may find success against Tedy Bruschi and the Patriots' aging linebackers.
On Wild Card Weekend, the Jaguars downed the Steelers on the road while the Chargers won a playoff game for the first time in 13 years by beating the Titans at home. With both teams advancing to the AFC divisional round, here are three big questions going into each game next weekend. (For an early look at the NFC divisional games, click here.)

Jaguars at Patriots, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET

1. Should the Patriots be concerned about their defense?


Yes. For all the love that has been earned by Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the rest of the New England offense, the Patriots' defense hasn't exactly been the holding up its end of the deal.

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Three ordinary quarterbacks picked them apart in the second half of the season -- Philadelphia's A.J. Feeley, Baltimore's Kyle Boller and the New York Giants' Eli Manning -- and it also became quite clear that a talented running back could create problems for them. The reality is that the Patriots' defense isn't scaring any opposing offenses right now.

Their biggest weakness is the linebacking corps. Mike Vrabel is a Pro Bowler and Adalius Thomas is a gifted player, but age is an issue for inside linebackers Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi. We already know the Jaguars love pounding the ball on the ground with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. You can expect them to do even more of that on Saturday night.

2. Will the Jaguars' injuries on defense catch up to them?


It's hard to think they won't. Jacksonville has played a fair share of this season without three key starters -- including defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and middle linebacker Mike Peterson -- and the Jags lost defensive tackle John Henderson to a strained hamstring early in their AFC wild-card victory over Pittsburgh.

Now it's one thing for the Jaguars to lose Stroud and find a way to succeed. But if Henderson's hamstring injury lingers for another week and Peterson can't find a way back to the field (he has missed seven straight games with a broken right hand), Jacksonville will be incredibly vulnerable in the heart of its defense.

So far, the Jaguars haven't paid a heavy price for those problems. They got a huge game from rookie defensive tackle Derek Landri in the Pittsburgh win (two sacks and one interception) and they also received valuable snaps from defensive tackle Grady Jackson.

That said, the Jaguars are starting two rookies -- outside linebacker Justin Durant and free safety Reggie Nelson -- and it's a safe bet that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels caught that on the scouting report as well. At some point, they're going to be tested and possibly exploited.

3. Is it possible the Patriots will have a letdown after making history during the regular season?


We'd put better odds on Patriots head coach Bill Belichick appearing on "Dancing with the Stars" than of the Patriots coming out flat after a two-week layoff.

By the time the Pats take the field Saturday night, Belichick will have his team convinced that they barely tapped into their potential during their first 16 games. They'll be ready to play. You can count on that.

1. Can the Chargers win if Antonio Gates is seriously injured?


No. The Chargers need their Pro Bowl tight end on the field because he's the one player who opens up their passing game. A trade for wide receiver Chris Chambers has helped ease some of the burden, but Gates is still the man quarterback Philip Rivers looks to most often.

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Without Gates, Rivers -- who has struggled at different times this season -- won't be nearly as comfortable against the Colts. Gates is the kind of athletic tight end who can create all kinds of matchup problems for a Cover 2 scheme.

The question now is how seriously Gates was injured in the win over Tennessee. He was carted off the field with an injured left toe and coach Norv Turner said after the game that the tight end will be questionable for Sunday.

In his absence against the Titans, the Chargers still managed to get big games from Chambers (six receptions, 121 yards) and Vincent Jackson (five catches for 114 yards and one touchdown), but that won't be so easy to do against Indianapolis. The Colts have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL and cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden have the size to match up with bigger wide receivers.

2. How badly do the Colts need Marvin Harrison back on the field?


It's hard to say a team badly needs a player back when they've won 13 games, but the Colts have to be breathing easier with the knowledge that Harrison is improving. A left knee injury has sidelined him since Oct. 22, and that's a long time to go with out a future Hall of Famer.

Let's put it this way: The Colts can advance to the AFC Championship game without Harrison, but they aren't going much further without him. As proof, just think of what he could've meant to Indianapolis in the loss to New England earlier this season.

The word out of Indianapolis is that Harrison should be good to go. Colts president Bill Polian has told local media that Harrison's knee is fine and that the team isn't worried about him being rusty once he returns.

Still, there was talk that Harrison was going to play a few snaps in a season-ending loss to Tennessee before team trainers nixed the idea after his pregame workout. The Colts have to pray that another setback doesn't prevent Harrison from taking the field this time around.

3. How much will the Colts benefit from the bye week?


Harrison wasn't the only Indianapolis player who needed the rest. The Colts sat several injured starters in that Tennessee game -- including defensive tackle Raheem Brock, defensive end Robert Mathis and safety Antoine Bethea -- so that means most of the Colts will be fully healed when this game kicks off.

That wasn't the case when San Diego beat Indianapolis 23-21 on Nov. 16. The Chargers intercepted Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning six times in that contest and we're thinking Manning would like to face the San Diego defense with all his weapons this time around.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.