Commentary

Titans, Chargers bracing for hard-hitting rematch

If the regular-season meeting between the Titans and Chargers was any indication, Sunday's wild-card rematch will be full of hard hits and high drama, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: January 3, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Dec. 9 game between the Titans and Chargers slipped below the radar for obvious reasons.

On the main stage were the Steelers and Patriots. Going for the unbeaten regular season, the Patriots first had to worry about the Steelers, who were 9-3 and trying to make a case for being the No. 3 seed in the AFC. Many viewed the Steelers as the last regular-season hope to stop Bill Belichick. They didn't. The Pats won 34-13.

The better game was in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans and Chargers slugged it out into overtime before LaDainian Tomlinson gave San Diego a 23-17 victory with a 16-yard touchdown run. It was the most physical game of the season, punctuated by linebacker Shawne Merriman, who popped Vince Young toward the end of a play when the Titans' quarterback wasn't looking.

Breakdown Of Opponents

Team Vs. Playoff Teams Vs. Nonplayoff Teams
AFC
Patriots 6-0 10-0
Colts 4-3 9-0
Chargers 2-3 9-2
Steelers 1-2 9-4
Jaguars 4-3 7-2
Titans 2-4 8-2
NFC
Cowboys 4-2 9-1
Packers 3-1 10-2
Seahawks 1-1 9-5
Buccaneers 2-3 7-4
Giants 1-5 9-1
Redskins 2-5 7-2

Tension was building as the game progressed. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers took a shot to the knee from a defensive lineman and limped to the sidelines before falling down near his teammates. Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was unblockable. He either threw blockers aside or split two defenders with power moves to the inside.

The best story involved Merriman. Because Merriman hit Young, the Titans felt they needed to answer back. Titans tight end Ben Hartsock, who lined up at first as an outside receiver, motioned inside and slammed Merriman with a legal crackback block. Later, Merriman said the Titans had a bounty on him. The league investigated to no avail, but did fine a couple of Titans for overly aggressive hits.

Titans players call Sunday's playoff game (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) more a grudge match than a rematch. We call it the best game of the NFL's Wild Card Weekend. These are two heavyweights fueled by adrenaline in a sudden-death format. It's the NFL's version of "Smackdown."

And the Chargers might be better equipped to handle it.

To make the playoffs, the Titans had to play a physical game against the Colts in Week 17. Young reinjured his quad, and although he should play, he may not be as mobile as normal. The quad has bothered him most of the season. In addition, center Kevin Mawae can't shake a nagging calf injury, and Haynesworth has been fighting through a hamstring problem.

Overall, the Titans look more tired than the Chargers, and rightfully so. Because the Chargers ran away with the AFC West, coach Norv Turner was able to rest ailing players over the final weeks of the season. Nose tackle Jamal Williams had a chance to rest his sore knee. When injured players had some doubts, Turner was able to keep them off the field.

Sunday's game figures to be just as physical as the teams' regular-season meeting. Players remember some of the battles in the game, which included lots of pushing and shoving after plays.

This fight deserves the main stage.

Interesting preparation plans: The Redskins have lost five starters for the season with injuries or misfortune. During a 21-day stretch in which the Redskins played four games, coach Joe Gibbs started giving his players more rest. It resulted in fresher minds and better play, and the Redskins won their final four games. During this week's preparation for Saturday's first-round game against the Seahawks (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC), Gibbs had walkthroughs until Thursday, giving the Skins only one day of pure work.

Because Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren didn't have the pressure of making the playoffs in the final two weeks, he was able to rest injured starters when necessary. Nevertheless, Holmgren had the Seahawks on the practice field Tuesday, a day earlier than most of the teams in the first round. It's understandable. Holmgren wanted to work on timing and get his passing game in sync and he needed to time up his blitzes.

Getting a handle on quarterback situations: The Redskins and Seahawks have quarterback injuries. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell is out with a knee injury, but that's OK. Todd Collins has been on fire as his replacement and comes into Qwest Field with a lot of confidence. He efficiently runs the passing offense and has the running attack clicking with Clinton Portis. Because Collins is less mobile than Campbell, Gibbs will have to put in more maximum-protection blocking packages against the Seahawks' solid pass rush. The Redskins may often send only three pass-catchers into routes.

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't on the injury report, but he hurt his right wrist in Week 17. He had to ice it down and there was concern early in the week about swelling. He hasn't missed practice, but with the conditions expected to be chilly and wet, he might have some difficulty gripping the football if he takes a hit to the wrist.

Fixing problems: The Steelers' defense spent the week working on fundamentals. On Dec. 16 in Pittsburgh, the Jaguars ran for 224 yards and beat the Steelers 29-22. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has stressed to his players the importance of staying in their gaps and flowing to the ball, and getting several defenders around Jacksonville backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

The loss of defensive end Aaron Smith (torn biceps) has been devastating to the Steelers' defense. But this is a talented, experienced unit that prides itself on stopping the run. With the Steelers focusing so much energy on stopping Taylor and Jones-Drew, the game could come down to Jaguars QB David Garrard's ability to make big plays.

Home-field advantage: Taylor called for the Steelers to replace the bad sod at Heinz Field. Where have you been, Fred? That has been a debate all season, and the field has been a disaster since sod was installed (and subsequently torn apart) before a Monday night game in Week 12. During the offseason, the Steelers must decide whether to stay with a grass field or go to artificial turf.

The loss of RB Willie Parker (broken leg) has taken the explosiveness away from the Steelers' running attack, but Pittsburgh can manage one more game on this field if Najeh Davenport can wear down the Jaguars. Even though it doesn't always show up in the statistics, the field slows down runners and gives slower linebackers a chance to catch them.

Eli's swagger: Coming off an impressive game against the Patriots in Week 17, Giants quarterback Eli Manning enters the playoffs with a little more confidence than he had the past two years. Running back Brandon Jacobs came out of the season finale healthy, so the Giants should have a one-two punch against the Bucs.

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 scheme can confuse a quarterback, and you figure he'll try a few cornerback blitzes with Ronde Barber, who's one of the best in the business in that department. Against the blitz, according to Stats Inc., Manning has completed only 53.8 percent of his passes and had 11 interceptions. He might have some problems with quarterback snaps if center Shaun O'Hara (knee sprain) doesn't play.

Garcia is back: After resting for about 1½ games, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia should be at full strength and so should the Bucs. Garcia has been slowed by a back injury, but the Bucs are about as healthy as they could be heading into this game. The key was resting running backs Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman, who should be able to play at full strength. That will be crucial, because Garcia's strength is in operating an effective ground game and managing a short passing attack.

Pressure at the top: Giants coach Tom Coughlin probably doesn't have to beat the Bucs to keep his job, but it would definitely help his long-term prospects. Coughlin has the Giants in the playoffs for the third straight year, and this was the team least likely to be there. Despite a lot of negative sentiment, the Giants extended Coughlin's contract last year. Now they should be talking about a longer extension, but a lot hinges on how well the Giants play Sunday.

Pressure at the top, Part II: With A.J. Smith getting an extension through 2012 as the Chargers' general manager, coach Norv Turner doesn't need to worry about being fired if San Diego loses to the Titans. But no coach has a more defining game this weekend than Turner. For sanity's sake, the Chargers need to win a playoff game to show they are advancing as an elite team in the AFC.

The Chargers are loaded with talent. Many consider them to be the most talented team in football. But at some point, they must win a playoff game to be considered successful. Judgments on Turner have been reserved until his first playoff game. If he wins, he's a hero. If not …

Weekend for big backs: The NFL has been turning into a passing league, but this weekend could go old-school for some teams with big running backs. The Giants' Jacobs, the Titans' LenDale White, the Steelers' Davenport and the Bucs' Pittman are big backs who can wear down defenses. The trend this season has been to spread the field with receivers and run more finesse offenses, but half the teams in the wild-card round prefer to go old-school and be physical with their running attacks.

Got some thinking to do: The Redskins-Seahawks game will have extra intrigue, with questions surrounding the future of the losing coach. Although it's been an emotionally draining season for Gibbs, most people believe he will return next season. Owner Dan Snyder has a two-year extension waiting for him if he does. Still, if his season ends Saturday, Gibbs will have to take a few days to decide whether he has the desire to continue as the Redskins' coach.

Holmgren is in a different spot. He takes a week after each season to decide whether he has the juices to coach another year. No coach takes a playoff loss harder than Holmgren, and a loss Saturday could throw him into retirement mode, depending on how the game goes. He has one year left on his contract at $9 million, and he's healthy and having fun coaching. Don't discount a deep playoff run by the Seahawks and at least one more year for Holmgren. But a tough loss could be devastating for Holmgren and the franchise.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer