Commentary

Observation Deck: Chargers, Giants on the brink

The Giants and Chargers each stand within a victory of Super Bowl XLII, having already overcome long odds, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: January 13, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Cold reality is about to hit the NFL's upset winners from the divisional round.

The NFC's fifth-seeded New York Giants, 21-17 winners over top-seeded Dallas, could encounter sub-zero temperatures in the conference title game against No. 2 seed Green Bay at Lambeau Field (Sunday, 6:30 ET, FOX).

The AFC's third-seeded San Diego Chargers, 28-24 winners over second-seeded Indianapolis, could face temperatures in the high teens against unbeaten New England in the AFC title game (Sunday, 3 ET, CBS).

Then again, the Giants and Chargers have little reason to believe forecasters. Each stands within a victory of Super Bowl XLII, having already overcome long odds.

The NFC's top-seeded teams had won all 17 divisional-round games since the NFL adopted its current playoff format. Eli Manning and the Giants changed that, winning on the road for a ninth consecutive time this season.

Giants defensive end Michael Strahan reveled in knocking off the Cowboys and receiver Terrell Owens in particular. Owens, in predicting he would overcome a severe ankle injury, had advised a reporter to "get your popcorn ready" for the Giants game. He caught an early touchdown pass but could not finish strong.

"We play together, we play to win and we hope T.O. has his popcorn ready," Strahan told reporters in his postgame news conference. "Maybe he and [fellow Cowboys receiver Patrick] Crayton can sit in his home theater and watch us next week."

The Cowboys can watch the Chargers, too, but perhaps not quarterback Philip Rivers or running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

San Diego lost Rivers and Tomlinson to knee injuries. Both are questionable for the New England game. Neither finished what he started against the Colts, but backups Billy Volek and Michael Turner made sure Rivers' three touchdown passes weren't wasted. Volek completed three passes and Turner carried five times during the go-ahead, 78-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

"We'll catch our breath, we'll go see where we are from a health standpoint and then we'll ready to go," said Chargers coach Norv Turner, who suddenly needs one playoff victory to tie Bobby Ross and Don Coryell for the most in team history. "We wanted to play our best game in January and, hopefully, we still have our best game in us."

Here are a few other observations from Sunday's divisional-round action:

1. Best to keep one's head in the game

Cowboys receiver Patrick Crayton appeared to lose his concentration when dropping Tony Romo's improbable third-and-13 pass early in the fourth quarter.

Romo scrambled to his left, then threw back across his body, leading Crayton perfectly as the receiver moved from left to right at the Dallas 30. Crayton might have turned the play into a huge gain or even an 83-yard touchdown had he caught the ball. Instead, the Cowboys punted and the Giants responded with the go-ahead touchdown drive.

Brett Favre's spinning, underhanded flip pass in Green Bay's divisional-round victory Saturday worked only because tight end Donald Lee stayed with Favre all the way.

Romo hasn't been around nearly as long as Favre, but few quarterbacks are better at improvising. His receivers should never lose their focus before the whistle blows. Tight end Jason Witten proved as much with a heads-up adjustment to facilitate a flip pass, but the play was too little, too late.

Romo wasn't at his best against the Giants, but he could have used a little more help.

2. Continuity can be overrated

The Giants' unexpected ascension to the NFC title games proves the wisdom of sticking with a successful coach (Tom Coughlin) who hasn't been able to break through in the playoffs.

Except for this: The Chargers' unexpected ascension to the AFC title game proves the wisdom of replacing a successful coach (Marty Schottenheimer) who fails break to through in the playoffs.

And this: Green Bay is back in the NFC title game for the first time since the 1997 season. The Packers got there two years after firing Mike Sherman, who had averaged 10.6 victories per season over a five-year period, but without getting past the divisional round.

The Giants have won two playoff games this season after failing to win one in three previous seasons under Coughlin. The Chargers won 47 regular-season games in five seasons under Schottenheimer, but they were 0-2 in the playoffs during that stretch.

Continuity is generally helpful, but not always.

The Chargers, having changed staffs on both sides of the ball in the last year, faced a Colts team with long-term stability in all key phases of its operation.

San Diego's slow start under Turner might have helped the Chargers gain momentum in the playoffs. At 11-5, they drew a depleted Tennessee team in the wild-card round, an ideal scenario for playoff success.

Schottenheimer's 14-2 record last season bought a first-round bye. That wasn't necessarily a good thing. Instead of opening the playoffs against an overmatched team, the Chargers drew playoff-tested New England and lost.

3. When playing it safe is playing to win

Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and San Diego's Turner showed there could be more to making decisions than simply playing to win or playing not to lose. Dungy played for a touchdown instead of a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 7 while trailing by four points with 2:06 remaining. The Colts had three timeouts remaining, so a field goal try was a viable option, particularly with Rivers and Tomlinson unavailable for San Diego.

Dungy played to win, but the Chargers' defense held.

After San Diego took over possession, Turner decided to run the ball against 10 in the box on third-and-4 with 1:49 remaining. On the surface, Turner was playing not to lose. By opting to run instead of pass, he was essentially daring Peyton Manning to beat him with 90 seconds left and one timeout at the Colts' disposal.

Turner's decision made sense for other reasons, and not only because it worked.

Turner knew his punter, Mike Scifres, enjoyed the third-best net average among full-time punters in 2007. He knew throwing the ball in that situation could be riskier with Volek at quarterback instead of the injured Rivers, particularly with tight end Antonio Gates still limited by injury. Turner also knew the Colts would have a harder time moving the ball with injured receiver Marvin Harrison standing on the sideline.

Scifres' 66-yard punt forced the Colts to start at their own 32. Manning completed only one pass, a 5-yarder, on the Colts' ensuing drive.

Aggressive coaches fared better in the wild-card round, and Turner was among them. The Chargers held a 10-6 lead over Tennessee when Turner bypassed a field goal try on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

Tomlinson's second-effort touchdown carried risk, but the reward was an 11-point lead.

The hard part is knowing when to be aggressive and when to back off. Turner has made the right decisions so far.

4. Divisional-round trend levels off

Home teams won 20 of 28 divisional-round games from the 2000 season through the 2006 season, but the trend could be losing momentum. Road teams have gone 6-6 in the divisional round over the last three seasons.

Last season, fourth-seeded New England scored 11 points in the final 4:36 to knock off the top-seeded Chargers. The third-seeded Colts also claimed a 15-6 victory over second-seeded Baltimore last season.

Two years ago, fifth-seeded Carolina upset second-seeded Chicago when Steve Smith caught 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Sixth-seeded Pittsburgh upset top-seeded Indianapolis that year, ultimately advancing to Super Bowl XL, where the Steelers defeated Seattle.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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