Compelling QB matchups set scene in AFC
After the dust settled in the wild-card round, these are the 10 burning questions for the AFC divisional playoffs, John Clayton writes.
Even though the Titans came out of the regular season with a league-best 13-3 record, the AFC divisional round is wide open.
If history is any indication, next weekend's AFC games will be close, putting more pressure on quarterbacks. Since 2002, seven of the 12 AFC divisional playoff games have been decided by seven points or less.
Can San Diego's Philip Rivers upstage Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday in Pittsburgh? Can Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco outduel Titans veteran Kerry Collins on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.? There are plenty of questions that need answers.
1. Will running or passing be the key to advancing?Apparently, both doors are open. The Ravens ranked fourth in rushing in the regular season with 148.5 yards a game, while the Titans ranked seventh with 127.4. No one runs the ball more than the Ravens. They average 37 rushes a game and strive to make life easier for Flacco. The Titans follow the same game plan. Rookie Chris Johnson and big runner LenDale White lead an offense that runs the ball 31.8 times a game.
Chargers RB Darren Sproles amasses 328 total yards in a 23-17 overtime win over the Colts.
Although the Steelers and Chargers believe in the run, both teams have gotten away from it for various reasons. Former MVP LaDainian Tomlinson is showing his age, and injuries may keep him out of next weekend's game. LT's struggles have forced the Chargers to use tiny Darren Sproles to generate some rushing yards. The Chargers ranked 20th with only 107.9 yards a game in the regular season, and they averaged the lowest number of rushing attempts of the remaining AFC playoff teams: 26.3 per game.This may sound strange, but the Steelers are the worst rushing team among the remaining AFC contenders. They ranked 23rd with only 105.6 yards a game, but their offense has featured the pass. This tendency goes beyond Willie Parker's problems with sore knees. Ben Roethlisberger likes to work the no-huddle offense so he can make play adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
2. How strong is the QB position in the divisional round?Without Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, a new wave of playoff quarterbacks is starting to emerge. Roethlisberger is obviously the king of the group. The 26-year-old is 5-2 in the playoffs. He has beaten four different AFC teams during the playoffs (the Bengals, Colts, Broncos and Jets), and he beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. In playoff games, he has completed 62.4 percent of his passes and averaged an impressive 8.2 yards per attempt. Rivers has won three of his past four playoff games. He's becoming clutch in the fourth quarter, and his teammates believe in him. Collins is 4-2 in the playoffs and went to the Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2001. But at 36, Collins probably gets the least respect. He hasn't won a playoff game since 2001, and his numbers aren't great. He has completed 57.8 percent of his passes in the playoffs for a modest 6.4 yards per attempt. He completed only 58.3 percent of his passes during the regular season. Still, his poise and leadership helped the Titans post the best record in football. Flacco established himself as a young Ben Roethlisberger by winning his first playoff game, a 27-9 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday.
3. How do regular-season meetings factor into the divisional round?Expect close, low-scoring games. In what was an uninspiring offensive game, the Titans beat the Ravens 13-10 in Week 5. Collins was contained all day by the Ravens' defense, but he executed an 11-play, 80-yard drive to give Tennessee the victory. In that game, the Titans' defense made Flacco look like a rookie. The Titans forced Flacco out of the pocket and made him throw on the run. Because of that pressure, Flacco threw two costly interceptions. Flacco passed for only 153 yards. His longest completion was 22 yards.
The Steelers edged the Chargers 11-10 in Week 11, thanks to Jeff Reed's 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 73 yards in 13 plays at the end of the game. That followed an impressive 17-play, 78-yard drive led by Rivers that gave San Diego a field goal and a short-lived 10-8 lead. The Chargers had only two other possessions in the second half: drives of nine and 17 plays. The Steelers held the ball for 36:31 overall, totaling 73 offensive plays to the Chargers' 50. Overall, the Chargers had just 218 yards of total offense, compared to the Steelers' 410.
4. What are the injuries heading into the divisional round?The Chargers have the biggest questions. Tomlinson was limited to only five carries in Saturday's wild-card victory over the Colts because of a groin injury, and he's somewhere between questionable and doubtful for the divisional round. Like last year in the AFC title game against the Patriots, Tomlinson might suit up but spend the final three quarters on the bench. His groin injury will most likely require surgery soon. Sproles will probably get most of the work in the backfield, and Michael Bennett will be active to help him out. Tight end Antonio Gates has a high-ankle sprain. Even though such an injury sidelines most players for several weeks, Gates plans to play. He got through last season's three playoff games despite a toe injury that eventually resulted in foot surgery. Gates said he learned from that experience and plans to keep his right ankle in a boot during the week, saving it for the game. The third injury concern for the Chargers is kicker Nate Kaeding, who slipped on his opening kickoff Saturday night and suffered a groin strain. His status will have to be watched during the week, but he was able to play the entire game.
The Titans rested defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee), defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) and center Kevin Mawae (elbow) in the regular-season finale and hope to have all three ready to play. Coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday that Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch might be able to practice this week. Mawae is the most questionable of the three.Even though Roethlisberger sustained a concussion in Week 17, he will be able to play and should practice a good portion of this week. Safety Ryan Clark (shoulder) and linebacker James Harrison (hip) sat out the season finale and should be ready. The Ravens had a dozen players listed as questionable for the wild-card round, but all were available against the Dolphins. All should be available for the Titans as well. Wide receiver Derrick Mason continues to play despite a dislocated shoulder and a tight trapezius. Safety Ed Reed has been playing with a tight thigh muscle that might force him to miss some practice time this week, but he won't miss the game.
5. Who are the hot coordinators getting a platform in these games?Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is a candidate for the Jets', Rams', and Lions' head coaching jobs. Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has a chance for the Lions' job, but his interview has been postponed because of a scheduling conflict. The latest hot assistant coach is Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, and don't be surprised if he gets calls this week. Rivera took over for Ted Cottrell at midseason and has drawn praise from his players. The Chargers like Rivera's attention to detail and his willingness to be aggressive.
6. How important is home-field advantage?
Over the past three seasons (2005 to 2007), home-field advantage in the divisional round has been a 50-50 proposition. Higher-seeded home teams have won six games; lower-seeded road teams have won six games. In 2002 and 2004, home teams swept all of the divisional games, but over the past three years, upsets have prevailed: Last season, the Chargers upset the Colts 28-24 in the RCA Dome and the Giants beat the Cowboys 21-17 in Dallas; in 2006, the Ravens lost to the Colts 15-6 in Baltimore. The last time the Steelers had a home game in the divisional round was 2004, when they beat the Jets 20-17. The last time the Titans were at home in this round was in 2002, when they beat the Steelers 34-31.
7. Will tight ends be big factors?No question. That's easy to understand, because this round features some of the best tight ends in the AFC: Gates of the Chargers, Todd Heap of the Ravens, Heath Miller of the Steelers and Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler of the Titans. The Titans led the league with 337 plays out of the two-tight-end formation. The Steelers were third with 320. The Ravens were ninth with 275. With so many two- and three-tight-end sets being used, defenses will likely have trouble getting to the quarterback. Two tight ends make it hard for defenses to find weaknesses in the blocking schemes.
8. Which teams have the edge on special teams?The visiting teams -- the Chargers and Ravens -- have the edge. The Chargers' biggest weapon on special teams is punter Mike Scifres, who averaged 52.7 yards per punt against Indianapolis and put six punts inside the Colts' 20-yard line, including three inside the Colts' 7. Sam Koch of the Ravens led the NFL in punts inside opponents' 20 this season. Scifres had a 40.9-yard net punting average during the regular season; Koch had a 39.9. Titans punter Craig Hentrich compares more favorably to Koch than Mitch Berger of the Steelers does to Scifres. The 37-year-old Hentrich is one of the game's best big-game punters. As a Packer, he set the record of five punts inside the opponent's 20 that was broken by Scifres on Saturday night. The 36-year-old Berger is the weakest of the four AFC punters, even though he had one of the league's strongest legs in his younger days. This season, he had a 41.3-yard average and a 36.4 net.
9. What are the early weather forecasts?The Steelers-Chargers game could be a problem, particularly for the Chargers. The forecast is calling for 21 degrees and some snow. Heinz Field's location along the Ohio River could mean strong winds and tough throwing conditions for Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Because the Chargers have the late game, the temperatures could be in the teens by the third quarter. Of course, the Chargers aren't complaining about having the late game. They went 1-4 in the regular season in 1 p.m. games on the East Coast. Most West Coast teams struggle in the first halves of games that start at 1 p.m. ET because players' body clocks are at 10 a.m. There shouldn't be any weather problems in Nashville for the Ravens-Titans game. The forecast is for sunny skies and 34 degrees.
10. Who has the head coaching advantage in this round?Fisher is the most accomplished of the remaining AFC coaches. Fisher is 5-5 in the playoffs and has been to the Super Bowl. His career record is 128-102. He has been a head coach for 15 seasons. Believe it or not, the Chargers' Norv Turner is the second-most-seasoned of the group. He's 4-2 as a playoff coach, including a 3-1 record with San Diego over the past two years. General manager A.J. Smith hired him to replace Marty Schottenheimer because he thought Turner would do better in the playoffs. So far, Smith has been right. Turner called two timeouts before the two-minute warning on Saturday night, hoping the Chargers' defense would stop the Colts inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Chargers' D came through, and the field position gave San Diego the chance to tie the game in regulation with a field goal and then win it in overtime. Ravens coach John Harbaugh won his first playoff game Sunday. Mike Tomlin of the Steelers has grown as a head coach in his second season. He lost his first playoff game to the Jaguars last season at Heinz Field.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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2008 NFL Playoffs
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COLUMNS/FEATURES• Wojciechowski: May the bitter team win
• Chadiha: McNabb lets good times roll
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• Clayton: First and Goal
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CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (Jan. 18)
Steelers 23, Ravens 14• Polamalu's INT return secures win
• Playoff page | AFC North blog
Cardinals 32, Eagles 25• Fitzgerald leads Cardinals to first Super Bowl
• Playoff page | NFC West blog ... East
DIVISIONAL ROUND (Jan. 10-11)
Steelers 35, Chargers 24• Walker: The Bus sparks Parker
• Williamson: Bolts need season-long urgency
• Recap: Steelers knock out Chargers
• More | AFC West blog ... AFC North
Ravens 13, Titans 10• Graham: Battered Ravens pass physical
• Kuharsky: Titans failed to answer critics
• Recap: Turnovers doom Titans
• Zoom Gallery
• Fleming: Can anyone stop the Ravens?
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC South
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13• Sando: Desert bloom for Arizona's faithful
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• Recap: Delhomme's 5 INTs doom Panthers
• Zoom Gallery
• More | NFC West blog ... NFC South
Eagles 23, Giants 11• Wojciechowski: Book Eagles for Tampa
• Mosley: Giants lost to better team
• Recap: Defense smothers Giants
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• Chadiha: Eagles' defense hitting stride
• More | NFC East blog
WILD-CARD ROUND (Jan. 3-4)
Ravens 27, Dolphins 9• Wojciechowski: Scary Ravens' D
• Recap: Ravens' defense overpowers Dolphins
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC East
Eagles 26, Vikings 14• Mosley: Eagles' run continues
• Recap: Westbrook, big plays carry Eagles
• More | NFC East blog... NFC North
Cardinals 30, Falcons 24• Sando: Cards' winning identity
• Recap: Strong second half powers Cards
• More | NFC South blog ... NFC West
Chargers 23, Colts 17• Williamson: 5-6 Sproles comes up big
• Recap: Chargers shock Manning, Colts in OT
• More | AFC South blog ... AFC West