- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Entering the season, the debate for division superiority was between the NFC East and AFC South, but the decline of the Jaguars ended that talk. For the second consecutive season, no NFC East team had a losing record, and most division games were competitive and close.
Sunday's divisional-round playoff game pits the East's two best teams in their third meeting this season, and it could spawn a Super Bowl team.
The Eagles were the worst team in NFC East play, going 2-4 against division foes, but they beat the Giants 20-14 in Week 14
to keep their mad rush to the playoffs going. In the win, Brian Westbrook had 33 carries for 131 yards and Donovan McNabb re-established himself as the starting quarterback.
For the Giants, the game didn't appear to be all that important. They had run away with the NFC East and were positioned to get home-field advantage during the playoffs. Still, that loss to the Eagles revealed some weaknesses. It was the first game after Plaxico Burress had been suspended for the season after his accidental shooting.
In the four games without Burress in December, Eli Manning, despite having his best season, was a 50 percent thrower and didn't have a 200-yard game. Part of that might have been the indifference of playing out what turned out to be a meaningless December schedule. But part of it was the absence of Burress. The Giants aren't the same offense without his big, tall presence -- particularly in the red zone and against the blitz.
After their win over New York, Eagles cornerbacks noted that Manning didn't seem to have a go-to option to throw to when he was rushed. Burress was his insurance policy. When things were dicey, he looked for Burress. Domenik Hixon has replaced Burress, but he doesn't have Burress' talent. Amani Toomer was once a go-to receiver, but he can't separate from cornerbacks like he once could.
Coach Tom Coughlin's biggest concern is finding options for Manning when he's rushed. The Cowboys sacked Manning eight times in Week 15. Manning was sacked 12 times in his final three games after being sacked only 15 times in his first 12 games.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson figures to unleash about every kind of blitz his defense can muster.
What works in favor of the Giants is their running game. Brandon Jacobs has had plenty of time to rest his injured knee and should be a major factor against the Eagles. If the Eagles can't stop the Giants' running attack, it will be tough for Philly to win.
As the Giants proved last season against the Cowboys, anything can happen in the playoffs when two NFC East teams meet. And who knows? One of these teams could end up being in the Super Bowl -- and winning.
Here are 10 more things to watch for in this weekend's divisional round:
1. Power trip: The biggest theme in the divisional round is the emphasis on running games. Four of the top seven running teams are among the NFL's eight survivors. To go to the Super Bowl and win, a defense must be able to handle power running teams. The Giants are the model. They attack with 264-pound Brandon Jacobs early and throw in the fresh, fast legs of Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw to add an exclamation point. The Panthers attack with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Ravens average 37 rushing attempts per game and use an offensive lineman as a sixth blocker about a third of the time. The Titans drive defenses crazy with the speed of Chris Johnson plus the power and goal-line presence of LenDale White. Power running is back.
2. No place like home? Home-field advantage is very much in question in this round. From 2005 to 2007, home teams were 6-6 in the divisional round. The Panthers, Giants, Steelers and Titans were a combined 29-3 at home this season. The Panthers were unbeaten at home and probably have the best chance of the four home teams to win. The Cardinals were 3-5 on the road and have traditionally struggled to win away from home. The Steelers take pride in winning at Heinz Field, where the footing is difficult for road teams and kickers have trouble figuring out the winds. The Giants improved to 7-1 at home this season after being a terrible home team during their Super Bowl run. The Titans have great fans who make them tough to beat at home. Still, I get the feeling one or two teams will be upset at home during this round.
3. Eye on Edgerrin: Edgerrin James knows he's playing out the string with the Arizona Cardinals. He figures he will get cut after the season. By midseason, he was phased out of the Cardinals' running attack. Still, James is a key to what might happen in Saturday's game against the Panthers. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt knows he needs James to establish some type of running attack if the Cardinals want to have any chance of beating the Panthers. Stopping the run is the Panthers' weakness. After trading Kris Jenkins, the Panthers became lighter along their defensive front. They also don't have a deep rotation of big defensive tackles. James had 100 yards rushing in the season finale against the Seahawks and 73 in the first-round playoff win over the Falcons. The Cardinals need at least 80 from him Sunday.
4. Warner and turnovers: The key for Kurt Warner is to avoid turnovers. Nine of his 14 interceptions this season have occurred in road games. The Panthers figure to try to control the ball with their ground game and mix in some play-action passes from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith, who comes up with two or three big plays a game. Early turnovers by Warner, though, could doom Arizona.
5. Injury questions for Titans: The dynamic duo of Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch returns to the Titans' defensive line for Saturday's game against Baltimore, but durability could be an issue. Remember during last season's playoffs, when Haynesworth came back quickly from his leg injury for the playoff game against the Chargers? He got tired, and by the second half, he didn't have much power. Haynesworth is coming off a medial collateral injury to his left knee. Though he's right on schedule with his recovery, he might not have the stamina to play an entire game. Coach Jeff Fisher will monitor him to make sure he can make a strong finish. Vanden Bosch plays with incredible intensity, but a groin injury has nagged him for months. Just when it appears that he has recovered from it, he reinjures it. Fisher hopes he can last as long as possible, because Vanden Bosch does his best work running stunts with Haynesworth by his side.
6. Hole in Tennessee's middle: The potential hole created by the elbow injury to Titans center Kevin Mawae may be hard to seal against the Ravens. After Haynesworth, Baltimore's Haloti Ngata is probably the league's best defensive tackle. His dominance against guards and centers allows Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis to play like he's young again. Ngata has the power and athletic ability to overcome double-team blocks. Mawae is one of the game's best centers, but his elbow injury makes him doubtful for the game. If he can't go, Leroy Harris will start, and that could hurt Tennessee.
7. Will the Eagles run? The Eagles ran 42 times with great success in their 20-14 victory over the Giants in Week 14, but it's hard to forecast that coach Andy Reid will run the ball that much this time. The Eagles have a big offensive line that can run block, but Reid prefers passing. The Eagles' offensive success during their late-season playoff run came when Reid mixed in more running plays and tried more of a balanced offense. Surprisingly, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb wasn't sacked in his two regular-season meetings with the Giants. The Giants had a 12-sack game against the Eagles in a 16-3 win last season at Giants Stadium.
8. Production needed from Tuck: The Giants need a big game from their best pass-rusher, defensive end Justin Tuck. He had only one-half of a sack in his final four games. Rushing off the left side, Tuck has the ability to dominate. He'll go against Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan, who remains one of the nastiest blockers in the game. Tuck, who finished the season with 12 sacks, has one of the quickest inside pass-rush moves in football.
9. Repeat performance for Gates? Chargers tight end Antonio Gates caught eight passes for 87 yards against the Colts this past Saturday despite high and low sprains to his right ankle. That's an incredible performance because those injuries usually sideline a player four to six weeks. Can he repeat that? After the Colts game, Gates said he learned from his nagging foot and toe injuries last season that it's not smart to do too much the week leading into a game. He's resting much of this week but will play Sunday against Pittsburgh. He'll be Philip Rivers' main target in the middle of the field.
10. Analyzing the Bolts' passing game: It will be interesting to see whether the Steelers try to control the Chargers' passing attack by using a Cover 2 scheme and mixing in zone blitzes. When teams use a Cover 2 against the Chargers, as the Colts did in the first round, Rivers doesn't make many throws to wide receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson. Most of the passes go to Gates or to backs coming out of the backfield. Jackson is a big target who can make a big play. With Gates playing with a high ankle sprain, it will be hard for him to make a lot of large gains. The Steelers can try to box in the Chargers' passing attack by using a two-deep zone.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4dEric D. Williams
4dEric D. Williams
3dMel Kiper Jr.