Commentary

Safety play will be crucial in divisional matchups

Scouts Inc. gives a quick breakdown of each divisional playoff game.

Originally Published: January 5, 2009
By Scouts Inc. | ESPN.com

Scouts Inc. gives a quick preview for this weekend's games.

No. 4 Arizona at No. 2 Carolina
Cardinals' key to victory
In order for the Cardinals to win, they have to stop the run. Look for them to drop SS Adrian Wilson down into the box to form an eight-man front like they did versus Falcons RB Michael Turner. However, it is important Wilson drops down late because if he drops down early it will allow Panthers QB Jake Delhomme to audible to a pass and put the Cardinals in some bad one-on-one situations. The Cardinals must load up against the run this week on early downs because they want to force the Panthers into third-and-long situations.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesWill the Panthers be able to contain Larry Fitzgerald?
Panthers' key to victory
While the Cardinals need to stop the run on defense, the Panthers will be trying to stop the pass. Specifically, the Panthers must find a way to get pressure on veteran QB Kurt Warner. Arizona has two physically dominating receivers on the outside in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, while Carolina has two very good man-to-man cover corners in Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble who can lock you up because they possess a solid combination of size, speed and athletic ability. The Panthers can't be passive in this game -- they need to attack on the outside with a fifth or sixth defender at times, while playing more press or bump-and-run coverage on the outside. Arizona's receivers are just too good to be given a free release. Fitzgerald and Boldin are very physical, but they are not quick-twitch receivers at the snap and can be re-routed at the line of scrimmage. This could throw off the timing of the Cardinals' high-octane passing attack.

Key matchup: Panthers QB Jake Delhomme vs. Cardinals FS Adrian Wilson
The one that stands out the most will be the chess match between Wilson and Delhomme. Delhomme will leave the huddle and as he brings his team to the line of scrimmage, the No. 1 thing he must do is identify where Wilson is aligned. Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is one of the best in the business in terms of scheme and alignment. He does a phenomenal job of moving Wilson all over the field and bringing him either at the snap or on a delayed blitz. Pendergast is a big believer in the zone-dog concept and Delhomme must be able to read the defense pre-snap. The person who can dictate the flow and force the other to be passive will give his team a great opportunity to win this football game.

No. 6 Philadelphia at No. 1 New York
Eagles' key to victory
We all know the Giants are going to line up and pound the rock between the tackles to force the Eagles' defense to align an extra defender in the box, which should create one-on-one matchups on the outside for the Giants' receivers. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson runs an attacking upfield 4-3 scheme that attacks gaps, while disrupting the flow and rhythm of the running game. The Eagles have a lot of depth on the defensive line and Johnson loves to rotate his linemen to keep them fresh heading into the fourth quarter.

The Eagles must do a great job on first and second down to place Giants QB Eli Manning in third-and-long situations that will allow the Eagles to incorporate their zone-blitz pressure schemes. MLB Stewart Bradley is a big, physical linebacker who can attack and plug downhill gaps, and who also has the size and strength to control the point of attack while maintaining his gap responsibility. SS Quintin Mikell is a physical downhill safety who can invert up toward the line of scrimmage and be a very productive player versus the run. Johnson will place a huge emphasis on maintaining proper gap control to try and slow down the Giants' downhill running game, while emphasizing the ability to get off blocks, maintain leverage and tackle well in open space.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Ward
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDerrick Ward also had more than 1,000 yards rushing this season.
Giants' key to victory
The foundation of the Giants' offense is their powerful offensive line. This is a no-nonsense unit that is low on ego and takes a great amount of pride in creating run lanes within their zone-running schemes, while keeping Manning upright in the pocket. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride does a great job of implementing run schemes within the structure of the Giants' game plan. Led by C Shaun O'Hara, the Giants love to run behind RG Chris Snee and RT Kareem McKenzie. Snee is a physical road-grader, while McKenzie is a much better run blocker than pass blocker. The Giants are extremely deep and talented at the running back position, led by Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and change-of-pace runner Ahmad Bradshaw. This trio is a machine that has the ability to wear down defenses. If the Giants get their power zone-running game going, it will open up their play-action attack.

Key matchup: FS Brian Dawkins vs. QB Eli Manning
Johnson will incorporate a lot of multiple looks within the Eagles' defensive personnel groupings designed to take away the Giants' strengths based on down and distance. Dawkins brings a lot of energy to the Eagles' defense. He is at his best when he can move around in the formation and fly around the field making plays. He is a team leader and a very productive football player. He has very good recognition and understands route concepts. Dawkins anticipates well and has good ball skills. He is a good blitzer and aggressive tackler both in the box and in the open field. Manning is very cool under fire and has developed into a good rhythm passer with improved accuracy. He has good accuracy in the short-to-intermediate areas in the passing game, along with certain downfield throws. He does a great job of using his eyes to bait defenders and he has some mobility, but is not a real threat to run. Manning is a true pocket passer who looks to throw first. This should be a great matchup to watch between two divisional teams that simply don't like each other.

No. 4 San Diego at No. 1 Pittsburgh
Chargers' key to victory
Pass protection is going to be extremely important for both teams Sunday. DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis wreaked havoc on the Chargers' passing game and their aggression, leverage and speed was more than San Diego's offensive tackles could consistently contain. Steelers ROLB James Harrison and LOLB LaMarr Woodley are on par with the Colts' duo from a pass-rushing standpoint. However, the difference this week is Indianapolis derives all of its pass rush from its Pro Bowl pair of defensive ends, while Pittsburgh will disguise and vary its pressure. They will use plenty of zone- and overload-blitz principles to not only attack the protection from a physical standpoint, but also make deciphering the blitz difficult. Pittsburgh finished the regular season with 51 sacks, second only to Dallas, and will be well-rested and anxious to get to QB Philip Rivers.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger has to stay upright in the pocket.
Steelers' key to victory
Pittsburgh has a very average rushing attack and it cannot dictate the flow of the game on the ground. This puts a lot of pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger to make plays. He is also a natural risk-taker and playmaker, who will do everything possible to buy time for his receivers to get open downfield. Of course, this results in a lot of sacks even though Roethlisberger is elusive and very strong. Compounding the problem in this department is Roethlisberger's concussion, which he suffered in Week 17. While he is said to be okay to play, he was taken off the field on a stretcher. The Steelers need to keep their franchise signal caller clean in the pocket and Roethlisberger needs to get the ball out promptly. San Diego brought far more pressure last week than it did earlier in the season and it is clear that this defense is more aggressive with Ron Rivera calling the plays. The Chargers were able to consistently move Colts QB Peyton Manning off his spot and disrupt the timing and rhythm of the Colts' offense. However, Roethlisberger is not a timing and rhythm passer like Manning and actually can be more effective when plays break down. The Steelers' pass protection struggled during these teams' regular-season meeting in Week 11 and will be tested again this week.

Key matchup: Chargers TE Antonio Gates vs. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu
There was much speculation as to how effective Gates would be last week, while nursing an ankle injury. He answered the questions very quickly, catching Rivers' first five completions of the game and finishing the contest with eight grabs for 87 yards. While Gates hasn't shown as much verticality recently, he remains very reliable and effective as a safety valve for Rivers, particularly near the goal line. While WR Vincent Jackson was nonexistent last week, Gates was a major contributor to the Chargers' offense because they had a very difficult time blocking the Colts' dynamic defensive ends. The same should hold true this week against an outstanding Steelers pass rush. Polamalu put together a terrific season and is one of the most versatile and effective playmakers in the game. While limiting Gates' production will not fall entirely on Polamalu's shoulders, these two greats will do battle on quite a few occasions and the result will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this playoff game.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.