With Championship Sunday coming up this weekend, let’s discuss things to watch in both the AFC and NFC title games: schemes, game plans, matchups and some X’s and O’s that could lead to a Super Bowl appearance.
N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis, 3 p.m. (EST), CBS
Early Line: Colts –7 ½
…How do the Colts get Reggie Wayne involved in the game plan? Last week against the Ravens, Wayne was a no-show until the second half when Indy started using him more in the 3-step game: the smash route, the slant, hitch etc. Wayne finished with eight receptions for 63 yards and a TD. Sunday, we can expect the Jets to use CB Darrelle Revis on Wayne exclusively when he’s aligned outside the numbers. However, look for the Colts to align Wayne out of position and move him around the field. They can use him inside in the slot, in both the “X” and the “Z” alignments, and use pre-snap movement to get him a free release off the line of scrimmage. Why? Because Revis is just that good when it comes to the Jets’ man-to-man schemes. But Wayne will have to find a way to produce on Sunday.
…It should be interesting to watch Colts QB Peyton Manning in his pre-snap reads. Don’t be shocked to see Manning bleed the play clock close to zero in order to read and adjust to Rex Ryan’s pressure schemes. The key for the Jets: hold their disguise and don’t tip off Manning and show which direction the pressure is coming from. If you show Manning what you are doing before the snap, he’ll try and exploit it.
…More Sanchez. I’ve been a big supporter of the Jets’ game plan through the wild card and divisional rounds, but Sunday might be the day Jets QB Mark Sanchez has to make a big play in the fourth quarter. Can he do it? Protecting Sanchez with the running game and Ryan’s defense is the right plan for the Jets, but if they fall behind, we’ll get to see Sanchez in a high-pressure situation on a huge playoff stage. I expect him to throw the slant, the fade and use the boot and play action to get the ball down the field, but I still want to see him make a big play on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter — when he has to take a five-step drop and deliver the ball.
…Speaking of the Jets running game, it will be interesting to see how Bill Callahan’s offensive line matches up against the Indy front seven. One thing I noticed in watching the Ravens’ first two playoff games was the difference in speed and athleticism between the Colts and the Patriots up front. Indy can shed blocks, it can run to the football, and it’s solid in its gap control when it comes to the running game. RBs Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones are still the meat and potatoes of the Jets offense, but Sunday they’ll face the best front seven they’ve seen in the playoffs. It is a good matchup, and we’ll see if the Jets keep the ball inside the tackles when it comes to the running game or if they challenge the Colts — and their speed — by running the ball in the outside zone scheme.
Minnesota at New Orleans, 6:40 p.m. (EST), FOX
Early line: Saints –3 ½
...More Reggie Bush. Keep Bush involved, use him creatively and give him those 10 to 15 touches on Sunday (including the kicking game) in the hope he turns one into a big play. We saw a healthy, determined Bush last week in the win over Arizona, and I still see him as a major matchup issue for the Vikings if coach Sean Payton uses him out of the backfield — especially on third downs when the Saints use their empty sets. I’ll bet on Bush vs. a nickel or dime corner every time when he needs to make a play.
…How does Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams set up Brett Favre? I expect Williams to put pressure on Favre early in the game, and when the Saints play coverage in the back end, look for some example of Cover 7 — a combo coverage between the corner and the safety. This coverage is designed to allow the defensive backs to jump routes with the protection of another defender if the wide receiver converts his route up the field. By doing this, Williams can give his players an opportunity to make a play by putting them in the proper positions. But don’t discount the pressure packages that he’ll dial up against Favre — because Favre is too good in the pocket when you allow him to get creative with the ball.
…Can the Saints match up physically with the Vikings’ offensive and defensive lines? The Vikings made the Cowboys look soft up front last Sunday, and when that front four can get to the quarterback like they did against Tony Romo, it takes a lot of pressure off the Minnesota secondary. I expect the Vikings’ game plan on offense to test the Saints early with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor to see if they can work the ball down the field in the running game — which will set up the vertical passing game for Favre. And if this turns into a game that’s controlled by clock management and setting up third-and-manageable situations, it might play into the Vikings’ favor.
…I like Drew Brees and the Saints’ wide receivers against the Minnesota secondary. The Vikings lack playmakers in the back end, and if they’re forced to play man coverage, Brees should find throwing lanes. However, one reason Brees is so successful can be traced to his ability to throw the ball to the back shoulder — or the up field shoulder — depending on the leverage he sees from the defender. Expect the Vikings’ secondary to be tested.
…I can see Williams playing coverage on third downs if his defense can limit Peterson. And with that comes the issue of how you defend Percy Harvin. Do the Saints play a form of Cover 1 Robber, or do they go into a Cover 2 shell with FS Darren Sharper playing over the top of Sidney Rice and protecting the sidelines and the 9-routes down the field? Harvin had only one reception in the Dallas win, but he’ll need to be more involved and will need to produce on third downs inside the numbers — where he can run away from the defender’s leverage and catch the ball with an open field to work with.
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