Now that we’ve moved past the shootout in Arizona, the Jets and Shonn Greene running over the Bengals, the Patriots’ demise and the Cowboys’ first playoff win in more than a decade, it’s time to focus on the NFL’s divisional playoff round.
Four games on the slate this weekend with the top seeds getting back on the field. Let’s examine the four matchups and start talking about what we need to watch.
Arizona at New Orleans
... What will New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams come up with this week to slow down Kurt Warner and the Cards’ offense? As we saw last week, ‘Zona used a variety of stack-and-bunch routes to confuse and run away from the leverage of the Packers’ man-to-man defenders. Williams will call his share of man coverages and man-pressures, and I will bet that the secondary is spending extra time in the meeting room. He will have to install a plan to cut off the underneath crossers of the Cards and provide help short and in the deep middle of the field.
… Even though we expect a lot of points to be put on the scoreboard, what about the running game? The Cardinals actually ran the ball 23 times against the Packers, and just like their Super Bowl run in ’08, they are much more dangerous as an offense when they have a balanced game plan. And the same can be said for New Orleans. The team that doesn’t abandon the running game will be able to control the clock and set up the vertical passing game. Big week for Beanie Wells in Arizona and Pierre Thomas/Mike Bell/Reggie Bush in New Orleans.
… Speaking of Bush, the Saints need to use him in a variety of ways to create mismathces on the field. Align him in the slot, use pre-snap movement and get the ball to him with open field to work with. Let’s call it like it is: Reggie Bush is an “X-factor” type of player. He isn’t going to run the ball downhill all game with production. The way head coach Sean Payton uses him this weekend outside the tackle box and on third downs will be key.
Baltimore at Indianapolis
… What we want to look for — during the first quarter — is the play of the Colts’ defensive line. Can they set their pads, do they come off the ball and can they shed blocks and make tackles? With the amount of time the key starters on Indy’s defense rested the past 2½ weeks, it will be interesting to see how they handle the power running game of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and an offensive line that ran the ball down the throats of the Patriots’ front seven. I expect this to be the game plan yet again for the Ravens.
… Do you pressure Peyton Manning, and if you do, can you take chances on the outside playing man coverage against Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, etc.? I don’t expect Baltimore to sit back in zone coverage against Manning, but when they do pressure, Ed Reed will have to be counted on to provide help down the field and as a tackler in the open field. And don’t forget about Colts TE Dallas Clark. He’s a tough draw when you play man-pressure coverage in the back end.
… Ravens QB Joe Flacco will have to throw for over 40 yards if the Ravens want to pull the upset. Baltimore was able to force turnovers against Tom Brady in last week’s win and take the game plan out of the hands of their quarterback, but on Saturday night, expect Flacco to have to produce some plays in the second half if the Ravens are to advance. You don’t have to outscore Manning to beat the Colts, but you have to produce some big plays down the field to win on the road.
Dallas at Minnesota
… In the Vikings’ two most glaring losses this season — against Arizona and Carolina — Minnesota could not protect Brett Favre. And when that happens, his ability to move in the pocket and create plays on the run is taken away. Can the Vikings stop DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer of the Cowboys — especially on third downs? If Dallas can rush four and play coverage in the back end with safety help, Favre is not going to have the open windows he’s accustomed to having when he has his way in the pocket.
… Adrian Peterson needs to be the focal point of the game plan. Why isn’t A.P. getting 20-plus carries a game? Just as I talked about the pass rush of the Cowboys, one way to counter an attacking defense is to run the ball on early downs with production. We know Peterson has game-breaking ability, and to keep the pressure off Favre, Brad Childress must install a game plan that uses Peterson to move the chains and give Favre the one-on-one coverage he can exploit on the outside with Dallas being forced to bring the strong safety into the box.
… Stick with the game plan in Dallas. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has done a good job over the last four weeks of using his weapons in a variety of ways. Felix Jones has assumed the feature back role for the Cowboys, Miles Austin is continuing to produce, and Jason Witten can beat any linebacker or string safety in the league. Add in QB Tony Romo — who is protecting the football — and you have an offense that’s built for a playoff run. Don’t get fancy — use what got you here.
N.Y. Jets at San Diego
… Who’s going to match up with Antonio Gates? Expect Jets CB Darrelle Revis to move with Vincent Jackson and expect Rex Ryan to pressure all game long. That leaves a safety matched up against Gates. New York FS Jim Leonhard has the feet and speed to play man coverage over the top of Gates and carry him across the field when the Chargers use play action, but it’s still the toughest matchup that he will have faced all season. Stopping Gates on Sunday is the key to stopping Philip Rivers and the Bolts.
… The past two weeks, the Jets have used a simple yet effective game plan in their two wins over the Bengals: Run downhill in the off tackle power game, throw the short 3-step game with rookie QB Mark Sanchez and mix in some play action and movement passes to get the ball into the hands of TE Dustin Keller. Why change? The Jets want to control the clock, they have two solid running backs in Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones, and they take their chances when the risk is low. Take at least two shots — one per half — down the field to WR Braylon Edwards and play your game. Running the football wins in January.
… Don’t forget about LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers. The production might not be there anymore in terms of big numbers, but LT is still a vital part of Norv Turner’s offense. Those big plays we’ve seen all season in San Diego are a direct reflection of the power running game set up by LT. But more important, when the Chargers enter the red zone on Sunday, LT will have to produce and get the ball across the goal line. The Jets want to play a field goal and field position game. Don’t let it happen.
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