Championship Sunday: ten questions to answer

As we get ready to crown conference champions tomorrow in the NFL, let’s look at ten questions for Sunday title games.

10. Can Mark Sanchez protect the football in Indy?

The Jets are going to have to play a field position game to beat the Colts on the road and Sanchez has to understand that punting the football on fourth down is a positive—because of Rex Ryan’s defense. New York needs to play a field position game on Sunday, and giving Peyton Manning a short field to work with after a turnover will prevent the Jets from going to Miami.

9. Can the Vikings count on Percy Harvin tomorrow?

Harvin is a wild card right now, as he is questionable due to migraine headaches. He has made the trip down to New Orleans, but if he can’t go, or can only play in a limited role, how does this affect the Vikings? Having Harvin in the lineup gives the Vikings some creativity on offense and it also causes a mismatch for the Saints on third downs when he aligns inside the numbers. The Vikings rolled last week without much production from Harvin. Can they do it on the road?

8. Does Indy need to establish the ground game to advance to Miami?

Indy ranked dead last in rushing during the regular season (80.9 yards per game), but they overcome this because of the passing game and the routes they run. For the Colts, the 3-step game (slant, smash route, hitch, WR screen) is just as good as a run when it comes to their game plan. Don’t expect it to change tomorrow against the pressure defense of New York. RB Joseph Addai will get touches, but he isn’t the focal point of the Colts’ offense—it still runs through Manning.

7. Does Jets RB Shonne Greene continue his playoff dominance in Indy?
The rookie from Iowa has opened eyes this post-season by having back-to-back one hundred yard games in both of the Jets’ post season wins, and has essentially replaced Thomas Jones as the feature back for Rex Ryan’s club. The Colts aren’t dominant up front, but they are athletic, they can run, and they do a good job of shedding blocks and making plays. They can’t let Greene get to the second level of the defense where he can square his pads and break tackles. A lot to ask against the Jets O-Line—which I believe is the best in the league.

6. Can Drew Brees produce against the Vikings front four?

One of the reasons Brees is so successful is his ability to move within the pocket. He has good feet, keeps his vision down the field and is able to throw the ball with one of the quicker releases in the league. But, some would say that Cowboys QB Tony Romo has some of the same skills when it comes to managing the pocket. If the Saints want to throw the ball down the field, Brees is going to need time, and he might not get it against Jared Allen and the Vikings. The routes will have to be broken off sooner if the Saints O-Line struggles early—and that can limit big plays for the Saints.

5. How much Adrian Peterson will we see in New Orleans tomorrow?

AP carried the ball 26 times in the Vikings victory over Dallas last week, and although his numbers weren’t big (2.4 yards per carry), I still think he has to be featured in the game plan against New Orleans. Minnesota doesn’t want to have to rely on Favre to throw the ball 40-plus times, and the more the Vikings can control the ball and the clock, the less time Brees and the Saints offense sees the field. Yes, Favre and WR Sidney Rice can generate big plays, but using a ball control attack on the road is the way to beat New Orleans. AP needs another 20-plus-carry game.

4. How do the Jets generate big plays on offense?

If I am the Jets, I take one shot—per half—down the field to WR Braylon Edwards through the play action game when they cross into Colts’ territory. But, they still have to generate big plays within the flow of their offense. Look for offensive coordinator Brain Schottenheimer to once again use Sanchez on movement passes (boot, sprint, dash) to get him out of the pocket with a clear throwing lane. This widens the field and allows a player, such as TE Dustin Keller, to get open in the secondary.

3. How big of a factor will Darren Sharper be?

Sharper needs to play big and he needs to take some chances within defensive coordinator’s Gregg Williams’ scheme to jump some routes. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Sharper playing a form of Cover 2 over the top of Rice on third and long situations, as well as playing some combo coverages on third and medium situations—where he can drop down at the snap and jump any inside breaking routes. But, the bottom line is that Sharper needs to be a playmaker tomorrow and flip the field for his offense.

2. How much pressure will Rex Ryan bring?

I don’t think Ryan is going to change at all—no matter who is playing QB. Manning is a tough QB to pressure because of his ability to read coverages and make the proper adjustments from his pre-snap reads, but that shouldn’t stop Ryan from sending five and six man pressure most of the afternoon—with man-free and zero-man coverage in the back end. A lot of pressure on the secondary, but that is how the Jets play defense. Expect Darrelle Revis to be in the back pocket of Reggie Wayne all day.

1. Can Brett win it for the Vikings?

The storyline is great, as is the anticipation of having Favre back in the Super Bowl. But, can he continue to play at a high level on the road? I think he does, and I think he makes media-types—like myself—look foolish once again for doubting his return to the NFL. Favre will have to manage the multiple looks from the Saints defense and make the most of his opportunities when he can get out of the pocket--and I am done betting against him.

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