Weekend notes: Marquee QB matchups

The NFP’s Matt Bowen takes a look at three games featuring marquee QB matchups — complete with playoff implications.

Minnesota (10-1) at Arizona (7-4)

How do you stop Brett Favre? And how do you find a way to pressure the 40-year-old QB into poor decisions with the football? This season, Favre, who has thrown 24 TD passes compared to just three interceptions, has had the luxury of playing behind what might be the best offensive line in the league — and when you give him time, he still has the arm strength and confidence to challenge any defensive back in the NFL.

If I’m the Cardinals, I resort to the game plan this club used when it played Eli Manning and the Giants earlier in the season — one that combined the ideal blend of coverage and pressure from multiple pre-snap looks. I don’t see the Cards’ front four being able to get enough push up front to drop seven into coverage, and when you’re faced with that as a defense, the only option you have is to bring pressure — a variety of both man and zone pressure — and count on your secondary to make plays. But that’s all on a chalk board. We still have to see it on the field going against a QB in Favre whom I’m going to have a hard time leaving off my ballot sheet when I vote this year for the NFL’s All-Pro team for the Pro Football Writers Association.

However, can Warner respond and put enough points on the board to keep up with Favre and Minnesota? Outside of a performance to forget against the Panthers, when he threw five picks, Warner is having another Pro Bowl type season — throwing 20 TDs — even after missing the last game with a head injury. However, just as we talked about the Minnesota offensive front, their front four on defense isn’t questioned when it comes to the best in the league.

In saying that, the Cards do have playmakers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin outside the numbers who provide a positive matchup for Arizona — if Warner has time to throw. Look for the Cards to use a lot of six- and seven-man protection, and when they’re between the 40s, expect eight-man maximum protection, where they can scan the running back to DE Jared Allen’s side in protectionand take a shot down the field. Pocket time is the key for Warner — because he can carve up the Minnesota secondary that might be the only weak spot for this 10-1 ballclub.

Dallas (8-3) at N.Y. Giants (6-5)

We all know Tony Romo’s history in December, and for us to put that to rest -- and for the Cowboys to keep their NFC East lead over Philly -- we need to see Romo continue to make plays down the field and protect the ball on the road. I expect the Cowboys to challenge the secondary of the Giants, which has become a major issue since the loss of safety Kenny Phillips earlier in the season. They lack playmakers, and they’re prone to giving up big plays down the middle of the field. I would expect the Cowboys to take some shots with Miles Austin in the play-action game and use TE Jason Witten in a variety of ways: removed from the formation, aligned as the “X” receiver, and working the TE option route against a LB in the middle of the field. Romo has the luxury of one of the better running games in the league with Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice, but games in December still come down to quarterback play.

Dallas is in a unique position Sunday at the Meadowlands because with a win it can essentially knock the Giants out of the playoff race. But to do that, Romo, who has 17 TDs and seven INTs on the season, can’t be careless with the football. Don’t force throws and don’t put your team in a position where you give the Giants a short field to work with by creating turnovers.

On the other sideline, Eli Manning needs to play playoff-caliber football. This offense in New York has not been able to generate big plays, and from my perspective, it starts with the running game — because that’s the New York offense. They are methodical at times, and they use the running game of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw to create those big-play opportunities in the passing game.

But when the running game stalls, Eli is forced to take over the entire game plan and try to move the offense with a group of solid — not great — receivers led by Steve Smith. Look for the Giants to try and establish the running game against the Dallas front seven, because when this team can play with a lead, the intermediate-to-deep passing game comes into play. Yes, they are struggling, but don’t count out Eli just yet, and don’t forget about TE Kevin Boss — who can be another option for Manning on third downs.

Tennessee (5-6) at Indianapolis (11-0)

The five-game winning streak for the Titans behind QB Vince Young will be tested on the road in Indy, and Young himself will be tested by the Colts’ Tampa 2 scheme. How he responds, and how he makes decisions versus the Cover 2 looks of the Colts, will determine if this streak will continue. Any time a QB plays against a Tampa 2 defense, there will be windows to throw the ball into. But often at this level, they require a pass that’s on time and on target — between the safety and the corner and down the middle of the field against a middle linebacker who is running with the vertical seam.

Those routes will be there for Young and the Titans, but if Young wants to pull the upset, he has to know when to throw them. Because checking the ball down to RB Chris Johnson might be the safest and the best play in certain situations. The Colts do have the ability to rush four and drop seven into coverage — with each defender facing the line of scrimmage to react to Young running with the football. Yes, it’s a simple scheme, but don’t be fooled by the defense — this will be Young’s biggest test so far.

As for the Colts, we know what they’re going to present: two personnel packages, Ace (2 WR 2 TE, I RB) and Zebra (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB). But it’s the variety and the multiple-route options they have out of those two personnel groupings that always present an issue for defenders — and Manning knows how to exploit them.

One of the major issues behind the Titans starting the season 0-6 was their defensive secondary. They struggled in man-to-man situations and did not make plays on the football. That has changed during this turnaround, but game-planning Manning is a different story. I don’t see why defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil would sit back in coverage against Manning and his wide receivers, so I expect a good amount of pressure to be dialed up. Yes, it puts a lot of responsibility on the Tennessee secondary, but to make a playoff push in December, you have to take chances.

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