Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson
There were no upsets in Week One, but there was plenty of drama as Seattle squeaked through the Wild Card round. Are they a team of fate or are they lucky to be alive? We'll see this week in Chicago. Philly's Jeff Garcia put up pedestrian numbers, but got his team past the Giants. Now it will be up to the defense to figure out a way to slow down New Orleans' balanced attack.
Over in the AFC, Peyton Manning tried to give away the Colts spot in the divisional round, but Kansas City wouldn't take it. Baltimore's vaunted defense won't be so forgiving. And finally, they say if anyone can stop LaDainian Tomlinson, it's Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Maybe so, but until they do, we're sticking with the MVP.
Here's a little deeper look into this week's games.
Philadelphia (10-6) at New Orleans (10-6):
This game is a re-match of an October battle that also took place in New Orleans. The Saints won the initial meeting, 27-24. But both of these teams have come a long way in just over two months.
The Eagles are hot. QB Jeff Garcia has lit a spark under the offense and has the poise and experience to make big plays in the passing game whenever the Eagles seem to need it. But his success is triggered by a newfound commitment to the run and RB Brian Westbrook. Formerly thought of almost exclusively as a receiver out of the backfield, Westbrook has become a feature back who carries the ball almost 20 times a game, in addition to making plays in the passing game. The defense is also a much better unit than the one the Saints faced in the fall, but is still susceptible to the run.
The Saints are coached by 2006 NFL Coach of the Year Sean Payton, but the offense runs through QB Drew Brees. A year after being run out of San Diego, Brees has been masterful running the offense, spreading the ball to a wealth of receivers and helping an O-line unit that went from perceived weakness to a group that led the NFL in fewest sacks allowed during the regular season. Among his weapons are a host of WR's including veterans Joe Horn and Devery Henderson, and youngsters Terrence Copper and Marques Colston, who made a run at Rookie of the Year honors. But the real catalyst has been Reggie Bush who was electrifying as a returner and receiver (88 catches for 742 yards). Still, every one of the above mentioned players knows the running of RB Deuce McAllister gives this unit and team the balance they need to succeed. If the Saints talented pass rushers can get to Garcia, the offense has enough talent to top off a fairy tale season with a playoff victory in front of their home crowd.
Seattle (9-7) at Chicago (13-3):
These two teams met on this same field in Week 4 of the regular season and the results were not good for the Seahawks, who were on the wrong end of a 37-6 score. But these are now two very different teams and the outcome of this game could reflect that.
The Bears dominated the NFL in the early going, racing to a 7-0 record and winning five of those games by at least a 26-point margin on the back of a dominating defense and a balanced offense that featured QB Rex Grossman, who was one of the hottest passers in the league to start the season. But things changed quickly. As Grossman faltered, the Bears began to lean more and more on their defense. But injuries mounted and the Bears stumbled to the finish line, allowing an average of more than 26 points per game over the final month of the season. Chicago is healthy for this contest, but questions about Grossman's up and down play still haunt a franchise that lost at home in last year's playoffs.
The Seahawks were missing many of their playmakers on offense back in the beginning of October. RB Shaun Alexander, TE Jerramy Stevens, and WR DJ Hackett were all sidelined with injuries, and Matt Hasselbeck wasn't the effective game manager he usually is without those players in the fold. The defense, which is fast but undersized, couldn't stand up to the pounding of the Bears running game and things quickly got out of control. That game might be a microcosm of the Seahawks season. The offense has been hit repeatedly with injuries that also sidelined WR's Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram and several players along the O-line. The constantly changing lineup kept the offense from gelling for most of the season. The defense has spent too much time on the field as a result and now is struggling with injuries of its own.
This is not the Seattle team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl a year ago, but they have shown signs of returning to form in recent weeks. The Bears were the dominant team in the conference for much of the season, so don't expect them to relinquish their home field advantage easily. The Bears will do everything in their power to win this game, including benching Grossman if he falters early. If the Bears do come out on top, don't be surprised if Brian Griese is the one holding the ball at the end.
Indianapolis (12-4) at Baltimore (13-3):
There was a lot of talk last week about how the Kansas City Chiefs were the worst possible playoff matchup for the Colts, and it took some time for Indy to finally dispatch the Red Hats. But with all due respect to Herman Edwards and his team, the Chiefs have nothing on the Ravens. Baltimore continues to shine on defense, and the playmaking ability of Steve McNair has made the Ravens enough of an offensive threat that some prognosticators are picking them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Colts won their first nine games before stumbling in the second half and losing four of their last seven, including embarrassing losses to Houston and Tennessee. They beat Miami by less than a touchdown in the regular season finale and then struggled offensively against the Chiefs last week, digging up old stories of Peyton Manning's postseason shortcomings. The future Hall of Famer is just 4-6 in the playoffs, and he doesn't look to get closer to .500 this season. Even a Herculean effort by Manning the rest of the way may not be enough to overcome the deficiencies in the Indianapolis defense.
Defense, however, is the strength of this Baltimore unit and is the reason that some are picking the Ravens to go far in the postseason, because after all, defense wins championships. The problem for Baltimore has always been their lack of a balanced offensive attack, and even after the team brought QB Steve McNair into the fold right before the season, the immediate results were not encouraging. But the Ravens closed out the regular season with a four-game winning streak, and McNair completed 67% of his passes for a 91.0 passer rating and 4 TD in that span, while RB Jamal Lewis carried the ball 20+ times in each contest, giving Ravens fans hope for a postseason run.
But the defenses will be the difference in this game. Baltimore's unit is dominating and can put points on the board as fast as the offense it seems. The Colts defense on the other hand will have to play above their heads for another week if Indy is to have a chance in this one.
New England (12-4) at San Diego (14-2):
These two teams find themselves coming at this game from different perspectives but fighting the same battle of perception. Both squads are trying to prove they belong in the postseason and have what it takes to win it all. The Patriots are fighting the public view that they are too old on defense and a shell of the team that won three Super Bowls. The Chargers are fighting their coach's history of falling short in the postseason and find themselves trying to justify the AFC's best regular season record.
These teams both play with similar styles on offense and defense, but while the Patriots flaunt QB Tom Brady, who has 24 game-winning drives, including five in the playoffs (more than all the other playoff QB's combined), the Chargers have more physical talent in the form of league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, and arguably the best TE in football in Antonio Gates. They also feature playmakers on defense led by last year's defensive rookie of the year, OLB Shawne Merriman.
Who wins, poise and experience or physical talent? The Patriots and the Chargers provide the perfect test environment this week.