Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the two Divisional Round games to be played Sunday:
(3) SAN DIEGO (12-5) at (2) INDIANAPOLIS (13-3), 1 p.m., CBS
Tony Dungy's Colts are rested physically and mentally, the latter because they are the rare example of a defending Super Bowl champion with less pressure on them, not more, thanks to the undefeated Patriots.
But Dungy, Peyton Manning and company, after gaining validation in the football world with their win over Chicago in XLI, can rest no longer. Norv Turner, a coach whose reputation would skyrocket with a win here after the 14-2 Chargers lost to the Pats in their playoff opener last January, and LaDainian Tomlinson, the face of the 'Bolts but still without a Lombardi Trophy from which to see his reflection.
This game could turn on whose hurtin' pass-catchers play and are more productive. WR Marvin Harrison is expected to start after a knee injury sat him down for the last 10 games.
"I think he'll be fine mentally and timing-wise," Dungy said. "He's been running routes and catching the ball for the past few weeks, so I don't think that part's going to be an issue."
TE Antonio Gates seems less sure after dislocating his toe in last week's win over Tennessee, although Turner said, "We're getting Antonio ready to play. ... He's making good progress. I have hope that he'll be able to play."
Indianapolis finished the regular season with NFL top-10 rankings in total offense (fifth), passing offense (sixth), scoring offense (third), total defense (third), passing defense (second) and scoring defense (first). The only other time since 1970 that the Colts led the NFL in fewest points allowed was the strike year of 1987.
San Diego finished in the top 10 in rushing offense (seventh), scoring offense (fifth) and scoring defense (fifth). The Chargers were in the bottom 10 in passing offense (26th).
This game matches the top two teams in regular-season turnover differential. The last time a team had a better margin than the 'Bolts' plus-24 was the Giants in 1997 (plus-25), and San Diego was a plus-1 in the playoff win over Tennessee. Indianapolis is a plus-18.
Indy's 49.3 percent third-down conversion rate was also the best in the league, although Peyton Manning, who was fourth overall with a 98.0 passer rating, was 13th at 80.6 on third downs. But on all downs Manning is ever dangerous throwing to Reggie Wayne (104 catches, 1,510 yards, 14.5 avg., 10 TDs), TE Dallas Clark and perhaps Harrison.
LaDainian Tomlinson came on strong in the second half to defend his NFL rushing-yardage and rushing-touchdown titles with 1,474 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns. Second in rushing TDs was Indianapolis' Joseph Addai with 12.
Antonio Cromartie, San Diego's second-year CB, led the NFL with 10 interceptions. The playoffs remain the domain of Colts K Adam Vinatieri, although he had a quiet season (23-for-29 FGs with a long of only 39). Darren Sproles is the return X-factor in this game with one punt-return and one kickoff-return TD.
Indianapolis added its Super Bowl triumph last year to its title history that includes Baltimore Colts victories in Super Bowl V and NFL championships in 1958-59. The Colts' all-time playoff record is 17-16.
San Diego is 8-13 all-time in the playoffs and 7-9 since the merger. One of the losses came at home to the Colts, 35-20, in the 1995 AFC Wild Card Round. But the Chargers have taken four of seven since then, including by 23-21 at home in November when Manning threw a career-high six INTs.
Indianapolis has two RBs who had cups of coffee with the Jets: Kenton Keith, who signed as a free agent out of the CFL in February 2004 but never made it to that training camp, and Luke Lawton, who saw action on special teams in four games in 2005. DT Dan Klecko, son of former Jets great Joe Klecko, is also on the roster and all three have contributed to the Colts this season. No coaches have ties to the Green & White.
Lorenzo Neal, who played the 1997 season with the Jets, is San Diego's starting FB in his 15th pro season, just returned to practice this week from a broken leg and could play Sunday. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell followed a pattern similar to his time as the Jets' DC 2001-03 by getting his struggling stars playing up to potential down the stretch. And former Jets secondary coach Bill Bradley is the Chargers' DB boss.
Jets fans will always fondly remember their team's two playoff meetings with the Colts' franchise: the 16-7 triumph in Super Bowl III and the 41-0 whupping in the 2002 AFC Wild Card Game. The Jets also had a favorable outcome in their only postseason meeting with the Chargers, a 20-17 OT win in San Diego in the 2004 Wild Card Game.
(5) NEW YORK GIANTS (11-6) at (1) DALLAS (13-3), 4:30 p.m., FOX
This is a Tuna bowl of sorts. Bill Parcells guided the Giants to their Super Bowl wins after the 1986 and '90 seasons, and Parcells disciple Tom Coughlin is trying to guide Big Blue there again. After last season, Parcells handed the Cowboys' reins to Wade Phillips.
And the Giants have high hopes of making a big catch down in Big D. With Eli Manning efficiently operating the offensive controls, their wild-card win over the Buccaneers extended their road win streak to eight, so Texas Stadium won't faze them.
Meanwhile, except for the days he spent in Mexico last week, Tony Romo has been cold — five interceptions, one touchdown pass and two TD drives engineered in Dallas' last three games, two of them losses. And Terrell Owens has needed a three-week timeout to rehab his high ankle sprain this week.
But who can forget Owens' gutty performance on the NFL's biggest stage three years ago? Not Phillips.
"The guy played pretty good in a Super Bowl game they said he wasn't going to play in," Phillips said. "So I'll be hopeful. But I really don't know."
Dallas finished the regular season with top-10 rankings in total offense (third), passing offense (fourth), scoring offense (second), total defense (ninth) and rushing defense (sixth). New York finished with top-10 rankings in rushing offense (4th), total defense (7th) and rushing defense (8th)
The Giants had a minus-9 turnover margin in the RS but for the first time this season had no turnovers in mounting a plus-3 margin over Tampa Bay. The Cowboys are plus-5.
Despite Romo's late-season dip, he still was a prodigious passer with 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns, both totals second only to Tom Brady. He could have Owens (81 catches, 1,355 yards, 16.7 avg., 15 TDs) to throw to and will have the NFC's most productive tight end as a target in Jason Witten (96-1,145-11.9-7). Manning can counter with throws to Plaxico Burress (70-1,025-14.6-12) and Amani Toomer.
Brandon Jacobs again is the only 1,000-yard rusher in this game, easing over the four-figure barrier in the RS finale vs. New England to finish at 1,009 (5.0 avg., four TDs), although Marion Barber and Julius Jones have combined for 1,563 yards.
New York DEs Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan led a vicious pass rush that topped the NFL with 53 sacks, but it took down Romo only twice in this year's two games. The Dallas D is led by LB DeMarcus Ware (tied for third in the NFL with 14 sacks) and CB Anthony Henry (six INTs).
The Giants are 17-23 all-time in the postseason, 13-10 since 1981, including two Super Bowl wins under Parcells and a SB loss under Jim Fassel after 2000.
The Cowboys are 32-23 all-time, including 5-3 in Super Bowls. But one reason they're champing at the bit to have at the Giants is because they'd like to win their first playoff game in more than a decade. They're 0-5 since routing Minnesota, 40-15, in the 1996 NFC Wild Card Game.
New York and Dallas have never met in the playoffs, but they vie twice a season in the NFC East. The Giants have a 13-10 edge since 1996 but the Cowboys have won the last three, including both this regular season — 45-35 in the shootout opener at Texas Stadium and 31-20 in Week 10 at the Meadowlands. Romo threw eight TDs in the two wins combined.
The Jets lost this season to the Giants, 35-24, in Game 5 and to the Cowboys, 34-3, on Thanksgiving Day. (In fact, the Green & White has lost eight straight to NFC East teams.)
The Giants feature starting RT Kareem McKenzie and backup rookie RB Danny Ware, who played on special teams against the Patriots but was inactive for the wild-card win at Tampa Bay. In the coaching area, Peter Giunta (1995-96) handles the Giants' cornerbacks, David Merritt (2001-03) their safeties, and Markus Paul (2005-06) assists with the team's strength and conditioning.
The 'Pokes have few players with Jets ties. RB Julius Jones is RB Thomas Jones' younger brother. And DT Jason Ferguson, who left the Jets as an unrestricted FA after the 2004 season, is on IR. On Phillips' staff are three former Jets coaches: Todd Bowles, secondary (2000), Skip Peete, running backs (1987) and Ray Sherman, wide receivers (1994).
Next Friday: The conference championship games