Pro football's elite eight
This year's NFL divisional playoffs are loaded with questions. Can Manning win on the road? Will the Pats stun the Chargers? Can the Saints keep hope alive? Can Rex Grossman not throw an interception? SCO's team of NFL experts does its best to answer those questions and more. Read on...
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
Saturday, January 13, 2007 - 4:30 p.m. on CBS
The Word: The Indianapolis Colts have been strong for many years, but each year fall short of the Big One. They are trying to change their luck this year with a visit to their birthplace and a game against the AFC's number two seed, the Baltimore Ravens.
Offense: It's no secret that the Indianapolis Colts are in the playoffs because of their offense. They have the third-ranked offense in the league, not to mention two wide receivers and the AFC's starting quarterback in the Pro Bowl. Losing RB Edgerrin James during the offseason wasn't so great, but the Colts have made out just fine between Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Addai, a rookie, rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. On the other side of things, Baltimore finds itself in the playoffs after a lackluster 6-10 season the year before. Some part of that has to do with acquiring Steve 'Air McNair' as quarterback during the offseason. McNair, who led the new Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl appearance in 1999 is a great improvement from Baltimore's previous quarterback, Kyle 'Who??' Boller. Still, not everything can change in a year and Baltimore's offense has struggled on more than one occasion this season.
Defense: There is no contest. This is Baltimore's field. They have the top-ranked defense in the league, including four Pro Bowlers. Free safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister will be a good counter to Peyton's passes and linebackers Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs will be there for the hard hits. The Colts on the other hand, are notorious for their Swiss cheese run defense. Oddly enough though, the Colts D only let up 44 yards to Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson last week against Kansas City. Whether they can keep that up or not remains to be seen.
Player to Watch: Peyton Manning, QB, Colts Even though he has started every game since he has been in the NFL and has 37,586 passing yards and 288 touchdowns, Peyton Manning has still not appeared in one Super Bowl. All eyes are towards him to vindicate himself as a true NFL star and push the Colts onto the path towards a championship.
Bottom Line: It doesn't seem like this year will be Indy's year either. With an offense that has proven it can be stopped by teams like Houston and a defense that only recently arrived, Baltimore looks to take the cake on Saturday.
Prediction: Ravens 17, Colts 14
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
Saturday, January 13, 2007 - 8:00 p.m. on FOX
The Word: The Eagles fly into New Orleans with unexpected veteran replacement Jeff Garcia leading them on a six-game winning streak, while the Saints, fresh off a bye, look to continue their march towards the Super Bowl.
Offense: Simply put, the Saints are loaded. With Pro Bowler and MVP runner-up Drew Brees at the helm they have at times appeared unstoppable. He has thrown for over five hundred yards on four occasions and had a stretch of 7 games with over three hundred each. His targets are as varied as they are good. The big name, Joe Horn, the rookie standout Marques Colston and second-year speedster Devery Henderson lead a core which has six players with over 30 catches. Passing game stalls? The double-headed monster of Deuce McAllister and breathtaking rookie Reggie Bush can carry the load. On the Philadelphia front, the quarterback that defines the franchise will be sitting on the sideline. In his place is Jeff Garcia, the once all-star with the 49ers who seems to have found his old ways. He took the reins in week 11 and since then has thrown for seven TDs and no interceptions, doing exactly what he need to: not lose. The biggest impact of the D-Nabb's injury may be the increased weight on Brain Westbrook. Since the injury his touches have increased by around nine a game and he has averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
Defense: As prolific as the Saints offense has proven to be their defense has allowed many teams back into games that should have been over. They give up an average 4.9 yards a carry and have been notorious for giving up big runs in key situations. On the other hand the self-dubbed "Oreo" defense (their front four and defensive backs are African American while the linebackers are all Caucasian) has been great in preventing third down conversions, which has helped make up for their minus-2 turnover ratio. Will Smith, the team's star defensive end, always brings pressure on the left side, which has given him a team high 10.5 sacks.
The real star of the Eagles defense may not even be on the field. Jim Johnson, the defensive coordinator, has prepared schemes all year that specialize in pressuring the opponents' best players and forcing the ball into other people's hands. The blitz packages he will send at Brees may be a little milder considering Drew's ability to get the ball out so fast but there is no doubt he will force the Saints to alter their game plan. Lito Shepard, who picked off six pass in the regular season, will match up with Colston and probably eliminate him as a target for most of the game.
Player to Watch: Marques Colston, WR, Saints His matchup with Lito Shepard will be of the utmost most importance in this game. If Shepard can keep track of Colston and prevent him from receiving the mid-range seam passes he is so good at, the rest of the defense will be able to shut down Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and all the Saints other threats. If the team has to focus more attention on Colston, they're in for a long day.
Bottom Line: The Saints' bye week will prove to be a savior as the extra energy and health allows them to play intensely deep into the second half while the Eagles wane. Drew Brees has another spectacular performance and the Eagles offense just canâ€™t keep up.
Prediction: Saints 26, Eagles 17
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Sunday, January 14, 2007 - 1:00 p.m. on FOX
The Word: Seattle won a wild one out west last week, beating the Cowboys on a case of field goal botchery, while the well-rested Bears are hoping to ride one of the meanest defenses in the NFL all the way to the Super Bowl. But for Chi-town the question remains; Can QB Rex Grossman hold on to the football?
Offense: If you love games where both teams air it out and go deep on every possession, watch some Colts highlights. The game plan for each side is simple: run, run, run. Both sides want to establish the run and maintain possession of the pigskin for as long as possible. Time of possession may end up being the most critical statistic in this game. Reigning MVP Shaun Alexander rushed for 896 yards and 7 TDs in just 10 games during the regular season, so the Seahawks will set him loose against the Bears. The Bears hammered the 'Hawks in week four 37-6, but Alexander did not play in the game. The Bears use the two-headed monster of Thomas Jones (1210 yards and 6 TDs) and Cedric Benson (647 yards, 6 TDs) in the backfield. Both teams hope their quarterbacks can simply manage the game, not throwing interceptions and keeping the tempo of the game at a preferred pace. But Matt Hasselbeck has Super Bowl experience and his wide receivers trust him, whereas Rex Grossman has barely less than two seasons' worth of NFL experience and has been close to being yanked in every game late this year.
Defense:The Bears have the most intimidating defense in the NFL. Period. Brian Urlacher leads the unit, which, despite giving up 26 points to Green Bay in week 17, gives up less than 16 points per game. Urlacher totaled 143 tackles and 3 INTs during the regular season, and unfortunately the NFL doesn't keep a statistic called "Big Hits." If they did, Urlacher would top the list. The Bears have solid corners in Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Ricky Manning Jr., whose jobs are made infinitely easier by the squad's scary defensive ends, Alex Brown (7 sacks) and Adewale Ogunleye (6 sacks). Rookie end Mark Anderson has been one of the most underrated players on the defensive side of the ball in the entire NFL this year, racking up 12 sacks and forcing 4 fumbles.
The Seahawks' defense, on the other hand, has been bendable all season long. Seattle gives up more points (21.3), more passing yards (203.5) and more rush yards (126.8) per game than their offense averages (20.9, 190.9 and 120.2). But the Seahawks have on of the best young linebacking corps in the NFL. Linebacker Julian Peterson led the team with 10 sacks and totaling 89 tackles in 2006, while second-year players LeRoy Hill and Lofa Tatupu are gaining recognition as tough tacklers. For Seattle, however, with no push from the defensive line and a thin set of corners, stopping good offensive teams has been a struggle. The team's top CB, Marcus Trufant, is questionable for Sunday's game.
Player to Watch: Bernard Berrian, WR, Bears Granted, much of Berrian's success hinges on the play of maligned Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, the speedy receiver could play a big role in determining the outcome of Sunday's game. Berrian will be facing a beat-up secondary, and he is the type of player who can go unnoticed for three quarters and then catch a 70-yard TD bomb in the fourth. Keep an eye on Double B as the Bears look for big plays on offense.
Bottom Line: The Bears find a way to win every week, whether by special teams, defense or (in rare cases) offense. If Grossman can avoid turnovers, the Bears' D should be enough to hold the 'Hawks.
Prediction: Bears 24, Seahawks 21
New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers
Sunday, January 14, 2007 - 4:30 p.m. on CBS
The Word: Most Valuable Player LaDainian Tomlinson leads arguably the leagues most balanced team, on both sides of the ball against the battle-tested and playoff experienced Patriots. The question is, can Phillip Rivers, a rookie quarterback on a Marty-ball team, lead the Chargers past Bill "the Mastermind" Belichick and Tom Brady.
Offense: The Patriots, no stranger to big games, will rely a lot on the arm of Tom Brady, and their three-headed rushing attack to beat the Chargers. Even though he's been throwing to a second-tier level of receivers all year, Brady still ended up with nearly 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wiley wideouts Reche Caldwell, Tim Brown and speedster Chad Jackson have stepped up when they've had to, and they'll need to be on point this weekend if the Pats want to move the ball through the air. On the ground, the Patriots feature a veteran leader, an ambitious rookie, and a do-it-all back. Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk will need to get past Shawne Merriman and the Chargers front seven.
The Chargers have LT. I could stop there, but I'll elaborate. The scorer of 31 touchdowns this season, and the fastest player to 100 touchdowns will look to do what he's done all year and tease opposing defenses with his quickness and elusiveness. Phil Rivers has had a successful first season as a starter, partly because of who he shares the backfield with, but the Patriots will no doubt do whatever they can to confuse him. If Rivers can get the ball to his playmakers, mainly LT and Antonio Gates, and protect the ball, the Chargers will have a good shot at beating the Pats.
Defense: Again, the Patriots are led by veterans with playoff experience. Teddy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel anchor the linbacking corps in the 3-4 scheme that the Patriots use. Up front they feature two giant men, who when on their games are near impossible to block. Vince "the Manchild" Wilfork is the nose tackle and Richard Seymour runs the right end position. The Patriots will need to rattle Phillip Rivers with difference blitz packages and make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Belichick should have some greats schemes cooked up for the youngster.
Lights out. Shawne Merriman is, and his fearlessness and reckless abandon on the field are contagious and often propel the Chargers defense to play better as a unit. His manic intensity is almost unmatched in the NFL. Were it not for the four game suspension for steroids, Merriman would have been a shoo-in for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He'll need support from Donnie Edwards and the secondary though to rattle the composed Brady.
Player to Watch: Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers If he can make it past a Bill Belichick Patriots defense in his first season in the playoffs, he has truly arrived. He can't hide at the quarterback position though, so if he struggles, you'll notice. The Chargers will need a strong performance out of him to win.
Bottom Line: The Patriots had an amazing season given the personnel they had, but the Chargers are more talented overall. Oh yea, they also have the MVP on their team. The Patriots could confuse Rivers early, but the Chargers will figure it out and advance to the AFC Championship game.
Prediction: Chargers 34, Patriots 20
Pia Nargundkar. Pia Nargundkar was Editor-in-Chief of Silver Chips Online during the 2007-2008 school year. More »
Abe Schwadron. Abe is a huge basketball, baseball, and football fan that likes to read up on sports in SLAM, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN magazines. Hobbies include streetball, poker and film-making. A sneaker addict, Abe likes to keep his kicks fresh. Abe likes reggae and hip-hop music, … More »
Josh Zipin. Josh Zipin has trouble paying attention for more than three seconds at a time... More »