Game of the week: Chargers-Steelers
San Diego has momentum and Pittsburgh is rested and at home. Who has the advantage? That is a tough one because momentum in the playoffs is huge. If Baltimore wins Sunday at Tennessee, then the winner of this game Sunday will play host to the AFC title game Jan. 18.
|The Chargers hit Pittsburgh on a five-game win streak. (Getty Images)|
Chargers offense vs. Steelers defense
Whether LaDainian Tomlinson can play is not a major point. He clearly was not 100 percent Saturday night and I don't believe he would be effective running against Pittsburgh. Darren Sproles didn't do anything the other night that surprised me. I think he is just as good as Leon Washington, who is going to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist and all-purpose back. But I think Sproles will struggle from scrimmage at Pittsburgh because of the effectiveness of the defense, and the field will probably slow him down. I think he could still make an impact on special teams, and that is where Pittsburgh must contain him.
The key for San Diego will be to block the blitz because the Chargers have the receivers and Philip Rivers, despite his limited mobility, can be effective throwing the ball against anybody. San Diego will move the ball because of its passing attack, but the Chargers will have to find a way to score in the red zone. This is where they will miss L.T.
Their ability to score in the red zone, pass protect and make plays with Sproles in the kicking game will their key to scoring. One player I will watch closely is James Harrison and how Pittsburgh will work to get him free on blitzes -- and how San Diego will account for him.
Steelers offense vs. Chargers defense
The No. 1 issue here is the health of Ben Roethlisberger. At this point I am going to assume he will play. Pittsburgh has not been a power running team, a usually successful attack in the playoffs. They like to run to the outside, which is easier to defense and usually is not effective with a slow field.
So the key on offense for Pittsburgh is its ability to block the blitz, something it has struggled with this year. I believe the Steelers have better receivers than San Diego has secondary personnel. If Roethisberger has time, he should be able to make some plays. But they still must find a way to run the ball to get first downs. That was the downfall of Indianapolis last week.
I will focus on watching San Diego corner Antonio Cromartie. He has struggled this year because he has not been aggressive enough in his play and he is a long strider who has trouble changing directions in off coverage.
I like San Diego to win this game in an upset. I think the offense will make enough big plays. That, along with Sproles' contribution on special teams with some big returns, will be enough to pull the upset.
Ravens at Titans
|Albert Haynesworth will give the Titans a boost. (Getty Images)|
What else is different this time? Both teams know more about their QBs than they did then. In Joe Flacco's case, he has improved by gaining experience and showing poise under pressure. In the case of Kerry Collins, when teams were able to shut down the run he was able to win some games by making plays in the passing game.
I believe the Ravens will shut down the running game and force Collins to beat them by throwing the ball, but I believe the Baltimore secondary will shut down the Tennessee receivers and come up with some turnovers.
Tennessee will also be tough to run against. I will be especially interested in watching the matchups between Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither and Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, as well as the matchups between Baltimore left guard Ben Grubbs against All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. These showdowns will be the key to this game.
I believe Baltimore will win because of its defense and ability to force turnovers.
Eagles at Giants
|The Giants are in trouble if Brian Westbrook gets his 25 touches. (Getty Images)|
Both defenses play an attacking style. The Giants have built their team to play these types of games -- playoff games in cold weather, where you need a big back like Brandon Jacobs to wear down a defense. The key for the Eagles will be to get inside penetration to force Jacobs to go toward the sideline. If they can do this they will have a chance to slow him down. But if the Giants can establish a downhill running game with him, it will be along day for the Philadelphia defense.
If the Giants can get the running game going they will be effective with their play-action passing. The Giants receivers will not consistently beat the Philadelphia corners one-on-one without the help of play action.
This game will be decided by which team can block the other team's pass rush the best. That edge will go to the Giants. But I believe Westbrook will make a couple of big plays in this game. What I am going to watch is the number of touches Westbrook gets. I think 25 is the key: If he has less, the Giants will win; if he has 25 or more, Philadelphia will win.
Cardinals at Panthers
|Steve Smith will make life difficult for the Arizona D. (Getty Images)|
In the past two games Arizona has rediscovered its running game. The Cardinals must continue to run the ball to at least keep the defense honest and set up the play-action passing game, which was effective against the Falcons. Another key for Arizona will be the health of Anquan Boldin. With him I believe the Cardinals have a chance, but without him they will have problems.
Carolina was undefeated at home and the formula is simple: The Panthers want to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage. I believe they will do this against Arizona. This will set up the passing game with Steve Smith, who will find a way to make plays vs. the Arizona secondary.
I like they way Arizona finished the season on offense, but its defense has not been as effective on the road. What will be fun to watch is the play of the two quarterbacks. Jake Delhomme is not always the prettiest passer, but he finds a way to move the ball and he has a great chemistry with Smith.
I love the way Kurt Warner has talked about how the playoffs are different and he raised his game a notch last week against Atlanta. Warner has that look you want in the eye of your leader in the playoffs.
I believe Carolina will win because of its running game and Smith, but I am eager to see if Warner will get going on a hot streak in this game. I do believe Arizona's receivers have an edge against the Panthers secondary.