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Ian Hetherington January 12, 2007
Ian Hetherington
NFL Columnist

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Indianapolis Colts vs Baltimore Ravens
Will the real Peyton Manning please stand up? No? Oh well. The elder of the footballing Manning brothers is really going to have to get his head right before heading to Baltimore, because in the second half of the season he just hasn’t been his old self. Though after his shoddy Wild Card performance against Kansas some people would say that he’s absolutely like his old self. Reach the playoffs and choke. This time the Indianapolis defense, Joseph Addai and tight end Dallas Clark were there to help him out of his poor performance (which included three interceptions) but the Baltimore defense is much less forgiving than the Chiefs’ was. With six defensive touchdowns and the most interceptions in the league, their D should be what Baltimore will build this game around as they look to head into the AFC championship game, and if Indy are to have any chance it’s own defensive performance will have to be as stout as it was against KC. Ultimately though, there wasn’t too much to suggest that Indy’s offence will get back to it’s Manning-driven best, and I think Baltimore should manage to limit the damage they do and put up a few points of their own. Not least because the Baltimore defense really, really don’t like quarterbacks, chasing them down with a ravenous ferocity not matched by others in the NFL. Manning won’t stand down from that though, and Indy invariably protect him quite well, so seeing the defense trying to get at him might be the most interesting thing in the game. Bottom line: I have a gut feeling (uh oh!) that Baltimore will do enough to take the win and see Indy unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs once again.

Philadelphia Eagles vs New Orleans Saints
Last time these two teams faced off it was week 6 at the Super Dome, and the Saints ran out winners. And here we are again, but with so much more on the line as the two teams prepare to duke it out for the right to be in the NFC Championship game. Philly were pretty evenly matched in their game against the Giants in most areas of the game, and only squeaked through with a field goal at the death. New Orleans did enough to get a bye, and have the advantage of being more rested going into this encounter, not to mention it being in their own back yard (though it is worth mentioning they have lost their previous two home games.) So what to make of the key battles here? Brees vs Garcia will be a fascinating one. Jeff Garcia is the man of the moment for the Eagles with the solid way he’s managed the offence and his hard-working attitude in the face of the fact that McNabb will most likely get the starting job back when he’s fit. Brees has been putting in a few more spectacular performances in his 4000+ yard season. In the running game you don’t see Westbrook being out-done by Bush and McAllister. But if Brees is the best QB on the night, will the Eagles’ rushing offence do enough to balance things out? Hard to say. Westbrook –possibly the most underrated player in the league right now- should have a good night, and I don’t see Drew Brees pulling apart the Eagles defense, but I think the Saints’ supporting cast is possibly more capable of having stand-out games, with the Eagles’ equivalent players being more reliable. I’m not really saying much here to help myself decide a winner… I think despite their respective records the two teams are fairly close, but I’m going to give the nudge to the Saints.

Seattle Seahawks vs Chicago Bears
Most people who are being honest about it are happy to accept that the ‘Hawks are only still in it because of Dallas’ failures (or one major one, at least) rather than their own successes. Romo didn’t have a good game anyway, but it was simply compounded by that late-game show of butter-fingers that stopped Dallas getting what would surely have been the winning field goal. Credit where it’s due though, after fumbling it he pulled the ball back off the turf out of the way of Gramatica’s foot to keep it alive and had the speed of thought to get up and head for the endzone. And he’d have probably made it too, had Gramatica done his job and throw his body at Jordan Babineaux to at least slow him enough to stop him chasing down the scrambling Romo. Still, they’re here, and for them that’s all that matters. Their offence isn’t going to get anywhere near to breaking the Chicago D based on that performance though. The Bears have allowed the third-least amount of points, complimenting that with their fair share of sacks and interceptions and what-not. It’s what got them here, and it’s what- for now, at least- will keep them in the playoffs. Neither team’s offence has really been doing that well, and with the best will in the world you can’t see Seattle competing if it comes down to a defensive struggle. It’s not gonna be a pretty game to watch, but whatever the margin is, the day will belong to Chicago.

New England Patriots vs San Diego Chargers
This is all set to be the most enthralling match of this round of games, as we’re not simply looking at two good teams getting ready to play, there are also so many “against” factors to be considered to add to the whole feeling for the fixture. Factors such as Brady against Rivers. Dillon and Maroney against Tomlinson. A group of less than spectacular Chargers receivers performing against their Patriots counterparts, any of whom seem able to be made to look special by Tom Brady on any given week at the moment. When considering the Patriots chances, the fact that they appear to have once again have moved up a gear into their familiar Playoff Mode is a promising sign for them as they prepare to face the best team that the regular season had to offer. Brady was incisive and clinical last week, making use of a range of receivers as he does so well. The defense quietly went about the business of shutting down the Jets’ running game, and –although he racked up plenty of yards- stopping Chad Pennington do any major damage to the team. They’ll need all of that post-season steel and experience if they’re to win this one. San Diego might not have the experience (or the Super Bowl rings) of the Patriots team, but I can’t imagine that’s sitting in the back of their mind too much. After all, they have the league MVP in LaDainian Tomlinson –a player capable of scoring through passes and catches as well as his fantastic running ability, a fine young quarterback, a group of targets for him that might not be superstars but are all capable of getting touchdowns, and a defense that is far from the most miserly in the league, but is respectable. A fair package when you put it all together. If Tomlinson is on his game, then New England needn’t bother pretending they can stop him, just try and slow him enough to allow Brady to lead the offence and keep the pace. But what will the result be? I wouldn’t like to say for sure, but obviously I’m kind of obliged to by the nature of this article. And I’m going to go for the Chargers, working on the assumption that Tomlinson performs as we’ve come to expect. It could end up being the most exciting game of the playoffs if both teams play to form, and no matter how many problems the Chargers might cause the Patriots, we can expect the usual fiery resistance from their big players, and it should make for a dramatic spectacle once the game is heading towards it’s final stages.

What went wrong for the teams who went out last week?

For Kansas City it’s pretty simple. They just weren’t in a realistic position to compete in the playoffs this year, after only squeaking in due to a minor miracle of other results in the first place. Sure, they have a few top-notch players filling a couple of positions, notably Larry Johnson at running back, but they have issues throughout the rest of the team. While it’s admirable that Herm Edwards was willing to keep faith in Trent Green, he should have seen that his star quarterback was struggling to impose himself on the game and withdrawn him in favor of Damon Huard, who did a great job as stand-in earlier in the year. Though that might not have helped, as Huard may not have been able to get enough out of arguably Kansas’ weakest area: Receivers. Gonzalez is a great target, but while Kennison and Parker are safe enough receivers, neither of them is likely to help you get very far at this stage in the season, and while the whole team needs a few new faces through it it’s a stand-out, go-to wide receiver that the Chiefs badly need if they’re to prove a better all-round threat next season.

No, the answer to “Why did Dallas go out?” isn’t Tony Romo. It’s unfair to blame all of Dallas’ problems on a young quarterback only playing his first post-season game. Okay, he messed up and prevented the final field goal that would probably have won Dallas the game, but he had the presence of mind to scoop the slithering ball out of the way of Gramatica’s foot and take off to the end zone, and had Gramatica bothered to at least try and block Babineaux, the ‘Hawks safety might not have been able to stop Romo, and he’d have surely at least got a first down. Prior to that, Romo’s passing was less than perfect but his targets’ catching ability was hardly exemplary either. I thought T.O was meant to be a superstar wide receiver who could step up and make a big impact on these games? And the “problem” lies therein. An inexperienced quarterback (who because of his initial impact, people seem to expect to work miracles) with receivers who don’t always step up and perform. If T.O goes, Dallas will need to find a top level receiver (or as near to top-level as they can get). One who’s a little more supportive and helpful to Romo would be good though.

The New York Giants are an interesting one. Unlike a couple of teams who almost seemed to stumble over the finish line of the regular season and into the playoffs, New York brushed off a week 16 defeat and went out on a high, powering past Washington on the back of a career day for Tiki Barber. And though he may not have scored enough during the regular season, the amount of yardage he produced put the Giants in a position to score other ways plenty of times, and that was his story against Philly in the Wildcard game. The long and short of it though, is that they’re not really doing well enough on either side of the ball. The defense is a bit of a Jeckyll-and-Hyde affair, having kept opponents down to 3 points twice, but only managing to keep them below 20 a grand total of five times. Not exactly championship-winning form. On offence the running game has done well enough, with Brandon Jacobs bringing in nine TDs to compliment Barber’s yardage, but the passing game hasn’t been efficient enough, being constantly dragged down by mistakes. With 161 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, Manning had a typical performance last week. Glimpses of what he’s capable of and nothing more. The two key figures most would point to as indicators of the Giants inability to perform nearer to their potential are Eli Manning who, in his third year now, is probably nearly as good as he’s going to get in terms of pure ability. The other is the coach, Tom Coughlin is also under-fire for a host of reasons, and not doing more to help Eli Manning in these games is probably a key factor in their second consecutive playoff failure.

It’s hard, as a fan or of the team or otherwise, to gripe too much about the New York Jets. At the beginning of the season Eric Mangini was expected to be “rebuilding” this season. Doing things carefully, developing a team strategy that the players could get used to and then try and utilize it next year. They subsequently went 10-6 in a regular season that included a win against the Patriots in Foxboro and a three-game winning streak at the end of the season. Sure, they didn’t have the toughest schedule at times, but all the signs are promising. But that’s not to say they can’t improve, with the running game needed an injection of life, and their defense could do with strengthening in a few positions too. Overall though, a hugely satisfying season for the Jets when compared to what they’d have probably expected, and while they might have gone out of the playoffs they can at least say it was to a New England team at their cold and clinical best.

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