Playoff Preview/Review

January 14, 2008 | Thyrl Nelson

San Diego Chargers
The Chargers will have their work cut out for them when they travel to Foxboro this week, but they had that when they went into Indianapolis on Sunday too. Those who continually question Norv Turner’s coaching ability, myself included, have to give him a lot of credit for the job that the Chargers did on Sunday. The Manning vs. Manning Superbowl talk will have to wait until next year at least.
The Chargers have been my dark horse to win it all this season. The trends are certainly in their favor; the last 2 winners were the team who had the best record in the AFC the previous year. Plus Sunday’s win over the Colts is eerily reminiscent of the Steelers upset victory over Indy 2 years ago, overcoming a number of horrible calls to pull off the upset.
San Diego shook off a number of game changing calls against them on Sunday to pull of the improbable win. Making it even more improbable is that in addition to Antonio Gates playing through turf toe, they lost LaDanian Tomlinson to a knee injury in the first half, and Phillip Rivers went out with a knee injury too, in the second half while the game was still very much in doubt. The real winner in Sunday’s game is probably the Patriots who will likely see San Diego next week with most of their weapons either out or at least slowed by injury.
There are still reasons to believe that the Chargers will have a chance next week in New England. First is that even with the offense less than 100%, San Diego’s defense seems to be peaking right now. They are able to get pressure up the middle with the front four, and have great blitzing linebackers to keep Brady off balance. The San Diego secondary has really grown up over the course of the season and evolved into one of the league’s best.
And even if Tomlinson can’t go, the Chargers still have good options in the backfield, Michael Turner could probably start for most teams, and Darren Sprowles has inhuman speed that makes it tough to even get an angle on him. The Patriots defense is among the leagues best, but a lot of that may have to do with them burying teams early in games and forcing them into predictable situations. New England gives up 4.4 yards per carry, among the league’s worst, good news for the Chargers if they are able to keep it close.
With the number of injuries that San Diego has, and the way that New England handled them easily, early in the season, there may be a chance that the Patriots take the Chargers somewhat lightly. And the Chargers may be more cut out to play in cold weather than the Pats, so the weather may play to San Diego’s favor too. 
Was I the only one hoping to see San Diego’s Kicker Nate Kaeding find his former college teammate Bob Sanders and celebrate the San Diego victory on Sanders’ back?
New England
We’ve heard all of the comparisons: how do the Pats rate against the Steelers of the 70’s or 49ers of the 80’s or Cowboys of the 90’s? How does Tom Brady compare with Elway or Marino or Montana? I haven’t heard this one discussed much, but has Bellichick possibly eclipsed the coaching legends of Walsh or Lombardi or Noll? He has certainly done a great job of winning over the last 6 or 7 years; but is he a great coach or a beneficiary of great talent? In a league full of copycats, Bellichick has done a great job of questioning conventional wisdom, noticing subtle trends and generally staying one step ahead of the game.
When the Patriots won their first title, the trend in the league favored teams built around defense. The 2001 Patriots were no exception. Although they played tenacious defense the team lacked star power and was widely underestimated throughout their first playoff run. Defensively, the team took advantage of the fact that referees weren’t calling downfield contact on wide receivers and exploited it to the extent that the league had to change the rule, or at least reemphasize it.
Today’s NFL favors offense, and Bellichick has rebuilt the Patriots roster around that philosophy. The Patriots have given a lot of attention to putting a solid offensive line around Brady, a solid running back behind him, and outstanding wide receivers to make his life easy and his job fun. Notice that a lot of New England’s passing plays are completed within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and they do a great job of using the off the ball receivers to set basketball style picks. Such picks are technically illegal but rarely called. Maybe the Chargers should use Antonio Gates as a defensive advisor this week to teach linebackers to defend the pick and roll, or maybe they could bring in “Tark the Shark” to teach the “amoeba defense”.
New England has gotten into the “so good it’s scary” class at this point. Although several teams have played them well coming down the stretch, including Jacksonville on Saturday, you never really get the feeling that they might lose. I can just see Tom Brady in the huddle saying, “Hey, it’s John Candy.”
I keep wanting Joe Montana to say that on the NFL Network commercial when the guy says that the real measure of a QB is what he does in the playoffs and the Superbowl. Also, while I’m talking about those “Joe’s Diner” commercials, why do they call they sideline icing the kicker play “The Shannahan”? Shannahan did it famously early in this season to the Titans, but Marvin Lewis is the first one I recall doing this, when he did it last year against the Ravens. Since the game was on NFL network, I realize that most didn’t see it, but NFL Network made this commercial too. Maybe they can’t watch Bryant Gumbel for a full game either. Or maybe they called it “The Shannahan” because “The Marvin Lewis” is already a term for allowing your players to run wild.
Green Bay Packers
Is there a better storyline left in the playoffs than the Green Bay Packers? The future hall of fame quarterback, who most had written off years ago, and the running back that came out of nowhere mid-season to take his place in the record books on Saturday. The Packers were able to shake off a sluggish and sloppy start on Saturday to take complete control by halftime and cruise to the weekend’s most lopsided victory.
The Giants victory on Sunday secures a home game for the Packers in the NFC Championship, and maybe another “frozen tundra” classic. The Giants allow 3.8 yards per carry and the Packers allow 3.9, both teams will be looking to pound the ball if the weather is Lambeauesque for this one.
In the air, the advantage has to go to the Pack. Favre has been playing in the cold forever, and his wide receivers work harder at going after the ball than any group that I’ve ever seen. If they aren’t going to come down with it, they do a great job of making sure no one does. That’s a perfect weapon for a quarterback used to taking chances. Favre and the Pack deserve a great deal of credit for getting this far, and should keep it exciting.
New York Giants
If we are seeing the arrival of Eli Manning, than it may be scary to think what he’ll be able to do whenever he gets a full compliment of healthy receivers, sadly for Giants fans, that won’t be this year. While a lot of NFL fans thought that this week would be filled with hype over a possible Manning vs. Manning Superbowl, it may play out to be an even more interesting storyline. Manning may get to face the team that he memorably refused to play for just a few years ago, if the Giants and Chargers can both somehow pull off road upsets.
The Giants defense has been much tougher in the second half of the season, and they are a much different team than the one that the Packers beat 35-13 in week 2. In fact, after getting beaten twice by the Cowboys in the regular season by a combined score of 76-55, the Giants shut the door on the Cowboys high-powered offense allowing just 17 points in Sunday’s win.
On Sunday, Tony Romo, like Peyton Manning, had 2 separate chances in the 4th quarter to put his team in the end zone for the go ahead touchdown. Like Manning, Romo came up short both times. After watching the Cowboys offense melt down despite Marion Barber having a field day on the ground, and Romo having tons of time against the league’s best pass rush, I wonder if Jason Garrett will still be regarded as highly on Monday. The Cowboys offense went into neutral on Sunday scoring just 3 second half points, despite having TO apparently healthy and a full compliment of receivers for the first time all season. The play calling and clock management were just awful, be careful what you wish for Ravens fans.
Next Week
There are just 3 games left in the NFL season, and 2 will be played this Sunday. I’m going to go with San Diego in the biggest upset in playoff history and Green Bay. Maybe Favre finally rides off into the sunset after this one ala John Elway and the Aaron Rodgers era begins. At this point I’ll be happy with anyone but New England. After all Tom Brady is just 30 years old, the future could be pretty scary.