Playoffs provide answers


Published: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

One week into the playoffs and the top four seeds are alive in both the AFC and NFC races.

History says the top seeds will be alive come Sunday night, as well. The NFC's top seed is 18-0 in divisional-round games since 1990 while the AFC's top seeds have gone 16-2.

Now, before you send the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers — this season's No. 1 seeds — into their respective conference finals, we have some questions (and answers) about today's games.

In honor of the Elite Eight field, here are eight elite questions to ponder per game:

Colts at Ravens

Today, 4:30 p.m., CBS

1. Is the Colts defense up for a worthy encore after dominating the Chiefs' Larry Johnson (13 carries, 32 yards) and Trent Green (107 yards passing, two interceptions) in Saturday's wild-card game.

No. The Colts have lost their past four road games, allowing 28 points and 225.5 yards rushing per contest. Plus, the Ravens' Steve McNair and Jamal Lewis aren't playoff neophytes like Green and Johnson.

2. Can the Ravens defense force more turnovers, having produced a league-high 28 interceptions this season?

Absolutely. The Colts' Peyton Manning had three passes intercepted in last week's playoff opener and has had, oh, one or two playoff meltdowns in his past.

3. Can McNair keep pace with Manning in case it turns into a shootout?

No. McNair's never thrown for 300 yards or three touchdowns vs. the Colts in seven career meetings.

4. Can Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden slow up Dwight Freeney, who had a career-low 5 sacks in the regular season but two last week against the Chiefs?

Not likely. Ogden sat out the final two regular-season games with a left toe injury, and that will hinder him against Freeney, whom he had problems with in a 2004 face-off.

5. What kind of impact can safety Bob Sanders have on the Colts defense?

A lot. He returned from a knee injury and had an interception (plus three tackles) against the Chiefs. He not only brings energy to the defense but a needed presence against the run.

6. Will it be "a painful day for Joseph Addai," as Ravens linebacker Bart Scott vowed in regards to the Colts rookie running back?

Yes. The Ravens tout not only the top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed, but they're extremely physical.

7. Does Jamal Lewis really have anything left in those legs?

Maybe not. He's averaging a wimpy 3.6 yards per carry and has only two 100-yard rushing efforts this season.

8. How many times will we hear about the Colts' 1984 midnight move out of Baltimore to Indianapolis?

At least three times: pregame, during the game and postgame. Could be more if the Mayflower moving company buys a commercial spot.

Prediction: Ravens 19, Colts 16

Eagles at Saints

Today, 8 p.m., Fox

1. Can Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia keep up his spectacular rebirth and win a road playoff game?

Probably not. He has spunk and a chip-on-the-shoulder tenacity, but he's also 0-2 in road playoff games (both as a 49er). Then again, he helped the Eagles win three straight NFC East road games last month.

2. Who's more creative, Saints coach (and offensive play caller) Sean Payton or Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson?

Push. Thanks in part to having the versatile Reggie Bush, Payton has come through with fun and productive play calls, including the "Superdome Special" double reverse. Johnson is one of the best in the business, and it'll be interesting to see if he's as aggressive as usual or if he backs off the blitzes to put more men in coverage.

3. Will the Superdome crowd duplicate the same energy the Saints fed off in the stadium's reopening in a 23-3 rout of the Falcons on Sept. 25?

It's just not possible, but worth a try. The atmosphere still should be lively. It's the first divisional-round game hosted by the Saints in their 40-year history, and it's a night kickoff, as it was Sept. 25.

4. Do the Eagles have any advantage because of their vast playoff experience as opposed to the Saints'?

Yes. The Eagles are only two years removed from the Super Bowl and have been in six of the past seven postseasons. This is the Saints' first playoff game in six years, they're 1-5 in playoff games in their 39-year history, and 31 players have never been in a playoff game.

5. How will cornerback Lito Sheppard's absence (dislocated elbow) affect the Eagles defense?

Plenty. The Eagles are facing the league's top-ranked offense (391.5 yards per game) led by Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees (franchise-record 4,418 yards passing). Brees wasn't sacked in the teams' Oct. 15 meeting, and his three-step drops should be ever-present as he picks on Sheppard's replacement, Rod Hood.

6. Is Reggie Bush going to be a bigger threat running, receiving or returning the ball?

Tough call, but let's say receiving. His 88 receptions broke the rookie record set by the 49ers' Earl Cooper (83, in 1980).

7. More underrated, the Saints pass rush or Eagles running back Brian Westbrook?

The Saints pass rush. Westbrook is the little engine that could (and does) move the Eagles offense. But the Saints can pack a wallop with Will Smith and Charles Grant, who combined for 16 sacks in the regular season. The active linebacker corps will help clamp Jeff Garcia as it did Michael Vick.

8. Do the Saints have the edge if this game turns into a high-scoring affair?

Not necessarily. On one hand, the Eagles are 0-3 when allowing at least 20 points in playoff games under Andy Reid. On the other, the Saints lost slugfests this season against the Ravens (35-22) and Steelers (38-31).

Prediction: Saints 31, Eagles 24

Seahawks at Bears

Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox

1. Can quarterback Rex Grossman really derail the top-seeded Bears?

Uh, YES. In case you haven't been watching — and Bears fans have had their eyes closed at times — Grossman has been awful at times. He's had three or more passes intercepted in five games this season, and he's coming off a 0.0 passer rating in a regular-season finale loss to the Packers.

2. Is "home-field advantage" really an advantage for the Bears?

Not really. The Bears are 2-6 in Soldier Field playoff games since the 1985 championship season. Of the 32 NFC divisional-round games since 1990, the team with a first-round bye has won 28 times, and two of those four losses belong to the Bears (2001 and 2005 seasons).

3. Does Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck have what it takes to win a playoff game in a hostile environment?

Not so far. He's 3-3 in the postseason, with all three wins coming at home. He lost in last season's Super Bowl before a pro-Steelers crowd, and his only true road playoff game was a 2003 season overtime loss at Green Bay where he promised to score during the overtime coin flip.

4. Will Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens find room to catch the ball down the middle?

No. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is so disruptive that Stevens is more likely to get frustrated and commit a dumb penalty than come through with a two-touchdown effort as he did in last week's wild-card round win over the Cowboys.

5. Will the Bears defense be as fierce as it was in a 37-6 home win over the Seahawks on Oct. 1?

No. The Bears had now-injured defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown in that game. Plus, the unit has slipped to fifth in yards allowed. The Seahawks didn't have Shaun Alexander or Stevens in that Oct. 1 loss.

6. Is Bears return specialist Devin Hester the biggest big-play threat in this game?

Yes. The rookie set an NFL record with six returns for touchdowns this season, and he's fielded over 100 extra punts and kicks after recent practices. The Seahawks coverage units rank in the lower half of the league.

7. Which of this season's additions will have a bigger impact this game, Seahawks wide receiver Deion Branch or Bears defensive end Mark Anderson?

Anderson. Cold conditions (possible snow, temperatures in the 20s) could hamper the Seahawks passing attack, as could Anderson, a rookie with a team-high 12 sacks. Branch, the Super Bowl MVP two years ago, last caught a touchdown pass Nov. 19 vs. the 49ers.

8. Can the Bears' suspect passing game take advantage of the Seahawks' injury-riddled secondary?

Yes. Even though Grossman can be, well, gross, the Bears' multiple-receiver sets should cause havoc.

Prediction: Bears 27, Seahawks 10

Patriots at Chargers

Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS

1. Is Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson capable of continuing his phenomenal season (NFL records of 31 touchdowns, 186 points)?

Yes. Tomlinson ran for a combined 351 yards in the past two meetings (Chargers wins) with the Patriots.

2. Can Marty Schottenheimer mess up the good thing the Chargers have going, such as a roster stacked with nine Pro Bowlers, a 10-game win streak, a first-round bye and home-field advantage?

Yes, considering he's 5-12 in playoff games. Something bad seems to happen to his teams, whether it's his fault or not.

3. Do the Chargers, as the league's highest-scoring team at 30.8 points per game, have a chance to score that many against the Patriots, the league's second-toughest scoring defense (14.8 ppg.)?

No. But the Chargers do have a good chance to score at least 20 points, as they've done in every game but one. The Patriots have allowed 21 points or more in four of their past six games; they've never allowed over 30 points in a playoff game since their dynasty began five years ago.

4. Is Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ready for his first career playoff start?

Yes. He's a Pro Bowler in his first season as the Chargers' starter, and though he lacks NFL postseason experience, he won MVP honors in five collegiate bowl games, including the Senior Bowl.

5. Can the Chargers' league-leading sack attack get to Tom Brady?

Not likely. Brady's been sacked just once in his past four games and 26 times this season while attempting 516 passes. Then again, the Chargers did rack up an NFL-high 61 sacks.

6. Can Patriots left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Nick Kaczur block Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, the NFL's regular-season sack leader?

Not one on one. They'll likely get help from a tight end or running back to slow Merriman's pursuit, not to mention that of fellow outside linebacker Shaun Phillips.

7. Will the Patriots win if they don't commit multiple turnovers?

Yes. Brady hasn't had any of his past 169 passes intercepted. In New England's three Super Bowl victories, Brady had three of 325 passes intercepted, and the Patriots lost only three fumbles.

8. What kind of psychological edge do the Chargers have by winning 41-17 last season at New England?

Some. But the Patriots, then the reigning Super Bowl champions, were missing key players that game, which Schottenheimer pointed out afterward. Brady took umbrage at those comments, and maybe he'll use that as motivation.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Chargers 21

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