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Rookies could have profound impact on divisional playoffs

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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The divisional round of the playoffs is the best weekend of football. Each one of the four matchups is a good one.

This year, three of the four games will be played in domed stadiums, which guarantees weather as a non-factor. Domed teams are 27-15 in the playoffs, including last week's wins by the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys. Indianapolis, Minnesota and New Orleans are 11-10 in playoff games played in their domed stadiums.

Here are 10 things I'm looking for this weekend:

1. Will defense win championships?

It wasn't all that long ago when coaches would stand up and boast that defense and running the football was the formula for winning the Super Bowl. This year, only two teams that adopt that philosophy remain in the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets each advanced through the wild-card round with great defense, a top-shelf running game, and their quarterbacks -- Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez -- combining for 25 throws.

The NFL is now known as a "passing league," but the Ravens and Jets are a bastian of hope for the old-school guys.

2. Rookies under the microscope

It's very difficult for rookies to play well in the playoffs. Most rookies have been going non-stop since their last college game, given the preparation for the draft process. When you combine worn-out bodies with playoff pressure, mistakes can happen.

Here are the rookies in the spotlight this weekend: Sanchez, Jets RB Shonn Greene, Ravens OT Michael Oher, Colts WR Austin Collie, Vikings WR Percy Harvin, and Cardinals RB Chris "Beanie" Wells. Some of those rookies will play well, while others will crack under the immense pressure.

3. Which pass rush gets the job done?

Last week, the four teams with more sacks than their opponents were victorious. That makes pass rush a legitimate storyline to follow this week.

First, I will eliminate the visiting teams because the noise level -- especially at the three domed stadiums -- is a big disadvantage for the visiting offensive lines.

Second, is the visiting opponent going to throw enough to grab enough sacks?

The Jets and Ravens are looking for as little quarterback exposure as possible, which eliminates the Chargers and Colts from the biggest pass rush day this weekend. That leaves the Saints and Vikings, who are both facing big passing attacks. Based on defenses, it looks like the Vikings -- who had 48 sacks this season -- facing the Cowboys -- who gave up 34 sacks -- as the leading contender for the divisional playoff sack title.

4. Are the Colts going to be rusty?

There has been a lot of discussion about the Colts sacrificing an opportunity at an undefeated season by resting key starters late in the season. Indianapolis is just 1-4 in playoff games when they rest players entering the postseason. If they are rusty, the boo birds will be out in full force at Lucas Oil Stadium.

In his career, Manning is just 7-8 in playoff games, and that includes a 4-0 run en route to victory in Super Bowl XLI. That year, the Colts could not rest players at the end of the regular season.

Manning has led the Colts to six consecutive wins over the Ravens, throwing 11 touchdowns and four interceptions, while being sacked just three times.

The intensity of a playoff atmosphere also means that Manning can't always launch the ball from in the pocket, getting forced to move around more than he is accustomed to. Keep an eye on Manning to see if his feet are moving and his life in the pocket is uncomfortable.

5. The Favre factor

The Vikings won the NFC North and went to the playoffs without Brett Favre last season. They brought the future Hall of Famer in to win the Super Bowl. The moment of truth is at hand, and Favre has been in this situation many times before, bringing 22 playoff games and a 12-10 record in those games to the table. Only Joe Montana has thrown for more playoff touchdowns than Favre.

Favre is now more prone to take sacks rather than throw interceptions, which makes him very dangerous. This year, in eight home games, Favre has thrown 21 touchdowns to just two interceptions and 11 sacks. Favre throws a pick once in 133 pass attempts at home and gets sacked once in 24 attempts.

The Cowboys will have to choose between defending the Favre passing game or the Adrian Peterson running game.

6. What will be highest-scoring game?

Just about everybody thinks that the Cardinals-Saints matchup has the potential to be a repeat of the Cardinals-Packers wild-card shootout of last week when there were a playoff-record 96 points scored.

There is no doubt that this matchup has the ingredients for a high-scoring game, but keep an eye on the Cowboys-Vikings game. The Vikings average 33 points a game at home, and the Cowboys are playing extremely well, which sets up a big-time scoring situation.

7. Be careful with Warner in the playoffs

It's no longer a debate about Kurt Warner going to the Hall of Fame after he retires. Warner will once again get a playoff game to build on his postseason production. In 12 postseason games, Warner is 9-3 with 31 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions. Warner threw for 379 yards and five touchdowns last week, and he expects to do more of the same against the Saints.

Scouting the matchups
Pat Kirwan breaks down each divisional playoff showdown:

Cardinals at Saints: The Cardinals and Saints should produce plenty of action Saturday, with close to 80 pass plays and at least 60 points scored. Here are the three pressing questions I have as I study the matchup. More ...

Ravens at Colts: These two teams are built in totally different ways. The Ravens are the fifth-ranked run offense with a big, powerful defense while the Colts are a great passing team with a defense built around speed. More ...

Cowboys at Vikings: While the Cowboys and Vikings would both like to establish their run games, this matchup could come down to which team is able to adapt if the ground game stalls out. More ...

Jets at Chargers: One of the more intriguing showdowns of the divisional playoff weekend will be the Jets' blitz against the Chargers' potent passing game led by Philip Rivers. More ...

8. Left tackles under pressure

The Cardinals and Saints will both be playing backup left tackles in what shapes up to be a heavy passing game. The Saints' Jermon Bushrod struggled late in the season, especially against DeMarcus Ware, and now faces Bertrand Berry, who had two sacks last week. The Cardinals will be lining up Jeremy Bridges, who has the unenviable task of blocking Will Smith.

In Minnesota, Flozell Adams, who has a history of struggling in road games, will have to prevent Vikings defensive end Jared Allen -- who had 9 ½ sacks in games played at the Metrodome this season -- from getting his paws on Tony Romo.

9. The red zone is critical

A 10-play drive that goes the length of the field and ends with a field goal or worse, no points at all, is a disastrous set of events in a playoff game. It's no wonder that the final eight teams left in the playoffs all do well in the red zone on offense and defense, for the most part. The top three red-zone offenses in the NFL are Arizona, Indianapolis and Minnesota. The Saints ranked fifth, and every team except the Jets finished in the top half of the league rankings. How they matchup against the red-zone defenses is the issue. Arizona may possess the No. 1-ranked red-zone offense, but they face the No. 2-rated red-zone defense in New Orleans. As good as many of the eight remaining playoff teams are in the red zone, their defenses are even better. Besides the Saints at No. 2, the Ravens are No. 4, Vikings are No. 6, Jets are No. 8 and the Cardinals are ranked No. 9. The Cowboys are the big question mark, ranked at No. 26.

10. My favorite matchups

Most of the great passing attacks are still in the playoffs, and that means cornerback-wide receiver matchups are critical.

The Jets' Darrelle Revis has held some of the best receivers in check this year, but now gets to face the Chargers' Vincent Jackson. The Saints' Jabari Greer is back from injury just in time to match up with the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald. When the Saints have the ball, the Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has to handle Marques Colston. The Ravens' Dwan Landry will face the Colts' Dallas Clark.

All of these receivers will be targeted more than 10, times and these defenders must to be up to the challenge.

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