More Carter: Divisional playoff previews
In recent weeks, there have been constant conversations about the depth on the AFC side of the playoffs. To put that in perspective, the tandems of Peyton Manning/Tony Dungy and Tom Brady/Bill Belichick are the underdogs going into this weekend's divisional round matchups. Wow!
There are also some great story lines in the NFC, including the New Orleans Saints hosting a playoff game in the same facility that served as a shelter more than a year ago following Hurricane Katrina.
Unfortunately, injuries will also be a big story during the postseason, so I'll break down what impact ailments could have on each contest during the divisional round.
Even if safety Bob Sanders (knee) plays, the Indianapolis Colts face a major challenge trying to slow down the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday. Indy did an incredible job shutting down the run against the Chiefs last weekend, but I don't see that happening again. But if they're going to come anywhere close to having an encore performance, Sanders must play. You always hear, "the next guy will have to step up," but the talent level between that player and the next is generally pretty drastic.
From the Ravens' standpoint, I believe they'll attack the perimeter and not allow Indianapolis to play nine men close to the line of scrimmage. You need all of your weapons in the playoffs, especially when you go on the road, so Sanders' presence is important. But in the long run, I'm not sure the Colts have what it takes to knock off Baltimore.
Saints' receiving corps
When you consider the Saints' various weapons and the way coach Sean Payton was able to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically this season, you realize the team won't really miss wide receiver Joe Horn (groin) if he's sidelined. It would be a different case if he was healthy all season and was suddenly hurt, but he missed the final four games of the regular season, so New Orleans has had time to adjust.
The injury to cornerback Lito Sheppard (broken finger), who has already been ruled out, is the most substantial of this round. It affects the play calling of coordinator Jim Johnson because Sheppard is good enough to play man coverage. With him out, you can't single up on his side of the field, which means it could adversely impact Johnson's ability to call blitzes.
The Seattle Seahawks are still alive in part because of bad coaching by the Cowboys last week. With three of Seattle's top cornerbacks out, I don't understand why Dallas didn't attack the secondary more. When you have wide receivers like Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn, you have to exploit a depleted secondary and force guys to make plays.
Granted the Chicago Bears' receivers aren’t as good as Dallas', but I don't expect a repeat of what we saw last week. Chicago has to go after these guys early. If not, you risk them building confidence.
Bears' defensive line
Even with everything going on off the field with Tank Johnson, the Bears' defensive line should continue to have success without tackle Tommie Harris (on injured reserve). Since their returns to the lineup, running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck haven't played great, so I don't see them as big threats to take advantage of any weaknesses the Bears might have up front.
The loss of Rodney Harrison (right knee) will have an impact on the New England Patriots against the San Diego Chargers, but I think more so in the running game than passing attack. Asante Samuel had the best season of any cornerback other than Champ Bailey, so Patriots coach Bill Belichick has the luxury of putting him against any one of those receivers. Where Harrison's loss hurts is run support.
Artrell Hawkins will fill in for Harrison, but he's more of a corner than safety. He's not the tackler that Harrison is and the Pats will need defenders to finish off plays if they’re to slow down LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers' high-octane offense.
The Patriots survived Harrison's absence last week because the Jets don't have quite the same weaponry on offense. This week, it gets a lot tougher.
BONUS: Bears' quarterback
OK, I'm not aware of any physical ailments bothering Rex Grossman, but I'm certainly curious about his mental well being right now. He appears to be very spotty.
It's important that he gets off to a quick start against the Seahawks. I know that sounds like a cliché but don't be surprised if he gets pulled if he struggles going into halftime.