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Countdown to Kickoff: NFL Wild-card

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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The lack of a sustained running game could be problematic for Saints head coach Sean Payton, who loves to pound the ball in the playoffs in order to allow Drew Brees to use play-action passes. With the exception of rookie TE Jimmy Graham (ankle), the Saints’ receiving corps is pretty healthy with both WR Marques Colston and TE Jeremy Shockey going hard in practice this week.

Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck (strained hip) had a solid game against the Saints in a 15-point loss back in Week 11, throwing for 366 yards and a touchdown. He must continue to make quick decisions against the Saints’ controlled blitz. One problem for the Saints is that safety Darren Sharper and Usama Young may have to play more because of the kneecap injury to FS Malcolm Jenkins. New Orleans plans to focus on stopping RB Marshawn Lynch in order to force Hasselbeck to throw deep, believing that receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu can’t beat New Orleans cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter one-on-one.

Conversely, Brees plans to target Seattle CB Kelly Jennings, who was beaten in the Rams’ win a couple times, but St. Louis receivers dropped the ball. Brees, who has uncharacteristically thrown an interception in 12 consecutive games, needs to protect the ball better and spread the ball around.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Seattle has won four straight playoff games at Qwest Field. Seattle finished the regular season with an incredible 281 roster moves.

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is on John Elway’s head coaching interview list. But how serious Elway is about hiring a defensive coach when he has such a young quarterback in Tim Tebow remains to be seen. However, there is no question that Williams, the game’s highest-paid defensive coach, would love to be a head coach once again.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear Pete Carroll say he left USC because he knew the NCAA sanctions were coming and that he was worried about beating Oregon and Stanford? Who knows what next season is going to bring, but the Saints will owe Reggie Bush $11.8 in base salary, and that’s pretty steep for a utility running back. In his last game here, Bush rushed for 97 yards on 19 carries in 2007.

Remember, Hasselbeck is playing for a new contract. He’s a free-agent next season, and coach Pete Carroll hasn’t decided whether to keep him as the starter, knowing his injury history. Where this leaves Charlie Whitehurst, the hero of the Rams’ game, is anyone’s guess. Before that game, Whitehurst was considered to be expendable. He could play tonight because he runs and throws better on the run.

Seattle lost versatile offensive lineman Chester Pitts, who suffered a concussion against the Rams, and if Sean Locklear doesn’t return from dealing with family issues, that means Stacy Andrews will be starting at right tackle. The Seahawks have used 10 different offensive line combinations this season, mostly the result of No. 1 pick Russell Okung being used sparingly due to a high ankle sprain. Okung re-injured the ankle last Sunday night.

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AFC Wild-Card Playoffs: N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis, 8 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: In last year’s AFC championship game loss to the Colts, Peyton Manning was calling out in detail what every Jets defender was doing on each play prior to the snap. Manning’s knowledge of Rex Ryan’s defense kind of freaked out the Jets’ secondary, which eventually crumbled in the second half — losing 30-17 after racing to a halftime lead.

Ryan hopes to fix that terminology while also believing that he has superior coverage players in the secondary than he had last season. Last offseason, he got rid of Lito Sheppard, Donald Strickland and Kerry Rhodes in favor of Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson and Brodney Pool to go along with All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis, who will focus on Colts WR Reggie Wayne.

But to limit Manning’s possession time, the Jets must be able to run and control the clock as much as possible. Conversely, the Colts have been playing better run defense during their four-game winning streak to end the season.

But Indy's running game should be no match for the Jets defense. Even with Wilson available, Drew Coleman, who was picked on by Manning last year, will be the nickel defender for the Jets. One good thing, though, about Coleman is that he’s an excellent blitzer. He also must keep track of Colts TE Jacob Tamme, who has averaged seven catches per game over the last three games.

On the flip side, how much arm strength will Mark Sanchez have in the second half? And can he effectively challenge young Colts cornerbacks Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon, who should start for Kelvin Hayden (neck)? The Jets have some WR playmakers in Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards although TE Justin Keller has been dropping too many passes lately.

The other concern for New York is whether RT Damien Woody, who has missed the last three games, can start ahead of Wayne Hunter. The Colts can really bring the pressure with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and they will focus on Hunter if he starts.

CZAR’S SCOOP: If the Jets lose, it will be interesting to see how management responds to Ryan’s poor judgment in his and his wife’s Internet scandal. In many other cities, particularly in the Midwest, Ryan would be facing serious heat for some of the more graphic shots of his wife, Michelle.

Colts GM Bill Polian has made a lot of great personnel moves, but there was no financial way to keep defensive lineman Raheem Brock, who led the Seahawks with nine sacks this season. Brock was a tremendous situational rusher and defender for the Colts, who simply couldn’t meet his price tag in free agency. Brock’s replacement, first-round pick Jerry Hughes, has played so poorly that Polian even said he made a mistake and should have drafted OT Rodger Saffold, who was taken by the Rams atop the second round. But the biggest bust has to be Jets’ LB Vernon Gholston, who has played three full seasons without a sack.

Sanchez was limited in practice Thursday, but Ryan said his quarterback was “throwing the ball great.” Safety Jim Leonhard, who broke his right leg in practice last month and had a metal rod surgically inserted in his shin, hopes to be off crutches next week.

You can bet that with Oliver Luck saying that Peyton Manning, who opted to remain at Tennessee in hopes of winning a Heisman Trophy, talked with his son, Andrew, about remaining at Stanford instead of opting for the NFL, that Tom Condon, Manning’s agent, will invariably be brought into the discussion.

Tagged: Colts, Rams, Saints, Jets, Seahawks, Reggie Wayne, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock, Wayne Hunter, Mike Williams, Reggie Bush, Drew Coleman, Usama Young

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