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Countdown: O-lines have their hands full
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Dallas at Minnesota, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR : This game features the best two pass-rushing teams left in the playoffs, and whoever rattles the opposing quarterback’s cage the most probably wins this game. The Cowboys appear to have the edge because Minnesota’s offensive tackles, Bryant McKinnie and rookie Phil Loadholt, are huge guys who have struggled in the past with physical speed rushers, and they will see a lot of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
The one thing Vikings QB Brett Favre can do is go to a three-step drop and get rid of the ball quickly on slants to Sidney Rice and short flares to Percy Harvin. With the Cowboys' Mike Jenkins playing so well at cornerback, look for Favre to attack Orlando Scandrick, the Dallas nickel back, in passing situations. And if Favre gets time, he will attack the deep middle beyond the linebackers and in front of the safeties. That’s the hole in the Dallas defense. If the Vikings can get the passing game going, it should make
The Cowboys’ first order of defensive business is to stop the run and force Favre into third-and-long situations. You can also bet that the Cowboys will be looking to strip Peterson (he lost six fumbles on the season) to create a turnover. Peterson also led the league with 18 TDs. Dallas would love the game to play out this way because their front four in nickel situations has been dominant during their four-game winning streak. In the basic defense, Vikings center John Sullivan is too light to handle Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff and he’ll need help from the guards.
On the flip side, the Cowboys need to run the ball with Marion Barber, who's nursing a knee injury, and home run hitter Felix Jones in order to slow down Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. If they need extra blocking help, look for TE Martellus Bennett to help against Allen. Finally, Tony Romo grew up idolizing Favre while playing high school football in Wisconsin. Romo has had a penchant of taking risks with the football when under pressure. He hasn’t been doing that during the winning streak. In fact, last week he had a potential interception nullified by instant replay and given his luck, the Cowboys continued on that possession to score a touchdown.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Not only is Wade Phillips safe, but it looks like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones could give him a two-year extension once the dust settles on this season. It makes total sense because Jones is committed to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett for two more seasons and Jones knows how unpredictable the coaching situation league-wide is 2011. There are reports that 80 percent of the league’s assistant coaches don’t have contracts for 2011, when there might be either a strike or a lockout if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t signed.
One of the moves that sealed the deal for Phillips was that Jones allowed him to hire Paul Pasqualoni, who was fired last week in Miami, to replace defensive line coach Todd Grantham, who accepted a job to be the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia. The Cowboys practiced all week with artificial crowd noise to prepare for today’s game. Of course, most Cowboys will tell you the loudest crowd they’ve ever played in front was in New Orleans earlier this season when they knocked the Saints from the ranks of the unbeaten on Dec. 19.
The Vikings, whose Metrodome lease expires after the 2011 season, are still no closer to getting a new stadium deal. Plus, the team and the Minnesota authorities are pretty far apart, and that’s why the Vikings continue to be mentioned as a potential franchise on the move. Flozell Adams has been fined $80,000 for some of his cheap-shot antics on game days, but he’s been flagged only two times in the last five games. None of them were false starts.
This is the third time in the Vikings’ history that they went unbeaten at home. The last time, in 1998 when they finished 15-1, they lost the NFC Championship game at home to the Falcons. The Cowboys’ 33 postseason victories are the most in NFL history, a curious number — considering last week’s win was their first in 13 years. Favre was asked about Kurt Warner possibly retiring, and his response, basically poking fun at himself, was: “Waffling? Is he waffling?”
N.Y. Jets at San Diego, 4:40 ET
One matchup key will be Jets safety Kerry Rhodes against San Diego’s top receiver, TE Antonio Gates, who had 79 catches on the season with eight TDs. The Chargers had eight players catch a touchdown pass from Rivers this season. Conversely, the Jets are going to bank on what got them this far: their No. 1 rushing attack and that top-rated defense. The Jets will be able to run on the Chargers, who allowed 117 yards a game during the season, but can they sustain long drives and keep Rivers off the field?
The Jets have a great 1-2 punch of Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene, who gained 139 yards and scored a TD against the Bengals. The Chargers, who are pretty healthy on defense, believe they can contain New York’s running game. If so, they believe they can coax some poor throws and potential turnovers with a lot of pressure on rookie QB Mark Sanchez. The Chargers have won 11 straight games, and they want to take advantage of that momentum. However, the franchise did lose two first-round home playoff games this decade — to the Patriots in 2006 and to the Jets in 2004. The loss to the Patriots cost former coach Marty Schottenheimer his job. Jets punter Steve Weatherford (heart condition) has been cleared to kick today.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Chargers are still working toward a long-term extension with head coach Norv Turner, who just finished third in the voting for AP’s Coach of the Year. His contract may be based on the new deal for Brad Childress; however, Childress’ deal is really more backloaded to get into the $4 million range.
When Sanchez was struggling during a stretch where the Jets lost six of seven games, the coaches came up with the bright idea of placing color codes on certain passing plays — like red for "be extra careful," yellow for "caution" and green for "go ahead and take a chance." It sounds hilarious, but it made sense to the Jets, who believed that Sanchez was reckless with the football at the end of games, taking too many big chances and losing games.
He bounced back for a rookie, but mainly because the Jets were pounding people with the running game. If they get behind today by 10 points or so, will the Jets allow Sanchez to air it out? “If we have to play that way, I think Mark would be fine,” said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who took his name out of consideration for the Buffalo coaching vacancy. “I think Mark has gotten to the point where he understands that he’s just got to go through his progressions. He’s not forcing the ball like he was earlier in this season.”
Another key is that WR Braylon Edwards is still dropping the ball; he dropped a potential 41-yard TD last week in Cincinnati. Chargers RB Darren Sproles needs 51 yards to become the quickest player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career all-purpose yards in the postseason in his sixth game.