Sports At Phila. Front Page News; Playoffs preview: Questions abound for all 12 contenders
1. Is Steve Smith the best clutch receiver?
While the Carolina Panthers' impressive backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart considers itself "Double Trouble," the go-to player in tough times is still the 5-9 wide receiver who calls himself "Little Playmaker." Without Smith's leaping, 39-yard catch on the game-winning field goal drive at the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers are likely in the wild-card round rather than recharging with a bye. Despite a two-game suspension to start the season, Smith ranked third in the NFL with 1,421 receiving yards on 78 catches — which equates to a career-high 18.2 yards a catch and a major headache for defenses needing to account for him while trying to stuff the league's No. 3 rushing game. Sunday's big catch was just the latest example of Smith's tendency to produce in the most critical situations. Chances are he has something left for January.
2. Are the Eagles flirting with destiny?
The New York Giants won last season's Super Bowl as the NFC's fifth seed. Three years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled to a title as a sixth seed. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles are thinking big after claiming a sixth seed. Philadelphia won four of its last five games, since Donovan McNabb was benched at the Baltimore Ravens. Besides the Giants, the Eagles are the only team in the playoffs with top-10 units on both offense and defense. While much hinges on McNabb, coaches have relied more on the 22nd-ranked rushing game in recent weeks. After calling more passes than rushes in their first 11 games, the Eagles have more rushing attempts than passes in three of the last five outings.
3. Will LaDainian Tomlinson win a Super Bowl?
The miles are adding up for the San Diego Chargers' star running back, whose eighth NFL season has been his most physically challenging. Tomlinson, whose 292 rushes and 1,110 yards are career lows, started the season with a toe injury. He left Sunday night's win against the Denver Broncos with three TDs — and a groin injury that raises concern about his playoff readiness. Tomlinson expects to play in the opener against the Indianapolis Colts. But the latest injury is a reminder of how Tomlinson sat idle for all but a handful of plays in the AFC title game at the New England Patriots last January because of a sprained knee. Even so, the resilient Chargers — the first team to make the playoffs after starting 4-8 — seem less dependent on L.T. than they did in the past. No team in the playoff field scored more points in 2008 than San Diego (439), an achievement that vouches for the growth of quarterback Philip Rivers, who carried the offense this season.
4. What trick plays might the Dolphins have?
In becoming the second team in NFL history to post a 10-game improvement from the previous season, the Miami Dolphins added spice to their remarkable rise with the use of their unpredictable "Wildcat" formation. On 91 Wildcat snaps, Miami averaged 6.4 yards a play and scored eight TDs. This was essential production for a team that scored the fewest points (345) of any team in the playoff field. Still, new tricks might be needed to outfox Baltimore's defense Sunday. In a Week 7 game at Miami, Baltimore allowed a grand total of 4 yards on five Wildcat snaps.
5. Is anybody hotter than Peyton Manning?
Two months ago, the Colts quarterback was in the midst of arguably his worst start to a season since his rookie year — a lingering effect from offseason knee surgery. His timing, rhythm, balance and leg strength were out of whack as Indianapolis stumbled to a 3-4 start. Now the Colts have an NFL-long nine-game winning streak and Manning is expected to win a record-tying third MVP Award. An ultimate test comes at San Diego and its 3-4 defense. Manning threw a career-high six interceptions at San Diego last year. And besides stopping the Colts' bid for a perfect season in 2005, the Chargers knocked Indianapolis out of last season's playoffs.
6. Is Edgerrin James the secret weapon?
The Arizona Cardinals are the fifth team in league history to field three 1,000-yard targets (Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston) in a season. But being one-dimensional is a tough ticket in January. To advance deep, Arizona will need to run the football with authority at some point — for a tough yard on third-and-short, to milk the clock or to deal with outdoor elements. That's where James, who lost his starting job to rookie Tim Hightower (2.8 yards a carry) in midseason, might play a key role. The Cardinals had three 100-yard rushing games this season, and two came from James. After riding the bench for much of the season and logging a career-low 133 rushes, his legs should be fresh enough.
7. Have the Giants lost too much momentum?
After rolling to an 11-1 start, the Giants lost three of their final four games. That's no reason to panic. The Giants bring the NFL's No. 1 rushing game and a seventh-ranked defense. And with a top seed secured, Tom Coughlin rested key starters such as Eli Manning and bread-and-butter back Brandon Jacobs for much if not all of the regular-season finale. Still, there is no comfort zone. The Giants have been beatable of late. They needed a furious second-half rally and overtime to beat Carolina in Week 16, and the offense was dreadful in back-to-back losses to the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Even with Jacobs back in the flow, the residual effect of the Plaxico Burress self-inflicted gunshot wound lingers. Domenik Hixon doesn't force the double coverage that Burress consistently drew, allowing another defender key on the running game. The Giants embraced their underdog status during the last postseason. To become the fourth repeat champion in 16 years, they are looking to avoid upset traps.
8. Can the Ravens win with a rookie QB?
Defense has been the Ravens' calling card for years. And with Ray Lewis, ballhawking safety Ed Reed and creative coordinator Rex Ryan in tow, that identity hasn't changed under first-year coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore led the league with 34 takeaways. Still, there's more playoff mettle to prove with the offense guided by a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco. The Atlanta Falcons can relate. Flacco and Atlanta's Matt Ryan are the first rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to start all 16 games and lead their teams to the playoffs. But since 1970, rookie quarterbacks are 2-6 in playoff games. Support from strong rushing attacks help. Baltimore and Atlanta ranked 1-2 for rushing attempts (592 and 560) and tied for 29th with 27.1 passing attempts a game. Even so, every quarterback is required to make a few clutch throws. In Flacco's case, he's coming off a season-high 297-yard game against the Jacksonville Jaguars accented by five completions of at least 20 yards. The NFL's fourth-ranked rushing game and No. 2 defense offer added value.
9. Will Ben Roethlisberger's concussion hurt the Steelers offense?
While carted out of Heinz Field on Sunday strapped to a stretcher, the Steelers quarterback flashed a thumbs-up. Tests were negative, and Roethlisberger checked out of the hospital without staying overnight. Yet a typical concern is that a player is more susceptible to subsequent concussions. And that's something to think about, considering the spotty protection that contributed to Roethlisberger taking 46 sacks this season, more than any other playoff-bound quarterback. Add the inconsistency of a 23rd-ranked rushing game to the mix and the best answers might exist with a No. 1 defense that has allowed a league-low 13.9 points a game.
10. Is Atlanta's defense up to the task of a championship run?
Here's a pattern that has served the Falcons well in their amazing turnaround under first-year coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan: When Atlanta has scored first this season, it is 11-0. When its opponent scores first, Atlanta is 0-5. Fast starts undoubtedly take pressure off a 24th-ranked defense that didn't have a Pro Bowler. Now the first postseason task is a tough matchup against the Cardinals' explosive offense. No defense enters the playoffs with fewer takeaways than Atlanta's unit (18). Then again, the Falcons have the league's No. 2-ranked rushing attack, propelled by the 1-2 backfield punch of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. And that can go far in controlling the clock and keeping the opposing offense off the field.
11. Should the Titans feel secure as a top seed?
Being a No. 1 seed is never a sure ticket to the Super Bowl — especially in the AFC. Never mind the much-deserved perk of home-field advantage. In playoffs dating to the 1992 season, the top seed in the AFC has advanced to the Super Bowl five times. The top-seeded Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl last season, but in the three previous seasons San Diego, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh all fell as the AFC's top seed. When the Tennessee Titans last earned the No. 1 seed for the 2000 season, they were upset by the Ravens. It's an intriguing bit of recent history worth watching — and worth a warning to the Titans, whose 10-game streak to start the season as the league's last unbeaten team was snapped with a loss at home.
12. Why is Pat Williams crucial to the Vikings' chances?
After missing two games with a broken shoulder, Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams hopes to return for the playoff opener. The stout, 317-pounder is the best run-stuffer on arguably the NFL's best defensive line. He and D-tackle mate Kevin Williams (no relation) made headlines recently for suing the NFL in a pending case over the merits of their since-tabled suspensions for using banned weight-loss supplements. They form the heart of the No. 1-ranked run defense (76.9 yards a game). And with running the football traditionally increased in the playoffs, the Vikings need the pattern to continue — which causes matchup issues that benefit pass-rusher Jared Allen (14½ sacks).