NFL Nation: 09 div debate

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and John Clayton

This is a debate on Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh. We will tackle topics on the game. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson will debate the side of the Chargers and senior writer John Clayton will debate the side of the Steelers.

Here we go:

Which quarterback will have a bigger impact?

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Philip Rivers and the Chargers ride a five-game winning streak into Pittsburgh Sunday.

Bill Williamson: John, it's going to be San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL and Rivers is one of the hottest players in the league. He's playing out of his mind. Why shouldn't he? It's the playoffs and Rivers is a late-season player.

Rivers, taken seven picks higher than Roethlisberger, has developed into one of the great late-season players. He is 14-0 in December games and he is 3-2 in the postseason. While Indianapolis' Peyton Manning got his numbers Saturday night, it was Rivers who led the Chargers to 10 points in the final minute of regulation and in overtime.

Rivers is a big-game player. Yes, Big Ben has his Super Bowl ring and he knows how to get it done in the clutch as well. But Rivers is red hot. His statistics far surpass Roethlisberger's numbers in 2008. Rivers is playing with a purpose. He is a fantastic leader. He will not be intimidated by the vaunted Pittsburgh defense or the miserable weather. Rivers has willed the Chargers to victory during this five-game win streak, and there's no reason not to think Rivers won't do it again, Mr. Clayton.

John Clayton: Billy, you can throw me all the stats you want, but Ben Roethlisberger was the first of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 draft to go to the Super Bowl and win, beating Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to the punch. The 14-0 December stat is nice, but Roethlisberger did get the field goal drive to beat Rivers in Pittsburgh this year. He's a big-time player in big-time games. Rivers is a quarterback who is learning the playoffs. Last year, he learned how to win a playoff game, beating the Titans. Roethlisberger is one of the best in football in the final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He has a presence in those situations that is one of the best in football. He has a strong arm that doesn't have problems in windy conditions. I'm not going to make a pick in this game, but Roethlisberger has the edge during his career in one key stat -- wins. He's 51-20 during the regular season and he's done it against tough schedules. Drew Brees has better stats than both those guys, but don't bet against Roethlisberger in the final four minutes of any game.

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 US Presswire
 Tennessee's Kerry Collins has a considerable advantage in experience over Baltimore's Joe Flacco in Saturday's playoff game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky and John Clayton

We're pleased to have special guest John Clayton join us at the AFC South blog to engage in a dialogue/debate focused on Saturday's Ravens-Titans playoff game in Nashville.

So without further ado ...

Who's most likely to find a big play?

Paul Kuharsky: Well, JC, it's hard to steer away from Ed Reed on this question, but because I think that's exactly what Kerry Collins is going to do, I'll go a different direction. In the regular-season matchup, receiver Brandon Jones managed a 26-yard catch for the game's long play. This time around I think the Titans will remain dedicated to the run long enough that rookie running back Chris Johnson will break off something significant somewhere along the way. The one thing -- besides the Ravens' stifling run defense, of course -- that could work against the fastest player in this game is a wet track and there is the potential for rain or snow flurries at the conclusion of a wet week in Nashville.

John Clayton: You're in Nashville so you can better monitor the track than me, but the early forecasts are for the temperature to be around 32 degrees and the sun to be out. Naturally, when you mention big play, Reed registers on pop-up screens and in everyone's minds. But I will offer one big-play guy whom you've been touting all season -- Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan. He was among the best interceptors at cornerback this season with five. As it did in the first Titans-Ravens game, the Titans' defensive line will try to force Joe Flacco out of the pocket and get him to throw on the run. The two picks in the first Titans-Ravens game hurt the Ravens. Finnegan could be the big-play man for the Titans.

 
 Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
 Home-field advantage doesn't mean as much during the divisional round of the playoffs.

How much will home field matter?

JC: The Titans have one of the best home-field advantages in the league, but home field in the divisional round has been a 50-50 proposition. From 2005 through 2007, home teams in the divisional round are 6-6. The problem isn't the home field. The problem is the bye week. Playoff teams coming off the bye week aren't used to the speed of the divisional games in the first quarters. Titans safety Chris Hope has been warning the Titans about that for two weeks. He saw it happen in Pittsburgh when he was on that Steelers 15-1 team in 2004. Bye weeks are great for getting teams healthy, but these wild-card teams are talented and dangerous. The Ravens showed how dangerous they are in Miami last week and might be able to do the same Saturday. As you know, the Ravens-Titans series is a good one. The teams don't like each other. The Titans went to Baltimore and pulled out a close victory. It wouldn't surprise me if the Ravens give the Titans plenty of problems.

PK: It's also true that while the field formerly known as Adelphia Coliseum was an absolutely raucous venue back in 1999 and 2000, it's overrated as a tough place to play these days, at least in terms of noise and crowd impact. Back on Dec. 21 in a huge game against Pittsburgh with the AFC's No. 1 seed on the line, 10 to 15 percent of the 69,143 ticketholders at the Titans' home field either switched allegiances or sold their tickets to people dressed in gold and black and waving Terrible Towels. If the Titans start well, they'll certainly get an energy boost. But Collins has been a slow starter this season and Nashville is nervous about this game -- how could it not be when it ponders the eerie similarity between this and the divisional-round game on Jan. 7, 2001, when the No. 1-seeded Titans won virtually every statistical category, but watched the Ravens make the big plays and roll to a stunning 24-10 win? If these Ravens make a big play early and quiet the crowd, they could enjoy a significant edge.

Will Collins' experience trump Flacco's inexperience?

PK: Although Collins has a lot of detractors, he is the easy answer here. He shook off a poor start -- he had a 13.5 first-half passer rating -- in the Titans' regular-season win in Baltimore, and although all his postseason experience hasn't been good experience, he's got an awful lot more than Flacco. This season, Collins has been willing to check down or throw the ball away on a bad play and quickly turn to the next one. Titans fans shouldn't bemoan any balls he slings out of bounds, because holding on to it an extra second could produce a big-play sack or trying to thread the needle could result in Reed winding his way to the end zone with a pick return. Both quarterbacks will try to be careful, but I suspect Flacco will be the more likely to make the big mistake.

JC: Flacco looked like a rookie in the first meeting against the Titans. He doesn't look like a rookie now. Unflappable seems to be the word that is associated with him. No team runs the ball more than the Ravens. They averaged 37 carries a game during the regular season. He  reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger during Big Ben's rookie season. I'm not going write him off as the one who will make the mistakes. The key for him is not being flushed out of the pocket. If he's flushed out to the right, I bet you he'll throw a pick. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron won't let him do that. You have to admit that both quarterbacks had some of the best coaching in the league. Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger made all the right moves with Collins. As good as the Titans' defense is, I think the Ravens have the better chance of taking away the run, and if that happens, it might give Collins more opportunities to make mistakes than Flacco.

 
 Larry French/Getty Images
 The Giants and Eagles split their regular-season series, with Philadelphia taking the latest matchup on Dec. 7.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

The Eagles and Giants will participate in what could be one of the best NFC divisional playoff matchups in years. And that's just one of the reasons I plan to file 67 blog entries on the game before Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

The Eagles are talking about being the New York Giants of 2007, and they appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. The Giants are also hoping to be the Giants of 2007 -- albeit from a different starting point.

Podcast: Football Today
Jeremy Green talks NFC playoffs with Matt Mosley, those dangerous wild-card teams with Len Pasquarelli and reacts to the latest coaching news.

In the past, we've staged debates with award-winning writers such as Pat Yasinskas (NFC South) and James Walker (AFC North). For this week's debate, we racked our (immense) brains for the perfect foe. Recognizable names such as Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann and New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers were early candidates, but they didn't have the proper blog software. In the end, we chose the one man at ESPN.com who really seems to get me:

Me.

So let the debate begin:

Will the bye week help or hurt the mighty Giants?

Matt Mosley: The Giants used last season's regular-season finale against the Patriots to jump-start their Super Bowl run. This year, the Giants already knew they would have the bye heading into the last game against the Vikings. Tom Coughlin wisely rested Eli Manning and some of his key players in the second half, so the last-second loss didn't really affect the team's psyche.

Coughlin did a nice job of having some full-speed workouts during the bye week to try to keep the team's physical edge. Mentally, the Week 16 win over the Panthers did wonders for this team. On paper, you see that the Giants have lost three of their past four games. But that's not something they see as an issue. With a healthy Brandon Jacobs, this offense takes on a much more physical identity. He'll give the Giants the edge they didn't have against the Eagles in a loss in the Meadowlands on Dec. 7. This team will come out fresh and the combination of Jacobs and Derrick Ward will be a lot for the Eagles' defense to handle.

Mosley: The Eagles might be the most dangerous team in the playoffs right now. They weren't supposed to be here, and that seems to have a calming effect on the team. Yes, the team is banged up right now, but the players seem to be in a nice rhythm. As Andy Reid was quick to point out Monday, recent trends show that the first-round bye isn't quite as beneficial as we once thought. The Cowboys certainly clocked out early last season and the Eagles are hoping to do that to the Giants.

The Eagles don't have any reason to be tight going into this game. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is playing some of the best football of his career and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson loves facing this offense without Plaxico Burress. And that leads us to our next topic.

 Ready for a repeat
 NFL.com Video
 Relive the Giants' journey to the NFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs as they look to repeat.

How much of a role will Plaxico Burress' absence play in this game?

Mosley: Though he might not admit it, Johnson can be a lot more creative with his blitz packages when Burress is out. It allows him to play a lot of man coverage and there's not as much pressure on his short cornerbacks. That played a big role in the Eagles' 20-14 win over the Giants last month. At 6-foot-5, Burress required constant attention from the Eagles, and he'd put up great numbers against them over the past seven or eight games. He had four 100-yard games and was a constant threat in the red zone. Johnson would've put Asante Samuel on Burress and then shaded a safety over the top. He won't need to do that against Burress' replacement, Domenik Hixon.

It also allows Johnson to sell out to stop the Giants' running game. Did you see how they turned everything back inside on Adrian Peterson in the second half last Sunday? Against Brandon Jacobs, they'll try to never let him get a head of steam. And with big Victor Abiamiri possibly returning to the lineup, the Eagles have the type of run defense that can give the Giants problems.

Matt Mosley: The Giants have had plenty of time to adjust to life without Burress. After a shaky start, Hixon has settled down and he's making plays again. Hixon's explosive in his own right, and Eli Manning thinks the Giants can exploit the Eagles' blitz. If the Giants can protect Man
ning, he'll have a chance to make some big plays in the passing game. The absence of Burress also has allowed tight end Kevin Boss to become more of a factor. He was an afterthought early in the season, but now he gives Manning another reliable target in the red zone. Burress wasn't putting up great numbers before he was suspended and put on the non-football injury list. Tom Coughlin doesn't believe in excuses and that's why his team has moved on without Burress.

 
 Evan Pinkus/Getty Images
 Brian Westbrook had over 200 total yards and two TDs in the Eagles win over the Giants in December.

Will the Giants allow Eagles running back Brian Westbrook to exploit them again?

Matt Mosley: When Westbrook exploded for a huge game against the Giants in the Meadowlands last month, Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce was coming off an emotional couple of days. He'd met with the New York police to discuss his role in Burress' accidental shooting, and that had to serve as a distraction. Coughlin said Monday that the Giants simply called the wrong defensive play when Pierce got matched up with Westbrook one-on-one on a little wheel route that resulted in a long touchdown. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will make sure that doesn't happen again. He will know where Westbrook is at all times, and you'll see 11 guys running to the ball. Some teams like to allow Westbrook to catch the short ones and then surround him with defenders. You just can't allow one of those screens that helped bring down the Vikings.

Mosley: The Eagles want to get Westbrook at least 25 touches Sunday -- and that's a conservative estimate. He banged away at the Giants' defensive line for 33 carries in that December game. Reid blamed the uncharacteristic game plan on high winds inside Giants Stadium, and I'm sure some Eagles fans are hoping for similar conditions. But both of these teams are used to playing in the elements. It will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes.

Both quarterbacks do a nice job of limiting their mistakes, although Manning has the edge in that category. And one last thing: This game could come down to a special-teams play. The Giants blocked a David Akers field goal and returned it for a touchdown in the last game. And keep your eye on DeSean Jackson in the return game. The rookie was a huge part of Sunday's win over the Vikings. If Jeff Feagles outkicks his coverage or if the unit allows any type of seam, Jackson will make them pay. The Eagles have the edge on special teams because of Jackson.

How long will it take Andy Reid to abandon the run?

Mosley: Reid at least made a good-faith effort to run the ball against the Vikings. And though the Eagles didn't have a lot of success on the ground, it allowed them to help control clock and keep Adrian Peterson off the field. In the Eagles' nine wins, running back Brian Westbrook has averaged 18.9 attempts and nearly 80 yards per game. He's averaged 4.2 yards per carry and picked up six rushing touchdowns. In the team's six losses (and the tie), Westbrook barely averaged over three yards per carry. And Reid only called 13 runs a game in those losses. It seems pretty simple that more attempts seem to translate to more success, but Reid's a stubborn man. Still, I think he'll be smart enough to stay with the running game in the frigid Meadowlands on Sunday.

Matt Mosley: It's hilarious that people now think Reid's found religion in running the ball. He's still going to end up throwing the ball about 65 percent of the time. In the West Coast offense, he thinks you should aim for a 60-40 pass-to-rush ratio, but that's not Reid. The funny thing is that Reid admitted in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer last week that he used to become frustrated as an offensive lineman at BYU when Lavell Edwards refused to run the ball. Now, he's the one causing the frustration. The criticism is that Reid abandons the run if the first three carries or so don't yield any significant yardage. That's actually a fair criticism. But in the Meadowlands last month, Westbrook gained nine yards on his first eight carries. Reid stuck with him and he ended up with 133 yards on 33 carries. Will Reid have that type of patience Sunday? Well, a lot of it will depend on what the wind is doing.

I encourage you to join the debate in the comments section. I'll be in there a little later.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas dropped by for a little pregame debate heading into the Cardinals-Panthers divisional playoff game Saturday. We chose the topics and we invite you to pull up a chair and join us in discussing which team has the advantage in certain areas.

Warner Delhomme
Q. Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme are the two best undrafted quarterbacks of our time. Both have been to the Super Bowl and held up over time. Which veteran quarterback would you rather have right now?

Pat Yasinskas: I'll take Delhomme because he is what he is. He's the perfect quarterback in Carolina's system and that system is working to perfection right now. That means the Panthers are back to being a running team. There's not a lot of pressure on Delhomme and that's when he's at his best and most dangerous. Since defenses have to worry so much about the running game, Delhomme can look for Steve Smith in a good matchup. Sometimes Smith in double coverage is a good matchup. As long as Delhomme can get Smith the ball seven or eight times, he'll be in great shape.

Warner's had a very nice season. But I think, with Arizona's system and receivers, any NFL quarterback (except Matt Leinart) could have put up those same numbers. Warner's old and not even close to what he was early this decade when he was a product of the system in "The Greatest Show on Turf."

  Roaring to the playoffs
  NFL.com Video
  Look back at the sights and sounds of the Panthers' ride to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Mike Sando: Delhomme should have the advantage backed by the home crowd and that rock-solid running game, but Warner is clearly the better fit for the Cardinals' wide-open passing game. And there's no way "any NFL quarterback" but Matt Leinart could match Warner's numbers in this system. Warner's numbers hold up against the best numbers in NFL history. That makes him more than just a product of the system. The Cardinals couldn't run this offense in its 2008 form with most quarterbacks.

Warner is highly accurate and his experience helps him get rid of the football before he takes sacks. Delhomme finished this season with 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Trent Edwards and Seneca Wallace had higher ratings. Warner had 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions in third quarters alone. And he did it without a single Pro Bowl player on his offensive line and virtually no help from the running game.

In watching Warner every week, it's clear he can play at an MVP level within this offense. He just needs protection and a little help with play selection to win in the playoffs.

The better teams started getting to Warner late in the regular season. The Cardinals fell in love with their four-receiver offense at the expense of a running game, and it caught up to them a little bit, in my view. Warner started looking a little older. The pressure of the opposing pass rush, coupled with the pressure of carrying the offense, seemed to wear on Warner, revealing his age.

The emergence of a running threat over the last two games has helped Warner stabilize his play. I have no problem siding with Warner in this matchup based on his performance against Carolina in Week 8, his success in past playoffs (6-2 postseason record as a starter) and the security blanket he enjoys in Larry Fitzgerald.

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