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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Rodgers, Manning won the hard way

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers each had to win a Super Bowl the hard way, as a wild-card team going against the odds, stringing together four consecutive victories on the road.

On Sunday, they will square off in a test of hot quarterbacks. Rodgers is expected to be named the league's MVP after a season in which he led the Packers to a 15-1 record. Manning has been the league's best fourth-quarter thrower and pulled the Giants out of a late-season slump to win the NFC East.

Rodgers holds the advantage for several reasons. First, he's at home. Second, his offense is loaded, particularly since the return of wide receiver Greg Jennings, who recovered from a knee injury. Third, it will be cold -- although the cold weather won't affect Manning as much as it might Drew Brees, who plays in a dome.

Manning and the Giants proved late in the season that their offense can stay with the Packers. Their 38-35 classic in New York showed that Manning can match Rodgers. But there is no guarantee this will be the same type of game.

As much as the Giants might dwell on losing to the Packers by only three points earlier this season, they were blown out by Rodgers and the Packers last season, 45-17. Of course, Manning still remembers beating an aging Brett Favre in Lambeau in the NFC title game in 2007, which put the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Forecasters predict wind chills in the teens, and that will affect both quarterbacks. Manning goes from a 58.4 percent thrower to 52.3 in the 16 games he's played in temperatures below 40 degrees. He has 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in those games.

On the flip side, Rodgers is a 64.8 percent thrower in sub-40 temperatures and has 35 touchdown passes in those 16 games. Both quarterbacks play in cold-weather stadiums, but Rodgers has the advantage.

Here are the 10 things to look at during the divisional round of the playoffs.

1. Don't underestimate the advantage of being at home: Rodgers and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens each have won four playoff games on the road in recent years. Winning a playoff game is tough. Winning it on the road is tougher. Expect crazy, loud atmospheres in Baltimore and Green Bay. For Packers fans, this is the first playoff home game for Rodgers. The last playoff game in Lambeau was when Manning beat Favre. Four years of anticipation should add extra energy. For Ravens fans, this is their first home playoff game since 2006, when Brian Billick was the coach and Steve McNair was the quarterback.

2. Unusual year for quarterbacks in the AFC: For years, the AFC was spoiled by rich quarterback talent. The playoffs normally set up for Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Rivers and Roethlisberger are eliminated and Manning is recovering from neck surgery, which leaves Brady and Flacco as the only top quarterbacks left in the AFC playoffs. Will they meet in a championship game or will the Pats be upset by Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos? Will Flacco be upset by rookie T.J. Yates of the Texans? The NFL is noted for being a quarterback-driven league. The better the quarterback, the better the chances of getting to the Super Bowl. Look at the NFC. Three of the best quarterbacks -- Rodgers, Brees and Eli Manning -- are in the NFC final four. The divisional round will be a test of the direction the NFL is heading. Houston and Denver are running teams. San Francisco is a running team trying to beat Brees' record-setting passing offense. As the New York Jets have shown, a running offense can go only so far. They lost to Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger in consecutive championship games.

3. Coming out of the dome to play: Much is rightfully being made about the change in the Saints' play when they are outside. At home in the Superdome, the Saints average 41.1 points a game and Drew Brees throws for 326.8 yards and 3.6 touchdown passes a game. There is a two-touchdown drop-off to 27.25 points a game on the road. Brees actually throws for more yards on the road (342.3) and 2.12 touchdown passes a game. Playing in San Francisco shouldn't be such a climate change, but it poses a problem for the Saints' offense. The field can be slick, and pass-catchers could slip when running routes. That could affect Brees' timing when he throws to spots against zone defenses. Brees also hasn't had a game in which he has thrown fewer than 41 passes. As Brees found out at home, it's better to keep attempts under 40 to promote better balance between the pass and run. When quarterbacks throw more than 40 passes a game, the winning percentages usually drop. Brees was 5-3 in road games this season, winning two of three played in domes. He was 8-0 at home. As a franchise, the Saints are 0-4 in road playoff games. Brees wants to change that.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith and the 49ers need touchdowns -- not field goals -- to match up with the Saints.
4. Settling for field goals: For the 49ers to beat the Saints on Saturday, their defense has to limit Brees to field-goal drives. The 49ers also can't afford to settle for field goals themselves, which has been a staple of this team. Kicker David Akers set an NFL record by making 44 of 52 field goal attempts. Alex Smith produced only 30 touchdown drives in 198 offensive possessions. His problem was in the red zone. The 49ers were the league's third-worst team in the red zone, scoring 22 touchdowns in 54 trips. Brees produced 44 touchdowns in 75 trips into the red zone. What the 49ers can't afford is a game in which they produce field goal drives and the Saints get touchdowns.

5. Brady understands the pressure: Here's a strange stat: Tebow has won more playoff games than Tom Brady in the past couple of years. Brady knows he needs to change that Saturday night against the Broncos. Brady enters Saturday with a three-game losing playoff streak dating to the Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2007. Teams such as the Giants, Ravens and Jets found ways to slow Brady's offense. The plan normally is to use man-to-man defense against the Pats. Although the Pats have plenty of weapons, they lack speed. If the defender slows down pass-catchers getting into routes, Brady has to be more patient. If defenders get around his feet, he tends to force throws and get uncomfortable. In his first 16 playoff games, Brady was 14-2, completed 62.3 percent of his passes, averaged 6.7 yards a throw and had 25 touchdown passes. In his past three, he completed 60 percent of his passes and had only 5.3 yards an attempt. In those three losses, he had only five touchdown passes and four interceptions. The Broncos have the ability to play man-to-man with their corners, but they have holes at safety and could have trouble matching up against tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

6. Tebow's date with destiny: Tebow's game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass to beat the Steelers last week was one of the more memorable plays in playoff history. But can he repeat it? NFL history shows the difficulty of pulling off two victories such as that. The Broncos won the AFC West with an 8-8 record and had home-field advantage over the Steelers. But no team in NFL history has won two playoff games without having a winning record. Although the Patriots are challenged for defensive talent, Bill Belichick is still a master of coming up with good game plans. The Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs laid out a good strategy against Tebow. They played press man-to-man and tried to give Tebow small windows to get completions. By playing man, they could put seven or eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to contain the run. The other key for the Patriots will be getting a big lead as early as possible. In their meeting in Denver this season, the Pats sent extra rushers on 10 of 17 dropbacks for Tebow in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Tebow was able to complete only one of six passes for 15 yards.

Joe Flacco
Will a strong playoff performance quiet Joe Flacco's rising chorus of critics?
7. The flak about Flacco: Thanks to Flacco's strong arm and presence in the pocket, the Ravens have made the playoffs four consecutive years and Flacco has won four games. Yet those accomplishments still leave Flacco a target for critics. This season, his numbers seem off. He had his first sub-60 percent completion season, falling off to 57.6 percent. He had 12 interceptions and 11 fumbles, and his touchdown passes dropped from 25 to 20. Despite a great running attack led by Ray Rice, fewer play-action passes were called this season. After leading the league in play-action passes for the past three season, the Ravens offense dropped to 22nd. The lack of big downfield plays dropped Flacco's yards-per-attempt from 7.4 to 6.7.

8. Yips for Yates: The rookie managed a solid game against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. This week, the challenge will be tougher. He's a rookie quarterback with a left shoulder separation going into what will be a loud Baltimore stadium. Even worse, he will be facing a wild Ravens blitz. The Ravens blitz 36.4 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Yates was sacked once every 6.3 times he dropped back when five or more defenders came after him, second worst in football. Only Caleb Hanie of the Bears was worse. Yates relies on the Arian Foster-led running attack, but when he's forced to pass, he will be blitzed.

9. Giant steps forward with the running game: One of the keys for the Giants has been the return of the running game. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs struggled with injuries during the regular season, and the offensive line struggled with its blocking. The Giants averaged 89.2 yards rushing during the regular season. The Giants rushed for 172 yards last week against the Falcons. Jacobs is running more physically. Bradshaw has managed to work around a broken bone in his foot. The injury has prevented him from breaking longer runs, but the running offense overall has made progress.

10. Did the Chiefs figure out a plan for the Packers? In the late-season Chiefs victory over the Packers, Kansas City used press man-to-man, and it caused problems for the Packers. The return of Jennings will cause problems for the Giants cornerbacks. So will the field. Given the cold weather, there might be areas in which corners might not have the right footing and could slip. Rodgers has cooled down. He completed 72.9 percent of his passes for 318.8 yards a game during his first nine games. In his past six games, his completion percentage dropped off to 61.8 and his yardage fell to 295.7 a game. Don't read much into that. Rodgers was able to rest in the season finale and during the bye. He's fresh, so his numbers should rise.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.