The Game Plan (cont.)
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis.
Through no fault of his own, Manning will enter this divisional playoff game against the Ravens with a little bit of extra weight in his shoulder pads. The Colts chose to hand over the Week 16 game to the Jets by pulling Manning in the middle of the third quarter, then played Week 17 only to get Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne personal records, and then felt the wrath of the nation's sporting press and their local fandom because of it.
I got a Tweet last night from a Colts fan who says she's still not over the giveaway to the Jets. If the Colts were to lose against Baltimore, there'd be not only great grief over the loss, but also the biggest second-guessing over the Colts' methodology in recent playoff history. Again, that's not Manning's fault, but the brunt of the pressure in this game, particularly against an aggressive D like Baltimore's, falls on the quarterback. That plus the fact that Manning has presided over two straight first-game playoff losses (28-24 and 23-17 to San Diego in the last two Januarys) and you have some idea of what he'll be feeling Saturday night when he jogs onto Lucas Oil Field.
Ten Things I'll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Whether the real Saints come marching in. The last time their first teams were on the field, we saw New Orleans, at home, blow a 17-point lead to the woeful Bucs and lose in overtime. The offense stunk for the last 40 minutes. The home crowd will be berserk again, but we'll all be looking to see if the Saints of October show up, or the Saints of late December.
2. Coachopoly. Can the Bills find anyone who wants the head coaching job? Can the AFC East (all except the Jets) find defensive coordinators? Can Lovie Smith convince anyone he's not a dead man walking? Oh, and can the Raiders get their situation straight before March, and if they fire Tom Cable, will they hire a coach we've heard of?
3. Favre's last game? Maybe he knows, but he's known in the past and then did a 180, and even a 360 and then a 180 in the case of the Vikings last summer. The bottom line is, love him or hate his waffling, this could be the last time you ever see the conflicted great one throw a football.
4. How Darrelle Revis impacts the thinking of Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. Most interesting matchup question of the weekend. But even if the Jets put Revis head-to-head on Vincent Jackson, and even if Revis erases Jackson, what do you do about the other trees in the Chargers forest -- tight end Antonio Gates and wideouts Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd?
5. Ray Lewis. The impact Lewis is making, five months shy of his 35th birthday, is something to behold. On the first series in New England last week, he faked out the Patriots protection and shot the gap and enveloped Tom Brady -- something I bet Peyton Manning has watched 20 times this week. Manning will be ready for Lewis, and he's seen him nine times. But Lewis is just as much of a chess player as is Manning. It'll be great to watch.
6. Mark Sanchez's readiness. Get this: If Braylon Edwards had caught the ball that was right in his hands in the end zone in Cincinnati last week, Sanchez would have had a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) against the Bengals, and he would have been 13 of 15 for 223 yards, with two touchdowns. Not exactly a handicap there. Can he put a second straight efficient game together? That could depend on ...
7. Shawne Merriman's health. By the time Merriman suits up Sunday, it will have been 22 days since he played -- 22 days for his plantar fasciatis to stop barking. If he's right, that's an edge rusher the Chargers haven't had right for much of the season.
8. The breakout player. Every year there's a new star or two emerging in January. This year, my money's on Shonn Greene, the speedier alternative in the Jet running game, or Robert Meachem, the new weapon for Drew Brees. One of those guys will pop a big one or two this weekend.
9. Jockeying for position in the contentious talks between players and owners. A cadre of player reps will go to Capitol Hill next week to continue to try to get politicians on their side in the CBA discussions. This thing is about to intrude on everybody's nirvana world of football.
10. What if it's Jets and Ravens for the AFC Championship? At the Meadowlands. That happens if they win. How odd.
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