AFC: Broncos 27, Steelers 24|
The Broncos came out hot against the Steelers in their Dec. 7
meeting, jumping to a 21-7 lead only to get blown away by
Kordell Stewart, who accounted for five touchdowns and 352 total
yards, and wideout Yancey Thigpen, who also had a career day.
Denver was worried about Jerome Bettis's strongside runs, so
they lined up Ray Crockett, their best cornerback, on that side,
which left Darrien Gordon covering Thigpen on the weak side. It
was no contest. Thigpen caught three touchdown passes against
Gordon, including the 69-yarder that turned the game around. It
was a stop-and-go. Gordon stopped, Thigpen went. The Broncos
won't get caught that way again.
Denver defensive ends Neil Smith and Alfred Williams both played
with torn triceps muscles that afternoon, and Stewart didn't
face much of a rush. Now Smith and Williams are healthy. They
made life miserable for Elvis Grbac in Denver's win on Sunday
over the Chiefs, collecting four sacks between them, and the
Broncos won't be bashful about going to its blitz package, as
New England did with great success against Pittsburgh. They'll
defy Stewart to go to his hot reads quickly, and to keep him
from breaking off a long run, they'll "spy" him with their
quickest linebacker, John Mobley.
NFC: Packers 24, 49ers 20
Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur was the Packers' hero when
Green Bay upset the Niners in the playoffs two years ago,
deviling Steve Young with an exotic blitz package behind three
down linemen, jamming Jerry Rice at the line and keeping San
Francisco from breaking any big plays. Now the three-man set has
become a standard part of the Green Bay operation, although the
Packers didn't use it much against the Buccaneers on Sunday.
They didn't have to. They threw an occasional blitz at Trent
Dilfer, but they felt their cornerbacks could handle the Tampa
Bay wideouts, and the rest of the defense could focus on the run.
Both Green Bay corners, Doug Evans and Tyrone Williams, are
playing terrific football, which should make for an interesting
matchup because 49ers wideouts Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, as
well as their tight end Brent Jones, keep bailing Young out with
tough catches. The 49ers' passing attack put the Vikings away
early, and then the Niners turned to their power running game,
which has become their style.
The Packers won on Sunday when the Bucs tired a bit from chasing
Brett Favre, and then Dorsey Levens, Green Bay's 230-pound
hammer, smacked it to them. He won't be smacking the Niners'
rush defense, and if Favre starts erratically, the Pack will
find itself in trouble. But I like how Green Bay is playing
defense, and I think Shurmur will figure out ways to put maximum
pressure on the Niners' pass protection, the weakest part of