The Playbook: Previewing Colts-Patriots, 49ers-Panthers, more divisional round games
Two –Minute Drill
• Matchup to Watch:
– Wes Welker vs. San Diego’s secondary. Earlier this week, I took a look at how the Chargers beat the Broncos during the regular season. Defensively, the plan in that game was to drop into a passive shell, with the goal being to limit Peyton Manning to short passes.
One of the reasons that approach worked was that Welker did not play in the game. Now back from injury, Welker could be the difference in turning those underneath routes into big gains, which might force San Diego to alter its defensive approach.
Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle told ESPN.com his Chargers secondary will vary its approach on Welker, so that not one specific defender is responsible for him. It’s almost a given that no matter who is on Welker, Manning will find him with some passes. As they were in their earlier matchup with Denver, the Chargers will live with Manning playing conservatively. If those completions to Welker turn into more space downfield, though, look out. – CB
– Carolina’s front seven vs. San Francisco’s offensive line. The last game between these teams exposed a little-told tale that’s shown up at times throughout 2013: This 49ers line is not quite as adept as the unit that led the franchise to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season. They’re more vulnerable to power inside and speed outside, and the Panthers can provide both in all sorts of ways. – DF
• Pressure’s On …:
– Terron Armstead, OT, Saints. The Seahawks do a fantastic job of attacking their opponents’ soft spots, and they’ll likely go out of their way early to find out if Armstead falls into that category. The rookie, thrust into the left tackle job late in the season, has held up admirably, but dealing with Seattle’s deep pass rush is another story.
Another potential issue: the noise. Seattle’s 12th Man presents a challenge for any visiting team, but Armstead already has a couple of false starts since jumping into the lineup. He’ll have to be sharp to avoid another one or two this weekend. – CB
– Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints. Graham may be the best tight end in football, but he certainly didn’t look like it against the Seahawks on Dec. 1. Brees targeted Graham nine times in that game, and Graham caught just three passes for 42 yards. Linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner did amazing jobs in coverage to the seams and flats, obstructing Graham’s path and handing him off to Seattle’s talented safeties when the routes got too deep. Wright will not play in the divisional rematch, but replacement Malcolm Smith actually has better pass coverage numbers than Wright for the season. – DF
• This Week’s Sleeper:
– Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Panthers.The motivation factor for Ginn versus his former team did not dictate much in Week 10; Ginn had two catches for 19 yards. Could it play a role here?
The way San Francisco’s and Carolina’s defenses have been playing, it may take a big gainer for anyone to find the end zone. Ginn’s explosive speed makes him a candidate to break off just such a play, be it on a return or a quick catch-and-run. — CB
– Ryan Mathews. Mathews has been seen as a disappointment since the Chargers took him in the first round of the 2010 draft, but he’s upticking at exactly the right time. Just as San Diego needs a more effective run game to counter enemy defenses and control the clock to make up for its own sub-par defense, Mathews has been on a tear. He’s logged more than 100 yards in four of his last seven games, and picked up 99 yards against the Raiders on Dec. 22. A back gaining 534 yards in December is a back who can help Rivers with play action and keep that offense balanced against Denver’s iffy run defense. That’s what the Chargers wanted when they took Mathews, and it’s what they finally have. – DF
• Rookie Spotlight:
– Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, Patriots. Sort of a full-circle rookie season for Thompkins, who shined in the preseason and then failed to match the hype he created for himself. He finished the season with 32 catches for 466 yards in 12 games — respectable numbers. And he might find a major role awaiting him Saturday with Aaron Dobson looking unlikely to suit up. Dobson’s absence would push Thompkins into a full-time position in the offense, and he may see plenty of targets from Brady if the Colts focus on stopping Julian Edelman. – CB
– Logan Ryan, DB, Patriots. Little was thought of the Patriots’ decision to take Ryan in the third round of the 2013 draft, outside of yet more jokes about Belichick wanting to stockpile his entire roster with guys from Rutgers. But Ryan has more than repaid New England’s faith in him by amassing five interceptions in his first NFL regular season, including four in the final six weeks. Among qualifying cornerbacks, only Seattle’s Richard Sherman has a lower passer rating allowed. Belichick has gone out of his way to praise Ryan’s football instincts, which is rare to see for a first-year player who is clearly standing out in one of the league’s most demanding defenses. – DF