Before we get to this weekend's key matchups, it's worth noting a couple of statistical trends that almost always end up being the key to winning in the postseason:
You still have to run: Although the top two passing teams from the regular season (New England and Green Bay)advanced to the championship round, the running game continues to be the best barometer of playoff success.
Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, teams that have outrushed their opponents have won 75 percent of the games. The Packers and Patriots led the way by out-gaining their opponents on the ground while also featuring a pair of 100-yard runners (Ryan Grant and Laurence Maroney). That continues a strong trend established during the regular season when teams with at least one rusher over 100 yards won 73 percent of their games. Moreover, in games in which the NFL's final four had a 100-yard rusher, the Giants (6-0), Packers (5-0), Patriots (5-0) and Chargers (6-1) won 95 percent of the time.
Winning the turnover battle is as critical as ever: Of the eight playoff games so far, only one team (Green Bay) has overcome a negative differential in the turnover column to advance to the next round.
The Giants' surprising run has been keyed by their sudden reversal of fortunes with turnovers. After finishing the regular season with a minus-9 differential, they have yet to turn the ball over in the playoffs, and have come up with four takeaways.
The Chargers, who led the league with a plus-24 takeaway margin, have advanced in part because of their uncanny ability to come up with critical red-zone turnovers. Meanwhile, the Patriots, who finished the regular season with a league-low 15 turnovers, played turnover-free football during the divisional round.
On to the matchups:
New England's Tom Brady vs. San Diego's Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman
Ted Cottrell has dramatically changed the Chargers' defense since meeting the Patriots in Week 2. After using a conservative approach during the first half of the season, Cottrell added more five-man pressures to take advantage of Phillips' and Merriman's pass rushing skills off the edge. The duo combined for 22 sacks during the regular season and their consistent pressure contributed to the Chargers' league-high 48 takeaways.
Tom Brady has picked apart defenses that haven't pressured, so it's important for the Chargers' pass rushing duo to provide ample pressure off the edges to make him uncomfortable.
New England's Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs (or Randall Gay) vs. San Diego's Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson
The Chargers' run through the playoffs has been fueled by the explosive plays generated by their receivers. Jackson and Chambers have combined for 21 receptions for 395 yards in their first two games, including nine pass plays over 20 yards. However, the Patriots' secondary allowed the third-fewest receptions (32) over 20 yards. The onus will be on Samuel and Hobbs (if healthy) to slow down the Chargers.
New England's Vince Wilfork vs. San Diego's Nick Hardwick
The Patriots held the Jags' second-ranked rushing attack to only 80 yards behind a dominant performance by Wilfork, a Pro Bowl nose tackle. But that won't stop the Chargers from testing a defense that has been vulnerable to the inside run. Hardwick will team with Pro Bowl guard Kris Diehlman to double team Wilfork on leads and isolations to limit the penetration up the middle. If the Chargers can keep Wilfork under control, Tomlinson or Michael Turner will find room to get to the second level. The Chargers must win this matchup to have any chance of running successfully.
Green Bay's Greg Jennings vs. New York's Corey Webster
Webster's play at corner has been overlooked as a key to the Giants' defensive success. The third-year pro has locked down the opposition's best receiver and given defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo the freedom to use more man-blitz schemes on early down situations. The Packers' receiving corps poses a tough challenge because Jennings and Donald Driver are so talented. But expect Spagnuolo to assign Webster to Jennings when the Giants opt for match coverage. Jennings has killed opponents with big plays (17.4 avg. and 12 touchdowns). Slowing him down will be one of the Giants' top priority in the passing game.
Green Bay's Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher vs. New York's Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan
The Packers have a decided advantage when they utilize their three-and four-receiver sets against the Giants' banged up secondary. But opening up the formation exposes Brett Favre to Umenyiora and Strahan off the corner. The Giants' dynamic duo dominated single matchups on their way to a combined 22 sacks and countless pressures during the regular season. Therefore, the effectiveness of the Packers' passing game hinges on Clifton and Tauscher holding up on the edges. If they can keep Strahan and Umenyiora off Favre in the pocket, the Packers will have several opportunities to take shots to one of their explosive playmakers down the field.
Green Bay's Nick Barnett vs. New York's Madison Hedgecock
The Giants' smash mouth running game features a variety of leads and isolations out of two-back sets. Thus, the blocking of Hedgecock at fullback becomes critical to their success. Hedgecock, often assigned to the Mike 'backer, must blow Packers' linebacker Barnett out of the hole to create running room for Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. If Hedgecock can win his battle, Jacobs and Bradshaw should be able to grind out the tough yards needed to successfully execute the ball control game plan against the Packers.