The Chargers' offense revolves around the dynamic talents of Tomlinson. But the likely absence of Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates frees Colts' defensive coordinator Ron Meeks to use safety Sanders exclusively as a box defender. The league's Defensive Player of the Year excels at shooting gaps and will often be unblocked as the eighth defender in the box. Therefore, the Chargers' offensive hopes will hinge on Tomlinson's ability to avoid the hard-hitting safety in the hole.
• Colts' Peyton Manning vs. Chargers' Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips
The Chargers' terrific pass-rushing tandem didn't register a sack in the teams' first meeting, but their constant pressure off the edges contributed to Manning's dismal performance. Though Manning was playing short-handed on offense, he uncharacteristically lost his poise and repeatedly forced throws into coverage, which resulted in six interceptions. But expect Manning to handle the pressure differently with Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark back in the lineup. A gameplan featuring several blitz beaters (max protection, quick rhythm throws and screens) will keep Phillips and Merriman from having an impact off the edges.
• Chargers' Clinton Hart or Eric Weddle vs. Colts' Dallas Clark
Dallas Clark missed the regular season matchup between these teams because of an injury, but figures to play a big role in the rematch. As Manning's top red-zone target, Clark demands special attention from defenses. The Chargers will likely split the duties between Hart, a safety, and Weddle, a dime corner. Though neither has the size to cover Clark in a jump-ball situation, Weddle has enough savvy and cover skills to blanket him in space. Consequently, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Chargers use more dime defense to get Weddle matched on Clark on obvious passing downs.
• Cowboys'Marion Barber vs. Giants' Antonio Pierce
With Terrell Owens gimpy, coordinator Jason Garrett will use the running game to open up the field for the rest of their offensive weapons. Barber averages almost five yards a carry and his tough running requires teams to use eight-man fronts on early downs. But the Giants want to avoid committing an additional defender to the running game, so the responsibility of slowing down Barber falls squarely on the shoulders of their linebackers, particularly Pierce, the middle linebacker. As the Giants' leading tackler, Pierce often roams freely in the middle of the defense, charged with chasing the ball.
• Giants'David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie vs. Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis
Dallas' swarming defense sacked Eli Manning six times during their two regular season meetings and their consistent harassment kept him from attacking a vulnerable Cowboys' secondary. Pro Bowl OLB Ware (14 sacks) leads the charge off the edge, but his counterpart, OLBEllis (12.5), is enjoying a career year as a pass rusher.
With the Cowboys able to produce so much pressure off the edges, the Giants' top priority is keeping Manning upright in the pocket. Diehl and McKenzie must win their individual battles on the perimeter. If they can keep the Cowboys' bookend rushers in check, Manning can connect with Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer down the field.
• Cowboys'Jason Witten vs. Giants' safeties
The Cowboys will lean on Pro Bowl TE Witten to carry the passing game with T.O. slowed. The fifth-year playmaker enjoyed a career season (96 receptions for 1,145 yards with seven touchdowns) and emerged as a force in the middle of the field. With Witten becoming the focal point of the passing game, the Giants' safeties (Gibril Wilson and James Butler) will play a bigger role in coverage. Though New York will use some combination coverage to bottle up Witten, Wilson and Butler will need to hold up in man coverage when the Giants opt to bring their five-man pressures. If the safeties can do so, New York defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will get after TonyRomo on an assortment of exotic blitzes.