Dr. Z: Analyzing divisional playoffs and picking the Championship Games - Sports Illustrated

Not a fair fight

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"He rushes at the smoke when you let drive," Kipling wrote in his poem, FuzzyWuzzy. And that's what they did, wasted themselves hopelessly, and when the battle was over, and the ones with the guns had triumphed, greatly outnumbered but possessing all the firepower, they were always the ones who got congratulated as heroes.

It would leave me terribly depressed. And it was the same feeling I had watching the Jaguars and Colts rushing at the smoke when Tom Brady or Philip Rivers or even Billy Volek "let drive," trying to bring down these passers without a pass rush. It ain't gonna happen. It has seldom ever happened. But defensive coordinators always seem to go down in flames the same way, praying that a non-rush will arrive before the ref signals for the next first down, trying to play coverages against receivers who have time to work their fancy moves downfield, while the QB has all day to deliver the ball.

Jacksonville rushed four linemen, who got blocked by five of the same type of people, sometimes six, when the Patriots left their massive tight end, KyleBrady, in tight, and the Jags didn't vary from that operation. This achieved, for Jack Del Rio and his defensive coach Mike Smith, an entry into the record books. They were the "against the ..." part of Tom Brady's record for most accurate day in history ... 26 for 28, or 92.9 percent.

Wait a minute, I did see them blitz a couple of times. One time they sent five. It didn't achieve much. Another time they sent six, and Brady threw quickly and got a 53-yard completion to Donte Stallworth out of it. Now that's a hot read. It was shock therapy, and any thought of future departure from the Jags' ineffective method of, ahem, rushing Brady was forgotten forever.

Every announcer, ever writer who described the game, everyone I talked to, thought this was one of the most magnificent sights every seen on a gridiron. Personally, I thought it was like watching a seven-on-seven drill. You admired the accuracy but longed for a bit more drama.

Now we come to Indy-San Diego, another non-rush contest. The Colts tried switching their linemen around, moving undersized Raheem Brock from tackle to end, to get more of a potential rush. I didn't see much of 235-pound RobertMathis, the only guy they've got, with Dwight Freeney hurt, who can come off the edge. He might have been hurt. They got zero in the way of pressure. They didn't blitz, just kept rotating their linemen and trying to work stunts, which was just spinning their wheels.

I don't want to take anything away from the Chargers' heroic performance. I mean Billy Volek, minus LaDainian Tomlinson, minus Antonio Gates, taking his team 78 yards at the end, in front of a hostile crowd, to win the game, was one for the ages. But, hey, without a rush to face, even the back-up QB can complete enough passes to win a ballgame. And I'm not just speaking out of bitterness because I had predicted an Indy blowout. It's just when you see him drop straight back and stand tall, look downfield, set his feet and come to balance perfectly, you just know it's going to be a plus-18 completion over the middle, first down Chargers.

If you can't pressure a quarterback, you've got to find a way. There are coordinators who stay up all night figuring out blitz packages, rush schemes, exotics, mixers, crazies, something, anything, to stop the march of the offense, the "slow burn," as coaches call it. Without it, all that will happen is that your D-linemen will get tired and things will get worse.

In Green Bay it was another story, a snowy one. I'm not saying that Brett Favre would have been anything less than magnificent on a dry field, but the Seahawks came in fresh from a contest in which they rushed and blitzed the Redskins into oblivion. That was their game and they'd gotten good at it. So what happened? Gathering snow and a slippery surface. Rushers can't rush when it's slippery, blitzers can't blitz. Favre completed 18 of 23 passes against the 'Hawks, but they had another thing to contend with, the cutback running of Ryan Grant.

This is a young guy, 224 pounds with great stamina and balance. He killed the Seahawks on those cutbacks. Stretch the front side, cut back weak. The defensive guys flow to the ball, and when they have to change direction for the cutback, they slip in the snow. There was a lot more to this game, of course, but this was a big part of it.

Finally we come to the Giants, whose whole operation is built upon getting to the passer. They led the league in sacks, most of which came from a trio of sleek, streamlined DEs, but if they're having trouble getting there, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is not bashful about sending in a linebacker, notably KawikaMitchell, or a DB.

By the fourth quarter, the Giants' rush had whipped the massive Cowboy offensive linemen and unhinged Tony Romo, and Dallas was finished. It was like a 15-round bout in which the better conditioned fighter is left standing. Left tackle Flozell Adams, for instance, a highly effective pass blocker, but not what you'd call a finely tuned athlete, was in a state of near collapse toward the end. AndreGurode, the center, was going through some weird problem with snapping the ball. And so forth.

Snow is predicted for Green Bay. Good for the Packers, bad for the Giants. Some teams are more skilled in operating in it.

"It's the same for both teams," New York coach Tom Coughlin said, which is like a guy watching someone fighting a shark and saying, "Well, it's wet for both of them."

The teams met in the second week of the season. Green Bay won, 35-13, but it was a one-point game for three quarters. Then Favre put together three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. It was the dawning of a new era for him, which could be labeled, his "short and accurate career." He threw underneath. He completed his first 14 passes of the second half, and he went 29 for 38 on the day. The 76 percentage was his highest in his last 28 games, at the time.

That's what the Giants have to contend with Sunday, plus the now-serious Packer ground game.

But their own Eli Manning has become a careful, take-what-they-give-you quarterback these days, especially in the postseason. They have plenty of weapons of their own, including a very effective big guy-fast guy running back tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. The latter looks too good to be true. He's got Tiki Barber moves, plus more power than his size would suggest, and against Tampa Bay and Dallas, he was more effective than the big guy. The question is: Will the Giants make him the focus of their attack? He's a rookie, don't forget.

Well, the Giants have real heart now, and they're playing with the type of confidence that nine straight road wins have produced. I think they'll give the Pack a spirited battle. GREEN BAY 31, NEW YORK 26

This will be short. As of now, I don't have an accurate medical forecast on Rivers (knee), Tomlinson (knee) and Antonio Gates (dislocated toe). Without these three, I don't think they'll be in the hunt against the Patriots. With Rivers and L.T. back in action, I think they'll get their points. Hell, everyone does against the New England defense, but they'll need an awful lot of them to top the Brady machine. When the teams met the same day as Packers-Giants in September, New England won, 38-14, but San Diego was a mess then. A completely different team.

Against the Colts they opened in what I think will be their most effective defensive alignment -- three down linemen, rush-linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips coming hard off the edges, Stephen Cooper, who did a fine job, incidentally, as the lone middle backer and Drayton Florence starting at the nickel back.

I know Florence, who lost his job at right corner to Antonio Cromartie, will be a target for Brady. He's the weakest cover guy, and I'll bet they're planning to work him over with little Wes Welker, but the Chargers might go with rookie Eric Weddle instead. He's a little wild, and he might cover a bit too closely at times, but at least he's active.

So give me a medical report and I'll predict a score for you. You won't do that? OK, I'll predict one anyway, but bear in mind that I'm the same bloke who swore that Indy would win in a blowout last weekend. NEW ENGLAND 34, SAN DIEGO 17