January 04, 2008

SI.com's Don Banks had a veteran AFC insider assess this weekend's games.


Jacksonville is obviously playing very well in all three phases of the game right now. But what jumps out at you is how quarterback David Garrard is doing an outstanding job of protecting the football. He's making plays. He's making some throws, and he can also make plays with his legs. He really gives them something extra they didn't have with Byron Leftwich.

What you have to do with Jacksonville is make it one-dimensional on offense. That's the whole key to beating it. If you can slow down that running game and make the Jags throw it, you've got a chance, because they don't have great receivers. They've got some guys trying to come into their own, but that's the weak part of their offense. Reggie Williams has shown some brilliance in flashes, but he hasn't reached the consistency you need in a No. 1 receiver. That said, he's still capable of having a big game.

Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has done a great job using his personnel in his first year in that job. They've had good game plans and he's got a hot team heading into the playoffs, so he must be doing something right.

Pittsburgh's going to rush four or five guys from every which way, and one of the benefits of that is they'd like to make Jacksonville's running backs, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, stay in and pass protect.

With Jacksonville winning at Pittsburgh in Week 15, it gives it a certain level of confidence that it can go back in there and beat a team that's very tough in their own building. Psychologically, there's an edge you have by having gone in there before and gotten it done. But it won't be easy. That's a hard place for anyone to play. What the Jaguars did in the first game that was so impressive was just beat the Steelers up on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It'll be interesting to see if Pittsburgh can change that this time.


The Steelers haven't been playing too well, but they're still dangerous because they're at home. They're going to have their juices flowing. It's playoff time. And I think they're going to have a little extra because they're actually the underdog in their own place. And they know what it's like to be an underdog in the playoffs, because that's the role they were in when they won a Super Bowl two years ago. I think they may even like being in that position.

Pittsburgh is wounded and they've lost three out of their last four, but it does help that they've been here before and know what the playoffs are like. Without Willie Parker, the Steelers can still run the ball; but I'm not sure they can get the explosive runs they usually feed off of. And you have to run the ball against Jacksonville to get it away from just sitting in that two-deep shell that it likes to be in. If the Jaguars stay in that, it's tough to get any explosive plays in the passing game as well.

Ben Roethlisberger has had a great season for the Steelers. He's just not making the big mistakes. He's getting sacked more than ever, but part of that is because he's holding the ball and not throwing it up for grabs, which has led to his interceptions being down. He's still darn hard to bring down for a defensive line, and he's played well within the system and within himself.

That's a different Steelers defense when Troy Palomalu is out, but having him back really gives Pittsburgh a boost. He's one of their sparks, and just seeing him in the secondary makes everybody else better. It's like Bob Sanders when he's out of the Colts' lineup. The Steelers have missed Palomalu tremendously.

I've been really impressed with Mike Tomlin this year. Coming in and replacing Bill Cowher is tough, but he's done a tremendous job of keeping that team focused. They obviously have bought into whatever he is preaching. He's gotten his quarterback to buy in, and that's the best thing you can have happen, because once he does, the rest of the guys will follow.


The Titans are going to be OK if they have to play Kerry Collins at quarterback this week. He's capable of having a big game, and he'll generally take care of the football. The major difference is that San Diego knows where Kerry is going to be. He's going to stay there in the pocket, and that's going to let San Diego's pass rush tee it up a little bit and come after him. With Vince Young, you'd better maintain your rush lanes, or he'll take off on you. That's a difference that could greatly affect the game if Young can't play.

Whoever plays quarterback, Tennessee doesn't want to be dropping back 40 times in this game, because Shawne Merriman and the boys can get after you in that kind of situation. The Titans need to run the ball, and that means LenDale White has to have a good game. He's a big back and he's really started to make some things happen this year. When he's heading downhill, he can be a load for any defense to have to deal with all day. That may be the key for the Titans on offense, making sure White is getting his yards and keeping the chains moving.

Defensively, Tennessee needs big games from defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Albert Haynesworth. If those two can't get after Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the Titans are in trouble. Last year Tennessee didn't have much going for it on defense, but they've played much better defensively this year. Linebacker Keith Bulluck sets the tone for them, but if Haynesworth is collapsing the middle like he can do, that means Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson can't run wild. If L.T. gets going, that sets up San Diego's entire game plan, so the Titans front seven on defense has to play a good, disciplined game.


Norv Turner catches a lot of flak, but he deserves some credit for what he's done with this team. That was a very difficult situation to come into, with the team having the best record in the league last year. With all that talent, you can only go down. I like Norv. He's a good coach, and I'm glad he's winning. And if they win one playoff game, he's already gone father than they ever went under Marty Schottenheimer.

I think it just took some time for him and the team to get a trust and respect for each other. It also seems like it took some time for Norv to trust and believe he could just hand the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson. He must have said at some point, 'Man, I'm a dummy. Why am I not just giving this guy the ball more?' Once he started doing that, it really helped set up the rest of the offense.

Chris Chambers was a great acquisition for the Chargers at the trading deadline. He's a really good player, and as soon as they got him I knew he'd help them tremendously. It was right around the time that they traded for him that they really started taking off on offense and winning ballgames. He's a weapon you have to account for, and they didn't have that at receiver. With L.T., tight end Antonio Gates, and a receiving threat like Chambers, now you've got something that defenses really have to watch out for.

I know everyone says Philip Rivers has had a down year, an off year. But you don't know if the offense changed under Norv Turner, or how having a different person calling the plays affected him. There's a lot that goes with a change of coordinators some times. He's still a good, young quarterback and he's going to keep getting better the more he plays. He still plays very composed and confident.

San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie has really had a huge season. If you're going to pressure people like the Chargers defense likes to do, you've got to have that kind of cover guy in the secondary. If you've got 10 interceptions like Cromartie, you're doing something good back there. He's made a bunch of big plays for the Chargers.

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