Conference Title Games Positional Battles
Colts coach Jim Caldwell vs. Jets coach Rex Ryan
One is a booming belltower of a personality. The other as quiet as a church mouse. One acts completely understated and professorial. The other is like a fraternity pledge. The contrasting styles of Ryan and Caldwell, however, run far deeper than what you see and hear. This game will be won with key decisions, Xs vs. Os and game-planning. Don't buy into the whole Week 16 angle regarding resting players, Colts folding, etc. That's what people are talking about, but not what will decide the outcome. The Super Bowl berth will hinge on how Caldwell prepares and adjusts his offense to Ryan's defense, and vice versa.
Jets safeties Jim Leonhard and Kerry Rhodes vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning
Manning has made a living out of turning safeties' minds into tubs of goo. Look this way, throw that way. Say this, mean that. But Leonhard and Rhodes are unafraid and rarely unsure. They may make mistakes, but usually it's at 100-mph with their hair on fire. No players reflect the Jets' defensive mindset more than Leonhard and Rhodes. In the divisional round each made huge plays. Still, some key Manning-to-Dallas Clark completions against over-aggressive safeties could be back-breakers.
Jets NT Sione Pouha vs. Colts center Jeff Saturday
If you're into the whole game-within-the-game thing, you just may be swept away with this true battle of warriors. The most heralded center in NFL history, perhaps, faces off against the incredibly unheralded Pouha. Against the Chargers, Pouha could have been defensive MVP the way he dominated the front like the man he replaced, injured Kris Jenkins. And when Pouha wasn't making tackles, he was clearing paths for linebacker David Harris. Saturday takes protecting Peyton Manning personally. This could be an epic in-the-trenches affair.
Colts DE Dwight Freeney vs. Jets tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson
There's no question Ferguson has reached an elite level at left tackle. Still, Freeney has had Ferguson's number in pass-rushing situations. Even in the notorious Week 16 lay-down affair at Lucas Oil Stadium, Freeney played only 12 snaps and still managed a pair of sacks and another pressure of Jets QB Mark Sanchez.
Saints TE Jeremy Shockey vs. Vikings safety Madieu Williams
This is the story of a bad toe and a safety with a tendency to trip over his own feet. Shockey clearly aggravated a toe injury in the divisional-round win over Arizona, but should play on Sunday. He figures to be looked-to often. Williams is an unspectacular safety who makes few big plays, but is efficient and has fought a neck injury. Shockey thrives on running through late shoulder tackles like those Williams often tries. If Williams doesn't wrap-up, put a bow on the Vikes' season.
Saints RB Reggie Bush vs. Vikings OLBs Chad Greenway and Ben Leber
The story of the win over the Cardinals was Reggie Bush running like a comet once again. So does that mean that just like Halley's Comet, Bush won't show up again until 2061? To say the Bush Factor in the NFL has fallen short is an understatement. Still, fresh legs and a fresh game plan utilized Bush to perfection. It's on the sure-tackling Leber (51) and Greenway (52) to keep those delay draws and flair screens to Bush from becoming game-breakers.
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma
Surely, Adrian Peterson saw Arizona's Tim Hightower take it to the house on the first play from scrimmage in the Cardinals' divisional-round loss to the Saints. Could this be the breakthrough day by a struggling -- yes, struggling -- Peterson? It's been eight weeks now since A.P. last ran for 100 yards. The Saints' run defense, ranked 21st in the league, has to have a lot of things go right to be effective. Vilma had a terrific season and an even better game after the early-going against the Cardinals.
Saints CBs Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer vs. Vikings QB Brett Favre and WR Sidney Rice
Somehow, someway Saints safety Darren Sharper always finds a way to be around the ball and big plays. Mention Greer and Porter and even some Saints fans would say, "Who Dat?" But they are the most important pieces to success defensively. Their lockdown presence helps the run defense, allowing Gregg Williams to play more bodies and games up front. And of course, they offer better coverage. Favre tends to sling it with no conscience. These under-rated CBs and the amazing Sharper could make Favre pay.