Key vs. San Diego
Offensive balance. The Steelers have not exactly been their usual running selves this season. They ranked 23rd in the league in rushing during the regular season. Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, neither of whom is a power runner, combined for just 1,379 yards on the ground. Compensating for the mediocre run game is a Ben Roethlisberger-led passing attack that produced four players with over 500 yards receiving (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller and Nate Washington).
But Sunday against San Diego, the Steelers stayed vibrant through the air, and also pounded the rock consistently for four quarters, dominating the tempo in the second half (particularly the third quarter). Willie Parker looked fresh in gaining 146 yards on 27 carries. Obviously the Pittsburgh defense – which has carried the load all season – did its part, as well.
Key vs. Tennessee
Takeaways. It's easy to look at Tennessee's 12 penalties and three turnovers and say the Titans gave this game away. They didn't; it was stolen from them by a furious Ravens defense. The three turnovers weren't Titan giveaways – they were Raven takeaways. All three turnovers were a result of either ferocious hitting or savvy play-reading by Rex Ryan's crew. Yes, Baltimore looked tired throughout this hard-hitting contest….and they still won.
Key to Ravens @ Steelers
Pittsburgh's pass protection. It's been the Steelers' Achilles heal all season – Ben Roethlisberger was sacked more times than any AFC quarterback – mainly because all five members of the offensive line have had issues diagnosing opponents' blitz schemes. Rex Ryan is not as heavy a blitzer as you would expect, simply because Baltimore's pass-rush is so complex and star-studded that he doesn't have to bring a fifth guy. If the Steelers can block the Ravens in the passing game, they'll win. If they can't, you'll see more forced turnovers, and ultimately another victory, from arguably the nastiest team in football.
Key vs. Giants
Donovan McNabb. This game was pretty simple: Philly's quarterback played well and New York's didn't. While Eli Manning was struggling to push flutter balls through the Meadowland gales, his once-maligned counterpart was constantly extending the play and hitting his second and third options in critical situations. McNabb's accuracy was spot-on Sunday and, despite having a pick and another tipped interception to his name, so was his decision-making.
Key vs. Panthers
The trenches. No one – absolutely no one – could have predicted that Arizona would dominate both sides of the ball up front for a second week in a row. The Cardinals offensive line neutralized Carolina's front four, and shockingly, Edgerrin James was able to produce against the speedy Panther linebackers. Even more remarkable was how Arizona's defensive line outworked the beefy Carolina front five, disrupting Jake Delhomme just enough to help the QB fully stumble into the worst outing of his professional career.
Key to Eagles@ Cardinals
Quarterbacking. The irony of this matchup is that, besides pitting two nine-win teams against one another, we're seeing two teams that all season long have been censured for abandoning the run on offense. So far in the postseason, the Cardinals have surprised everyone by running the ball 71 times for 231 yards. But the Eagles have not changed a thing. Philly has attempted only 51 rushes in their two games, at an average of 2.5 yards per pop. Their make-or-break superstar, Brian Westbrook, has been little more than a gilded decoy. And yet here they are. McNabb is a man on fire, his receivers have hit their stride – even Jason Avant has become a consistent weapon – and that Jim Johnson-led defense has, much like the Arizona defense, elevated to an astoundingly high level. With both defenses stopping the run as well as they have the past two weeks, expect this game to turn into an aerial assault by the second quarter. Whichever QB can conduct his team's dirigible the best will win.