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Packers are tough to stop

Xs AND O's

January 20, 2008|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

What has made Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre so difficult to defend this season has been his willingness to spread his passes around.

Starting with veteran Donald Driver, star-on-the-rise Greg Jennings and underrated James Jones, the Packers are loaded with big-play receivers who can break a game open any time they touch the ball.

Then there are tight ends Donald Lee and Bubba Franks, plus reserve wide receivers Ruvell Martin and Koren Robinson -- all quality targets who can burn a defense when left open.

For the New York Giants, who will face Green Bay in the NFC championship game today, dealing with Favre and his wide array of options will be a major challenge.

Throughout the Giants' late-season run, a key to their success has been the stellar play of their secondary.

Despite being hit hard with injuries to Sam Madison, Aaron Ross and Kevin Dockery, New York's defensive backs have been solid across the board in shutting down the main targets for Tampa Bay and Dallas over the first two rounds of the playoffs.

And the most impressive feature of the Giants' secondary work? They've been getting it done the majority of time with man-to-man coverage.

In defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive schemes, cover men that can blanket receivers are a top priority because they allow New York to apply pressure in a variety of ways.

That played a big role against Dallas last week when the Giants -- who led the NFL with 53 sacks during the regular season -- reached quarterback Tony Romo twice in the final 11 minutes of the fourth quarter.

But Favre and the Packers' depth at receiver will provide an entirely different problem.

Unlike the Buccaneers and Cowboys, Green Bay does not rely on tendencies to make its passing game click.

While the Giants were able to focus in on stopping Joey Galloway and Terrell Owens in key situations, they will not have that luxury against the Packers, who had four players finish with at least 47 receptions and six average more than 11 yards a catch during the regular season.

It's this type of diversity New York will have to overcome.

Summary: New York counts on consistent activity from ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora to disrupt an offensive rhythm, but Favre often thrives when this happens because of his ability to get rid of the ball quickly. The Giants can only hope that Favre rushes into mistakes early to give them an edge.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

Seventeen times, the New England Patriots have been challenged this season and 17 times they have won.

One of the Patriots' victims was the San Diego Chargers, who lost, 38-14, at New England on Sept. 16.

But unlike most of the teams that fell short against the Patriots, the Chargers have reason to believe they have the right mix to end New England's dream of an undefeated season in today's AFC Championship game.

The reason? San Diego's ability to control a game with its running attack.

Chargers offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon -- in his sixth season with the team and a holdover from former coach Marty Schottenheimer's staff -- understands this as well as anyone.

In 2002, Shelmon was in his first season as running backs coach and he watched LaDainian Tomlinson rush for 217 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Chargers to a 21-14 regular-season victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots at Qualcomm Stadium.

Two years later, Shelmon saw San Diego rout the then two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, 41-17. Tomlinson rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns as the Chargers snapped New England's NFL-record 21-game home winning streak.

Then there's last season's playoff game against the Patriots. Although San Diego blew an eight-point fourth-quarter lead and lost, 24-21, the Chargers had New England on the ropes for most of the game behind Tomlinson, who accounted for 187 total yards and two touchdowns.

Notice a trend?

Throughout New England's dominant playoff run this decade -- which includes three Super Bowl titles and five AFC championship game appearances in seven years -- a common theme for the Patriots has been their ability to take away an opponent's offensive strength.

But that's never easy to do against the Chargers because of a talented and versatile offensive line and Shelmon's commitment to run the ball.

Everything starts with tackles Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary, guards Kris Dielman and Mike Goff along with center Nick Hardwick, who are each Pro Bowl-level players who will not be intimidated by the Patriots' hard-charging defenders.

That's important against New England because you can always count on a veteran such as Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi or Junior Seau to recognize a play and shut it down.

The more San Diego can force New England's defense to remain on the field, it will not only highlight a big weakness for the Patriots -- age -- but also keep quarterback Tom Brady and his high-scoring offense on the sidelines.

That's exactly the formula San Diego used to defeat Peyton Manning and the Colts at Indianapolis last week.

But maybe the most overlooked aspect needed in order to defeat the Patriots is to get standout efforts from role players. Just ask Jacksonville, which lost at New England last week.

The Jaguars played a strong game but suffered with two key dropped passes by Dennis Northcutt. That was all the Patriots needed.

The Chargers can't afford to have that happen to them.

Summary: Even with Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and quarterback Philip Rivers expected to play, the Chargers have to utilize all of their offensive weapons in order to keep the pressure on the Patriots.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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