Two of the NFL s premier defenses will have to be at their very best today against quarterbacks who have taken their games to the top level.
New England and Carolina, both of whose defenses finished the regular season ranked among the league s top eight units, square off against Indianapolis Peyton Manning and Philadelphia s Donovan McNabb, respectively, in today s Final Four of the chase for the Feb. 1 Super Bowl in Houston.
McNabb s Eagles host Carolina in the NFC championship game while Manning and his Colts venture outdoors onto what is expected to be snowy tundra at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., to play New England for the AFC title.
Manning, surrounded by some of the best offensive talent in the league, has been somewhere between unconscious and unstoppable during the Colts playoff march.
He has completed 44 of 56 passes (.786) for 681 yards and eight touchdowns - with no interceptions - during wins over Denver and Kansas City.
But McNabb has been no less of a force and is something of a one-man offensive show for the Eagles. In last weekend s win over Green Bay, he threw for two touchdowns, produced a near-immaculate reception on a fourth-and-26 play late in the game, and ran 11 times for 107 yards, an all-time postseason standard for quarterbacks.
“He a remarkable quarterback,” Carolina coach John Fox said of McNabb. “He can beat you a lot of different ways and he s kind of what makes them tick offensively. He poses a huge challenge for us.”
McNabb ran for only six yards when the teams met earlier this season - the Eagles won 25-16 at Carolina - but his approach is different now and the Panthers own a dicey history against mobile quarterbacks.
“It s the McNabb of old; he s hit another gear,” said Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker.
“We re seeing Donovan at his best,” said Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. “He took some flak early in the year for not running the ball, for trying to be what everybody else wanted him to be. But now he s just being natural. He s doing what got him there. The pressure is on us to do what we do and try to contain him.
“Is he going to break some runs? Yeah, he s going to break some, but you try to hold him to a minimum and line back up and play again. The challenge is to not let him do the same things over and over again. When he takes off running you ve got to have 11 people coming to him.”
Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, whose team is playing in the NFC title game for the third straight year, said there is never a plan for McNabb to run as often as he did last week and suggested it might be tougher against the Carolina defensive line.
“Their front is very good and we have a very good offensive line,” Reid said. “I think it will be a great battle. We re not going in saying Donovan is going to run the ball. We go in saying Donovan is going to run the offense. If the opportunity presents itself, fine. If not, then the ball will come out somewhere else and someone else will have the opportunity to make a play.”
McNabb has an above average receiving corps in James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and emerging star Freddie Mitchell, and gets decent run support from Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter.
Of course, that lineup pales in comparison with the supporting cast Manning takes into today s AFC championship game at New England.
The Indianapolis quarterback throws to the great Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokely, among others, and has an ultra-talented running back in Edgerrin James, who has rushed for 704 yards in seven career games vs. New England.
“I m never surprised about how well they play,” Pats cornerback Ty Law said of the Colts. “They have weapons all over the place. They have the big three - probably the best wide receiver and best quarterback in the NFL, plus James looks like the Edgerrin of old before the knee injury. Then you add in the other factors like Stokely, Wayne and (tight end) Marcus Pollard and, pound for pound, it s probably the most skilled offensive team in the league.”
Many expect the AFC clash to come down to Manning s line-of-scrimmage play selection and New England coach Bill Belichick s reputation as a defensive master. During the regular season, the Patriots allowed only 11 touchdown passes while making 29 interceptions.
“They re very good, very poised,” Wayne said of the New England secondary, which includes Law and fellow corner Tyrone Poole with six picks apiece. “They don t gamble much. They do what they re supposed to do, stay in their game plan and force offenses to beat them. Their defense can frustrate you and if you get impatient they can hurt you.”
Tackle Richard Seymour and a crack linebacking corps of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are among the other stars on a New England defense that has intercepted Manning 14 times in nine previous encounters. The Patriots, who have won 13 straight and are unbeaten at home this season, are 4-0 lifetime against Manning in Foxboro.
“We know he s going to make plays,” Law said. “It s Peyton Manning, for goodness sake. He s going to make plays. But if we play as a team and play hard and stick together, it s going to be about who plays hardest the longest.”