1. QB BRAD JOHNSON
Johnson has been the Bucs' offensive MVP this year and holds the key to Tampa Bay's chances of advancing to the Super Bowl. I was curious as to how Johnson has fared in playoff games, historically, and was shocked at what I had found.
Johnson's career record in playoff games is only 1-3, with that lone win coming in Washington's Wild Card win over Detroit in 1999. He was 15-of-31 for 174 yards in that game, throwing one touchdown pass and two interceptions. The Redskins' next game, at Tampa Bay, wound up as a win for the Bucs and a loss for Johnson, who was 20-of-32 for 149 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Johnson was also sacked four times and fumbled once.
Johnson's first playoff start came with the Minnesota Vikings in 1996, and ended with a loss to Dallas. He was 15-of-27 for 208 yards with one touchdown and two picks in that game. His most recent playoff start came with Tampa Bay in last year's 31-9 loss to Philadelphia. Johnson was 22-of-36 for 202 yards, but threw four interceptions, including one in the Eagles end zone and one that was returned for a touchdown.
Overall, Johnson has thrown two touchdowns and nine interceptions in the post-season, but has stayed away from the picks this season, tossing only six as compared to his Bucs' single-season record 22 touchdowns. Johnson needs to forget his playoff past, stay away from the turnovers and throw a touchdown or two.
2. LG KERRY JENKINS
Jenkins had an awful game in Week 7 against the Eagles. The Bucs' left guard was still ailing from a broken leg he had suffered a few weeks earlier against St. Louis and couldn't match the quickness that Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker brought to the table. Walker got by Jenkins for a sack and several hurries of Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson.
Jenkins' play has picked up down the stretch and he has more confidence in his leg in terms of planting and pushing off. As a result, Jenkins is more aggressive and physical when attacking a defensive lineman and isn't as concerned about his balance as he was earlier in the year.
Offensive line coach Bill Muir said that Jenkins is coming off one of his best games of the season against San Francisco last week and that he is as close to being 100 percent as any offensive lineman could be after 21 football games. Jenkins must step up his game and be ready to take on Walker one-on-one on Sunday.
3. RB Michael Pittman
Mike Alstott has had a knack for out-producing Pittman when the two get an equal amount of carries, and Pittman needs to respond and carry his weight in the running game. He is enjoying a confidence boost after rushing for a season-high 90 yards against Chicago in the season finale and delivering a season-high 22-yard dash against San Francisco last week.
Not only must Pittman be effective in the running game, but he must also be a factor in the passing game both as a receiver and a blocker. Pittman suffered a bruised left hand and a dislocated finger last week and it remains to be seen how that will affect his ability to catch the ball or pick up the blitz.
Pittman isn't the best running back in the league in blitz pick up, but that will be a critical aspect of his game on Sunday and must do his part to help keep quarterback Brad Johnson from getting hit and hurt. He also can't afford to drop any passes despite his injured hand.
4. LT ROMAN OBEN
Oben did a solid job on defensive end Hugh Douglas in the Bucs' Week 7 encounter with the Eagles in Philadelphia. Douglas did not have a sack and wasn't the force that he has been in the Bucs' last two playoff games when he compiled three difference-making sacks.
Oben will get some help from the Bucs' running backs and tight ends chipping on Douglas on obvious passing downs, but for the most part, he will be called upon to do a fair amount of blocking one-on-one. He needs to cut Douglas on quick passing plays, and ride him outside on five-step drops.
Oben has been known to have a false start on occasion and must concentrate on the snap count. That may be easier said than done at the loud, raucous Veterans Stadium where hearing the snap count and Brad Johnson's audibles will be difficult.
5. WR JOE JUREVICIUS
Jurevicius' chances of playing in Sunday's game were in doubt earlier in the week due to the premature birth of his son, Michael, and the health complications that followed. Jurevicius missed practice time this week and only arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday, but he is expected to play in Sunday's NFC Championship game.
Jurevicius had three catches for 35 yards in the Week 7 contest at Philadelphia, but had not yet been fully integrated into Tampa Bay's offense at that point. Jurevicius caught four of his five touchdowns after the Philly game, and even registered a 100-yard outing against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14.
The Bucs need Jurevicius to come up with a clutch catch or two on third down, and hopefully a grab in the end zone, too. The Bucs' third receiver is coming off a three-catch, 48-yard effort last week against San Francisco, which also included a touchdown. Brad Johnson feels just as comfortable throwing to Jurevicius as he does to star receiver Keyshawn Johnson. The Bucs' quarterback also has shown a penchant for throwing jump balls to the the 6-foot-5, 230-pound wideout, and Jurevicius almost always delivers.