Key Matchup: Harper vs. Gaffney

Colts cornerback Nick Harper will have the task of shutting down Tom Brady's new favorite target, Jabar Gaffney. Both players are playing their best football of the year and something has to give.

Arguably, no two players on their respective teams are having a better postseason than Patriots wide receiver Jabar Gaffney and Colts cornerback Nick Harper. These two men will lock horns on Sunday as it will be Harper's job to keep Tom Brady's new favorite receiver in check.

This postseason Gaffney leads the Patriots with 18 receptions for 207 yards and one touchdown in two games. Where is this coming from?

During his 11 regular-season games (six starts), Gaffney recorded only 11 catches for 142 yards, catching no more than one pass in nine of 11 regular-season games. His only touchdown was in a rather meaningless 40-7 rout of Houston.

Gaffney recently talked about the solid rapport and trust he and Brady have developed. "I have confidence in him that he knows he can keep coming back to me if I make a couple of plays," Gaffney said. "I always have high expectations for myself. When I go out there, I just want to make the plays. Brady is a guy you want to play for. If you get open, he's going to find you."

Gaffney is doing a lot of things right. His route running has been solid and he's doing an excellent job of finding the open spots in zone coverage. He'll need to keep that up this Sunday because Harper excels in Dungy's zone defense, does a good job keeping receivers in front and rarely gets beat deep.

Colts CB Nick Harper (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Like Gaffney, Harper has stepped up his game in the playoffs as well. USA Today had this to say about his recent play: "He's [Cornerback Nick Harper] really lifting his game in the playoffs. He was in on four tackles, forced a fumble that led to the Colts' second field goal and had a fourth-quarter interception that stopped a Ravens drive with the Colts ahead 12-6."

Harper made that key fourth-quarter interception by recognizing the route and jumping it at the right time. Receivers cannot afford to get clumsy or sloppy when running routes against Harper. If so, he has the smarts and skills to make them pay.

In many ways Gaffney and Harper are two very similar players. Gaffney knows how to find openings against the zone, while Harper excels in the zone. Gaffney is not a guy who is going to blow by a corner and get over the top quickly, while Harper rarely gets beat deep. Gaffney is a better short-to-intermediate route runner, while Harper shows solid short-area quickness and underneath cover skills. Gaffney runs routes well, while Harper does a great job reading and recognizing routes.

Where Harper might have an advantage over Gaffney is on the physical side of things. Harper is tough and plays bigger than his size suggests. He does a nice job getting his hands on receivers and rerouting them at the line. Gaffney can be muscled out of his routes and likes to avoid contact.

This entire season Harper has played with a consistency and steadiness that is not easily found amongst cornerbacks. He's established himself as a very reliable cog in the Colts' defense. Brady will be counting on Gaffney to find open spots against Harper's off-coverage and then get some serious yards after the catch. As Colts fans know, Brady can dink and dunk his way down the field with the best of them.

Gaffney has after the catch elusiveness and shows good patience in following his blockers and finding openings. It'll be important for Harper to tackle well and keep the gains to a minimum. This has the makings of a very good match-up between two players playing their best football at the right time.

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