Wild card weekend - Saturday game previews

A quick Ravens Insider breakdown of Saturday's games featuring the St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks and the New York Jets at San Diego Chargers.

Wild-Card Games:

St. Louis Rams (8-8) at Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
New York Jets (10-6) at San Diego Chargers (12-4)

Denver Broncos (10-6) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Minnesota Vikings (8-8) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

St. Louis Rams (8-8) at Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
GAMEDATE: 01/08/05
SURFACE: FieldTurf

TV: ABC, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 14th meeting, first in post-season. Rams lead, 9-4, including two wins this season. The Rams have won three straight against the Seahawks.

2004 RANKINGS: Rams: offense 6th (25th rush, 5th pass); defense 17th (29th rush, 11th pass). Seahawks: offense 8th (8th rush, 13th pass); defense 26th (23rd rush, 23rd pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Seahawks have proven they can score against the Rams in their previous two meetings this season, but can they hold a lead? Seattle's balanced offense is difficult for the Rams to counter, and the Seahawks desperately need a strong start. That's because their defense blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in the regular season meeting in Seattle.

The Seahawks' corners will struggle in coverage, but one key difference could be rookie SS Michael Boulware, who was not in the starting lineup for the regular season meeting in Seattle. But if the Rams keep the game close into the second half, they'll have a big advantage down the stretch. St. Louis' biggest issue might be dealing with the conditions, with temperatures expected to be in the 20s with a chance of snow flurries.

FAST FACTS: The Rams will make their fourth postseason appearance in five seasons under coach Mike Martz. ... Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck ranks tied for sixth in the NFL with 15 first-half TD passes. He ranks only tied for 19th in second-half scoring passes, having thrown only seven all season. ... Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander averaged 7.2 yards per carry on 45 rushes against the Rams this season. That average is 1.1 yards greater than Alexander's average against any other team in 2004.

PREDICTION: Rams 34-27

--LG Tom Nutten practiced on a limited basis Thursday and will be evaluated again on Friday. Nutten injured his knee against the Jets Sunday, and might be available to start Saturday against Seattle. If he doesn't, rookie Larry Turner will start. Nutten was upgraded from doubtful to questionable on Thursday's injury report.
--LG Larry Turner is still expected to start Saturday's playoff game against Seattle, and took most of the snaps with the first unit in Thursday's practice. Turner would replace Tom Nutten, who injured his knee against the Jets Sunday.
--DE Leonard Little sat out Thursday's practice because of a groin injury, but ran hard on the side and is expected to practice Friday. Little will likely play Saturday against the Seahawks.
--DE Erik Flowers was back at practice Thursday after missing workouts Wednesday while he became the father of a baby boy. Flowers has been inactive for the last six games, but was working with the first-team kickoff return unit Thursday.
--DL Tyoka Jackson did not practice Thursday because of an ankle injury, but is still expected to be available for Saturday's playoff game against Seattle.

--WR Koren Robinson returned to practice Thursday after missing one day to rest a sore hip. Coach Mike Holmgren said Robinson would suit up for the game Saturday so long as the troubled wideout followed team rules in the interim. Robinson will likely play in a reserve role.
--DE Grant Wistrom did not practice this week and the team does not expect him to play Saturday. Wistrom is still recovering from a knee injury.
--WR Darrell Jackson returned to practice Thursday after resting his sore hamstring earlier in the week. He'll start Saturday.
--OL Jerry Wunsch returned to practice Thursday after missing time with an illness. He'll be available in a reserve role Saturday.
--LB Niko Koutouvides practiced again Thursday and should be OK for Saturday.

It has been a difficult season for Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta, and he hasn't talked about the reasons very much. But as the Rams began preparations for Saturday's playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Archuleta spoke extensively for the first time about the problems he had all season with a bulging disk in his back.

Archuleta said his troubles began last summer. "It was in training camp," he said. "I had a back twinge. It was kind of my fault, I tend to overlook little injuries. Throughout my career they've always kind of gone away and taken care of themselves. So I really didn't say anything about it. This time it just kept getting worse. After the Arizona game I went to (trainer) Jim (Anderson) and said, 'Jim, my back is really tightened up, it's really starting to bother me.' Then we took the MRI and saw that there were some disc issues, and it just kind of snowballed from there. So it's a little bit of my fault for not taking care of it when it first started acting up, and just kind of let it get out of control."

Dealing with the injury, and how it affected his play was the worst part. "It's frustrating because I have an obligation to my teammates," he said. "That's what they expect out of me, and that's what I was brought here to do. When I don't bring that style of play, when I don't bring that intimidating physical presence to the defense, to me I feel like I let everybody down. It's hard to look at the guys in their eyes when I had an opportunity to make a play and I didn't make a play. It's hard as a football player, and it's been difficult.

"It is what it is. It's a situation where I have had to pretty much battle it out, and grind it out throughout the end of the year. Really the only thing that is going to help is rest and rehabilitation. It's been manageable, I've been able to play and get through it, and it's starting to feel better. But just like any injury, there's setbacks. It's just football, it's NFL football.

"I think it is evident that I haven't been as physical (this year). I'm not a guy who is going to sit here and make excuses, and say, 'The back has done this, and it's affected me this way,' because I still have a responsibility to my teammates and this organization to go out there and do my job. I know that I haven't forgot how to play football, to be physical, and how to run around and fly around. It just doesn't happen overnight. I have to say that due to not being able to workout throughout the season, my body going a little bit downhill, and not having that explosion and that pop, I have to say that it has been a factor."

Said Rams coach Mike Martz, "He doesn't say anything about it and I know it's been bothering him all year. When you see Adam kind of shy away a little bit there's something wrong."

Archuleta will be at his usual strong safety spot Saturday, and despite the injury has also played on the kickoff coverage team. Anything to help his team. What he looks forward to is getting better and being the player he can be in 2005.

"I'm fine," he said. "Trust me, this won't happen again. I've learned a lot about how to take care of my body through this experience. I just can't ignore things, and put them off, and have the mentality that they'll take care of themselves, like I have in the past. Definitely this season has been a tremendous learning experience in all types of phases of the game. It's been a tremendous learning experience with all the adversity that I've had to face, and this team has had to face."

The Seahawks avoided the embarrassment of a blacked-out playoff game Thursday when corporate sponsors scooped up 2,000 tickets.

"A lot of companies called us this week and said, `Hey we want to make sure the game is on TV,'" Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke said. "But by and large, it was fans buying tickets."

Clear Channel, which owns three radio stations in Seattle, plans to auction off 1,000 tickets to raise money for tsunami survivors. The local ABC affiliate planned to donate another 1,000 tickets to local military personnel.

That left fewer than 1,000 tickets available when the NFL lifted the blackout following a 24-hour extension.

"There has been some conjecture about support," Leiweke said. "This represents our 16th consecutive sellout. It's the longest sellout streak since the early '90s and we're thrilled.

"We have great fan support and to sell 66,000 tickets in 72 hours, we're very proud of that and we want to put on a great show for them."
On the field, Seattle wrapped up an abbreviated practice week with a final session Thursday.

Coach Mike Holmgren cleared WR Koren Robinson to play in the game, presumably in a reserve role, so long as the troubled wideout follows team guidelines between now and kickoff. The team did not expect to have DE Grant Wistrom, who is recovering from a knee injury.

New York Jets (10-6) at San Diego Chargers (12-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 01/08/05

TV: ABC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya

SERIES: 30th meeting. Chargers lead series 17-11-1. The Jets have won the last two meetings, including a 34-28 win at San Diego in Week 2 this season. Yet the Jets say that game means little once you reach the playoffs. It's the third time the Jets will play San Diego twice in a season since 1968.

2004 RANKINGS: Jets: offense 12th (3rd rush, 22nd pass); defense 7th (5th rush, 14th pass). Chargers: offense 10th (6th rush, 16th pass); defense 18th (3rd rush, 30th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jets' confidence has to be a major concern with them riding a two-game losing streak and dropping three of their past four to end the regular season. And the matchup doesn't play out particularly well for New York. The Jets' strength is their running game behind RB Curtis Martin, but the Chargers feature the league's No. 3 run defense. While San Diego's secondary can be burned for big yardage, Jets QB Chad Pennington has struggled to stretch the field since returning from a shoulder injury.

When the Chargers have the ball, they want to use RB LaDainian Tomlinson to control the clock and help avoid the Jets' strong pass rush. New York DE John Abraham will only play a handful of snaps at best, however, so San Diego's impressive young line has a chance to hold up. QB Drew Brees has had a tremendous season, but needs to prove he can get it done in the playoffs. The return of WR Keenan McCardell should help open the passing game against the Jets' vulnerable secondary.

FAST FACTS: RB Curtis Martin accounted for 35 percent of the Jets' total offense in the regular season. His 1,942 yards from scrimmage were more than a third of the team's total of 5,619. ... Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997 and the 12th time in his career. His playoff mark is 5-11. ... Jets coach Herm Edwards was on Schottenheimer's staff in Kansas City. Edwards was also a defensive back at San Diego State, where his son, Marcus, now plays. ... The Jets haven't won a postseason game on the road since 1983. ... The Chargers and Falcons were the 23rd and 24th teams since 1967 to win their division after finishing in last place the previous season. The Chargers were 4-12 in 2003. ... The Chargers are 8-1 when leading after the first quarter and 10-1 when scoring first.

PREDICTION: Chargers 23-20

--WR Wayne Chrebet's concussion may be more serious than the team is letting on. He practiced lightly on Thursday but it looks like rookie Jerricho Cotchery will get most of the work out of the slot.
--WR Jerricho Cotchery is likely to get most of the playing time when the Jets bring in a slot receiver. The fourth-round pick has four catches in the last three games, three for 10 yards or more.
--LB Kenyatta Wright didn't practice Thursday because of a sprained right foot. He hasn't practice all week and probably won't play at San Diego Saturday. His role is primarily on special teams.
--DE Shaun Ellis has often struggled to get sacks when John Abraham is out of the lineup but he has gotten good penetration over the last month while Abraham has been out with a sprained knee. Ellis had a career-high three sacks last Sunday against the Rams.
--RB LaMont Jordan could see some extra carries against the Chargers if Curtis Martin has trouble in the early going inside against San Diego's linebackers. Martin is having a fabulous season but he has faltered somewhat against the League's best run defenses. Jordan, however, doesn't need time to warm up and is often productive as soon as he gets in the game.

-- CB Jamar Fletcher will remain the nickel back. Sammy Davis isn't quite ready.
-- P Mike Scifres is certain his tweaked thumb won't hurt his drop when kicking. Scifres, a Pro Bowl first alternate, hurt it slightly when bungling a snap in the regular-season finale.
-- WR Keenan McCardell (hamstring) went through another full practice. He is a go for Saturday.
-- DE Igor Olshansky returned to practice after missing the past two workouts with the flu. He'll play Saturday.
-- Backup CB Sammy Davis (leg) returned, after missing the past two practices with a family emergency. Davis, still bothered by his leg, might not go on Saturday. Jamar Fletcher will be the nickel back.
-- RB Jesse Chatman (toe) practiced and will play Saturday.
-- WR/KR Tim Dwight (toe) went through the practice. He will go Saturday.

Defensive end John Abraham said he wanted to be at 80 to 90 percent before returning, yet he was limited in practice Wednesday and was only at about three-quarters speed Thursday.

"I have to weigh my options," said Abraham, who has missed the last four games with a sprained lateral collateral ligament. "I think we avoided surgery just letting it heal for the last four weeks and I don't want to have to put myself in a situation that I am going to need surgery if I go out there and get hurt again."

Abraham didn't experience any swelling immediately after practice, nor did he have great difficulty coming off the edge during practice. Abraham's biggest obstacle may be in his head.

"Obviously I was a little tentative because I just started practicing so I can't say I felt like perfectly myself," said Abraham, who has 9.5 sacks. "Mentally and physically you have to feel pretty much perfect or at least on that line to perfection. I can't really say if I'm at that level yet or not."

In Abraham's defense, he's in a tough position. He wants to play and help the Jets against San Diego Saturday but he also has to be somewhat selfish. Abraham can ill afford to injure his knee further and risk surgery, not when he's due to hit the free agent market after the season.

The Jets have the option of slapping the franchise tag on Abraham, paying him roughly $7 million in 2005. Yet if he hits the market, Abraham could get a hefty signing bonus, possibly topping the $16 million Jevon Kearse got from Philadelphia last offseason.

As part of his extension signed in November, teammate Shaun Ellis received $15.5 million in guaranteed money.

"Either way, whatever I do is pretty much going to factor in on my life whether we move on or whether we lose," Abraham said. "I don't want to run back out there too soon and get another injury to this knee and have to get surgery or something like that."

Most important player for the Chargers on Saturday in their playoff game with the New York Jets?

Jamal Williams?

The defensive tackle could be the key for the Chargers, as the critical part of the Jets' offense is running back Curtis Martin.

Williams is the anchor for Chargers run defense, which is ranked third in the league. And the thinking is if the run is stopped, the Jets will have to lean on a passing game which is hampered by Chad Pennington's bum shoulder.

Williams was overlooked in the Pro Bowl balloting, but he's not forgotten by coach Marty Schottenheimer.

"He has a terrific, terrific year," Schottenheimer said.

It's the dirty work Williams does up front which allows linebackers, especially Donnie Edwards (151 tackles), to swoop in and get the glory. Still, Williams has 32 tackles and four sacks.

Williams, though, will have his hands full with Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae. That'll be one of the better matchups of game.

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