Denver Broncos (10-6) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Minnesota Vikings (8-8) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Denver Broncos (10-6) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 17th meeting including playoffs. Denver leads the regular-season series 11-4 but the Colts won the only playoff meeting. That Colts' playoff win was last season, a 41-10 victory at Indianapolis.
2004 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 5th (4th rush, 6th pass); defense 4th (4th rush, 6th pass). Colts: offense 2nd (15th rush, 1st pass); defense 29th (24th rush, 31st pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos' chances lie on the shoulders of QB Jake Plummer. There is no doubt the Colts are going to put points on the board, the question is whether Plummer can avoid the costly turnovers and play at the high level he has been at for the past two weeks. RBs Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell have emerged as a solid tandem as long as they hold onto the ball, and they must have success on early downs because Colts DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will terrorize Plummer in long passing situations and could forced game-changing plays. Denver traded for CB Champ Bailey in large part because of the thrashing it suffered at the hands of Colts QB Peyton Manning in last season's playoff meeting. While Bailey will be locked in a good duel with WR Marvin Harrison, the rest of the Broncos' secondary is a big question mark. Keeping tabs on WRs Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley might prove too much to handle as Denver doesn't run very deep at corner. And if RB Edgerrin James is running well to set up the play-action pass, there will be little the Broncos can do to slow the onslaught.
FAST FACTS: The Broncos have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl XXXIII. The Broncos are 0-2 since the end of the 1998 season and haven't held the lead in a playoff game in that time. ... This will be the Colts' 18th postseason appearance in the 52-year history of the franchise. It's the eighth postseason appearance for the Colts since the team moved to Indianapolis in 1984, the seventh in the past 10 years and the sixth in the past six seasons. ... Colts coach Tony Dungy has a 2-2 record in NFL wild-card playoff games, going 1-2 with Tampa Bay and 1-0 in Indianapolis. Dungy is 2-0 in home wild-card games. ... Dungy has an overall postseason record of 4-6 while in Tampa and Indianapolis. ... QB Peyton Manning has completed 117-of-228 postseason pass attempts for 1,476 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Manning needs 188 yards passing to become franchise's all-time playoff leader, moving ahead of John Unitas' total of 1,663 yards. He has already passed Unitas in postseason touchdowns (10-7) and for the longest touchdown pass in franchise playoff history (87 yards to WR Brandon Stokley vs. Denver last year). ... WR Marvin Harrison has caught more passes in Colts postseason history with 33 receptions for 496 yards and two touchdowns. He is 13 receptions ahead of Raymond Berry's 20 for 284 yards and one TD.
PREDICTION: Colts 31-23
--DE Trevor Pryce practiced through the week and will be ready to play at Indianapolis. Pryce will still be limited, but his presence should help Denver's pass rush.
--S Kenoy Kennedy was upset on Thursday about an Indianapolis newspaper report reacting to Kennedy calling the Colts receivers soft. Kennedy never said that. He said that Colts receivers don't like to get hit, not that they're soft, and said that comment was taken out of context.
--P Jason Baker was added to the Broncos injury report with a groin injury. He is listed as probable and should be able to play. Baker is also Denver's kickoff specialist.
--RB Tatum Bell has been playing with a separated shoulder. He said he is still sore, and playing on the hard artificial turf of the RCA Dome won't help. The Broncos can't afford to lose Bell, who has emerged as a big-play threat over the past month.
--LB D.J. Williams was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for December. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said Williams' maturity and knowledge of the game makes him the most impressive defensive rookie he has been around.
--FS Bob Sanders did not practice Thursday due to a bout of the flu. Sanders is expected to play Sunday against Denver.
--WR Troy Walters has been cleared to play this week. Walters incurred a concussion in last week's game at Denver. After failing one neurological test, he has been given the okay to face the Broncos on Sunday.
--TE Dallas Clark saw non-contact work Wednesday and Thursday but has been cleared to play against Denver. Clark suffered a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Broncos S John Lynch last week.
--TE Marcus Pollard is still experiencing some soreness in his ankle but practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Pollard, who suffered a high ankle sprain three weeks ago, should be able to play against Denver on Sunday.
--OG Rick DeMulling practiced Wednesday and Thursday. He is expected to start the Denver game. DeMulling has missed the last three games with bruised rib cartilage.
--CB Nick Harper has been able to practice all week and will probably start against the Broncos. Harper missed last week's game in order to rest his back. He has been experiencing back spasms for the last several weeks.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The best thing the Denver Broncos can do in Sunday's playoff matchup against the Colts is control the ball.
Denver's running back duo of Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell will be leaned on heavily to keep Denver's offense on the field and Indianapolis' offense off of it.
"I really don't want to put too much pressure on either one of them, but I think both of them have confidence and if they get the opportunity to run the ball or block, they can get the job done," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.
The Broncos have had success running against the Colts. The teams have met three times in the past two seasons, including last Sunday, and the Broncos have averaged 195.7 rushing yards in those games.
The key to Denver's regular-season win at Indianapolis last season was keeping their offense on the field. They controlled the ball for almost 45 minutes, a team record.
Sunday's game will be the biggest game Droughns has started at tailback in his career, but at least he has playoff experience. Bell, a rookie second-round pick who played sparingly in the first three months of the season because of injuries, has never played in a game this big.
"I think I understand, from watching the playoffs when I was in college and just talking to the other players," Bell said. "I know everyone is going to improve their game. It's going to be five times harder than we saw last week."
Reggie Wayne has a simple message for all those who think that the Indianapolis Colts' receiving corps are a tad on the puny side: Bring it on.
The toughness question has become a major issue in the wake of last week's 33-14 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Colts' regular season-finale. Especially after the costly helmet-to-helmet hit that Denver safety John Lynch laid on Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark and forced Clark to the sidelines with a concussion.
But Wayne -- who is the biggest of the Colts' three primary receivers -- isn't worried. Neither are Brandon Stokley or Marvin Harrison, who figures to garner most of the Broncos' attention.
"People try to make a statement every week. Football is a physical game. I've been playing this game since I was seven years old and there is no coward in my blood. I'll be there. I'm not going to stay home. Our team will be there," Wayne said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if Denver's secondary resorts to the same type of grab and hold tactics that helped New England in its 24-14 win over Indianapolis in last year's AFC championship game.
"That's football. That's their job. In college, our receivers coach told us, 'If they hold you, they win.' It's a judgment call for the officials. It's our job to not let them grab and hold. We have to go out and play football and we will be fine."
Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was instrumental in helping to develop Lynch's career when both were in Tampa Bay, says that he isn't worried about the durability of his receivers or their ability to make plays against Denver.
"It's hard to catch a lot of balls in the NFL if you're not tough. We've got three guys that have caught a lot of balls and they've done it for a long time. I don't think you stay in the league being soft," he said.
Minnesota Vikings (8-8) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Collinsworth
SERIES: This is the 88th meeting but the first in the postseason. The Packers lead 44-42-1, including 23-20-1 in Wisconsin. Both meetings this season ended with the Packers winning 34-31 on last-second field goals by Ryan Longwell.
2004 RANKINGS: Vikings: offense 4th (18th rush, 2nd pass); defense 28th (21st rush, 29th pass). Packers: offense 3rd (10th rush, 3rd pass); defense 25th (14th rush, 25th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Which secondary can bend the most without breaking? The balls will be flying through the air with reckless abandon, despite cold conditions. Both secondaries are much-maligned, and the Vikings are in especially poor shape with their top cover man and tackler, CB Antoine Winfield, still hampered by an ankle injury. The Packers' receivers will have a big mismatch downfield, especially if RB Ahman Green gets off to a strong start and the Vikings are forced to respect the run. But as good as QB Brett Favre is, he still needs to avoid forcing the ball downfield and throwing interceptions, because both offenses need to make every possession count. The Vikings' offense has been hit and miss after a strong first half of the season, and Minnesota is looking for RB Michael Bennett to provide more of a consistent ground threat to open up the vertical passing game. The Packers don't rush the passer particularly well, so Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper could be in for a field day picking apart the Packers' shaky secondary. With both regular season meetings decided by a field goal, turnovers and special teams will make the difference in the third meeting.
FAST FACTS: The Vikings lost seven of their final 10 regular season games for the second consecutive season. ... In 15 cases since 197o in which a team that swept a two-game season series met an opponent for a third time in the playoffs, the sweeping team is 10-5. ... The Packers are wearing a helmet decal with No. 92 on it. It is in memory of Reggie White, the retired defensive end who died last week at age 43. ... The Vikings are 2-20 in their last 22 outdoor road games dating to October 2000. Both victories came with the game-time temperature above 70 degrees. One of them was a 30-25 victory at Lambeau Field in last year's season opener. ... In 13 games against the Packers, WR Randy Moss has 66 receptions for 1,243 yards (18.8) and 12 touchdowns. Moss was held to two catches for 30 yards and a touchdown in the 34-31 loss to the Packers at the Metrodome on Christmas Eve. ... In nine games against the Packers, QB Daunte Culpepper has completed 165 of 284 passes (58.1) for 2,193 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 97.1 passer rating.
PREDICTION: Packers 27-24
-- CB Brian Williams is the latest Viking to battle the flu. He didn't practice Wednesday, but was back Thursday and was removed from the injury report. He is expected to start against the Packers on Sunday.
-- RB Moe Williams missed practice Wednesday and was walking around with his right ankle in a protective boot for precautionary reasons. He practiced on Thursday and was removed from the injury report. Williams will play his usual role against the Packers. "Moe's been here so long," coach Mike Tice said. "He knows everything like the back of his hand."
-- WR Kelly Campbell, who suffered a separated shoulder last week, was able to practice Thursday, but he remains questionable for Sunday's game at Green Bay. Even if he suits up, he isn't expected to return kickoffs.
-- SS Willie Offord will make his first start since Oct. 20, 2002 when the Vikings play at Green Bay in a wild-card playoff game. Offord replaces SS Corey Chavous, who fractured his left elbow last week and probably won't play again even if the Vikings were to win on Sunday. "I hate to see Corey go down the way he did," Offord said. "But now it's my turn."
-- QB Daunte Culpepper won his second consecutive Korey Stringer Good Guy Award, presented annually by the Twin Cities media to the player who is most cooperative with the local reporters. The award is named in honor of the former Viking who suffered a heat-related death in training camp in 2001.
--C Grey Ruegamer will start against Minnesota. He split time with rookie Scott Wells in Chicago but the coaches opted for experience even though Ruegamer has had two shaky outings against Vikings NT Spencer Johnson. "Wells didn't do anything to disappoint me but I thought Ruegamer, with his line calls and managing the game, I thought he did pretty well," coach Mike Sherman said.
--DT Cletidus Hunt knows why he was benched in Chicago for second-year man Cullen Jenkins. "I just had a down year this year," he said. "So I'm looking forward to them counting on me in the playoffs and making up for it next season."
--DE R-Kal Truluck crawled on his elbows and belly after sacking Chicago's Chad Hutchinson in the closing seconds. "I don't think there's a need for somebody who has 2 1 /2, 3 sacks or whatever to do that," coach Mike Sherman said.
--G Marco Rivera has had two solid games against Vikings DT Kevin William,s but knows their third game Sunday might be the toughest of all. "I consider him a defensive tackle in a class by himself," Rivera said. "He's really young and he's going to be a great one in this league. He's very explosive."
--S Darren Sharper says there is no way the Packers can expect to play Cover-2 exclusively against the Vikings and live to tell about it. "We have to mix it up a little bit, do a lot of different things," he said. "If you do just that the whole game they'll find a way to gash you."
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Vikings coach Mike Tice nixed plans to practice outdoors this week because of single-digit temperatures and minus-20 degree wind chills.
"We'd like to, but it's just so brutally cold," Tice said. "We have the doors open in the indoor facility. So, we'll get the temperatures down to more where they'll be on game day.
"There's no way we can practice on the field outdoors. It's frozen solid. So, that's the problem with that. If we get the temperatures down in the indoor facility that will give us the same effect with also being able to get more things done as far as moving around on a better surface."
Originally, Tice looked into obtaining some heating equipment to thaw the outdoor fields. Management didn't see the value in that.
Tice then wanted to conduct walk throughs outdoors. But the temperature dipped too far.
Sunday's wild-card game at Lambeau Field isn't expected to be played in temperatures as cold as the Twin Cities have been this week. It's expected to be sub-freezing, but nowhere near single digits.
Although the Vikings shied away from the elements, they haven't backed off from contact in practice this week. The more aggressive approach is part of Tice's plan to toughen a team that has lost four of its past five games and seven of its past 10.
"I think you worry so much sometimes about keeping guys fresh, and it tends to make you lose the edge," Tice said. "The players can get fresh when we get finished with this run. ... If it turns out that somebody gets hurt, then somebody gets hurt. That's just the way it goes."
William Henderson, a grand old man in Green Bay, suddenly has become the grand honored old man.
The soon-to-be 34-year-old fullback made his first Pro Bowl last week. On Thursday, he was named to the first team on the Associated Press All-Pro team.
Henderson received 16 votes from a panel of 48 writers and broadcasters, one more than Kansas City's Tony Richardson.
"This is a little bigger than the Pro Bowl," Henderson said. "I'm kind of blown away, to be honest with you. This was nothing I was expecting."
Henderson is the first fullback in Green Bay since Jim Taylor in 1962 to make AP first team. He's also the first running back of any kind on Green Bay since John Brockington in 1971 to make AP first team.
The AP thought so little of the fullback position that it didn't even include it the last four years. Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott won in 1997, '98 and '99 even though he was more of a running back than a fullback. Arizona's Larry Centers won in '96. There also was no fullback on the team in 1994 and '95.