The postseason is where unknown players become stars and stars become legends. It can be argued that the two best running backs in the 2008 postseason are meeting on the same field today when the Vikings meet the Philadelphia Eagles, making the battle between Adrian Peterson and Brian Westbrook this week's Matchup to Watch.
For Peterson, this will be his first chance to be in the playoff spotlight. For all of his individual achievements, this will be his first chance to showcase his talents during the postseason. He had an extraordinary 2008 season, leading the NFL in rushing with 363 carries for 1,760 yards. He averaged almost 23 carries a game for 110 yards, including a franchise-record 10 100-yard rushing games. He was the focal point of an offense that ran 519 times while throwing 452 passes. There was little doubting who the main man was in the Vikings offense. If Peterson got his touches, the Vikings typically won. If they are to beat the Eagles, Peterson will have to carry the load to take the pressure that is sure to be coming from the blitzing Eagles defense against Tarvaris Jackson.
It is agreed that Peterson is the centerpiece of the Vikings offense, but his contribution has been almost exclusively as a runner. While he ran for 1,760 yards, his role as a receiver was minimal, catching just 21 passes for 125 yards and no touchdowns. That is not the case with Westbrook, who has proved to be one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, using his ability as a runner and a receiver to devastate opponents.
Despite missing two games earlier in the year and being a game-time decision in several others, Westbrook has shown his explosiveness in many different ways. He had more than 15 rushing attempts in just seven games, but the Eagles were 6-1 in those games (and 3-5-1 in the games he didn't rush more than 15 times). He also had six games in which he caught six or more passes. Nobody else on the Eagles had more than four touchdowns, but Westbrook had 14 – nine rushing and five receiving. As much as Peterson means to the Vikings offense, it could be argued that Westbrook means as much or more to the Eagles.
What separates Westbrook from most running backs is how he is used. While the Vikings have the top run defense in the league, most teams try to run between the tackles to gain yardage. The Eagles do not. They will line Westbrook up as a slot receiver, beyond the hashmarks as a wide receiver and move him around the field from one play to the next to isolate him in space. Don't expect to see Philadelphia try to pound the ball at the Williams Wall. It simply isn't their style. Westbrook will spend more times testing the edges and taking on players like Chad Greenway and Ben Leber than he will trying to test Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (if the latter plays).
Westbrook is also no stranger to the postseason. Today will be his eighth career playoff game. In the last five, he has scored five touchdowns and, in his last two playoff games, he has rushed 33 times for 257 yards and three TDs. He is no stranger to the spotlight and has saved some of his greatest games for the postseason.
Sunday's game is going to be a battle of the premier running backs. For Peterson, it will be his first chance to prove that he is special when a potential championship is on the line. For Westbrook, it will be an opportunity to cement his place in history as one of the top backs of his era. It will be a battle that will go a long way to determining who wins and who loses and clearly has the makings of the matchup to watch as both teams try to keep their own Super Bowl dreams alive and kicking.
Matchup to watch: Peterson vs. Westbrook
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