Super Bowl places up for grabs

The Chargers tackle the Patriots, while the Packers clash with the Giants.

    Shawne "Lights out" Merriman is looking for a ticket
    to the Super Bowl [AFP]
    After upsetting the Indianapolis Colts the San Diego Chargers will look to continue their giant killing ways when they face the perfect Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts in the AFC title game, albeit with their quarterback and two best offensive players limping.

    Later, the Green Bay Packers will host the New York Giants in a NFC Championship game expected to be played in freezing temperatures at Lambeau Field.

    San Diego tight end Antonio Gates played last week with a dislocated toe, and it’s assumed he will play again.

    Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson says he will after a hyperextended knee.

    Despite his optimism, quarterback Philip Rivers will be a game-time decision on his sprained knee ligaments.

    He was hurt last weekend in the 28-24 playoff upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Colts, and backup Billy Volek led the winning touchdown drive.

    The Chargers are 14-point underdogs against the Patriots, but they aren't daunted.

    They have won eight straight, including two playoff games which admirable given their 1-3 and 5-5 starts to the season.

    San Diego's defence leads the NFL with a plus-24 turnover ratio and got two interceptions off Colts star Peyton Manning last week.

    Antonio Cromartie led the league with 10 regular-season interceptions and had another in the playoff win in Indianapolis, and linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips share 21 sacks between them.

    For New England, it all starts with NFL MVP Tom Brady, who set a league record for touchdown passes with 50, a record 23 of which were caught by Randy Moss.

    If the defence double and triple-teams Moss, as the Jacksonville Jaguars did in limiting him to one catch last week, Brady still has targets in Wes Welker, who tied for the league lead with 109 catches, Jabar Gaffney, Donte' Stallworth and tight end Benjamin Watson.

    Add in Kevin Faulk as the pass-catching running back and Laurence Maroney, who rushed for 122 yards against the Jaguars, and the Patriots have more weapons than any team has managed to handle so far.

    What makes the Patriots offence even more effective is that Brady has a quick release and the offensive line protects him extremely well, allowing just 21 sacks this season.

    Brady, whose best games often come in the biggest settings, was typically composed.

    For all his experience in tough settings, the three-time Super Bowl champion suggested he had more trouble nowadays when it came to keeping his adrenaline in check.

    Brady was reminded that six years ago, right before playing in his first Super Bowl, he took a nap on the locker room floor.

    Brady wound up as the game's MVP in a win over the St. Louis Rams.

    "I think I was naive back in the day,'' Brady said. "I thought it was easy.''

    Giants charging

    Green Bay's Brett Favre  makes light work of
    heavy conditions [GALLO/GETTY]
    The New York Giants have won nine straight games on the road, including at Tampa and Dallas in the playoffs.

    In most areas, they are the more veteran team than the Green Bay Packers, and they've been playing well for a month.

    The Giants also don't want people to believe they are the same team that lost to the Packers 35-13 in the Meadowlands in Week 2, before their defence grasped new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's schemes.

    The Packers took advantage of New York's mediocre secondary, and no quarterback in the NFC is better equipped to do that than Brett Favre.

    The one area where the Giants haven't improved a lot is the defensive backfield.

    Of course, Favre must have time to throw.

    He gets rid of the ball quicker than Jeff Garcia or Tony Romo, the two quarterbacks New York has beaten in the postseason.

    He'd better against the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers, including Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

    But they can't afford to fixate on Favre.

    Most of Green Bay's big plays against the Seattle Seahawks last week were made by Ryan Grant.

    An unheralded backup running back with the Giants in the preseason, he was traded to the Packers and began the season a fifth-stringer.

    Now he's a star, especially after overcoming two early fumbles that led to Seahawks touchdowns to rush for 201 yards and three scores.

    Giants quarterback Eli Manning has stopped making mistakes and started making plays, even after slow starts.

    His recent work, including that touchdown drive in the final 46 seconds of the first half at Dallas last Sunday, has reminded observers of a certain Colts quarterback who won last year's Super Bowl.

    The Packers have not been overpowering at home, where they are 8-1 but had several close games.

    How much their proximity to Favre's first Super Bowl in 10 years will provide a boost is immeasurable, but it should be significant.

    Callahan joins Jets

    Meanwhile, The New York Jets have hired Bill Callahan as their assistant head coach/offence.

    Callahan, 51, was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2002-2003, leading the club to the Super Bowl following the 2002 campaign.

    Callahan has spent the last four years as the head coach of the University of Nebraska, leading the Cornhuskers to a 27-22 record.

    Nebraska, however, was only 5-7 this season.

    "Bill brings valuable experience as an assistant coach and head coach on both the college and NFL levels," Mangini said.

    "His expertise with the running game and with protections will be a big asset. I look forward to adding him to our staff."

    New York was 4-12 this season, following a 10-6 campaign a year earlier.

    The Jets' offence ranked 26th of 32 NFL teams this season.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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