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'Hidden' factors that could come into play

Baltimore Sun

To preview the conference championship weekend, we can discuss the obvious.

Rex Ryan likes to talk.

Peyton Manning has a big forehead.

Brett Favre sure is old.

Reggie Bush has a hot girlfriend.

Or, we can discuss the less obvious, the factors that are generally escaping notice in the pre-game but could be getting all of the attention in the post-game. Let's look at one hidden factor for each of the four semifinalists.

SaintsCan they establish a run against the No. 2-ranked rushing defense in the NFL?

If the New Orleans Saints can soften up the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, it will help open things up for big plays in the passing game. Without a running threat to worry about, the Vikings will be able to put all their energies into getting Drew Brees onto his back.

For the run game to click for the Saints, Pierre Thomas, who led the team with 793 rushing yards and gained 5.4 yards per carry, will have to be able to plow it up the middle against the Vikings' Williams Wall of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.

"Pierre is a talented back," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "He's capable of big plays. He runs hard every time we give him the ball. Coming into the season, an objective of ours was doing better in the run game. Pierre has been a big part of that."

VikingsWill Bernard Berrian provide a vertical threat to deflect attention from Sidney Rice?

After scoring four touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Rice will be a marked man in New Orleans. The player who should be able to take advantage of extra attention given to Rice is Berrian.

Berrian did not have a very productive season. He got off to a rough start, pulling a hamstring early, and then pulling the hamstring on his other leg. He didn't miss any games, but he didn't have his usual burst until a couple of weeks ago.

While Berrian struggled to run routes as he used to, Rice was establishing himself as Favre's pet receiver. Berrian, meanwhile, lost out on an opportunity to develop chemistry with Favre.

"I wasn't able to run like I wanted to," Berrian said. "But now my legs feel great at the right time."

ColtsWill they be able to stop the run?

The Indianapolis Colts never have been known for their run defense, and that might not be changing with Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones coming to town for the AFC championship game. Though they tweaked their defense in the offseason, the Colts still finished 24th in the league against the run.

Their best run defender typically is Manning. That is, if Manning throws four touchdown passes, the other team can't run it on the Colts.

But the Colts' defenders are probably a little better against the run than they get credit for.

"They are very disruptive and fast, and their run fits are good," NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said.

The key is middle linebacker Gary Brackett, one of the most underrated and overlooked players in the league. He doesn't get a lot of attention because he was undrafted out of Rutgers and is undersized (generously listed at 5 feet 11). "He's a very, very good player," Baldinger said. "He's a very good tackler."

JetsWill their outstanding inside linebackers get into Manning's head?

Usually, you think about safeties or pass rushers having the potential to affect Manning. But with the New York Jets, the players who could annoy him the most are inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott, a former Raven.

"They are the best combination of inside linebackers in the league," Baldinger said. "They play off each other very well. They are excellent in the blitz game, and they pressure a lot. They are excellent in disguising what they are doing. They get great depth when they have to get into pass coverage and take away crossing routes or run down the seams with tight ends or slot receivers. They cover a lot of ground."

Scott and Harris will need to guess right on Manning's checks and audibles, and take away tight end Dallas Clark and other receivers running inside routes.

If they do that, they should give their team a chance to get to Miami.

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