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Sunday NFL Preview: Ice Bowl II and Manning vs. Replacement

Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers bring uncertainty to the field on Sunday with leg injuries that altered mechanics at season’s end. How one man’s thigh and another’s calf hold up may well determine conference championship-game berths. Seattle and New England await the winners.

Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos

There is so much talk about the superstar quarterbacks in this game. Don’t underestimate the importance of the unsung running backs – Denver’s C.J. Anderson and Indianapolis’s Dan “Boom” Herron.

Anderson, an undrafted free agent out of Cal, led the NFL in all-purpose yards in November, and in touchdowns in December, with seven. The 5-8, 225-pound Anderson has a low center of gravity, making him tough to tackle for taller defenders. He breaks a lot of arm tackles and gains a lot of yards after initial contact.

Herron, a sixth round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals last year out of Ohio State, re-energized the Colts’ moribund running game when he was inserted into the lineup three weeks ago. In a win over his former team last week in the wildcard round, he had 10 receptions and 141 all-purpose yards.

The Broncos need a big another big game from Anderson to take some pressure off QB Peyton Manning, nursing a thigh injury that affects his plant leg and accuracy.

You could see this problem manifest itself in a Week 16 loss to the Bengals, featuring four Manning interceptions. So Manning will need help. He’s not in “carry-the-team” mode right now. So a strong game from Anderson, and from the Broncos’s defense, which gave up the third fewest yards in the NFL, would be helpful.

And the Broncos defense will face quite a challenge in Colts QB Andrew Luck, who threw an NFL-high 40 touchdowns this season. Without knowing how Manning’s leg is going to respond, this is a hard game to call.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

This game features the signal callers with the NFL’s two top QB ratings – Dallas’ Tony Romo (114.4) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (111.0).

A key to this game is how Rodgers’s calf injury impacts his play. He has a slightly torn calf muscle, and this could mess-up his near perfect throwing mechanics. If the calf turns out to be no big deal, Rodgers could do a lot of damage against a pedestrian Cowboys defense, ranked 27th against the pass. Spearheaded by Rodgers, a rare QB talent, the Packers averaged 30.4 points per game this season.

Romo, a Wisconsin native, comes off perhaps his best season. He threw 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, and completed 69.9 percent of his passes.

A running game that relieved pressure off of him this year, led by DeMarco Murray, keyed the team’s success. Expect a heavy dose of Murray against a Packers run defense ranked 22nd in the NFL. The Las Vegas-native rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. He’s big enough (6-0, 217 pounds) to break tackles and fast enough to take it the distance on any carry.

If Rodgers calf isn’t an issue, which is a long-shot, especially in the frigid Green Bay weather, the Packers should win this game. Dallas’s middle-of-the-road defense doesn’t matchup well with the Packers’ high-powered offense.

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