Last week’s scores:
Saints 45-14 (my prediction Cardinals 34-27)
Colts 20-3 (my prediction Colts 23-17)
Vikings 34-3 (my prediction Vikings 20-17)
Jets 17-14 (my prediction Chargers 30-20)
Alright, another 2-2 week. The Saints crushed the Cardinals, a team who learned it’s pretty damn tough to slow down Drew Brees and company when you’re without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle for most of the game. Kurt Warner almost got knocked out, and for the first time in 13 playoff games, he did not throw a touchdown. The Colts held off the Ravens and advanced to the AFC Title game. Baltimore had their chances, but Ed Reed fumbled while returning an INT deep into Indy territory, and another near pick 6 was called back due to a penalty. In what was thought by most to be the best game of the week, Minnesota steamrolled Dallas thanks to four Favre TDs, three of them to Sidney Rice. Tony Romo had no time to throw, and the Cowboys, like the Cardinals, got rolled. Interestingly, both NFC games were had the home teams winning by 31 points. The last game of the week saw the Chargers crap their pants against the Jets and find yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Shonn Green ran for more yards than Mark Sanchez threw, but it was Philip Rivers who committed the costly and untimely turnovers. The Jets-Chargers game was competitive, but to me all they were all yawners. New week, new drama.
AFC Championship Game
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts (Sunday at 3:00 on CBS)
Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)
Offense: 7th in points (26), 32nd rushing (80.9), and 2nd passing (282.2)
Defense: 8th in points (19.2), 24th rushing (126.6), and 14th passing (212.7)
Everyone remembers the last time these two met. It’s was a controversial contest in week 16 where Coach Caldwell pulled his starting offense with a 15-10 lead more than halfway thorough the 3rd quarter. Once Peyton Manning was out of the game, the Colts’ offense featured:
- a 3 and out;
- a one play series where the Jets sacked Curtis Painter, forced him to fumble, and recovered the ball for a TD;
- 3 straight 3 and outs, the last one capped off with an INT; and
- one final series where Painter failed to gain 1 yard on 4 drop backs
The Jets rode a 29-15 victory and the ensuing wave of momentum into the playoffs where they have outscored their opponents 97-28 in the 13+ quarters since Caldwell’s controversial call.
A win’s a win, but the Chargers (specifically Nate Kaeding) did their best to make sure the Jets’ season continued. The sure-footed kicking specialist who led the league in field goals made this season missed all three of his attempts (36, 57, and 40 yards). Philip Rivers couldn’t beef up his postseason resume, failing to lead the Chargers on a second half scoring drive until there were just over 3 minutes left in the game. His first four drives of the second half totaled just 20 yards and resulted in 2 punts and 2 INTS.
The key play of the game was a 2nd and 9 on San Diego’s 5 yard line near the end of the third quarter. Rivers dropped back and threw a pass intended for Antonio Gates. It was a really poor pass, well short of Gates and in the area of three Jet defenders. Jim Leonhard, who had a hell of a game with 6 tackles, 1 TFL, and 2 passes defended, picked it off and took the ball to San Diego’s 16. Four plays later, Mark Sanchez found Dustin Keller in the endzone for the go-ahead score. An earlier exchange pretty much set the tone for how things would go in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, Quentin Jammer intercepted Sanchez (on a pass that Steve Gregory should have picked off) and took the ball back to New York’s 38. Four plays later, Bart Scott got in Rivers’ face and didn’t help him get off the best pass deep to Vincent Jackson. Darrelle Revis had tight coverage and pulled off an All Pro play; falling to the ground, keeping the ball in the air, and pulling off one hell of an interception. Just to show how strong the Jets defense has been playing, Rivers was picked off twice after throwing only 6 interceptions in his last 11 games.
Shonn Greene dominated the backfield carries again for the Jets, giving him 44 rushes over the last two weeks. Seeing as how he only totaled 108 totes during the regular season, give Rex Ryan some credit for having confidence in the young man in crunch time. His 4th quarter 53 yard touchdown put the game out of reach and sent the Jets to the AFC title game where they look to beat the Colts at home for the second time in less than a month.
The Colts won’t be sitting anyone this time around. They come in off a 20-3 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that manhandled the New England Patriots just a week before. Peyton evened his career playoff record at 8-8 with the win that included two critical red zone scores in the second quarter. The Colts ran a combined 18 plays on those two drives and send the Ravens to halftime down by a score of 17-3. On the second TD drive, Manning waved off Caldwell on a 3rd and 3 with 7 seconds left in the half. The conservative coach wanted to go for the chip shot field goal, but Manning knew he had time to go for 6 and knows how to manage these situations. Four seconds later he found Reggie Wayne in the endzone, and the Colts were up 14. As brilliant as that drive was, if I know Manning, he’s stewing over the two times Ed Reed picked his pocket in the third quarter; both on passes deep downfield. The Jets don’t have Ed Reed at safety, but Revis and company will come away with any football that hangs in the air too long.
The Jets will be praised as the better defense in this matchup, but don’t overlook what the Colts are capable of doing on that side of the ball. Once Peyton and the offense got out to a two TD margin, they forced Joe Flacco to beat them. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis only combined for 2 hits on the Baltimore QB, but they made him uncomfortable the entire game. The defense held the second year QB to less than 189 yards, a shoddy 5.4 yards per attempt, and forced 2 interceptions. They limited Ray Rice to less than 70 yards rushing, his lowest total since week 13, and only allowed two rushing first downs to the Ravens in the entire game. Gary Brackett played a huge part in that. The Colts’ MLB had an excellent game defending Rice and flustering Flacco. Brackett’s play set up Indy’s first TD of the game. Early in the second quarter, Brackett tackled Rice for a loss of one and sacked Flacco for a loss of 6 on consecutive plays. The Colts scored on their next drive and put the Ravens in their rear view for the rest of the game. If Antoine Bethea’s hands worked, the Ravens wouldn’t have scored the lone 3 points they were able to manage.
I expect this Colts-Jets matchup to play out similarly to last week’s Colts-Ravens game. Indy has two games worth of Shonn Greene highlights to do a better job of keying on him than did the Bengals or Chargers. Green isn’t a better runner than Rice. The Jets passing game isn’t as good as Baltimore’s. The Colts will face a conservative, run first offense for the second week in a row and a QB who has thrown for 282 yards in two games. When was the last time Peyton Manning lost to an offense that passed for less than 120 yards? I don’t know, but I bet it’s been a while. Philip Rivers is a fine QB, but he’s no Manning, not yet. Wayne may be blanketed by Revis, but I like the Colts’ odds with Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Pierre Garcon against the rest of the Jets secondary.
Just as he responded better to Baltimore’s pressure than did Tom Brady, I expect Peyton to be more successful against the Jets than was Rivers. He’s been here before, and he wants to win another one. Either way, a rookie HC will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Going back to their week 16 matchup one more time, the only TD the Jets had before Caldwell pulled his starters came on a KR for a TD. The clock strikes midnight on Sanchez in this one. The Colts get out ahead early and hold off a late Jets rally. It won’t be as close as the score indicates.
Colts win the AFC 20-13
NFC Championship Game
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints (Sunday at 6:40 on FOX)
Offense: 2nd in points (29.4), 13th rushing (119.9), and 8th passing (259.8)
Defense: 10th in points (19.5), 2nd rushing (87.1), and 19th passing (218.4)
Offense: 1st in points (31.9), 6th rushing (131.6), and 4th passing (272.2)
Defense: 20th in points (21.3), 21st rushing (122.2), and 26th passing (235.6)
I’m guessing that this is the marquee matchup in most people’s eyes. Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings head south to take on the offensive machine known as the New Orleans Saints. This game figures to be quite a bit more competitive than either of these team’s divisional round matchups. If it’s anything like the last time these two hooked up, it will be a full 60 minute contest.
Like this week’s conference championship, their ’08 meeting took place at the Superdome. In that matchup the Vikings withstood two Reggie Bush punt returns for touchdowns and won late 30-27 on a Ryan Longwell field goal. A second missed Martin Gramatica field goal (the first missed kicked was blocked and returned 59 yards for a TD) left the score tied with just under two minutes to go and gave Minnesota a chance to win. Three plays later, defensive pass interference on a deep Gus Frerotte pass to Bernard Berrian set the Vikings up inside the Saints’ 15 yard line. Following three Adrian Peterson battering ram runs that gained little yardage, Longwell came on and won the game. Fast forward.
The Vikings had the least respect of any of the divisional round hosts last week. Squaring off against the red hot Cowboys, all the talk was about Tony Romo and how Dallas seemed to be clicking in all phases of the game. Their defense figured to run right through Minnesota’s recently porous offensive line and make it a long afternoon for the home team. Dallas got off to a nice start, moving the ball well and getting within field goal range on their first two drives, but they didn’t get anything out of either one. The first possession was halted after Romo fumbled on third down, and Shaun Suisham missed a 48 yard field goal on the second one. It took almost 11 minutes of game time, but four plays following the missed kick, Favre hit Sidney Rice down the right sideline for a 47 yard score and the game’s first points. Terence Newman contributed absolutely nothing on the play, and Gerald Sensabaugh looked like a clown in coverage. After Dallas answered with a field goal, Favre hooked up with Rice again and stretched Minnesota’s lead to 14-3.
In what turned out to be the dagger in Dallas’ season, Tony Romo fumbled on the second play of the next drive when he was sacked by Jared Allen, giving the Vikings the ball on Dallas’ 20. The Cowboys’ defense held Minnesota to a FG, but it was clear that Dallas was in for a long afternoon. They had the ball 9 more times and didn’t score once. As ugly as the Cowboys played, they were still mathematically in the game with less than ten minutes to go. Favre threw a fourth and final (and controversial) TD to Visanthe Shiancoe, and the Vikings were on their way to the conference championship game.
New Orleans had a pretty easy go of things as well, as the Cardinals brought knives to a gun fight. Arizona was iffy against the pass to begin with, but when they lost both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle early in the contest, they had zero chance. DRC went out in the first quarter with a fairly ugly knee injury. Rolle exited in the first as well with a concussion. Drew Brees abused Bryant McFadden and Michael Adams and could have scored 60 if he tried. Reggie Bush only touched the ball 9 times, but he gained 108 yards. For the Saints, five different players found the endzone, and six receivers caught multiple passes. They’ll beat you any number of ways, and this game was just another example of that.
After surrendering a 70 yard TD on the first play from scrimmage to Tim Hightower, the Saints allowed the Cardinals to score just 7 more points in the remaining 59 minutes and 41 seconds. On the drive following the Hightower score, Randall Gay forced a Jerheme Urban fumble on the first play from scrimmage, the Saints recovered, and Brees found a gimpy Jeremy Shockey in the endzone four plays later to take a 14-7 lead. Following two fruitless three and out drives, the Cardinals were down 14 to the Saints. You can’t get down multiple scores to this New Orleans team and hang in there long. Nothing went Kurt Warner’s way as the Saints limited him to 205 yards passing in what could have been the last game of his career.
Minnesota has won 7 of their last 8 matchups against the Saints including the last four. In fact, the Saints haven’t beaten the Vikings since October 7, 2001. Brett Favre seems destined to play for another championship, and with the way Sidney Rice dominated last week, New Orleans’ 26th ranked pass rush will have their hands full trying to contain him. If we can take the spotlight off Favre for a moment, I think the key to this week’s game will be whether or not Minnesota’s pass rush can consistently get to Drew Brees. Jared Allen will be lining up against Jermon Bushrod, one of the better young tackles no one has heard of. Watch that matchup. Ray Edwards had 3 sacks and 4 TFL against Marc Colombo, but he’s coming into this game with a banged up knee and is facing a much tougher foe in Jon Stinchcomb. I expect to see a lot of short stuff from Brees to negate the pass rush, and that means Reggie Bush should be a big factor once again. That said, I do think Chad Greenway will fare better than Clark Haggans in defending him.
The Vikings have lost their last three road games (Chicago 36-30, Carolina 26-7, and Arizona 30-17), and the Saints will no doubt have a huge home field advantage. If Minnesota can’t get to Brees early and often then they risk losing Adrian Peterson and the running game as a weapon. Since the Saints will no doubt key on Rice, I think the Vikings would be wise to step up Peterson’s involvement in the passing game. This was his most productive year in that area, averaging 10 yards a catch. He’s tough to take down at the line of scrimmage, much less in the open field. If the Saints are able to lock down Rice and Peterson and handle Visanthe Shiancoe and the underwhelming Bernard Berrian one on one, then Percy Harvin becomes a possible x-factor. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he touched the ball only 4 times in a lopsided contest. Why show ‘em if you don’t have to? I think Brad Childress saw plenty of Reggie Bush prancing all over the Cardinals and is scheming ways to unleash his jackrabbit (migraines willing) on the Saints.
This has been the toughest game so far for me to call. The Saints haven’t made it to a Super Bowl in their 42 year history, and the last time the Vikings went to the dance Raheem Morris was 4 months old. My initial take was that home field advantage and quick hitting passing game will be too much for Minnesota to contend with. But I dig a little deeper. Despite losing to Arizona earlier in the season, I think Minnesota is the better team of the two. The Cardinals looked bad against the Saints, and I think the majority of that had to do with an undermanned and overmatched defense being unable to break serve often enough to stay in the game. To me, Minnesota is a schizophrenic team getting hot again at the right time. In their last two matchups they beat the Giants and Cowboys by a combined score of 78-10. I think we might look back in a month and wonder why we didn’t see it coming. The Vikings get a sneaky win, and we get to hear about Brett Favre vs. Peyton Manning for two weeks.
Vikings are victorious 31-27