Sunday NFL Preview: AFC-NFC Title Games

By Lloyd Vance, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: January 24, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (BASN) — The Conference Championships of the 90th NFL Season, titled “Own the Moment”, are upon us and for the final four teams (Colts, Jets, Saints, and Vikings) it is time to show their mettle, in order to achieve their goal of playing in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.

For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed destined to be the NFL’s two undefeated teams through 14 weeks, the Colts and Saints, meeting in an 18-0 undefeated showdown.

Though the match-up could still materialize, sans the undefeated part, there is no denying that the 2009 NFL Season has truly been a wild rollercoaster type affair.

Not even the best prognosticators could have predicted two undefeated 13-0 teams through 14 weeks (first time ever), two rookie head coaches squaring off in the AFC Championship Game, the NY Jets going from last season’s Brett Favre led collapse to making the Conference Championship round, Favre unretiring and looking like the Vikings’ last piece for Super Bowl glory, and many other storylines that flipped the script on NFL history.

Unfortunately last week’s divisional round was very ho-hum as the higher seeded Colts, Saints, and Vikings all won by double-digits. Only the Jets-Chargers game produced a competitive battle, where rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez — only the fourth rookie quarterback to start in the Conference Championship since 1970 – led the J-E-T-S to the next round.

But there is no denying that this year’s NFL Final Four has produced two marquee games that feature some great storylines. These extraordinary teams have a combined regular/postseason winning percentage of 78% — combined record is 53-15.

And did I mention this Sunday’s action on the field will feature the NFL’s career leader in quarterback wins and touchdown passes (Brett Favre), the NFL’s only four-time MVP (Peyton Manning), the NFL’s number one rushing attack and defense (NY Jets) plus the NFL’s regular season passing touchdowns leader (Drew Brees – 34 TDs).

In Sunday’s early game, the Indianapolis Colts (15-2) will attempt to wipe away the nasty taste of their first defeat of the season, a 29-15 loss to the NY Jets in Week 15, and justify their “resting” players philosophy by winning a rematch this weekend in Indy.

You know irate Colts’ fans, who have been ballistic since the team used back-ups in the Week 15 loss to the NY Jets, want revenge on Rex Ryan’s brash young upstart team.

This game also has some of the same subplots of the historic Super Bowl III game between these two teams — a heavy underdog Jets team, a young borderline-cocky NY Jets quarterback, a fiery Jets’ defense led by a Ryan, a good Jets’ running game and defense going against the an established team with a great record over a decade with a future Hall of Famer (Johnny Unitas) on their roster.

The Jets’ 16-7 win in Super Bowl III over 40 years ago put the AFL on the map and a win by the 2009 version of the J-E-T-S in the AFC Championship Game would be huge, but sorry…not historic.

As good as the anticipation for the Colts-Jets “Rest-Gate” rematch game has been, the majority of NFL fans that I have talked to — via Twitter, email, and radio – all are looking more forward to the NFC Championship Game featuring the No. 1 seeded Saints against the No. 2 seeded Vikings.

After Week 12 of the 2009 NFL season, this match-up seemed a no-brainer, but both teams led by a pinball machine offense and an opportunistic defense had their moments where doubt crept into the conversation.

However both teams last week put up huge points on offense and their pass rushes were fierce in dominant wins over the Cardinals and Cowboys respectively.

So everyone is anticipating a shootout in the Super Dome between Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Brett Favre as the NFC Championship is on the line.

With three of the NFL’s best teams playing on Sunday, there is a distinct feeling that the cream of the NFL has risen to the top. There is even a chance of the NFL’s two number one seeded teams can meet in the Super Bowl for first time since the 1993 season (Dallas and Buffalo).

Of course with the majority of the top teams still being in the playoff hunt, some NFL fans are asking, “Has parity finally left the NFL?” I am not sure, but while some people like teams like the 2008 Arizona Cardinals going from a poor 9-7 regular season to the Super Bowl, it is wasn’t for me.

Though it has been nice to see Wildcard Round winners taking home three of the last four Super Bowl titles.

As someone who grew-up watching perennial Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers, Dolphins, Niners, Cowboys, and Raiders serving as the bully for the rest of the NFL, I like watching the best teams fight it out.

Nothing against the upstart NY Jets, who are trying to match the 2007 NY Giants as a Cinderella team made good. But I have always believed having the top teams in the Conference Championship round leads to more competitive games.

Whatever happens in this Sunday’s games, this round of the playoffs is truly special as the NFL’s junior prizes — conference championship trophies (George Halas Trophy for the NFC and Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC) — and a trip to the Super Bowl are all on the line.

However players on all four teams better focus on first winning this Sunday before looking ahead to confetti laced on-field celebrations and planning trips to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.

All the preparation that the players and coaches have been through from OTA’s to training camp to the long grueling 17-week regular season, and two playoff rounds all hangs in the balance. As Viking quarterback Brett Favre recently said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “This is what I came back for”.

    Some Lloyd’s Leftovers for the Conference Championship Round:

    NFL Television numbers support that the league is more popular than ever — There is no doubt that all of the excitement from the 2009 NFL season kept fans glued to their televisions and Football fans across America tuned into NFL games in the largest numbers in two decades. According to Nielsen Media Research, the average 2009 regular-season game was watched by 16.6 million viewers – up 2 million viewers per game from last year and the NFL’s highest viewership average since 1990 (16.7 million), before the explosion of viewer choice on television and online.

    Jets quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground — New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan and his rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez can reach two milestones when they play Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Sanchez can become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl — already tied with Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who won two playoff games on the way to the AFC Championship game in 2008) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

    Ryan and Caldwell make history – When the Jets and Colts meet in the AFC Championship, their respective head coaches (Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell) will become the first two rookie head coaches to oppose each other in the game.

    In a great non-story, Caldwell if his team wins will be the 3rd African American head coach to lead his team into football’s biggest game – will join Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, who opposed each other in Super Bowl XLI. After the Jets’ divisional round win over the Chargers, Ryan became the sixth rookie head coach in the Super Bowl era to win at least two playoff games. But this is a much bigger prize and with the win, the winning coach will become the fifth rookie head coach to lead his team into the Super Bowl. .

    Favre to add to his legacy – Certain Hall of Famer and Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre will not only be looking for a win against the Saints on Sunday. But the NFC Championship Game is an opportunity for him to extend his historic playoff numbers. No. 4 ranks first in NFL playoff history in completions, and attempts. But he is still second in passing yards and touchdown passes. Favre needs 224 yards and three touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category. But getting a win against the Saints may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer, who 2-2 for his career in the NFC Championship Game including throwing a bad interception to end the 2007 rendition against the NY Giants.

With both No.1 seeds (Saints and Colts) in action, we will see this Sunday if the trend of the top seeds in each conference seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true.

Hard to believe it has been sixteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII). But remember, since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all.

Not surprisingly both home teams (Saints and Colts) are favored this week by Vegas — Saints are a 3.5-point favorite while the Colts are a surprising nine-point favorite over the underdog Jets.

Everyone including yours truly will be pontificating on what will happen, but luckily the games will be played on the field and anything can happen — Any Given Sunday…right?? “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen” said New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan this week.

My predictions are below and one game I have strong feelings about while the other is a lot tougher to pick. But as is the case with most games, I still believe time-tested playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense causing turnovers, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the key determinants in all of the team’s fortunes this Sunday.

Now onto my game notes and predictions.

2009 NFL Playoffs Championship Round Games

JETS (11-7) at COLTS (15-2) (CBS, 3 p.m. ET)

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after “resting” key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to be prepared for the games that count. Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players at the end of the regular season, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” This game is a direct rematch from Week 15 of the regular season, which many are calling “Rest-Gate”, right down to the venue.

Unfortunately for angry Colts fans, let’s go back to what happened back then. The Indianapolis Colts, who were 14-0 and had already wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 seed, came into the game riding a 23-game winning streak with a chance to match the perfect 1972 Dolphins (NFL’s only undefeated Super Bowl winner) and 2007 New England Patriots (16-0 regular season). But unfortunately we all know that they lost for the first time to the New York Jets by a score of 29-15.

The game was a “C’MON MAN” moment for the Colts’ fan base.

The “real” Colts, namely quarterback Peyton Manning, left the crucial game in the 3rd quarter. Holding true to their organizational philosophy, the Colts’ first teamers after staking their second stringers to a 15-10 lead, took a seat on the bench — 5:36 left in the third quarter.

Subsequently the Jets outscored Indy the rest of the way, putting up 19 unanswered points. Of course Jets’ fans will not say it was a G-I-V-E-U-P, but who are they fooling. Colts’ backup quarterback Curtis Painter was awful, to say the least, as he produced putrid numbers of 4-of-11 passing for 44 yards, 0 TDs and 1 interception in an effort that made most Colts fans long for former quarterback Jack Trudeau.

The former Purdue signal caller’s biggest play of the game, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Jets, came immediately after Colts’ fans realized Manning was done for the game and serenaded the young quarterback with boos. Painter was hit by NY Jets linebacker Calvin Pace and lost the ball, with Marques Douglas recovering and scoring.

It was all downhill after Painter’s gaffe as the Jets added a two-point conversion making the score 18-15 and New York never relinquished the lead.

After the game, Manning as he always does, said all of the right things. The four-time NFL MVP said, “Until any player in here is the head coach, you follow orders and you follow them with all of your heart. That’s what we’ve done as players. We follow order”. But the loss robbed the 2009 Colts (Manning, Freeney, Wayne, Brackett, and others) of walking in destiny with the 1972 Dolphins (Csonka, Griese, Warfield, Scott, and others).

The Colts may not have thought “resting” players was not a “give up”, but to their fans, it was. “I don’t blame them a bit, man,” Colts’ center Jeff Saturday said after the loss. “I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.” The Colts’ management is hoping a trip to the Super Bowl will sooth their fans and Sunday’s game definitely is huge to say the least.

The Jets are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging rookie running back Shonn Greene (has posted back-to-back 100-yard games in the playoffs) and veteran Thomas Jones (over 1200 yards in the regular season).

Plus Gang Green also features an attacking defense led by shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. If the Colts are to succeed and shut-up their very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning (regular season stats: 393-571, 4500 yards – 2nd in NFL, 33 TDs (first in AFC), 16 INTs, and a 99.9 QB rating) will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to his multitude of weapons including Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and emerging youngsters Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie.

Even as good as Manning and his offensive passing weapons are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Jets from pinning their ears back on every play — led the NFL this season allowing 14.8 points per game. “That’s the best defense I’ve played all year. Against the run and against the pass, they’re really prepared”, said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson after his team’s loss to the Jets last week. Running backs Joseph Addai (219 rushes for 828 yards, 3.8 ypc, and 10 TDs) and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against the Jets’ high level tackling team. The Jets can get pressure from variety of places (LB Calvin Pace – team leading 8 sacks, LB Bryan Thomas, DE Shaun Ellis and others), but the key hitting the quarterback on every pass play – ala Rex Ryan’s Father Buddy Ryan’s former Eagles defenses of the late 1980′s – so Revis (6 INTs, which was third in the AFC) and the rest of the secondary can get turnovers.

On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks) and the rest of their D-line as Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez (regular season stats: 196-364, 2444 yards, 12 TDs, 20 INTs and 63.0 QB rating) is essentially a caretaker right now. The goal of Jets’ offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is to pound the rock by his huge offensive line filled with current and former Pro Bowl players (center Nick Mangold, guard Alan Faneca, OT Damien Woody, and OT D’Brickshaw Ferguson) while making the youngster throw 20 times or less. However Freeney and the rest of the Colts small and quick defense will need to shutdown Jones and Greene as the Jets love to use their ground attack on the way to “ugly” wins. Last week , the Colts shut down the Ravens’ powerful running game on their way to a 20-3 win. And Indianapolis will need another strong performance this Sunday against the Jets’ top-ranked ground attack (172.3 yards per game). Of last week’s effort against the Ravens, Caldwell said, “Our defense did not allow them to move the ball and get in a position to score. They just did a great job overall.” Watch for Colts’ safety Antoine Bethea (4 INTs in 2009) as the former Howard University hard-hitter has taken over for injured former Pro Bowl player Bob Sanders.

There is no love lost between these two teams going back a ways as the Jets will forever be known as the team that put the AFL on the map in 1968 by beating the old Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami, Florida. These two teams have met two other times in the postseason with the Jets’ currently holding a 2-0 edge, but the Colts own a 40-26 edge in the regular season series. And now the Colts and Jets are firmly at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate.

LV’s Pick: This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Jets are red-hot while the Colts just want to prove everyone wrong about “resting” players to win. The absolute key to this game will be the Colts ability to take away the Jets’ NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them. The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs.

I believe that the Colts will find a way to force Sanchez to make plays and that will make all the difference – Colts 27, Jets 20

VIKINGS (13-4) at SAINTS (14-3) (FOX, 6:40 p.m. ET)

Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (field reporters)

This features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Vikings QB Brett Favre squaring off in a highly anticipated offensive pinball type game.

This meeting marks the 5th time in NFL history top-2 scoring teams in NFL meet in Conference Championship Game. Minnesota since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season has pointed to playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference and against the Dallas Cowboys last week, he paid dividends by producing a 34-3 dominating win.

Though the quarterbacks are the marquee players, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game. The Vikings are more than just Favre (363-531, 4202 yards, 33 TDs – 2nd in the NFL, 7 INTs, and a rating of 107.2 – second in the NFL) as the 40-year old passer has many offensive weapons at his disposal including Rookie of the Year explosive receiver Percy Harvin, Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and TE Visante Schiancoe.

But don’t forget the key part of the Vikings offense is their formerly ground-churning running attack led by Pro Bowl RB Adrian Peterson – hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 8 games — and a huge offensive line built around Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson.

The main key for me will be the Saints (+ 11 in turnover ratio, placing them third in the NFL) ability to rattle Favre as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harassed – threw over 20 INTs last year for the NY Jets.

New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R, but expect veteran safety and former Packers Favre teammate Darren Sharper (9 INTs) to spearhead New Orleans’ defensive effort. Gregg Williams’ Saints defense will also have the 70,000 plus Super Dome noisy crowd behind them to rattle Favre and the Vikings high flying offense. “There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the ‘Who Dat’ nation,” said Brees. “Just the bond that we have with them is special.

They give us strength. They give us motivation. We want to do it for them.”

On offense the Saints, ranked No. 1 in the NFL with an average of 403.8 yards per game, need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score over 500 points this season (510). Though the Saints struggled down the stretch (lost last 3 regular season games), Brees and rest of the team proved last week against the Cowboys (dominated in a 45-14 win) that these are the new-look Saints in the postseason – now have an all-time 3-6 postseason record. The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardis Gras type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans.

The Saints offense has many weapons (WR Marques Colston, RB Mike Bell, TE Jeremy Shockey, and others), but last week they re-discovered explosive jitterbug running back Reggie Bush. The former Heisman winner got the home crowd on their feet as he produced 217 total yards and became just the second player in NFL postseason history to score a touchdown on a rush and punt return in the same game. “He’s a guy who can change the game,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton. Surely the Vikings’ veteran defense led by Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield and All-World pass rusher Jared Allen (14.5 sacks to lead the NFC) will look to rattle Brees before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Colston, Bush, Robert Meachem and others). And Saints head coach Sean Payton will probably look to help Brees by using their three-headed backfield monster of Bell, Bush, and Pierre Thomas against the Vikings D-line led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams).

These two teams are meeting in the postseason for the third time with the Vikings currently holding a 2-0 advantage. In the overall regular season series, the Vikings lead that too by a count of

LV’s Pick: This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively.

But the two “X” factors of running the football and getting o the quarterback will be prevalent. I still believe the Vikings’ defense, led by Allen, can get to Brees as the Saints O-line has been a little leaky since losing LT Jamal Brown. Expect a motivated Peterson to show-up and for Favre to be relaxed in his fifth NFC Championship Game (record of 2-2). The Saints home crowd should make it tough on the Vikings, but I believe Minnesota is more ready to go to the Super Bowl -Vikings 31, Saints 27