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Friday, January 22, 2010

NFL Conference Championships Preview

The divisonal round of the NFL playoffs revealed many things. The first thing we learned is that when it comes to predicting winners I pretty much suck. But that is not going to stop me from predicting who will be in the Super Bowl, as we all know that forecasting sporting events is far from an exact science. The next is that based on last week's results, the rest over rust debate has been settled, with rest triumphing over rust for both the Colts and the Saints. Both the Colts and the Saints won their respective games in convincing fashion, despite having a week off as the number one seeds in their respective conference. The Colts were on the hot seat even more after head coach Jim Caldwell decided to bench his regulars during a week 16 game against the Jets rather than go for an undefeated season, only to next week wait until wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark each got their 100th catch before pulling them. Brett Favre also showed us again why he is one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, helping the Minnesota Vikings thwart the Dallas Cowboys playoff hopes. And Darelle Revis and the New York Jets reminded us to never count out the underdog, as the Jets were the only visting team to walk away last Sunday with a victory. However, when the dust finally settles, I believe it will be the Indianapolis Colts with NFL MVP Peyton Manning versus the Minnesota Vikings and their already legendary quarterback, Brett Favre, playing in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

The big winner last Sunday had to be the Indianapolis Colts. First year Colts head coach Jim Caldwell was heavily criticized for his decision to pull his first string players midway through the second half of their week 16 game against the New York Jets, the team who they coincidentally enough happen to play this weekend in the AFC championship. The Colts, who were 14-0 at the time, were up 15-10 when Caldwell pulled his starters; the Colts lost the game, thus ending their quest to be the only team to go 19-0. Caldwell responded to his critics by saying that the health of his players during playoff time mattered more than any record ever could. Caldwell, did not help his cause, however, the next week, when he waited until both wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark each had their 100th catch of the season before sitting them. None of this mattered last Sunday, as the Colts dominated the Ravens on the way to winning 20-3. How impressive was this victory? Manning threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns despite not being able to throw to either Marvin Harrison, now retired, nor slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez, a second year player from Ohio State who has shown promise but missed the majority of this season after suffering a knee injury in week one vs. Jacksonville. Not only that, but the defense showed its teeth, too. The Colts defense, led by defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, held the Ravens to 87 yards and forced quarterback Joe Flacco into two interceptions. And this was done despite not having their defensive leader the past few years, safety Bob Sanders, who along with Gonzalez was put on injured reserve after missing half the season. The defensive show the Colts put on last week definitely made me a believer.

If the Colts had something to prove last weekend, then so did the Vikings. The Vikings, who started the season 11-1, had the tag Super Bowl contender placed on them as soon as it was announced that Brett Favre would join their training camp last summer. Those expectations were some what lowered when the Vikings lost three of their last four regular season games to finish 12-4. Their performance Sunday against the Cowboys has once again lifted the Vikings back into the Super Bowl debate. Quarterback Brett Favre played the game of his life, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. And the defense, led by DE's Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, gave qb Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense fits all day. In the end, the Vikings 34-3 victory over Dallas answered the questions of many of their critics.

The Saints and Jets also made their claims to be championship contenders as well. The Saints, not only looking to host their first NFC championship game but also to make their first trip to the Super Bowl, made short work of the Cardinals in their 45-14 victory. Quarterback Drew Brees looked like the all-pro player we have expected of him. The Saints defense confused Arizona qb Kurt Warner all afternoon, so much so that it appeared Warner would get into an argument with head coach Ken Wisenhunt during the third quarter. The Saints, the sentimental favorite because of their work with hurricane Katrina victims, certainly made their case.

Then there is the Jets, the lone darkhorse in this playoff race. The Jets defense, led by cornerback Darelle Revis, once again contained another potent offense, this time the San Diego juggernaut led by Phillip Rivers. The Jets offense has also showed signs of life in the last few weeks, with quarterback Mark Sanchez catching fire and fellow rookie Shonn Greene running like a man on a mission. Should the Jets make the Super Bowl, it would be hard to argue that their head coach Rex Ryan wasn't more deserving of coach of the year honors than the actual recipient, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.

On to the championship previews. In the NFC, I see the Vikings pulling away from the Saints after what will be a close first half. I think that Favre has rediscovered the form he had earlier this season, and the pressure that Jared Allen and the Viking's D put on Drew Brees and company will be their undoing. And I disagree with Fox analyst Terry Bradshaw, who USA Today quoted him as saying that Brett Favre is playing out of a desire to "exact revenge on the Green Bay Packers." Favre is a football player, and,as such, wants what most other players want: to win the Super Bowl. Watching him react after the Vikings won last weekend only reaffirms my opinion. In the AFC, I see a much closer contest, with the Colts ultimately prevailing. Manning has turned players such as Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie into household names; he has seen the 3-4 defense enough to know how to beat it. Darelle Revis and company will make it hard for him, but ultimately when the smoke settles Manning will one step closer to his second Super Bowl victory, which some historians claim he must get if he is to be considered the all-time greatest quarterback in NFL history. In my opinion, he may already be the greatest ever. And if Indy and Minnesota both win on Sunday, we will have a Super Bowl matchup of the two greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

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