Sunday, January 24, 2010

Conference Championship Choices

New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are right where many expected to be this week, while the Jets have exceeded everyone's expectations. This isn't Davis versus Goliath, but a Jets victory here will be almost as surprising as the time they beat the Colts in Super Bowl III.

What To Watch From The Jets

While opponents have shut down Jets star running back Thomas Jones to just 71 yards rushing on 29 attempts in New York's two playoff wins, rookie Shonn Greene has become the hot hand for them to lean on.

Greene had 135 yards on 21 carries in the Wild Card win, then followed that up with 128 yards on 23 carries last week. He even had his first career reception last week. The Jets will be hoping he can continue his production, but they also need more production from Jones.

Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez is in elite company right now. Not many rookie quarterbacks have played this deep into a season, and only a few have in the Super Bowl. He isn't asked to do much more than hand the ball off, but this could change if the Colts shut down the Jets running game much like they did to the Ravens last week. Sanchez has played a controlled passing game, but he may be asked to take shots down the field if the Jets fall behind.

Darrelle Revis has become the star Jets fans already knew of for awhile. He is getting the credit he deserves by playing pretty much the same way he has throughout all of his young career. He matches up against Colts veteran Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne, who should have a few tricks ready to show. If Revis shuts Wayne down, the Jets chances of victory increase greatly.

The Jets did not stop San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates last week, but they did a decent job containing him from going far after each of his eight receptions. Now they get to face the other AFC Pro Bowl tight end in Dallas Clark. Clark poses a huge threat to the Jets because Indianapolis likes to line him up all over the field. With the multiple wide receiver sets the Colts like to run, there is a question as to whether or not any of the Jets safeties or linebackers can cover Clark. This could be the key match up of the game.

The Jets rank first in the NFL in rushing first downs, total rushing plays and yardage. This speaks very highly of their offensive line. The unit is strongest on their left side behind guard Alan Faneca and center Nick Mangold, and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. All are Pro Bowl players. If the Colts shut down the run, the Jets will be in trouble. The Jets must block well on the run, because the thought of the Colts Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis lining up across veteran right tackle Damien Woody appears to favor Indianapolis.

What To Watch From The Colts

The Colts need to run the ball. Their offensive line has been better on pass plays this year, but the unit needs to make sure the Colts ground out respectable results. The rushing attack has been mostly average all season for Indianapolis, even in spite of having a special passing attack to make their jobs easier. Another mediocre showing could spell doom to championship hopes.

Indianapolis has a pair of Pro Bowl defensive ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They are undersized players who rely on speed and quickness off the edge. The Colts have dealt with injuries to their defensive secondary superbly all of this season, and much of that success came from the chaos created by Freeney and Mathis. Though starting rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers is dinged up, the Colts can start rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey and not miss a beat. Lacey is second on the team with three interceptions.

The players to spotlight on the defense are outside linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session. Both are undersized players with good quickness. If either can cover Jets tight end Dustin Kellar, it will allow safeties Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea to come closer to the line of scrimmage or help the cornerbacks on pass plays.

One thing the Colts need to do is run the football, even if the game is being played in the Colts domed stadium. They won last week against Baltimore with three running backs averaging less than two yards per carry on 22 attempts. This type of formula is against the grain as how a team is supposed to win in the playoffs. If there is no improvement in this area, it makes the Colts task of winning that more daunting a task.

Not that future Hall Of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can't accept the challenge. Manning is a player who seems to thrive under pressure. Many of his fans are almost expecting him to add another championship ring to his collection. Manning's time with the Colts almost has some fans of the team putting him in the same breath as Johnny Unitas. Unitas, a Colts Hall Of Famer, is considered by many experts to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

The battle on the field Sunday that may be most interesting is between two Pro Bowlers away from the fray. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne with battle cornerback Darrelle Revis much of the game. Wayne is a gym rat who studies film when he isn't working out. He has certainly studied Revis thoroughly this week. A play or two between these stars could determine the outcome of the contest.

The Colts are trying to become just the second team, and the first since 1967, to win a Super Bowl after ending a regular season with two straight losses.

Quarterback : Definite Edge Colts

Running Back : Edge Jets

Receivers : Edge Colts

Offensive Line : Edge Jets

Defensive Line : Even

Linebacker : Even

Secondary : Edge Jets

Special Teams : Even

Coaching : Slight Edge Jets

Every time I pick the Colts to lose, because I expected them not to go undefeated in 2009, they win. When I pick them to win, they lost. The Jets are facing the 24th ranked run defense, and they have the top ranked running offense.This isn't a guarantee like New York icon Joe Namath had just over 31 years ago before Jets beat the Colts, but it is very possible New York wins this game.

One intangible Manning and Namath share is the indomitable will to win. This has made the difference several times before, and I see it happening again. Let's see if this pick reverses my trend on the Colts.

Colts 26 Jets 17

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

Minnesota is a week removed from such an impressive victory, their opponents accused them of running up the score. The Saints destroyed their opponents so quickly, they called off the dogs in the third quarter and ran out the clock.

What To Watch From The Vikings

The Vikings come at opposing defenses with a balanced offensive attack that features a powerful running game. Adrian Peterson is a Pro Bowler and their best weapon. Veteran Chester Taylor is an excellent running back who once gained 1,000 yards in a season. The offensive line is built for the power game, which usually leads to post season success. With the Saints defensive line not at full strength, expect the Vikings to run often.

Bret Favre holds a lot of NFL records right now, and he may have just had the most efficient season of his illustrious career. The Canton bound Favre made the Pro Bowl because he became a huge weapon in just his first season in Minnesota. Throwing to a tall wide receiver Sidney Rice, along with speedy receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin, Favre has helped make them better players. He must curtail his penchant for turnovers if the Vikings want to get the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.

Harvin poses a double threat if he is healthy. He has been battling migraine headaches the past several weeks, and even missed a game because of it. He is to be accounted for on offense, but he is a dangerous return specialist. The 2009 Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler is needed if the Vikings want a better chance at winning.

Minnesota takes pride in their play along the line of scrimmage. They didn't exactly pushed the Cowboys all over the field last week, especially along the defensive line. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams and Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen lead the way. Dallas almost matched the Vikings in rushing yards last week, but abandoned the run in favor of the pass after falling behind. They need to control the Saints in this area in order to keep the high powered New Orleans offense off the field as much as possible.

What To Watch From The Saints

Though the Saints have a reliable Pro Bowl quarterback in Drew Brees, they need the running game to continue to be effective.. Pierre Thomas was effective last week, and Reggie Bush was excellent. New Orleans can't rely on Bush averaging almost 17 yards per carry like last week, but Thomas is needed to average over four yards per carry again.

New Orleans in hurting along their defensive line, which was an area Arizona failed to explore often enough last week. Of the Cardinals 14 rushing attempts last week, one went for a 70 yard touchdown. The Saints might see 14 rushing attempts well before halftime against Minnesota

The kicking game is very questionable for the Saints. Garrett Hartley has been mostly untested, though he did hit a 43 yard field goal during the Saints rout last week. The one thing in his favor is that he will be kicking in a domed stadium. The lack of natures forces helps the youngster, but the clutch kick needed for victory will certainly present an uncertainty when he takes the field.

The one thing to watch is how the Vikings secondary matches up against tight end Jeremy Shockey. Shockey has a sore knee right now, but he did grab three balls and a touchdown last week. If he is effective, it will get the attention of safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson. That will leave veteran Viking cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and the hobbled Antoine Winfield exposed to the deep corp of wide receivers New Orleans will run out in multiple sets all game.

Quarterback : Slight Edge Saints

Running Back : Edge Vikings

Receivers : Even

Offensive Line : Even

Defensive Line : Edge Vikings

Linebacker : Slight Edge Saints

Secondary : Even

Special Teams : Slight Edge Vikings

Coaching : Even

The run game is not the only weapon these teams have at their disposal. Both teams are exceptional in the passing game, and use a large group of players to accomplish their goals to victory. This game will be determined who has the most versatile defenses. Shockey and Harvin present match up problems for both sides. The play of the linebackers could be ultimately what the result of the game come down to.

Saints 37 Vikings 31

NFL Lucubrations

This years playoffs come at a time in NFL history where the excitement has wavered through league changes.

The Pro Bowl is a week away, and it will be the first Pro Bowl that the very best in the NFL will not all play. There will be several Pro Bowl players who, no matter what teams reach the Super Bowl, will skip the game so they don't have to risk their health a week before the championship.

Though critics like to lament how the players who participate in the Pro Bowl gives little effort because the game means nothing more than a paycheck. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has never been accused of thinking outside the box, dropped the ball on this. What he could have done is giving the winning conference home field advantage in the Super Bowl.

Now, I know the NFL would never consider this. They do not want a Super Bowl played in nine feet of snow with winds at 110 miles per hour if Buffalo reached the title game. But that is where Goodell is missing the point.

It would give players incentive to work and play hard in the Pro Bowl. Then the game can be moved back a week after the Super Bowl, and the leagues very best can play. The NFL, a tax free entity, likes to use catch phrases like "giving back" and "community". Well, these are key phrases, since it is the fans who made the league what it is. A Super Bowl in Buffalo would do wonders for that city's economy. That is the truest way to give back to the community instead of continuing to bite the hands that feed.

But Goodell will continue the work of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue by eroding the game and exiling the fans with a "shut up and like it" message. Defense is becoming as extinct as the dodo bird, and exerts about as much flight right now. The only future is the league adopting the moronic college football overtime rule. That's more of Goodell's speed.

But the first need is a resolution of the impending players strike.

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