This is the best time of year. I can count on one hand, if not less,
the moments during a regular sports year that excite and fulfill
me as much as this weekend. Maybe I'm just one sorry guy with one
sorry life, but my love for the Conference Championships, especially
in recent years, has grown to surpass that of the Super Bowl.
I should warn you all: I've done a TON of reading, listening, and
viewing this week about these games. I think I could make an honest
and convincing argument for all 4 teams left to not only win this
weekend, but to also win the Bowl. Every writer, commentator, and
analyst across the country has an opinion, either in print or on
the airwaves or beaming through the plasma screen I wish I had,
about these two games. If you wanted to be inundated with information
about a current sporting event, enough information to make you turn
to "Average Joe" or "C-Span" just to get a break,
than this is your weekend to get it (and probably why you are here).
So, let's get to it.
Regular Season: (163-92) 63.9%
Last Week's Projections: (3-1)
Indianapolis (3rd) @ New
England (1st) Sun 3:00pm (CBS)
I have to suggest that we, or at least I, are blessed this weekend
as both 3 seeds have made into the weekend's games. As #3's, Indy
and Carolina both have 2 playoff games under their belts, and though
we will definitely take the regular season into consideration, those
first two games in the postseason provide us with a glance into
how these teams are going to perform under the pressure of win or
With that said, I don't know if Indy could be playing any better
on offense. If you tell me, "Peyton Manning is hot," I'll
retort with, "Yep, and eating cigarettes can be bad for you."
Manning leads all playoff QB's with 681 passing yards thus far (not
a shocker), but when you consider that he is about 120 yards ahead
of the #2 guy, and you have to take notice. Guess what? He also
leads the playoffs for passing TD's with 8 thus far, only 5 more
than the next guy. Yep, he really sucks. Oh, I forgot, he hasn't
thrown a pick yet. In fact, Manning has thrown only 2 picks in his
last 9 games. THAT is amazing. I guess that "he can't win when
it counts" tag was really bothering him, so he's taken it,
put it on the curb, and smashed it until it's died.
However, in all fairness, he may find that tag still on his back
if he can't take it to New England this weekend. These two teams
hooked up late in November, and Manning lit 'em up for 278 yards
and 4 TD's. Too bad his defense gave up 38 points and wasted it
all away. I don't doubt that Manning could take the arm to just
about any team out there. He's on a hot streak of which we haven't
seen in years: he failed to break 200 yards passing only twice this
year, he's gone without a TD pass in only 4 out of 18 games thus
far, he threw for 2 or more TD's in 9 of those 18 games, and he
was #2 in the NFL for attempts (566, only 4 passes behind #1, Brad
Johnson) yet he threw only 10 interceptions in the regular season
(11 LESS than Johnson!) and led the NFL in completions as well as
completion percentage (67%), yards (4267), and yards/game (266.7).
The guy has had a season worthy of the MVP honors he received, and
he will take his shots against the top dog defense of the Patriots.
You would like to think the Colts will come with a varied game plan,
running Edge James at least 20 or 25 times, and throwing in some
double TE sets and quick sideline passes to James as well. The short
passing game will definitely be a key factor, but don't count on
James leading the Colts downfield too often: the Pats left the regular
season with the 4th best rushing D in the land, allowing only 89.6
rush yds/game and having allowed only 10 rushing TD's an 2 runs
of 20 yards or more. The pass D is not quite as tough, but still
respectable, having allowed about 202 yards passing a game during
the regular season. However, the backfield guys for New England
have a great instinct for the ball, having earned the #1 spot in
NFL interceptions collected with 29.
Manning is going to throw, there is no question about it. The real
question is what will those guys do with the ball after the catch.
The Pats are all about the big play. Whether it's shutting down
Marvin Harrison on 3rd and 10, or stuffing James at the line on
3rd and 1 (or 4th and 1 on the goal line, like they did in the first
meeting in Week 13), or drilling Manning as he scats (I don't know
if Manning has "scat" on his odometer, as he's slower
than collective intellects of the Osbourne Show) down the sideline,
these guys make plays, especially when it counts. The biggest indicator
of such is the points allowed per game: New England led the NFL
in the stat, giving up an average of only 14.9 points per game (no
other team in the NFL even approached this number). If the Colts
are going to crack this defense, they will need big games from every
player they have on offense. Every guy, from Manning to Harrison
to James to Wayne to Pollard to Stokley to freakin' Tom Lopienski,
had better catch every ball thrown their way.
This team cannot afford any mistakes or missed chances, and the
way they are going to have to do it (as we already mentioned) is
with the short passing game. Get James beyond the line and throw
him pass, then let him do his work. You will not see Marvin Harrison
going deep down the sidelines play after play as he did versus the
Chiefs. The New England backfield, with Ty Law likely to cover Harrison
and Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole giving assistance, will not
give up big pass plays. We know the Pats' front line will give James
fits on handoffs, so the short passing game has to become a major
factor. I think Manning could get his numbers and do some damage,
but this game is going to be a grind & burn affair. Last time
they hooked up, the two teams combined for 72 points. I wouldn't
bet on this weekend's number coming into the ballpark of that result
(especially when you consider the location, though the weather will
be a balmy 30 degrees at game time by recent forecasts).
The New England offense is a huge mystery. No one has cracked
the secret of how this team is capable of consistently putting
up just enough scores to win every week. The Pats have won 13
in a row, 12 during the regular season. I want to mention one
stat I found, even though I used it last week, as it's a mind
bender: in the history of the NFL, only 4 teams have won 12 straight
games, and all 4 went to the Super Bowl with 3 of them emerging
with the Lombardi Trophy. I mention this for two reasons: (1)
one of those teams was the '85 Bears, the best team of all time
(take that Dolphin fans!), and (2) the Pats are on a track that
has led to a championship more times than not. I'm saying this
Patriots team is just as good as the '85 Bears
hey, did you see what I did with that bong? I'm kidding. This
team is very good, but not that good!
Anyway, I've been amazed all year with this team's offensive success.
They are not hard to figure out: Tom Brady throws, they try to
run and if it works they stay at it, then Tom Brady throws some
more. Very simple and predictable, yet no one has succeeded in
shutting them down! I find Brady to be amazing. The guy comes
from virtually nowhere, and he's chasing down a trophy for the
second time. Dan Marino, possibly the best QB of all time (not
in my opinion, but you can make a great case for him) had one
sniff at this glory, and never got his hands on it. You won't
find a more humble guy than Brady either, not that I know him
personally, but I've seen maybe 5 interviews with him this week,
and he's so damn level headed. You can tell he's a great field
leader, and he's kept this team in focus all season long (an amazing
feat after the horrible start for this team).
This team is going to throw the rock, and they will try to run,
but that is a gamble at best. Antowain Smith has put together
some nice games in recent weeks, but to say he's streaky is a
huge understatement. Kevin Faulk gets in work, but he's not going
to rack up 150 yards on anybody.
If you look at the Colts' defense, this would seem to work against
the Pats: the Colts brought a mediocre rush defense out of the
regular season (124 yds/game) but performed well against the pass
(175 yds/game). Dwight Freeney is a terror, and he gets good QB
pressure, but he's still learning and has been burned with rushing
plays and short passes fairly consistently. The Indy backfield,
with Walt Harris and Michael Doss, is solid, and they've enjoyed
a boost from David Macklin (recorded only 1 pick all year, but
has 2 thus far in the playoffs). However, I don't know if this
defense is worthy of "respect." They gave up 31 to KC
last week, and during the regular season they allowed opponents
an average of 21 pts a game. Against a tough D like New England's,
21 points could be enough to earn a ticket home.
I will say this: I firmly believe (and history, especially recent
history, will back me up) that a great defense will beat out a
great offense when it really counts. This game is not going to
be a sprint to the end zone. I just don't see this game going
much over 34 points. The New England D is going to be pumped to
face this juggernaut Indy offense, and vice versa. I'll put my
money on the defense.
Let me throw out one more stat, as I feel defense is the deal
breaker here: Indy scored 3 TD's on defensive takeaways this season,
but NE scored on over twice that many with 7. I think Indy makes
at least 2 mistakes, and that will be enough for Bill Belichick.
I have to believe the Pats have something in store for Manning,
and without Manning functioning properly this Indy team could
really struggle. The Colts have looked great, but if you put the
Denver and KC defenses on the field AT THE SAME TIME I don't think
they could do as well as this Patriots' defensive unit. That same
Broncos team beat up on Indy late in the season, and I expect
New England could do the same: cover the receivers, avoid the
big play, keep Manning to short gains, and make tackles. This
New England team tackles as well as any team I can remember, and
that will win this game for them. I think New England has the
offensive talent to, once again, muster up just enough points
to win. They will throw for at least 2 TD's, and they may even
find some rushing production. I'm not willing to bet against Brady,
I'm not willing to bet against Belichick, and I'm taking New England.
I think they win this one, and they roll into the Super Bowl as
the favorite to win it all.
Key Fantasy Players
1st String: Patriot Defense, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Marvin
Harrison, Deion Branch, David Givens, Daniel Graham, Adam Vinatieri,
2nd String: Edge James, Reggie Wayne, Antowain Smith, Marcus Pollard,
Bethel Johnson, Brandon Stokley, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Christian
Fauria, Colt Defense
Prediction: Colts 17, Patriots
Carolina (3rd) @ Philadelphia
(1st) Sun 6:45pm ET (Fox)
I'm on board. That's all I'm saying for now. By the way, can anyone
tell me why, when I turn on the news, do I have to hear about
the political opinions of completely irrelevant people like Madonna
and Gwen Paltrow? They are both completely unworthy of giving
educated, insightful political editorials, AND THEY BOTH TEND
TO LIVE IN ENGLAND!
Anyway, let's start with the Carolina Panthers, a team many would
call the "surprise" competitor of this weekend's games.
I disagree, though I must admit I was wondering if the defense
was running out of steam at the end of the regular season. I will
openly admit I am a huge fan of Julius Peppers. I watched many
of his college games and was impressed from then on. Many would
point to his numbers and call his season disappointing, but I
beg to differ. Peppers came up huge in key situations on many
occasions (just ask any Saints' fan), and though his numbers are
down I would argue this is due to the overall maturity and strength
of the Carolina defense.
Even with the loss of Mark Fields (tragic, he was a Pro Bowl caliber
player), this team overcame this loss and put up great numbers:
allowing 19 pts/game (very respectable, placing them at #10 in
the NFL), allowing only 187.7 passing yards a game with 16 INT's
and 40 sacks (#9 in the NFL for the INT's, #6 in sacks), and holding
opposing team's to an average of about 107 yards rushing per game
(#11 in the NFL). You could give any 2 of their guys to other
teams and automatically make them better. Mike Rucker, Peppers,
Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins, Mike Minter, and Reggie Howard are all
worthy of notice, much less Pro Bowl votes. The defense is the
key to this team, and this is a point I have argued with many
of my buddies. In my mind, if you keep any NFL team under 20 points
on a regular basis, there is no capable NFL offense that shouldn't
be able to take advantage of such an effort.
I also love the view because of their opponent this weekend. Carolina
needs to keep the score low. Both of these teams have won close
games with regularity this season: the Eagles have won 7 games
thus far by less than 7 points, while Carolina has won 10. Champions
win close games, and defensive efforts win close games. Just take
a look at the playoff games thus far! Green Bay advanced on a
defensive TD (and loss on a total defensive breakdown on 4th and
26!), the Panthers needed a big defensive effort in OT to keep
Jeff Wilkens just out of FG range to advance, New England is ALL
about defense, Tennessee advanced past Baltimore thanks to defense
(stopping Jamal Lewis), and you could even mention Denver's defensive
horror show as Indy trampled all over the backfield.
This game is going to be very close, and one interception or one
forced fumble, especially if it results in a score, could blow
this game to either side. Donovan McNabb needs to have a huge
game. I feel this is the game in which Philly will miss Brian
Westbrook. Westbrook would have given the Eagles their best gamble
to move the chains as the Panthers are weaker against the run
(especially guys that have a quick burst at the line, like Westbrook),
and I don't know if Duce Staley or Correll Buckhalter have the
speed to take advantage of the opportunities. I don't feel the
short game will help the Eagles too much. Todd Pinkston better
bring those hands he's borrowed in recent weeks, and McNabb will
need more help in order to take the ball downfield. The pressure
will be there, and McNabb could do some damage running. But he's
not going to beat this team by himself; he tried versus Green
Bay, he needed help then, and I'd argue Green Bay's defense is
significantly less capable than this Panthers' D. If the Eagles
want to shake the Conference bug and advance to the Bowl, they
need to throw the ball (and as the numbers indicate, this will
be a task), and they better get out quick (also a tall order).
The longer the Carolina defense keeps this game close, the better
their odds of win will become.
The biggest news the Eagles have gotten is regarding the health
of Troy Vincent. It sounds like Vincent is a go, and as Green
Bay showed last week, they will need him. Favre didn't have a
huge day (180 yards), but he spread the ball around well, hitting
8 different receivers, and picking up two TD's along the way.
Vincent could be a key player in shutting down the passing game,
which will be necessary to win.
Jake Delhomme is considered, by his teammates (as stated on an
interview I heard with Mike Rucker on ESPN radio), to be the emotional
and tactical leader of this squad. "We go as he goes,"
Rucker stated. The numbers bear it out. As I mentioned, the Panthers
have won a majority of their games by close scores. Jake has moved
the chains in key situations and put his team in a position to
score late more often than not. I'd say he's coming out of his
first season as a starter as a great prospect for big numbers
in the future. He's still learning, and though his lack of experience
hasn't shown up just yet, it has to be a concern. Look for Steve
Smith to try to level him out. Steve Smith will be there in full
gear and making plays, and that has become a given. Smith came
up huge last week with the OT TD to win (not to mention the 170
yards receiving), and he's the type of game breaker that could
keep the Panthers in yards. That said, with Vincent back and Brian
Dawkins already prowling the backfield in top condition, the Eagles
have a good shot at giving the Panthers a hard time when it comes
to throwing the ball.
This leads us to the question of the week: is Stephen Davis healthy
or not? The Eagles were just awful all season long against the
run, and that trend has continued into the playoffs. Ahman Green
ran all over this team for 156 yards. Too bad he didn't get it
into the end zone. I think DeShaun Foster is a great backup. This
kid was set to be the starter last year until his season ended
before it began due to injury. He could compete for the starting
job with just about any other NFL team. However, he's a speed
guy. I love speed (on the field, not like that; get your head
out of the gutter), but I have to worry when you throw Foster
out on the natural grass in Philly. He ran very well against St.
Louis, and the Eagles don't bring a defense as capable as the
Rams against the run.
Maybe I'm stressing the point too much, but I don't know if Foster
is capable of carrying the load he could be asked to carry this
weekend. I do believe he will get some yards, but Foster will
be slowed by the grass, and he's given up a few fumbles as well.
I would feel much better about Carolina with Stephen Davis on
the field. I know his style will work much better under the conditions,
not to mention the veteran experience he would bring to the offense.
Davis was hurt on a great run early in the Rams' game last week,
and I fully expected Davis to showcase his way to, and possibly
through, this game. Does he play? I say, hell yeah! This is the
biggest game of his career thus far, and I have trouble believing
he won't muster the mental game and toughness to put it on the
I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's playing for the sake
of the preview, because as I stated to start, I'm on board. I'm
on board with the Panthers in the Super Bowl as my upset pick
of the week. I think John Fox will have this game plan down pat,
and he will bring the defense to put McNabb in compromising situations.
Remember, this team is one unbelievable catch by Freddie Mitchell
from being eliminated. I'd like to suggest that, as I stated last
week, the Packers were not the team of destiny this year. I think
the Panthers are that team, and the drive to do so was brought
early in the season by the tragic loss of team leader Mark Fields
to cancer, as well as one other blow no one seems to remember.
This defense learned their linebackers coach, Sam Mills, was diagnosed
with intestinal cancer early in the season. These two tragedies
give this team all the motivation it needs to bring the organization
to a new level. They are loaded with talent, they have the weapons
to take the fight to Philly, and they will pull out the upset.
Now watch: Davis sits out and the Panthers will struggle mightily
without him. Well, I'm going with him in, and give me the Panthers
(by the way, I'm going with Ricky Proehl as my good luck charm,
as the guys seems to be a part of winners wherever he goes).
Key Fantasy Players
1st String: Stephen Davis (Questionable), Carolina Defense, Donovan
McNabb, Steve Smith, John Kasay, David Akers, Todd Pinkston
2nd String: Jake Delhomme, DeShaun Foster, Duce Staley, Muhsin
Muhammed, Freddie Mitchell, Ricky Proehl, Correll Buckhalter,
Philly Defense LJ Smith, Chad Lewis, Kris Mangum
Prediction: Panthers 23, Eagles 20
:: comments to bryan