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IND at NE - 3:00 PM EST CAR at PHI - 6:45 PM EST

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) 75.0%

Indianapolis (3rd) @ New England (1st) Sun 3:00pm (CBS)

The Colts
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 go home.

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 Patriots
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, Mike Vanderjagt

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 21

Carolina (3rd) @ Philadelphia (1st) Sun 6:45pm ET (Fox)

The Panthers
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 Eagles
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 field.

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 douglass


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