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NFL Picks for Conference Championships
by John Canton (NFL)
Posted on January 19, 2007, 11:10 PM

John: Last week is the best weekend of the NFL season because there are four games in two days providing us with about 15 hours of satisfying NFL action. This week is very good because the games are of high quality more often than not. Sometimes two teams playing in this game are playing in a game that most feel is the real Super Bowl if not for the fact that the two are in the same conference. It happened like that in the 1990s many times in NFC title games and I believe it's happening again this decade more often not with the AFC title games. It's clearly the better conference and I think this year's Pats/Colts game is the real championship. I guess we'll find out for sure in two weeks.

To be perfectly honest with you, I don't feel confident in either of my picks this week. The reason I say that is I can see any of the teams blowing out their opponents by two touchdowns or more .I can see either game ending with a lead of three points for either side. Last week I was very confident in the Bears and the Saints based on who they were playing. This week? I have no idea how they match up, really. Last week I picked against the Pats and Colts. Now I have to pick one of them to move on. One of them is the team I picked to make it to the Super Bowl before the year. Which one? I'm not giving that away in the preview! Keep reading. First, here's the man that lives in the dark shadows somewhere.

drq: Well, it's finally upon us. Conference championship weekend, where the good teams go to become great teams and the pretenders are exposed for what they truly are. It's the NFL's equivalent of the NCAA Final Four, with the four strongest, most consistent, clutch teams in the league meeting with a spot on the Super Bowl XLI roster up for grabs. This year, you've got two cities with a couple championships already under their belts and two more cities who have never experienced the hoopla that surrounds the big dance. All of the attention seems to be focused on the AFC Championship game, as the Colts and Patriots renew their long-standing rivalry, but the NFC match is deserving of some serious recognition of its own. Every one of these teams began the season by winning at least five of their first six, and none trailed in their division at any point this season. If that isn't the definition of excellence, I'm not sure what is. It's a #1 seed taking on a #2 seed, and a #3 seed meeting a #4, and the games should be every bit as good as those rankings would indicate.

Making these games all the more interesting is that there are no clear-cut favorites. The home teams have the initial edge, naturally, but homefield advantage has not traditionally been as weighty an influence as one might imagine in this kind of a situation. New England is dangerous on the road in Indy, thanks to their tradition of success against the Colts in the playoffs. The Saints have all of the offensive fireworks you'd expect of a championship-caliber team, and then some, while the Bears have some serious question marks on offense. I don't think it would surprise anyone to see both road teams advance this weekend, and any time you can say that about a game between teams of this caliber, it means there's probably a good weekend's worth of sports on the horizon.

Last Week:
Brett Berliner: 1-3
drqshadow: 3-1
John Canton: 2-2

drqshadow: 6-2
John Canton: 5-3
Brett Berliner: 4-4

Regular Season:
Brett Berliner: 161-95 (.629)
John Canton: 155-101 (.605)
drqshadow: 145-111 (.566)

New Orleans at Chicago - 3:00pm
drq: The easy thing to do here is take one look at Rex Grossman, the team's narrow overtime victory over a questionable Seattle squad last week, and a badly sagging defense, then mark the Saints down as the victors and move on. I really don't think it's going to be that easy. For one thing, the Saints play in a dome. They're used to that turf, they're built to run on it, not unlike the Colts over in the other championship game. They're a quick team, a southern team that's used to a balmy climate, and they'll be playing on an outdoor field in the north during what looks to be a heavy snowstorm. The Bears are built to succeed in that kind of a temperature. Where Reggie Bush relies on quick cuts and sick moves to elude the tackles, Thomas Jones will run the ball right up the gut and punish a defense. The Bears' D knows how to spot a team's weakness in this kind of an adverse climate and capitalize on it. With them, it's not an issue of if they'll force a turnover, but when and how often it will happen. With snow on the ground and an angry Brian Urlacher in his face, I wonder how the rookie running back will respond. Remember, this is a kid that played the entirety of his college ball in southern California.

However, with all that said, I'm still going to side with the Saints. Their defense may not measure up to the Bears, and their offense may have some trouble getting off the ground in the snow (then again, maybe it won't) but I just think they can do damage from far too many angles to be held down for long in this kind of a situation. I don't think Rex Grossman is going to play well, and the men in the gold and white jerseys will be there to make him pay for his mistakes. They aren't a great defense, but they aren't a poor one, either. And for all of the mistakes and missteps I can imagine Reggie Bush making, Deuce McAllister will still be there to atone for them and get the team back in the right direction. Drew Brees should be able to slowly pick apart this Bears pass defense, and with the multitude of solid WRs out on the field, there should always be somebody open. I think the Bears will keep this close, but the Saints have too much going for them to be denied. New Orleans celebrates its first Super Bowl bid this weekend. New Orleans: 21 - Chicago: 17

Brett: Okay, so Rex Grossman.. you proved me wrong for one week. While I've never been your biggest critic nor your biggest fan (I like to temper my expectations, especially with young quarterbacks, who everyone likes to give up on after one bad pass and anoint the second coming after one good pass), I still don't think you, at this point in your life, have what it takes to win the NFC Championship right now. That's not to say that your team can't win, because, as we all know - football is a team game. But if John Carney drills a field goal with about one minute and forty seconds left to take the lead, I'm not betting on Grossman to execute the two minute drill with any effectiveness. But I don't feel it will come down to that.

The Bears are starting to find an offensive formula that works. A steady dose of both Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones, combined with a short to intermediate passing game, peppered with a couple of deep balls to keep the defense honest, and the Bears should score enough points to win. Most weeks, the Bears should be able to put in 3 or 4 TDs and a couple of field goals, based on that offense and the turnovers that the defense was forcing near the beginning of the year, except that the defense isn't the same. Chicago absolutely misses Tommie Harris. They looked fine against Seattle, but with Harris in there and that running game, they wouldn't have had to go to overtime.. they would have been able to maintain a comfortable lead, assuming things still went the same with their offense. They still played well, but well isn't going to cut it this week...

That is, assuming the Saints step up. I think they've got a real chance here, but the defense HAS to play better than it did last week. It's a solid, attacking squad but they aren't real talented and they've shown, throughout the year, a propensity to give up the big play. Teams that give up consistent big plays in championship games usually don't win. They will need a big game out of Will Smith and Charles Grant to force Grossman into making mistakes if they have a shot, and they can't let Jones and Benson eat them up for 4, 5, 6 yards a pop or they've lost before the game started. They don't have a great secondary, but this will not be a factor if the DL can control the line of scrimmage and let the LBs make plays.

Offensively, the Saints can't clam up. Everything I've seen from Sean Payton indicates they will not, but this is, by far, his biggest game as a head coach. Games this big bring out the true nature of a coach - look at Marty Schottenheimer. He gets a little more crap than he deserves for not winning the playoffs, especially this year, as they were not at all conservative, but in past years, he's clammed up. I don't think Payton will, as I think he has had the attitude all year that they have nothing to lose. If he continues to feel that way, this could be an exciting game.. I hope he does, because they don't have anything to lose. Regardless of what happens, he took a 3-13 team that still isn't supremely talented and took them to the NFC Championship game. Why not come out firing? I think they're going to have way after way to get Reggie Bush involved, as this could be 'his game'. The Bears will be creeping up on McAlister after last week, watching his every move, but Bush is finally going to get some breathing room. He could be the difference maker this week. As long as the Saints don't forget what got them here (letting their players make plays), they will be fine here.

Now, moving on to the matchup.. this is a tough matchup for both defenses. I think both matchups are interesting, but I'm absolutely intrigued by the Chicago offense vs. the Saints D. Both units are competent, but the Saints don't stop the run all that well, and they have been susceptible to big plays. If the Bears stick with their formula, this is where the game will be won. They need to keep running the ball and mix in a few downfield passes, and they should be able to control the tempo of this game. However, all that will be moot if they can't stop the Saints, who have had a knack for coming up with plays at the right time on offense. Without the pass rush Harris provides, the Bears are still strong in this department, but if they can't rattle Brees, he will pick them apart. I also think that NO will use Chicago's over aggressiveness to get a couple of huge plays, with misdirections, sweeps and trick plays.

Sadly, I believe that coaches have to make mistakes to learn from them, and I think the Saints lack of D will catch up to them there. I think they are, talent wise, just a year or two away from being a real Super Bowl contender. I think the Bears come up with a few big plays on D and seal it with a late field goal.
Chicago 24, New Orleans 21

John: I'm not that excited about this game, to be honest. Neither team impressed me last week even though they both won on their home turf. I was hoping for somebody to emerge as a legitimate title contender out of these two. Didn't really happen. The Bears impressed me a bit because Rex Grossman looked decent by making some big passes early in the game, particularly that beautiful deep ball to Berrian leading to a score. The Saints did enough to win, but were they really impressive? I don't think so. That's why it's hard to pick. Who's got the momentum heading into this game? I guess that's what we're all trying to figure out.

I think the biggest weakness on the Saints is their secondary. I'm not impressed by them much at all because I can't recall them making too many plays all season. I think their starting corner Fred Thomas is somebody you can pick on a lot. If the Bears pick up on that they could find Berrian early for a deep ball just like last week. That's how they're going to have to put their points up. Use the runs to set up the bombs. Don't make Grossman throw too much.

The Bears defense are not who we thought they were (thanks Denny Green). They have holes that are being exposed by teams over the course of the last month. The Seahawks showed they could be thrown on and even run on too. With the Saints having two high quality running backs it means that it's a very difficult matchup for the Bears. If they put too many people up towards the line will Drew Brees be able to throw against the defense? I say yes. I think the Bears will have a tough time stopping the Saints offense. New Orleans will put together some long drives, tire out the defense and that'll be enough to get them the win.
Saints 26-17

New England at Indianapolis - 6:30pm
drq: The matchup I've been waiting for since the playoffs started, honestly. Colts vs. Pats, with Tom Brady finally making his eagerly anticipated return to Indianapolis in the biggest game of the year for both teams. It's easy to see why this game has had so much media attention this week - it's great stuff. Two of the best teams in the conference for the last half-decade, captained by the only two constants in the "best QB in the league today" argument, with the kind of history together that fiction novelists would die for. It's a sports writer's wet dream, and I can just hear the network executives drooling at the ratings this game is bound to draw. The Colts are the early favorites in most sports books, but that's mostly due to the game's location. This is the game the Colts have been dying for since the last time they met in this situation, back in 2003. It's the first and best opportunity to really exact some revenge on their nemesis, playing in the environment they were built for, in front of a raucous home crowd, under the national spotlight. Even better, the Pats have been showing some serious signs of age lately, and their recent victory over the Chargers was more due to San Diego handing the game away than the Patriots really putting on any kind of a show. If the Colts don't shake the monkey off of their back this Sunday, I fear the simian will crush them.

Like I said last week, (admittedly incorrectly so) the true focus of this game is the play of Peyton Manning. Where a lackluster Raven offense let him off the hook in last week's game, the Patriots have proven that if you give them enough chances, they will find a way to take advantage of them. Manning cannot create turnovers and expect to win. He can't rely on his defense to keep them in the game, because it's only a matter of time until that unit stops overachieving and slips back into the form they showcased throughout the regular season. He needs to stand tall and be the player he has been for the teams' last two meetings in the regular season. He needs to find Marvin Harrison, running the route he expects him to run, and get him the ball. He needs to trust his offensive line to do their jobs and focus primarily on doing what he does best. If he has to eat a sack and punt, he needs to be comfortable doing so from time to time. I know he's got it in him, as do most fans who have watched him play the game before, but the question remains whether he can do it in a high profile situation or not.

Likewise, if the Patriots are to have any chance at all of winning this game, they need to have a much better game out of Tom Brady than they've had so far in the playoffs. Brady hasn't been himself this postseason, making poor decisions, throwing bad balls and misreading coverage. He's caused turnovers, he's missed open receivers, and he's thrown balls he should have held onto. They need the Tom Brady of legend this weekend, the guy with ice water running through his veins. They need him to avoid zeroing in on one receiver all game long (as he did for three quarters with Jabar Gaffney last week). They need him to take charge of this team and lead them right down the field in their first handful of drives. They need him to look right into the heart of the Indy defense and fill them with dread.

What do I see happening? Truthfully, I don't see a way the Patriots can keep up with the Colts, so long as Indy doesn't defeat themselves. Like I said, this game is being played indoors, and that's where the Colts absolutely FLY on both sides of the ball. Their defense is speedy, precise and small, meant to take advantage of a mildly underthrown ball, transforming it into an unexpected turnover. Their offensive line is almost exclusively dedicated to speed, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Matthis emerging as monsters underneath the dome. Their running game is blazing on the turf, and their receivers' routes are twice as crisp on the carpet. The Patriots, on the other hand, are built to endure filthy slugfests. They love to get their hands dirty and go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight. Lately, though, they haven't been the same team. They're missing some of the swagger, not to mention a boatload of the confidence. Their celebrations after last weekend's victory showed me that they didn't truly expect to be where they are right now, and for a team that's built a legacy out of self-assuredness and a businesslike demeanor, that's a bad sign. They don't have their traditional faith in themselves, and I think the Colts are ready, willing and able to deliver the knockout punch. Indy by two scores. Indianapolis: 24 - New England: 14

Brett: I'm conflicted about this game. On one hand, like nearly every Patriots game, you look their team up and down and say "they aren't as good as they were the last time they barely did this, and someday, it has to catch up to them, but as of yet.. it doesn't matter. And I don't think it will catch up to them this Sunday.

I think the Colts have been playing, on defense, out of their mind. If they get 80% of what they did the last two weeks, and the offense plays at 80% of its effectiveness.. they win. The problem is, I'm not a fan of either head coach that they played, and I think Belicheck is one of the best.. well, I'm not alone in that, but you know what I mean. I think that although the Colts have been playing great, they're still, for the most part, the D that was absolutely gashed by Jacksonville, and I don't see them being able to completely shut down the Patriots like they did Kansas City and Baltimore. The Chiefs had become one dimensional due to their lack of passing game, and the Ravens didn't have much of anything going (Jamal Lewis is DONE. Take the coke away and he's nothing1). But the Patriots have a decent offense. They don't have a lot of star power in the receiving corps, but they have enough solid players to be dangerous, and their running game is very dangerous. I think Maroney could be on his way to a big day.

The Colts absolutely have to score early. The Patriots FEAST on teams that are one dimensional, and if the Patriots rack up a lead of any sort and the Colts abandon the run game, that's bad news for Indy, even with the Patriots lack of talented DBs. A balanced, well planned attack is the only way to beat these Pats.

I can't write as much about this game because I really feel that the Patriots are going to win, but if I analyzed the game I think I might talk myself out of it. But they're just magical around this time of the year, and I really think they are going to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
New England 21, Indianapolis 10

John: Here's my prediction. It's 23-21 Pats after a Gostkowski field goal. There's 1:45 left on the clock with the Colts having no timeouts. They start from their own 27, they have some trouble getting going, but eventually Manning leads them down to the 25 yard line. Five seconds left, fourth down. Adam Vinatieri for the win. And he misses...wide right. Pats win. Cut to Manning on the sidelines mouthing, "goddamn motherfucking kickers!" Then post game, despite his 12 for 30 performance and 4 INTs Tom Brady is credited for guiding his team to the win. That's what is going to happen. It's only fitting that he leaves the Pats for the Colts, then has to kick a game winner for the Colts and he ends up missing despite hitting it every other fucking time for the damn Pats.

I'm only joking. I hope. I really do. Just with the way the Pats get lucky in some of these playoff games (I'm a bitter Rams fan still frazzled from five years ago) and the Colts have the bad luck going.

What I hope will happen and what I think will happen are two different things. My hope is that the Indianapolis Colts blow the New England Patriots with the kind of performance that makes a huge statement for them heading into the Super Bowl in Miami. This game reminds me a lot of the Cowboys/Niners rivalry in the '90s when Dallas beat San Fran two straight years on the road to the Super Bowl and then in the third year the Niners overcame them in the NFC title game. The difference here is that for the last two years they didn't meet in the playoffs, but those two wins by the Pats in back to back years are still stuck in our minds.

Now what do I think will happen? As I cringe while typing this I say the New England Patriots will win this game and then move on to win the Super Bowl in two weeks for their fourth title in six years. Ugh, I hate saying it. I really do. I just think it's happening.

I'm tired of all the QB talk in this game. I know Brady and Manning are the ones that sell the tickets, that are featured in ads and are the ones that are basically selling the game. However, for the pure football purists like me (and you maybe) the story of this game is defense. I've been mightily impressed by the Colts defense in the playoffs although I'm wondering if they really played well or did they just benefit by playing against a couple teams who have conservative offenses. The Pats aren't as good as they were defensively two years ago when they last won the title. I think they're good enough, though. They make key plays when they have to and like usual Bellichick is the master at creating defenses to mess with the minds of QB's. Maybe Manning's figured him out. I'm not really sure.

Even though I will be rooting heavily for the Colts (or more specifically against the Pats) I think the story of the game will be turnovers. I think the Pats will force more mistakes out of the Colts, whether it's Manning screwing up or the Pats players simply making great defensive plays. They seem to have a knack for that sort of thing. I also think they will be able to move the ball on the Colts by balancing the run and pass game in a manner that allows production in both areas. Should be a close game. I just think the Pats will do more to take it.
Patriots 27-20

We'll see you in two weeks for a preview of Super Bowl XLI. For Drqshadow and Brett Berliner this is John Canton saying enjoy the games. You know we will.

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