Before I get to my conference championship picks, I have to unload here.
Ever since I started following the NFL, I have heard the cliche, "You need to run the ball and play defense to win in January". I have also heard, "You need a good quarterback to win in January". There's the ever-so-popular, "You need to finish the year hot to win in January". I've heard that "You need a coach who knows how to win in January".
Or, in the case of people slobbering over the Jets this week, pundits have reverted back to the defense/ground game axiom.
Well, here's my personal addition to the NFL Playoff Cliche Machine: You need to win three games in a row in January/February—or four if you don't get a bye week.
Sounds drab? Sounds pedantic? Well...it's the closest thing to the truth. Because if the playoffs have taught us anything during the past few years, it's that the cliches are just that: cliches.
I love ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons to death, but no matter what he or anyone else tells you, there's no magic formula to picking playoff winners. And no, I'm not saying that because I've gone 3-5. I was 9-2 last year. I'm saying it because it's true.
Don't believe me? Let's debunk the cliches, myth by myth.
1. The Ground Game/Defense Argument
This is the one that everyone is using to support the Jets right now. This would discount the current Colts team, which ranks dead last in rushing yards in the league. Or last year's Super Bowl Champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were paced by Willie Parker and his awe-inspiring 791-yard total with a 3.8 average. Or the 2001 and 2003 Patriots, who were led by Antowain Smith. Or the 2002 Bucs, who won it all with Michael Pittman. Michael Pittman, for goodness sake! Or...well you get the idea.
2. The Great Quarterback Argument
This argument might have had some legs in the '70s and '80s, when Bradshaw, Staubach, Stabler, Montana, etc. were running amok. But Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl as a starting QB. I'm a die-hard Ravens fan—no one loves Trent Dilfer more than me— but...he's Trent Dilfer. And Jim Plunkett was Jim Plunkett. Eli Manning is Eli Manning (Sorry, Giants fans, but he's not that good). And yes, Mark Sanchez can still be Mark Sanchez and give Jets fans hope.
3. Finishing the Year
No team finished the year hotter than the Dallas Cowboys—and where did that get them? The 2006 Colts limped into the playoffs—they lost to Houston in Week 16 of that year, for bleep's sake! And Houston was terrible! And Indy was trying! Minnesota, New Orleans, and Indy all ended the year on shaky terms. At least one of those teams will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
4. The Coaches Argument
The men with the most experience coaching this Sunday are Sean Payton and Brad Childress—and they've been with their teams since 2006. Between the two of them, they've coached three playoff games. Jim Caldwell and Rex Ryan are in their first seasons. Mike Tomlin was in his second when he won the Bowl; so was Brian Billick. I'm sorry, but if the Saints or Vikings win the Lombardi Trophy, it will not be based solely on Payton or Childress' four-year advantage on their AFC opponents.
So where does that leave us? We as fans need to collectively admit several things about teams when we're analyzing the matchups rather than revert to hoary cliches.
1. Any Team that Makes It This Far Is Good
Yes, even the Jets.
2. Matchups Matter
Drew Brees had to be licking his chops watching that Cardinals-Packers game. Then he got the Cards' defense at home and took them behind the woodshed. Come to think of it, if my boneheaded self had listened to people all week talk about how Dallas matched up perfectly with Philly, I might have called that game the right way.
The Ravens were perfectly matched in the first round against a banged-up Patriots team playing without their all-everything slot receiver. The Jets could do three things better than the Chargers: run, stop the run, and stop the pass. The Vikings D-line was a nightmare for Dallas before Flozell Adams got hurt.
That doesn't mean the team with the ideal matchup will always win games. But many times, a team will win—even though it might not be better from top to bottom—because it catches the right team at the right time. The Cardinals stumbled around near the end of last year and caught fire in large part because they matched up so well with the three NFC teams they faced.
3. Luck Matters
Field goal kickers are 0-for-5 against the Jets in the playoffs. Zero-for-5. That is luck, Jets fans, no matter what you tell me. Wes Welker got hurt a week before the Ravens game (he doesn't make a 19-point difference, but still). Reggie Bush decides that the Cardinals game is the game he decides to "bring the wood". The Cardinals advance in large part because of a face mask penalty that's not called. Luck matters and luck happens, and there's no possible way to predict to whom and when and how.
With all of that in mind, here are my picks for Sunday.
Jets @ Colts
Look, I don't have anything against the Jets. Truth be told, I love them. I've always liked Rex Ryan from his Baltimore days. I'm not surprised at all that Jim Leonhard has done what he has. I love Darrelle Revis' game. And Mark Sanchez is playing the Trent Dilfer role to perfection.
Trust me, I want the Jets to win. I do. But what I want to happen and what I think will happen are two different things.
1. As stated above, kickers are 0-for-5 against the Jets in the playoffs. I'm gonna guess Matt Stover, one of the best kickers of all time, will break that streak if he has to.
2. The Colts defense demonstrated last week that they have speed and can keep up with Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones.
3. I've said it before, and I'm sticking to my guns here: Mark Sanchez does not do that three weeks in a row.
4. No one is better at blitz recognition than Peyton Manning.
5. Darrelle Revis can take away Reggie Wayne. No one is taking away Dallas Clark.
6. The Colts have not lost one game in which they tried to win. Not one. This is an excellent team. They prove it Sunday.
Colts 23, Jets 10
Vikings @ Saints
I've never been this excited about a non-Ravens, non-Super Bowl game. Is this an awesome matchup or what? Of course, the Brett Favre story line will be front and center, but how about the subplot of Drew Brees trying to become a household name? How about two long-suffering fanbases getting their chance at glory? How about the New Orleans fans sounding like a controlled thunderstorm in the Superdome? How about...
OK, football. Now, I wanted to pick the Vikings. Jared Allen and the D-line should feast on New Orleans and limit Brees' opportunities to throw. And the Vikings should be able to move the ball through the air if Favre is as sharp as he was last week. Jabari Greer is an awesome cover corner and can probably halt Sidney Rice, but Favre has been adept at spreading the ball out this year.
Still, I'm going with New Orleans. I think their offense will still find a way. The Vikings secondary is definitely vulnerable, and while Brees might not always have time, he has a quick release and receivers/backs who can gain separation. Whichever QB has it in the end wins it for his team. I think it's Brees and the Saints going to the Super Bowl.
Saints 41, Vikings 38 in an absolute classic.