The NFL Final Four

NC NighthawkAnalyst IJanuary 23, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 27:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts and Head Coach Jim Caldwell are pictured on the sideline during the NFL game against the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 27, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Manning and many of the starters were pulled from the game in the second half and the Colts went on to lose their first game of the season 29-15.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Annually, the NFL conference championship games are one of the most anticipated sports weekends of the calendar year. With the league narrowed vdown to four teams left standing, this is when we often see the highest level of football performed.

We will see both NFL conferences’ No. 1 seeds in the championship games for the first time since 2004. What is unique now is that there is no consensus on which teams will win this weekend.

Usually, the two home teams with higher seeds are strongly favored. While one can make a logical argument why the Colts are or should be heavy favorites, a Jets loss is no guarantee either.

So far, the old theory that a team has to be hot going into the playoffs has been proven wrong, as exemplified by the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, and Minnesota Vikings, who entered the playoffs by combining for seven losses over the final four weeks of the regular season.

These three squads benefited from an extra week of rest, though. The Colts and Saints also benefited from resting their starters toward the end of the regular season.

While home-field advantage and rest are helpful, actual preparation and practice is what prepares a team the most to hopefully outperform its opponent in the playoffs.

The home team has won 31 of 49 AFL/AFC championship games. The New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts meet for No. 50.

For the first time in NFL history, this year’s AFC title game features two rookie head coaches. But it also contrasts a very seasoned quarterback in his prime versus a rookie quarterback who manages a run-oriented offense.

This game is virtually a chess game matchup between Peyton Manning and Rex Ryan.

Manning will vary little from his game plan from last week, as the Baltimore Ravens came at him from all sides and the Colts were ready. The Jets will do the same, and he will be prepared again.

Over the Jets' last eight games, only the Colts have scored more than 14 points against them, and the starters were only in for half the game. The Jets defense is paired with the league's No. 1 rushing attack.

As good as the Jets defenses is playing, Manning and his offense will move the football. Manning is 4-1 versus Ryan’s defense (including Ryan's time in Baltimore), and the one loss was that last matchup, in which the Colts rested their starters in the second half.

The Jets rely upon and play a lot of man-to-man pass coverage along with blitz packages, which plays into Manning’s hands.

An overlooked component of this game may be Indy’s defense. The Colts’ defense relies on speed, crucial to shutting down the outside runs and getting pressure on the quarterback.

The Colts will most likely stack the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stop the run and force rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to beat them. Quarterback play will be the difference in this game, as Manning magically will get the job done, though the NYJ defense will hassle him all game.

Was it a mistake when the then-14-0 Colts decided not to try for a perfect season and rested their starters in the second half against the Jets? A 15-10 Colts lead turned into a 29-15 Jets win, which helped put New York in the playoffs.

Should the Colts have eliminated New York when they had the chance? The Colts have been to three Super Bowls, all in Miami. Expect Indy to make a fourth trip to South Florida and get a victory in a rematch of Super Bowl III—Colts 23, Jets 17.

Although I pick Indianapolis to win and I like and respect Manning and his talent, I disrespect the Colts for disrespecting NFL history when they chose not to chase a perfect season. Thus, a Jets upset would be both poetic justice and high irony, as Ryan and Co. would have missed the playoffs with a loss against Indianapolis.

In the NFC championship game, the amount of time that each quarterback will have to pass will be a significant factor. Both the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings will run the ball often enough to check off the opposing defense’s pass rush.

I expect another offensive and aerial juggernaut. Drew Brees led and helped his team score the most points in the NFL this season. Who is No. 2? You guessed it—Brett Favre and his Vikings.

Nevertheless, Brees' impressive season seems to have been overshadowed by Favre's, with 33 touchdowns after the 40-year-old quarterback opted to come out of retirement and join Minnesota (13-4).

Both Brees and Favre have plenty of talent around them.

Marques Colston and Robert Meachem each had nine touchdown receptions for New Orleans during the regular season, while Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie Bush scored at least five rushing touchdowns apiece.

Bush made a major impact last week with a 46-yard touchdown run and an 83-yard punt return for a score.

For the Vikings, Sidney Rice's three touchdown catches last week tied an NFL postseason record, and he finished with six receptions for 141 yards.

Besides Rice, Favre can turn to weapons such as Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Visanthe Shiancoe. Both the Vikings and the Saints have excellent offenses that will light up the Superdome scoreboard.

The Vikings have a better team defense while the Saints’ defense still features a big-time playmaker in Darren Sharper. Favre will play well and courageously, but at times he will be frustrated by the Saints’ defensive pressure.

I expect big plays from both special teams, especially by the kickoff and punt return teams.

The very, very loud noise by the 12th man in the Superdome will cause enough significant false starts by the Minnesota offense. In contrast, the home crowd will allow New Orleans’ offense to hear its play caller's signals.

The Superdome was the scene where Favre won his solo Super Bowl 13 years ago. He's a native of nearby Kiln, Mississippi.

This will be Favre's first road playoff game in six years. The Vikings went 9-0 at home compared to a 4-4 road mark.

Favre came back to the league to do one thing: to get back to the Super Bowl. Minnesota has won four straight over New Orleans, averaging 33.3 points; make that five consecutive—Vikings 41, Saints 34.

Who dat? Who dey? I struggled with this NFC title game pick because the Saints are at home, and back in September of 2002 I predicted the New Orleans Saints would finally make a Super Bowl appearance.

Will we then witness a Colts-Vikings Super Bowl featuring a Peyton Manning-Brett Favre matchup? Stay tuned. 

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