NFL Conference Championship Games Have Plenty To Offer

Taylor SmithAnalyst IJanuary 21, 2010

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 03:  Rex Ryan, Head Coach of the New York Jets, communicates with the team during the third quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Giants Stadium on January 3, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Are you bummed that your team has already been knocked out of the NFL playoffs?

If so, you're probably considering not tuning in to this weekend's pair of conference championship games: Jets at Colts and Vikings at Saints.

I get it.

It's easy to grow weary of watching Peyton Manning change the play at the line of scrimmage.

It's frustrating hearing people tell us, "It's amazing what Brett Favre is doing" over and over again.

While these may be contributing factors to your lack of interest in these two games, there are plenty of more intriguing factors that should be enough to keep you interested enough to watch.

So, let's see what they are, starting on the AFC side.

The New York Jets

I tried to think of one aspect in particular to cover here, but the Jets have too many fascinating story lines for me to narrow them down.

How will the Jets' defense stack up against Peyton Manning's potent offense?

If there's one thing we know for certain, it's that the young Jets are not afraid of anybody.

How do we know this?

Well, for one thing, Rex Ryan has done nothing but tell us this again and again over the past few weeks.

But besides that, you can tell the Jets are not lacking confidence with the way they've been playing. 

They boast the league's top defense, led by all-world corner, Darrelle Revis.

Prior to last Sunday's game against San Diego, Revis hadn't allowed the opposing team's top receiver to gain more than 35 yards through the air.

Before that game, Chargers' QB Philip Rivers claimed that they were not afraid of Revis, and wouldn't shy away from testing him by throwing his way.

As mentioned by SI's Peter King here, Revis was only thrown at four times. Two of those passes were incomplete, one was completed to LaDainian Tomlinson for a loss of four, and one was intercepted by Revis.

So, how will Peyton Manning and Co. deal with him?

It's tough to shut down Indianapolis' passing game, but, then again, it was also supposed to be tough to shut down San Diego's passing game.

The key for the Jets is to get pressure on the quarterback.

New York will blitz from every direction, causing mass confusion for the opposing offensive line. If they can penetrate effectively and quickly, they will force Manning to get rid of the ball quickly, giving the receivers less time to complete their routes. 

Considering the Colts typically feast on quick pass plays, it will be interesting to see which team's strong point is actually better. 

How will the Jets' trio of rookies (head coach Rex Ryan, quarterback Mark Sanchez, running back Shonn Greene) fare on the big stage of an AFC title game?

As we know, the Jets' passing game doesn't scare anybody.

New York has been ultra-conservative with Mark Sanchez, trying to limit his potential for making costly mistakes. 

Fortunately for the Jets, this is where their top-ranked rushing attack comes into play.

With his dominating offensive line leading the way, Shonn Greene has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the first two playoff games.

This season, the Colts ranked 24th in the league in rushing yards allowed.

On the other hand, last week against Baltimore, Indy held Ray Rice to just 67 yards on 13 carries. Considering Rice and the Ravens' running game killed the Patriots the week before, that's an impressive feat for the Colts.

Unless they're faced with a fairly large deficit early on, we know the Jets are going to pound the ball up the middle as much as they can.

Last week, their success on the ground was limited at first, but they were persistent. That persistence eventually led to Greene breaking through: a 53-yard touchdown run that turned out to be the difference in the game.

If Sanchez can keep the ball away from the Colts on the rare occasions that he'll be throwing it, the Jets should enjoy decent success on offense.

When it comes to coaching experience, Rex Ryan will be at no disadvantage. The coach on the other sidelines, Jim Caldwell, also happens to be in his first year at the helm.

Which One-Dimensional Offense Will Prevail?

Last week, the Colts had to face Baltimore, a team that thrived on running the ball and playing sturdy defense.

The Jets had to face San Diego, a team that lived on throwing the ball and outscoring their opponents.

Sound familiar?

Each team this Sunday will face an extremely similar matchup, so their game plans may not change a whole lot from last week.

If we're playing the percentages, it's clear that the Jets' top-ranked rushing offense should be able to enjoy some success against the Colts' aforementioned 24th-ranked rush defense.

However, the presence of Peyton Manning on Indy's sideline complicates things a bit.

In the previous meeting with the Jets, during which Manning played just six possessions, he was 14-21 for 192 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

While he didn't account for any scoring, Manning was able to have decent success eating up yardage on New York's defense. 

If his offensive line is able to give him some time, Manning should be able to efficiently pick apart the Jets' secondary. 

Unfortunately for Peyton, New York's pass rush has been leaving opposing quarterbacks with no time to make necessary reads and effectively hit their targets.

Unfortunately for the Jets, Manning is the master of identifying where blitzes will come from prior to the snap, so it's shaping up to be a classic game of cat-and-mouse.

Much like New York's passing game, the Jets' defense shouldn't have to worry about Indy's running game too much.

The Colts ranked dead-last in the NFL this season in rushing yards per game, right behind New York's opponent last week, San Diego.

How Much Legitimacy Does New York's 29-15 Victory Over Indianapolis In Week 16 Hold?

It's difficult to say how legitimate that win was, considering the Jets were a desperate team trying to make a last-ditch effort to make the playoffs. The Colts were undefeated with everything already clinched, and rested most of their starters for a large portion of that game.

Unless Jim Caldwell does something ridiculous, like bench Peyton Manning, Robert Mathis, and Dwight Freeney to rest them for the Pro Bowl, I'd expect to see a very different game Sunday.

In that game, the Jets' offense only accounted for one touchdown: a one-yard run by Thomas Jones that put the game out of reach.

The other two touchdowns came on a Brad Smith 106-yard kickoff return, and a Marques Douglas one-yard fumble return.

If they struggle to move the ball up and down the field, the Jets are going to need the defense or special teams to put some points on the board. Infrequent scoring of this nature is something a team can't depend on.

The Saints May Make Their First-Ever Super Bowl Appearance

The Saints have existed since 1967, with an all-time record of 276-377-5, and a 3-6 mark in postseason play.

In other words, if you're a Saints fan, you've had a tough time watching football over the years.

This will be the Saints' second appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Their first appearance came three years ago when the Saints fell to the Chicago Bears, 39-14.

This season, the Saints stormed off to a 13-0 start, highlighted by Drew Brees and his high-flying offense.

New Orleans has quickly become one of the league's most popular teams, with their fan-friendly aerial offense and their status as a perpetual underdog.

A Super Bowl berth would mean a ton for not only the Saints and their fans, but the city of New Orleans as well.

The city and entire region were absolutely devastated by Hurricane Katrina just over four years ago, but the Saints were instrumental in helping bring everybody together. The 2006 Saints team was able to garner amazing amounts of support from the city, just as the 2009 Saints team have been able to do.

I Know You Don't Want To Hear It but...Brett Favre Is Good

Perhaps you've heard of him.

Oh, you have?


In case you missed it, the team standing in the way of a Saints Super Bowl is the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings are fresh off a 34-3 drubbing of the red-hot Dallas Cowboys, and have gotten to where they are thanks, in large part, to a certain No. 4. 

This season, his 19th in the NFL, Brett Favre threw for 4,202 yards with 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

Last week, he was 15-24 for 234 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Now, would Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson have been able to put up numbers like this?

You know the answer. 

Favre has helped take the Vikings from a talent-laden team with quarterback problems to perhaps the most well-rounded team in the NFL.

Now, this isn't to say that Favre deserves all the credit. Minnesota happens to have one of the best running backs in the league in Adrian Peterson, as well as a physical and quick defense that boasts perhaps the best defensive line in football.

Put this all together with the emergence of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin as playmaking wide receivers, and you have a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Saints' Offense vs. Vikings' Defense

Clearly, this is the matchup of the game.

Last week, the Saints racked up 45 points, and the Vikings sacked Cowboys' QB Tony Romo six times while holding the high-powered Dallas offense to just three points.

Basically, something's gotta give this weekend.

New Orleans was able to rush for 171 yards last week against Arizona, but much of that came from Reggie Bush running wild for 84 yards on just five carries.

I have a hard time believing Bush will be able to weave through Vikings defenders the same way he was able to against Cardinals defenders. 

To score, the Saints are going to have to give Drew Brees enough time to throw. Unlike Romo, a player that excels at making plays on the run, Brees is more comfortable and more effective when he's able to stand in the pocket and make his reads.

If the Saints' offensive line is able to hold up against the Jared Allen-led pass rush of Minnesota, expect New Orleans to score plenty of points. 

If they're able to penetrate effectively and get to the quarterback, that creates many more opportunities for mistakes from Brees. New Orleans certainly has enough playmakers to do some damage, but it all starts and ends with the play at the line of scrimmage.

The picks

Jets at Colts

As impressive as their run has been, I cannot imagine the Jets being able to pull out a third-consecutive playoff road win.

They should be able to run with effectiveness, but it's difficult to trust that Mark Sanchez will be able to get through another game without making a costly mistake.

I think Peyton Manning finds enough holes in the Jets' pass defense to win the game, 24-17.

Vikings at Saints

While both teams have "been on a mission" all season long, I feel more confident in the Saints than I do the Vikings.

Brett Favre has laid some epic playoff stinkbombs throughout his career, and the Saints' defense is solid enough to be able to force him into some of his old, gunslingin' mistakes.

That being said, I don't think there's any way for this to be a blowout in either direction, and I feel as though it's going to be won late in the fourth quarter.

I think Drew Brees and Co. find a way to wear down the Vikings late, winning 27-24. 

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