Last week’s divisional playoff games were an absolute riot. Like most years, those four games provided a weekend of football that is hard to top. Every game featured big-time surprises, and all but one had down-to-the-wire endings. Could anyone have predicted that both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would have sub-par games, yet their teams would still win? This is what the playoffs are all about: discovering things about each team that the regular season could not show, answering all questions, and delivering an undisputed champion. The Final Four is set, and each team absolutely deserves to be there.However, there are still plenty of questions to be answered. Unlike almost every year in memory, no team is entering the championship round with a lot of momentum. Each showed plenty of signs of weakness in last week’s games, and no team looked dominant by any stretch of the imagination. There are no heavy favorites this week; I could easily picture either team winning in both games. That fact, along with the historical lack of home field advantage in this round, make the Colts-Patriots and Bears-Saints matchups unbearably hard to predict.
But before I make my picks for this week, let’s take a look back at some trends in recent conference championship history. The most startling find is that home field advantage really doesn’t matter that much. Since the 1998 playoffs, home teams have gone 3-6 in the AFC Championship and 5-4 in the NFC Championship. Even cold-weather cities haven’t provided too much of an advantage; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have gone a combined 1-5 at home during this span. But here’s the most amazing thing: the last time both home teams won their conference championship games was back in 1997, when Green Bay and New England successfully defended their home turf.
Another oddity is the dominance the winning team has shown. During the last four postseasons, the conference champion has won by at least a touchdown every time. And since the AFL-NFL merger, both conference championship games have never each been decided by less than seven points.
What does all this mean? It means there is guaranteed to be at least one blowout, and that the home teams better not be feeling too confident. But enough with the historical record; let’s take an in-depth look at each game.
AFC Championship, Patriots at Colts
If someone told me the Patriots and Colts would meet in this game before the season started, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. However, the way each team got here was almost a reverse of their reputation. The Colts are known for their high-octane offense, yet they have been simply carried by their defense, which has surrendered only 14 combined points so far in the playoffs. Is this really the same unit that was almost legendary for lack of run defense in the regular season? Are we supposed to believe this? The fact that Indy won two playoff games despite Peyton Manning’s five interceptions is nothing short of remarkable.
The Patriots have been here before, yet like the Colts, their route to the AFC Championship was puzzling. Tom Brady, who had already cemented his status as one of the biggest postseason heroes of all-time, played the worst game of his life last Sunday. He was missing wide-open receivers, making poor decisions, and throwing very uncharacteristic interceptions. Yet still, despite facing a very talented Chargers club that featured the single best player in football, the Patriots still managed to win. Their defense was not its usual attacking self, they had absolutely no answer for LaDainian Tomlinson, yet still they won. They did show a few characteristics of their recent championship teams: they were lucky, took advantage of available opportunities, and came through in the clutch. But can they beat the Colts in Indy? Let’s go to this rivalry’s recent history…
This matchup generates more hype every time it is played. Remarkably, despite the fact that these two teams have played each other every year recently including twice in the postseason, this is their first clash at the RCA Dome since 2003. The Patriots won that game, 38-34, and went on to knock the Colts out of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. However, Indy has won the last two matchups, both in Foxboro. Peyton Manning, notorious for his poor performances against the Patriots, threw for over 300 yards in both those games.
But here’s the most interesting part about this matchup: this is the worst team that either club has taken to the playoffs in recent years. The Patriots are hardly like the team that won three Super Bowls in four years; their entire personnel has changed and they haven’t really been dominant at any point this season. The Colts haven’t showed any signs of possessing the dynamic offense that carried them from 2003-2005, at least in this postseason. The fact that both teams could reach this game despite having a relative “down” year is a testament to their excellent coaching staffs and sheer will of the players.
This game will come down to the play of the quarterbacks and defenses. Neither quarterback can play like he did last week, or his team will surely lose. The Patriots defense has to improve from last week, especially against the run. I think that, as usual, they’ll give Peyton Manning lots of pressure, and he’ll throw a few more interceptions. Meanwhile, the Patriots offense should be able to have good game against the Colts defense. While Indy’s D has played better than any other this postseason, it would seem highly unlikely for Tom Brady to have two straight poor performances in the playoffs. If they can get the running game going with Maroney and Dillon, watch out.
Like last week, you have to take a look at each team’s coach-quarterback combination. Brady and Belichick are 12-1 together in the postseason, including a 3-0 mark in AFC Championship games. Manning and Dungy, meanwhile, are 5-6 in the playoffs and haven’t reached the Super Bowl together. The Patriots are built to win in the playoffs, are the best road team in football (8-1 record on the road this year), and almost seem like a team of destiny after last week’s highly improbable victory.
The Pick: Patriots 24, Colts 21
NFC Championship, Saints at Bears
This game is very appealing, yet in a completely different way than Colts-Patriots. There is no rivalry whatsoever between these two teams, no playoff history to look at besides last week, and neither quarterback has much big-game experience. However, the Saints are by far the story of the year in the NFL, and it has extremely little to do with the hurricane. The fact that a team could leap from 3-13 to being one game away from a Super Bowl shows a lot of things: how important an efficient quarterback is, how important the health of key players is, and how much of an impact rookies can be.
The most amazing thing about the Saints is that it hasn’t been luck either. Usually when a team makes this kind of leap, it’s based on a lot of close games, winning the turnover battle, and some lucky plays on special teams and defense. But the Saints are exciting, featuring the most potent offense in football this year. They have possibly the best quarterback in football in Drew Brees, who finished second in the MVP voting. The matchup of a team fueled by a high-octane offense and a ball-control team with a reputation for defense usually makes for a crazy game, and that’s what will likely happen here.
When looking at this matchup, it seems there are two possible results. I could see the Bears having a huge home-field advantage, forcing a few turnovers, and scoring a few defensive/special teams touchdowns for the victory. On the other hand, I could see the Saints click in the passing game, expose the Bears’ sometimes-vulnerable defense, and make just enough plays on defense to win. Now, it’s time to decide which scenario is more likely.
The Bears, on paper, are a great team. However, they peaked about midway through the regular season. Their only wins against tough NFC opponents are the Seahawks (twice, both at home), and the Giants (on the road, but just as New York was starting to collapse). I’m not going to blame everything on Rex Grossman, who played a decent game last week. However, the quarterback matchup absolutely favors the Saints. Drew Brees has made fantastic use of an average receiving corps, and is much less mistake-prone than Grossman. I think Brees will still have an excellent game against the Bears, who have actually shown many vulnerabilities on D recently. They have given up more than 20 points in five consecutive games, and struggled against a mediocre Seahawks offense last week.
One of the biggest issues for the Saints is that they are playing on the road in a tough stadium. Soldier Field will likely be freezing cold, and will be 100% Bears fans. However, the Saints have been a great team when away from the Superdome this year. They have won three straight road games, all by at least two touchdowns. They crushed the Giants 30-7 in their only cold-weather game this year, and proved in that game that they can be carried by their running game when the pass isn’t working. The Bears will have huge trouble stopping the tandem of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Even if they do stop the run, Brees should be able to find open receivers against the Bears’ secondary.
The big question mark is how the Bears will play on offense. Though they scored the second-most points in the league this year, their offense has varied wildly from week-to-week. This isn’t just because of Grossman; they have struggled at times on the ground. And while the Saints defense isn’t exactly special, they have done just enough to stop many of their opponents. Overall, this matchup favors the Saints, and it has nothing to do with the “city has rallied around them” storyline. They are just a good football team, far more consistent and balanced than the Bears.
The Pick: Saints 27, Bears 17
And if the Super Bowl does happen to be New England vs. New Orleans, here’s my early pick for that: Saints 30, Patriots 27.