Saturday, January 20, 2007

NFL Picks – Conference Championship

A stellar postseason so far, as this column has gone 6-2, with both losses resulting from picking against the Colts. The funny thing is that Indy has arguably played two of its worst offensive games of the year, but the defense has stepped it up with a pair of top notch efforts. Scary also is how close the final score predictions were, given that attempting to predict such things is a Quixotic effort in the first place.

With just three games remaining until we close out this season, and with a winning post season prediction record already clinched, the picks for the Conference title games follow below.

New Orleans at Chicago

A very intriguing matchup, as the Saints have become America’s New Team. Honestly, what cold hearted bastard out there doesn’t want to see New Orleans take this game and march into it’s first ever Super Bowl? The print media, for one, is collectively salivating about the wistful, poetic articles that will be written (Saints: Pride of A Rebuilding City, etc.). Television producers are readying the soft focus, twinkly music, human interest pieces already…. good times all around.

Not so fast. The Bears are still the top seeded team, playing at home in what all Chicagoans hope will be a frigid Soldier Field. This group finally got the monkey off its collective back last week by winning a playoff game, and finally have their swagger back. Up and down QB Rex Grossman was a little bit of both in last week’s win over Seattle, with the good outweighing the bad. The Bears can probably get by so long as he doesn’t self destruct and cough up a few turnovers. The ground attack of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson can keep the chains moving, while also keeping the potent Saint offense off the field. The defense, while banged up with several starters missing, could gain an extra step by playing at home, and will need it against the speedy Saints.

New Orleans, on the other hand, needs to keep that suddenly struggling Bear D off balance. Coach Sean Payton has a ton of weapons at his disposal, and the feeling is he has a few looks he’ll be throwing out that haven’t shown up on any game film yet. QB Drew Brees will need to manage the game efficiently, and HB Deuce McAlister, with his straight ahead style, could be a more important weapon than the elusive Reggie Bush. Getting Bush into open space, where he is a constant big play threat, is something the Bears will try to prevent.

The feeling here is the Saints have too many weapons, and the depleted, struggling Bear defense might not be able to fully contain them. If this game was in October, the selection would be Chicago with no hesitation. However, New Orleans has that look right now of a team of destiny, and in its 40th season, will finally punch a ticket to the Super Bowl. Let the media onslaught begin.

Saints 27 Bears 20

New England at Indianapolis

Again with these two? The seemingly annual playoff clash between these two AFC powerhouses features some newer storylines (Adam Vinatieri switching sides), along with the same old stories (Peyton Manning’s playoff struggles against Belichick/Brady).

The biggest surprise in the Colts getting this far has been, without question, the defense. After completely stuffing Kansas City, it went on the road and stymied Baltimore as well. Granted, neither one of those teams can be considered an offensive powerhouse, but the pre-game hype never seemed to mention even the slightest possibility the Colts could shut down anyone. Peyton Manning has been positively Grossman-like in both games, throwing only one TD with five picks. That the Colts still managed to win each game is a testament to how well the defense bailed them out, as conventional wisdom dictated Indy was toast without a big game from its QB.

The rivalry has actually been somewhat one sided of late, with Indy winning the last two regular season games rather handily. Coach Dungy’s crew has to be brimming with confidence going into this game, but one has to wonder if the mindset behind closed doors is more of the “Man, I sure hope can finally beat these guys” rather than “it’s our time, they can’t stop us.”. Spreading the ball around, getting a solid effort from the ground tandem of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, and limiting mistakes on the offensive side are thing the Colts have to do to pull this one out.

The Patriots, on the other hand, did it again last week. By “it”, I mean “win another game they probably should have lost”. Watching the Chargers implode with stupid on and off field decisions was painful to watch. Seeing Tom Brady rebound after throwing that late INT overturned by the Troy Brown forced fumble was a thing of beauty. Brady wasn’t great for much of the game, but, as he usually does, he was great when he had to be. The Pats always seem to have the ability to take a mile when given an inch, particularly in the playoffs, and last week was no exception.

Going into a hostile environment, as an underdog, only serves to embolden these guys. Can the resurgent Indy defense stop the Pats? Maybe, in spots, but not to the level it shutdown KC and Baltimore. Playing in the dome, on turf, makes players like Dwight Freeny more dangerous, and should the Colts grab a lead he will be teeing off on Brady. New England’s defense will miss Rodney Harrison, but Belichick likely has some defensive looks up his sleeve which Manning hasn’t seen yet.

Like New Orleans, the Colts seem to have a bit of mojo working thus far, and look like Destiny’s Darlings. That said, I just can’t pick against the Patriots as long as #12 is under center in a playoff game, and the guy in the dirty hoodie is patrolling the sidelines. Manning will likely get his stats, unlike prior playoff battles, but the pick here is the Pats, setting up a Super Bowl in which they will not be the sentimental favorites.

Patriots 23 Colts 20

Last week: 3-1

Playoff totals: 6-2

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