Victors and Vanquished
Here’s the dope on the losers, followed by prognostications on the conference championship games. Spreads, as always, courtesy of FootballLocks.com.
Baltimore Ravens—It wouldn’t be unfair to lay the blame for their loss to the Colts on quarterback Steve McNair. He threw two interceptions, which exacerbated the turnover problem (four in all). One of them was right on the Colts' goal-line, a critical third down play, which, if McNair converts, would’ve changed the complexion of the game. As expected, the team played good defense, and if you’d told the average fan that the Ravens would hold the Colts to no touchdowns in that game, he’d probably assume a Ravens victory. But the Ravens just never found themselves. Now they head into the offseason with an impressive but ultimately disappointing 13-4 record and a few questions that need answering.
San Diego Chargers—They beat the Patriots in three critical stats that usually tell a happier tale: time of possession, third-down conversions and first downs. Armed with home-field advantage and the greatest player in the league (LT), the Chargers still lost a game they could’ve, and maybe should’ve, won. Call it the Marty Factor, call it a choke—whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty.
Philadelphia Eagles—The Eagles reached the end of the line despite playing a good ballgame. The Saints outlasted ‘em, and it’s not untypical for teams that’ve played a wild-card round, and then have to travel, to wilt against a rested, higher-seeded team. Hats off to Jeff Garcia, for resurrecting his career with such impressive style. He should be starting somewhere, but maybe, soon to be 37, he’ll be content to back-up Donavan McNabb in’07.
Seattle Seahawks—Ditto for the Seahawks, coming off a tough wild-card-round victory and then having to hit the road. The Bears were impressive only in fits and starts, and they might’ve been beaten if the ‘Hawks had had more gas in their tank (or fewer injuries in their secondary). They got the game into overtime but it just wasn’t to be. There’s still a lot of talent on that team, and they should be back.
New England Patriots (14-4) @ Indianapolis Colts (14-4)
Sunday, January 21, 6:30 p.m. EST, CBS
Like it or not—for example, if you live in San Diego or Baltimore—this is the matchup that can’t be ignored by anyone. The two finest pro quarterbacks in the world face off with a Super Bowl berth on the line. The Patriots’ Tom Brady is an old hand at big games, with a 12-1 postseason record and three Super Bowl rings to attest to his poise, intelligence, mental toughness and a throwing arm that is always underrated but nevertheless gets the job done. That description sounds eerily like Joe Montana, and if Brady wins this game, he will join Montana (4-0), Terry Bradshaw (4-0) and Jim Kelly (0-4) as the only QBs to ever lead their team to four Super Bowls. (John Elway, 2-3, has the all-time mark, making it to five with the Broncos.) The Pats dodged a bullet against the Chargers: they didn’t seem to be at the top of their game, but they managed a victory. The Pats have played the Colts fours years in a row now. In 2003 and 2004, they defeated Indy in playoff games in Boston. In 2005 and 2006, they lost to the Colts in regular season games, also in Boston. Now they invade the Colts’ home (artificial) turf, where the hosts are 9-0 this year, including a January 6 wild-card playoff victory over Kansas City. The Colts’ defense has been the biggest surprise of the postseason, yielding only 14 points in two games. Meanwhile, QB Peyton Manning has been less than his usual spectacular self as an aerial showman, but he’s shown restraint and efficiency in taking what his opponents have given him and churning out workmanlike positive results. It’s damn nigh impossible to pick against the Patriots, because they have Brady, battle-hardened playoff experience and a head coach, Belichick, who seems to thrive on big-game pressure. Both Manning and his head coach, Tony Dungy, are looking to reverse their fortunes and both finally make it to Super Bowl Land. The running attacks are a critical factor here, because if only one steps up big-time, the other team will be forced to throw more, which opens up the margin for errors and turnovers. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney are capable of providing a dominant force for New England, but they haven’t really shown it lately. Meanwhile, the Colts’ run D has been superb. Rookie Joseph Addai is the Colts’ main runner. He’s served as a solid complement to Manning, but the team got monster yards out of Dominic Rhodes last week versus Baltimore. Rhodes, a fifth-year man out of little Midwestern Texas State, is an unsung hero on this team, and people tend to forget that he gained over 1,000 yards in 2001 (4.7 avg.), filling in for an injured Edgerrin James. Adam Vinatieri is the Colts’ placekicker, after having spent the first 10 years of his career with the Patriots and winning huge games for them with his talented toe. That’s yet another sidebar story in a game fraught with intrigue and generating high universal interest. This could be the Colts’ year.
Prediction: Colts 23, Patriots 17
ATS: Colts (-3)
New Orleans Saints (11-6) @ Chicago Bears (14-3)
Sunday, January 21, 3 p.m. EST, FOX
Few people recall that the Bears met the Saints one time before in the playoffs. It was in the wild-card round following the 1990 season and the Bears won 16-6. With last week’s victory over Philadelphia, the Saints improved their career playoff record to an unimpressive 2-5. This game means a chance to exorcise 40 years of frustration, and to put the capper on a magical and quite unexpected year of success. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been a huge factor in the team’s good fortunes: he knows how to play big, and, for what it’s worth, he’s got more overall experience than Bears counterpart Rex Grossman. Brees brings consistency, while Grossman brings a case of panic attack. It might be wrong to assume that Grossman won’t perform, because he’s certainly done well enough to move the Bears this far. But if one guy freaks, it’s most likely to be Grossman, and he’ll have a lot of pressure on him from the home crowd, which doesn’t like the nervous stomach activity that his play brings. The Bears’ running-back tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson is a good one, but without a decent passing attack to complement them, they can become mere plodders. For the Saints, it’s thunder and lightning, with shifty speedster rookie Reggie Bush alternating with tough-guy Deuce McAllister, who’s proved that he’s back all the way from serious knee surgery in 2005. The old saw is that defense wins playoff games. That would swing this game in the Bears’ favor based on their early season performance. But lately they have looked vulnerable. They lost starters Mike Brown and Tommie Harris to injury, and they’ve yielded 129 points in their past five games. That’s not shutdown football. Perhaps they’ve been holding back, since they had their division and home-field playoff advantage sewed up pretty early. Yet the Saints have real weapons, including a quarterback who can hang tough and make pinpoint throws. Even the Bears’ presumed advantage on special teams, with all-world kick returner Devin Hester, is somewhat cancelled out by the presence of Bush, who’s been known to do his own damage in the return game. As for the Saints’ defense, it doesn’t have marquee names; instead, it’s a collection of hard-nosed overachievers, who proved able to withstand a gutty Eagles team led by the excellent Jeff Garcia. The Bears are at home, and that ought to count for something, but these Saints don’t look like pansies. They seem to be the better team right now.
Prediction: Saints 20, Bears 17
ATS: Saints (+2.5)