Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Conference Championships Weekend: Great Stories with Interesting Angles Abound in AFC, NFC Matchups

While we all scratch our heads trying to figure out why the federal government is spending our hard-earned money holding congressional hearings into major league baseball’s drug problems—Would they bring in the CEO of Ford Motor Co. if a lot of assembly-line workers were taking HGH? Would they haul in Rupert Murdoch if his media conglomerate had a big steroid problem? Didn’t the NFL prove that a major sport can police its own internal business in a systemized and efficient manner?—let’s focus instead on this weekend’s conference championships.

Where to begin with the fabulous story angles? Let’s see, pro football’s best “old” quarterback, Brett Favre, gets a shot at playing in another Super Bowl, while the game’s very best, Tom Brady, goes for 18-0 and the chance at making his fourth Super Bowl appearance. (The latter would tie Brady with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for all-time bragging rights.) The other two QBs, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, were actually traded for each other in 2004, when the drafted Manning didn’t want to play in San Diego. (Remember that?)

Packers RB Ryan Grant faces off against the Giants, the team that originally signed him as an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame in 2005. Meanwhile, the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson nurses a hyperextended knee, making one wonder if backups Michael Turner and Darren Sproles might not be getting the call. And who knows, they might be getting the ball from Billy Volek, who subbed for the banged-up Rivers (knee) in last weekend’s divisional victory over the Colts. Volek proved resilient in leading the Bolts to a game-winning TD in Indy. He’s a talented QB who’s simply never had an extended trial. With the Titans in ’04, subbing for an injured Steve McNair, Volek put up terrific numbers (218-357, 61.1%, 2,486 yards, 18 TDs, 10 INTs, 87.1 passer rating). Then, when Vince Young joined Tennessee in ‘06, Volek was deemed expendable and dealt to San Diego.

On the coaching front, we’ve got the crusty grand wizard Bill Belichick of the Patriots, and also the fresh-faced youngster Mike McCarthy of the Packers. But most of the focus will be on the Chargers’ Norv Turner and the Giants’ Tom Coughlin, each of whom has suffered a lot of criticism in their careers. Neither has ever been able to win the big one, though Coughlin made it to two conference championships with the Jaguars. Turner is much-maligned: too soft, cursed with bad karma. Now he heads to New England, against a team making history. We’ll be rootin’ for ya, Norv, if only because your challenge is so impossible. (Oh, a bad name, too. Norv?)

It’s all good stuff. Much better than baseball.

AFC Championship

San Diego Chargers (13-5) @ New England Patriots (17-0)

Sunday, 3 p.m. EST, CBS-TV

The Chargers are pretty banged up. Rivers, Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates (dislocated toe)—the main cogs in their offense—are either questionable, day-to-day, or game-time decisions. If they play, they face a defense that, whatever occasional criticisms it's endured, does not let up and would probably love nothing more than to see Volek have to step in to the spotlight. The Chargers have a very good defense themselves, of course, and if there’s maybe one team around that has the raw talent to pressure Brady with any consistency, it might be the Bolts. Yet even 17 games into the season, it’s amazing how much time Brady gets. And even after the occasional sack, his line just sucks it up and eventually does its job for him. The problem with defensing the Patriots is that, once you’ve accounted for, say, Wes Welker and Randy Moss—challenge enough—then Donte’ Stallworth comes out of nowhere and catches the long pass instead. Or Ben Watson. Or Jabar Gaffney. Conventional wisdom says that Pats RB Laurence Maroney should step up and provide the ground game. He might. Or he might not. Brady & Co. still look invincible. If the Chargers show no ability to match the Pats drive for drive, how will they ever win on a cold, hostile field? Theirs would certainly be a magnificent victory, but a soul-sucking loss looks more likely.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Chargers 13

NFC Championship

New York Giants (12-6) @ Green Bay Packers (14-3)

Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST, FOX-TV

Here’s a good question: Why have they scheduled the coldest venue for the later starting time? It’ll be 8:30 at night in January in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when this game’s in the fourth quarter. (Just wonderin’.) Nevertheless, the Giants have a shot here. They’re not playing dominant football, but they’re playing error-less football. If they can stay in this game—they’re an amazing 9-1 on the road this season—anything can happen. The Giants’ D is playing aggressively and getting some turnovers. Eli is putting up acceptable numbers while playing things close to the vest—and it’s working. He has very good receivers—Amani Toomer has a ton of talent, and even though he’s been around awhile, we’re getting a showcase glimpse at his abilities. TE Kevin Boss has stepped up amazingly to replace Jeremy Shockey with no apparent drop-off. We’re still waiting for RB Brandon Jacobs’ break-out game. He’s a truck back there, and even when he hasn’t put up big numbers, he’s proved very useful. On the other side are the upstart, generally youthful Packers, helmed by a 38-year-old QB legend and seemingly in a definite “up” cycle and playing at home before rabid fans. The Pack showed a lot in coming back from a 14-0 deficit against Seattle last weekend. Their defense went into shutdown mode, and with a solid D-line, three young and talented LBs (Barnett, Hawk, Poppinga) and a tough, veteran secondary, they might be getting better. History proves that Favre excels with a running game, no matter how capable he is of carrying a team with his arm. So Grant needs to keep doing what he’s doing: slash through the line for quick gainers and use his speed with the occasional sweep or dump-off pass. If Favre gets the option of keeping the New Yorkers guessing—38 and still the master of the play-action—he’ll try to hook up with his talented receivers (those guys seem to be getting better also). It should be a very good game. If the Giants hang tough, and someone makes a critical mistake... The thing is that, despite their youth, the Packers have been consistent all year long. They don’t play like a Cinderella team. They look like they belong here. Will the big-game atmosphere rattle ’em?

Prediction: Packers 24, Giants 23

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