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Road to the Super Bowl: AFC/NFC Championship Previews

Up until now the NFL playoffs looked like they were going to shape up exactly how the regular season predicted they would, but with the upset of the San Diego Chargers by the New York Jets people that like some underdog action with their sports were given another good reason to watch the upcoming conference championship games this weekend.  Now fans are afforded one clash of the titans (sorry Tennessee) and another game matching a juggernaut against a team with something to prove.  At this time of year the stakes are high enough that it doesn’t matter who’s still left anyways, but let’s take a look at who could have their hopes dashed and who might be on their way to sunny Miami, Florida.

NEW YORK JETS VS. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS   

 

(Sunday, 3PM EST)  You can’t get much more interesting than the season the New York Jets had.  They started off the year with a new head coach and a rookie quarter back (Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez, respectively).  They rattled off three wins to begin the season then promptly lost their next four.  They staggered the rest of the year with wins and losses and found themselves in an AFC wild card position after a week 17 obliteration of a Bengals team that was resting most of their players.  Then they proceeded to beat the Bengals in their own backyard when it counted most:  the playoffs.  Now the Jets have shocked everyone by traveling all the way to the west coast to beat the San Diego Chargers, who were a pick by many to hoist Lombardi’s prestigious trophy.

So why isn’t anyone impressed?  Well, the reason lies mostly in the play of Sanchez.  Granted he’s certainly had an above average season for a rookie QB, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the weak link in an otherwise solid 52-man roster.  He was only asked to complete 12 of 15 passes against the Bengals two weeks ago and was very average against San Diego (12-23, 100 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT).  The Jets run the ball better than any team in the NFL thanks to their multi-dimensional groups of backs and sterling offensive line, but the Colts can bring pressure and when forced to throw the Jets will have no choice but to rely on a quarterback that might have great moments in his future, but probably not this Sunday.

The Colts on the other hand won’t have any problem putting up points.  Peyton Manning leads one of the more impressive offenses he ever has despite that lack of a consistent running game, and it’s resulted in one of the most successful season overall in Colts history.  Reggie Wayne matched up against Darrelle Revis is cause for concern, however there really isn’t such a thing a “shut down” corner if you take the term literally.  Wayne is one of the better receivers in the league and obviously has a rapport with Manning.  Him being slowed by Revis is a real possibility, but that doesn’t mean he won’t chip in.  Indianapolis has other targets too (Dallas Clark, Austin Collie) and Manning will find them if they’re open.  

The Colts running game will probably fail to make an impact while the Jets’ will probably flourish.  It may not matter though.  Indianapolis’ defense should be able to force just enough punts to avoid this getting out of hand, and despite the Jets’ solid all-around defense Manning will most likely prove to be too much to handle.  In the indoor confines of Lucas Oil Stadium and knowing what’s at stake he’ll probably employ that killer instinct the rest of the league fears most when they play the Colts.

Prediction:  38-24  Indianapolis    Again, Manning proves to be too much.  The Jets and Sanchez aren’t ready for this yet, but this will still be a surprisingly successful season.


MINNESOTA VIKINGS VS. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

 

(Sunday, 6:40PM EST)  Football fans have been eyeing this as a potential conference championship matchup for months now and it’s finally here.  The Vikings were happy to dismantle the Dallas Cowboys 34-3 following their playoff bye and not to be outdone were the Saints who dispelled all worries that they had gone soft by obliterating the Arizona Cardinals 45-14.  It all amounts to a game of epic proportions and I don’t think many fans would have wished it to go down any other way.

The Vikings added Brett Favre with no other intentions than to win it all.  Turns out they have a great chance at it.  Favre looks 10 years younger, they’re sporting the best running back in the league (Adrian Peterson) and their defensive line is so good it’s hard to quantify.  They assault opposing quarterbacks constantly while the offense spreads the ball all over the place, piling up points.  They’re defense has some question marks due to injury but regardless it’s going to be a long day for Drew Brees.  Jared Allen (a monster at defensive end) will see to that.

Brees isn’t going to take all this laying down of course.  At times he probably won’t have a choice, but he has a great release and the Saints boast a stable of offensive weapons as well.  Reggie Bush will be used in different ways as usual and Marques Colston combined with various deep threats means that a Vikings secondary with a banged up Antoine Winfield will have their hands full.  The two things to pay attention to most are how often the Vikings are able to knock down Brees and the play of Bush.  The latter rarely succeeds in stringing together two impressive games back to back, and this is not the team to bank on it happening now all of a sudden.

Minnesota will probably try something similar to last week’s route of the Cowboys which is to run Peterson consistently and activate Favre’s arm when they feel the defense is committing too much to the run.  Make no mistake this Saints team can defend and shouldn’t be lumped in with past offensive dynamos with mediocre play on the other side of the ball, so it will be very interesting to see if the Vikings play callers can get a sense of when and where to strike hard.

This game also features some explosive kick returners in Bush and Percy Harvin, so don’t change the channel as the punt team trots out there!

Prediction:  34-20 New Orleans    The Vikings defensive line can’t break through on every play.  Brees gets it done with a stable yet unspectacular game from his defense.

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