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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2007

Before I get into this weekend’s games, I’ve got some general observations to make, one about the conference championships, a couple of others about the remaining Super Bowl contenders, and one about my less than psychologically healthy second choice for a Super Bowl outcome.

I’ll start with the one that’s entirely specific to this weekend. It appears to me that Sunday’s games ultimately are going to come down to how well the home teams’ defenses play. Here’s why I see it that way: Chicago’s offense isn’t going to win the NFC Championship. And Indianapolis’ offense isn’t going to lose the AFC Championship. Meanwhile, both the New Orleans and New England Ds seem likely to play just well enough to give their offenses the opportunity to win their respective games. The questions for both home teams come at D. Will the Bears’ D be the stellar unit we saw through the regular season (allowing just 294 yards of total offense and, more important, just less than 16 points per game), or the unit that struggled to stop Seattle last weekend, giving up 24 points (though only 206 yards) to a team that hadn’t looked very good at all when it hosted Dallas a week earlier? And, conversely, will the Colts’ D be the sub-par unit that gave up nearly 333 yards (173 of them on the ground) and 22.5 points per game in the regular season or the one that has put the clamps down on Kansas City and Baltimore over the past two weeks? I’ve got some thoughts on both of those questions, which I’ll address below, but for now I just wanted to point out that I believe the answers that play out on the field ultimately will decide the weekend and determine which teams move on to Miami.

A semi-related observation about two of the remaining contenders, New Orleans and Indianapolis. I can’t tell you how utterly tired I am about hearing about how it’s these teams’ “time” to win a championship. Peyton Manning and the Colts have been too good for too long not to have won it all. It’s their time. The Saints have been struggling in futility for nearly 40 years. It’s their time. No, it ain’t. It isn’t ever any team’s time. Both the Colts and the Saints could very well win this weekend. And either may win the Super Bowl. But no matter what happens, it won’t be because it’s the team’s “time.” If the Colts win it all, it’ll be because they play better than the Patriots this weekend and better than whichever NFC team they face February 4. Simple as that. Same with New Orleans. If they’re the better team on Sunday, they’ll beat Chicago. And if they’re the better team two weeks hence, they’ll take the Lombardi Trophy. The time is never right. Or wrong. It just is. The outcome of a football game is no more determined by which team’s time has come than it’s determined by whether you sit on the right end of the couch, turn your bar stool around exactly three times clockwise between the first and second quarter and counterclockwise between the third and fourth, or touch your wife’s nose as the team’s line up for the opening kickoff. Anyone who tells you the outcome of a game has anything to do with anything even remotely spooky isn’t worth listening to. Not even a little bit.

Now then, a thought about all four remaining teams. It occurs to me that among the teams still in contention, you can find three outstanding quarterbacks, two who are arguably the best currently in the game and a third who is, at least, having the best season from a statistical standpoint of any QB in the league (guess who’s the odd man out). Also among these four teams are two of the top 10 defenses in the league (statistically speaking) and two of the top three scoring defenses (Chicago, as noted above, allowed just 15.9 points per game in the regular season; New England gave up fewer still: 14.8). The overlap (great quarterback and great defense) comprises exactly one team. Guess which? Might mean nothing in the end, but I figured I’d point it out.

Finally, I just wanted to say now that while what I’m hoping for in the Super Bowl is a New England victory (over either NFC team — doesn’t matter which, I just want to see the Pats get that fourth championship), if I can’t get that, I’d really dig watching the Saints top Colts. As a committed Manning hater, I have to believe the sense of schadenfreude I’d experience seeing the team Entitled Archie never could win with finally triumph at the expense of Pouty Peyton would almost make up for the Pats missing the big game. Almost.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Chicago
You know, I’ve spent a good part of the week trying to find a way to make myself believe that New Orleans is gonna win this game. I don’t know why (especially since I think the Patriots ultimately match up better against the Bears), but I really want the Saints to come out on top here. And, I mean, there are plenty of reasons to believe New Orleans not only could win, but should win. To begin with, the Saints had one of the best offenses in the league this season (maybe the best). During the regular season, they averaged a league-leading 391.5 yards of total offense (110.1 on the ground, 281.4 through the air, the latter of which also put the at the top of the league) and a fifth-best 25.8 points per game. And they managed 435 yards (208 of them on the ground) and 27 points in last week’s divisional playoff game against an Eagles team that had allowed only 328 yards and 20.5 points a game during the regular season (and slightly less than that against the Giants in the wild card round). With the way Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister and the rookies Reggie Bush and Marques Colston have played, the Saints offense is a threat on every single snap. On top of that, New Orleans has been solid if unspectacular on defense. More than solid, in fact. Only 10 teams in the league allowed fewer yards per game than the Saints (307.6). Only two allowed fewer yards per game in the air than New Orleans’ 178 (though that stat has at least something to do with the fact that it was fairly easy to run the ball against the Saints; they allowed 128 rushing yards per game and an abysmal 4.9 yards per carry). And while the 20.1 points per game New Orleans surrendered during the season is anything but spectacular, it’s still a better average than was posted by 19 other teams (though only one of those, Indianapolis, has survived this deep into the post-season). It’s worth noting that Philly’s offense had rather a productive day in New Orleans last week, posting 355 total yards, including 123 on the ground (a painful 6.2 per carry) and 24 points. But then you’ve got to look at that in context: the Eagles offense was the second most productive in the league this season, right behind the Saints.

Certainly, from a statistical perspective, the Saints have a better defense than Chicago has an offense. At the end of the regular season, the Bears O ranked in the middle of the pack in yards per game with 324.9, rushing yards per game, with 119.9 (their 3.8 per carry tied with Tampa Bay for the ninth lowest average in the league), and passing yards per game, with 205.1. Still, Chicago did finish in tie with Indianapolis for second most points per game in the league (26.7), and that’s a number that has to be considered. (It’s also a statistic we’ll look at in further depth presently.) And the Bears had a hell of a day against the Seahawks last weekend, racking up 375 total yards of offense (including 120 on the ground, though they still only averaged 3.5 per carry). But the Seattle D hadn’t exactly stopped anyone this season, so it’s not like Chicago broke loose against a top-notch unit.

Thing is, though, the Bears don’t win with offense. They win with defense. And I’m not expecting Lovie Smith to try turning his team into something it isn’t in the middle of January. If Chicago is gonna win this game, they’re gonna do it by keeping New Orleans out of the end zone, just like they did to their opponents all season long (though, as noted above, that’s just like they didn’t a week ago). When its on its game, the Bears D is a unit that’s incredibly tough to overcome. Those 294 yards per game it allowed included less than 100 on the ground. And the 15.9 points per game were third fewest in the league, trailing only Baltimore (12.6) and New England (14.8). Historically, the teams that allow the fewest points per game in the regular season have fared rather well in the playoff. But, really, to my mind the thing Chicago’s D does that’s perhaps more important than stopping opposing offenses is setting up its own. Remember those odd stats related to the Bears O putting up average to below average yardage but outscoring most of the league? Here’s why: The Chicago D is the best in the league at liberating the ball from opposing offenses. The bears had 43 takeaways during the season, including a league-leading 20 fumbles recovered (their 23 picks trailed only Baltimore’s 26). That set up the offense with some mighty short fields, and, even with the offense’s tendency to commit turnovers itself, left Chicago tied with San Diego for the league’s second-best a giveaway/takeaway ratio. Chicago finished the regular season with +13. New Orleans, on the other hand, wrapped up -2. (Both teams were -1 last weekend). That’s a 15-turnover differential in Chicago’s favor. And that’s where I think this game might turn. For all that New Orleans has going for it, the Saints are going to have virtually no margin for error going up against this Chicago D. That’s a tough situation for a young team with a first-year head coach to be in. Particularly if the Bears D plays up to its regular season levels. And since one game is hardly a trend, that’s just what I’m expecting to see. The Saints still could overcome that if their offense plays flawlessly and their defense finds a way to exploit Chicago’s offensive weaknesses. But that’s where New Orleans’ inexperience in the post-season comes in. That’s what ultimately killed the Bears last season. This year, much as I want things to be different for the Saints, I think it works in Chicago’s favor. I’m rooting for New Orleans, but I’m taking Chicago and giving the points.

New England (+3) at Indianapolis
You know, I just don’t have it in me to get into the whole here we go again, Patriots and Colts, classic AFC matchup of the decade, blah, blah, blah, thing. But I’ll say this: you can talk all you want (if you’re with the Colts) about this game just being this game and all the history (between the two teams and with the Colts folding in the playoffs year after year) meaning nothing, but the bottom line is that all the pressure here is on the Colts. The fact of the matter is that the Colts, anointed the best team in the league by the sports media season after season, have never yet been able to close the deal. Not once. They lose to “lesser” teams in the playoffs every season. And if they lose now that they’ve got the conference championship in their stadium, there’s two ways they can go: they can fade out of contention and be the Buffalo Bills, the team that always found a way to lose when it matters, or they can power on, maybe win everything eventually and be the team that struggled for years and years then finally managed to win one and sort of salvage its legacy. That’s it. They can’t lose here and hope ever to be considered one of the all-time great NFL squads (that is, all-time great squads as opposed to all-time great franchises, a tag a different Colts team earned decades ago). Manning can’t afford to lose this game. Tony Dungy can’t afford to miss this game. The whole loud-mouthed, self-congratulating Colts organization can’t afford to lose this game. The Patriots? Forget that their legacy is sealed (they’re three-time champs; they don’t have to win any game to prove anything). They’re a team that started the season in turmoil, worked through the season with an almost completely overhauled wide receiver corps, continued to play well even while injuries once again put a new face on their defensive secondary nearly every week, and still managed not only to win their division, but to beat yet another one seed on the road in the playoffs — in yet another game they were supposed to lose. Sure, the Pats want to win this one. Sure, it’ll be disappointing to them and their fans if they lose. But they’ve already, both as a franchise and a squad, exceeded all reasonable expectations. What pressure could they conceivably be feeling? But wait. Isn’t that the kind of spooky shit I decry above? Well, no, because it can affect game preparation, decision-making, and execution on the field. That said, I don’t expect it to play a deciding factor in this game. It may color the outcome, but ultimately, as noted, I think this game is going to have much more to do with the play of the Colts D than any other factor. And, much as I expect Chicago’s defense to look more like the unit we saw in the regular season than the one we saw struggle some against Seattle last week, I’m anticipating seeing an Indianapolis defense that’s more like the regular season unit than the one that performed so well against Kansas City and Baltimore in the post season.

Here’s why I put more stock in the long-term stats than the short-term semi-trend when I look at the Colts D. In its wild card weekend matchup with Kansas City, Indianapolis faced an offense that was decidedly unbalanced. More than that, the Chiefs, offense was as one-dimensional as offenses get. Even with Larry Johnson, the second-leading rusher in the league this season starring in their backfield, the Chiefs only managed 133.9 yards per game on the ground this season. That’s fewer than eight other teams (though, notably, more than any team currently still alive in the playoffs, where conventional wisdom holds that you have to be able to run the ball to win — the leading rushing team still playing, by the way, is the Patriots, who averaged 123.1 yards a game on the ground during the regular season). Kansas City’s 187.5 yards a game passing this season was the lowest average by any team to qualify for the playoffs. And since the Chiefs’ coach isn’t exactly known as one of the league’s great creative game planners, Indianapolis didn’t have to spend a lot of time guessing what the Chiefs were gonna try to do on offense in that game. They stacked the box, took Johnson out of the game and challenged Kansas City to beat them through the air, knowing the Chiefs couldn’t pull it off. Playing at Baltimore in the divisional round, the Colts faced an offense that was more balanced than Kansas City’s, but it was balanced in mediocrity. And the Ravens team itself was most certainly unbalanced in favor of defense. Baltimore’s defense was the best in the league this season, and the reason the Ravens won the AFC North and captured the conference two seed. It’s offense was middle of the pack overall (averaging 317 yards and 22 points a game), short in the rushing game (102.3 yards per game, 3.4 per carry) and slightly above average through the air (214.7 yards per game). The Colts D played well enough to stop that average offense, mostly by forcing turnovers, and gave their own O the opportunity to win the game by doing what little it could against a daunting Ravens D. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that, but it’s not as if the Colts D shut down New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego, or even New England. This week, the Colts face a team that’s more balanced than either of its previous playoff opponents. In the regular season, the Patriots defense allowed only 294.1 yards (sixth best in the league, second to Chicago among the surviving playoff teams) and 15.9 points a game (second best in the league, after Baltimore, best among the surviving playoff teams. They ranked fifth in the league (best among the surviving playoff teams) against the run, giving up 94.2 yards per game (though their 3.9 yards per carry leaves something to be desired). And while their 200.2 passing yards per game was only 12th best in the league, it’s notable that they allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league (10) while logging the fourth highest number of picks (22), second only to Chicago among surviving playoff teams.

The Patriots did not have a top 10 offense in the regular season in terms of average total yards, posting an 11th best 335.6, but their O was the seventh-highest scoring in the league (24.1 points per game). They rushed for 123.1 yards per game (12th) and threw for 212.5 (12th), the latter statistic skewed by the fact that, as mentioned, the team was working with new faces at WR throughout the season. In the post-season, New England has averaged 342.5 yards (104.5 on the ground, 238 in the air) and 30.5 points per game (the highest average point total in the playoffs). That may not represent a trend any more than Indy’s post-season defensive stats, but it’s notable that the defenses New England has faced over the last two weeks were statistically more impressive than the offenses Indy’s taken on.

What’s important, however, is that the Colts can’t simply play the run or the pass on D this week, nor can they count on their offense to shoulder the full load of a victory. Their defense is gonna have to account for Tom Brady, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Their offense is gonna have to find a way to overcome the best defensive front in the league. They’re likely going to have to play great football on both sides of the ball if they’re gonna win this game. And the overall trend is that they only play great football on one side of the ball, so that’s what I’m expecting until I see different. Certainly, the same goes for New England. They can’t expect to make mistakes and come out ahead purely by virtue of experience and coaching the way they did a week ago. This team may or may not be as talented as San Diego, but its more battle tested and it will be better prepared.

In the end, I actually expect both teams to play good football. But in the end, I also expect the more balanced team to triumph. That’s the Patriots. So I’m taking them to pull off the upset and head to their fourth Super Bowl in six years.

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