Colts, Saints headed to Super Bowl

Back in November, I wrote that the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints appeared to be on a collision course for Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. At the time both teams were undefeated at the time, winning the close games consistently that good teams do and showing tremendous offensive firepower.

In two days the AFC and NFC championship games will be held with Indy and New Orleans hosting the festivities. While I do think both home teams will advance to Miami for a Feb. 7 title game, it has much more to do with the opponents than it does with an earlier prediction (although it’s nice when it works out that way).

Before looking at the two games, raise your hand if you’re equally as confused as to why the Pro Bowl is being held in Miami the week before the Super Bowl as opposed to in Honolulu the week after the Super Bowl as it ordinarily is. Of course TV ratings are a driving factor, but if the Colts make the Super Bowl, how legitimate is an all-star game without MVP quarterback Peyton Manning? If the Minnesota Vikings beat the Saints and advance, their league-leading eight picks, including Brett Favre, won’t play. I could be proven wrong, but on the surface this seems like a silly move to artificially pump up viewership to a game knowledgeable fans would rightly view as a farce.

Moving on…

AFC Championship

There is plenty of truth to the Jets’ claim that the Colts helped put them in the position they’re in, one win away from the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez) and rookie head coach (Rex Ryan) equally long on defensive game-planning and bravado.

New York handed the Colts their first loss of the season at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 28, 29-15, but that was clearly not the same team they will face Sunday. A month ago, head coach Jim Caldwell stuck to the organization’s plan of pulling Manning and several other starters midway through the third quarter, claiming the chance at a perfect season was outweighed by a healthy roster for a Super Bowl run. There are still small pockets of steam visible rising from the collective heads of Colts fans for that decision.

Once Manning and Co. were pulled, the Jets already tough defense feasted on untested rookie quarterback Curtis Painter like a family on a Thanksgiving turkey. The result, while skewed, gave the Jets momentum they have yet to relinquish.

That Jets have accelerated the development of their identity as a defensive team that features blitzes from all directions and controls the clock on offense with rookie Shonn Greene and veteran Thomas Jones grinding out yards on the ground. It worked in playoff wins over Cincinnati and San Diego, although four missed field goals by Chargers Pro Bowl kicker Nate Keading were also a huge factor in not sending the AFC West champions to Indy – and ultimately a much harder opponent for the Colts to face.

San Diego had eliminated the Colts from the playoffs the past two years with a strong vertical passing game to back up their stout defense. The formula the Jets present, however, is one Manning has solved fairly consistently for years.

The names on the jerseys have changed with rookie wideouts Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie providing unforeseen depth to Manning’s arsenal. The constants are wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, both of whom possess precisely what the Colts need to win – patience.

Without a viable running game, rookie coach Jim Caldwell has willingly handed the keys of the offense to Manning. As intelligent and skilled as Manning is, chances are he will throw an interception or two on Sunday. The Jets secondary is excellent and Ryan does a great job of disguising and mixing coverages. Ultimately, though, Manning will be able to pick his spots and the Colts own defense, spearheaded by extraordinary pass rusher Dwight Freeney ,will be able to force enough tricky third down situations to make Sanchez beat them on his own. Impossible? No. Unlikely? Yes. Colts 17, Jets 9

NFC Championship

There’s not a whole lot to say about Brett Favre that hasn’t already been said. Minnesota allowed Favre to skip training camp knowing full well it didn’t have the quarterbacking presence to get the ball to its receivers, help running back Adrian Peterson and match its robust defensive line.

The results have been beyond most expectations, with Favre looking like he jumped into a time machine and emerged as the player who won three straight MVPs in the ’90s. Because of that, and arguably the best pass rush in the NFL this year, picking the Vikings here is tempting, and if they were at home, impossible to avoid.

New Orleans, though, has gone through all the traditional steps a franchise has to elevate itself from perennial doormat to championship caliber. They took gambles on Sean Payton (who had never been a head coach before), Drew Brees (whose career was very much up in the air when he was acquired from San Diego) and Reggie Bush (who had been a star in college, but there are plenty of those who have flamed out badly in the pros).

They made it to the NFC Championship three years ago and lost at Chicago. During two non-playoff years beset by injuries, Brees improved substantially as did wideout Marques Colston. Add running back Pierre Thomas to the mix and the Saints have become a team that, like the Colts, is hard to stop because they can strike in so many ways at any location on the field.

This game has all the makings of a shootout, and from a fan standpoint, that would be fun to watch. As good of a game as Arizona’s first-round overtime win over Green Bay was two weeks ago, this one has the potential to at least be on par.

Some of the analysis to date has focused on the need for Peterson to able to run up around 100 yards to soften up the coverage for Favre. I disagree. Even if Peterson has a so-so performance, to think that Favre will all of a sudden look like a 40-year-old guy playing football in the backyard has no evidence to back it up. Playing in a dome further points to an up-and-down the field game. Let’s hope so.

Perhaps the biggest factor against Minnesota is history. The Vikings are 4-4 on the road this year with losses at three non-playoff teams in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Chicago. The most telling one could be a 30-17 dismantling at the hands of the Cardinals in early December. Arizona, with Kurt Warner spreading the ball around the field to multiple targets, stretched the Vikings defense thin and were all over Favre much of the game. Sunday will not be a blowout, but New Orleans’ approach and effectiveness may prove similar. Saints 42, Vikings 38

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