AFC and NFC Championships

Last week, once again, Tom Brady showed us why he and the New England Patriots should never be considered true underdogs, regardless of what the opposition has lined up for them. Against a formidable Chargers team that was perfect at home during the regular season, New England’s composure never wavered as they captured yet another playoff victory.

Joe Kotsovos

Patriots over Colts 28-24

Last week, once again, Tom Brady showed us why he and the New England Patriots should never be considered true underdogs, regardless of what the opposition has lined up for them. Against a formidable Chargers team that was perfect at home during the regular season, New England’s composure never wavered as they captured yet another playoff victory.

As good as the Indianapolis Colts’ defense has been, and despite the fact that Peyton Manning may be due for a good game, it is just inconceivable to pick anyone except the Patriots this time of year. They know how to win the big game. They’ve been here before. A 12-1 playoff record in the Brady/Belichick era proves they are no flukes. Analysts will point to the Colts’ 27-20 win against the Patriots in Foxborough back in Week 7, but they fail to realize that the Patriots are a different team in the playoffs.

Playing on the turf of the RCA Dome, these two teams are certainly capable of lighting up the scoreboard, so it may come down to which quarterback has the best game and makes the fewest mistakes. Brady has a resume full of playoff success, while Manning has let the Colts fall short in the playoffs each year, twice at the hands of the Patriots in just the last three years. In each of those games, the defensive tactics devised by Belichick shut down Manning. New England knows how to defend the Colts’ offense and rarely allows a big play to beat them. Also, the Patriots have been road warriors this season, posting an 8-1 road record.

The Colts may keep this game close into the fourth quarter, but down the stretch in a close battle there is no better duo than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. When this game is over, the Patriots will be able to dance all over the Colts’ logo at mid-field.

Saints over Bears 27-16

The NFC Championship offers an intriguing match-up of the high octane New Orleans Saints offense against the heralded defense of the Chicago Bears. The Saints, in what has been a Cinderella season, may be heading to their first Super Bowl in franchise history, providing a huge lift to the recovering city of New Orleans.

The Saints’ terrific offense is the key to this game. Led by quarterback Drew Brees, the multi-dimensional offense uses a nice blend of running and passing to keep the opposing defense guessing. In the backfield, veteran Deuce McAllister and top rookie Reggie Bush compose an excellent running corps. Bush is especially dangerous when he gets out into open field. Fellow rookie wide receiver Marques Colston is quickly becoming one of the league’s best pass catchers.

Obviously, heading into Soldier Field to face the Bears is not an easy task. However, the Bears’ defense has not been the same weapon that anchored their 7-0 start. They barely squeaked by Seattle last week, against an offense that is not as balanced or potent as that of the Saints. This places added pressure on struggling Bears’ quarterback Rex Grossman.

If there is one area of concern for the Saints, it is their defense. However, this week they do not face a quarterback of Brady’s or Manning’s caliber. Against a weaker Seattle secondary last week, Grossman was not spectacular. New Orleans plays a lot of man coverage, which may force Grossman into some familiar mistakes.

The Bears’ offense is not good enough to keep the Saints’ offense off the field. New Orleans will have many chances to score, and as we saw in last week’s win over the Eagles, they will take advantage of their opportunities.

Nathan Hellman

Colts over Patriots 34-31

We have all heard it. “Peyton Manning will never win the big one. He is too soft. He doesn’t have the heart. The guy isn’t as good as Tom Brady because he doesn’t play his best when it counts.”

Maybe some of this harsh criticism is true. Maybe Manning is soft. Maybe he will never win the big one. Maybe he doesn’t have the Brady intangibles.

But, let’s get one thing straight-Manning isn’t Brady. His pedigree will never allow him to live the underdog story Brady has thrived on. Manning is Manning, and that isn’t terrible. Remember, Manning was the one who threw 49 touchdowns just three years ago. He is the better QB, despite his lack of hardware.

Thus far, the record-setting QB hasn’t even been himself in the playoffs. In two games, he has thrown five interceptions and only one touchdown. However, for the Colts, that is excellent news because it means Manning hasn’t had to carry them to the AFC championship game. Oddly enough, the Colts’ much-maligned defense has taken that leadership role with a storming attack and nearly perfect execution.

The critics say the Colts can’t stop the run, and then they hold Larry Johnson and Jamaal Lewis to a combined 85 yards rushing in two games. Then they say they can’t stop the pass, and then the Colts led playoff teams with four picks and allow a playoff-low 121.5 yards through the air each game. The point is that this defense is multi-dimensional, which takes all the pressure off of Manning. And when Manning doesn’t feel the pressure, Indianapolis will find the win.

In the game’s waning moments, Manning won’t matter, and the “can’t bet against Brady” argument will be moot, as the Colts’ defensive ability will be insignificant. With only seconds on the clock, a kicker will steal the show in a sickly ironic twist. The Pats cut Adam Vinatieri loose, and now he will make them pay. Old-fateful will do to New England what he did so many times for them by kicking the game winner, putting a close to another great chapter in this rivalry and propelling Manning to Super Sunday.

Bears over Saints 24-17

Unfortunately for New Orleans, the clock has struck midnight. The ding-dong tells us that the Cinderella story has turned its final page and the time has come for the Saints to transform back into the “Aints.”

This Sunday, Chicago’s Soldier Field will be the site of this massive transformation. The Bears’ once-daunting defense will return to expose the Saints’ supposed high-power offense, and the result will be far from a fairytale ending for New Orleans.

Talented backfield mates Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and quarterback Drew Brees headline the Saints’ number-one ranked offense. New Orleans has put up the numbers with this group, but the secret is each can easily be erased from the Saints’ attack. If the Bears put eight in the box, they can slow McAllister. Brees didn’t necessarily light it up against the Eagles, so he isn’t perfect after all. And with Bush’s tendency to do too much, he will find himself stopped in the backfield with hungry linebackers like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs on the prowl.

Chicago’s offensive fortunes rely solely on Rex Grossman. Everything depends on whether Grossman allows his emotions to seep onto the field. At times this season, it has appeared like it was that time of the month for little Rexy. He isn’t emotionally stable, making him unpredictable. So, it all depends on whether little Rexy or confident Rex is under center on Sunday.

With all the attention on Rexy, Reggie and the Bears’ defense, the importance of playing in Chicago has been overlooked. Sure, the Saints averaged a league-leading 391.5 yards per game in the regular season, but that was in the comfortable Super Dome turf. In frigid, slippery conditions, Bush can’t make cuts on a dime and Brees will have trouble hitting receivers in stride. These are the minute details that will cause the Saints to shatter their glass slipper.