Minnesota Vikings

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The Case for Tom Flores to Enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Perhaps the most widely known coach in the history of the NFL is John Madden. The former leader of the Oakland Raiders established a virtually unsurpassed record of regular season success during his brief ten-year tenure. Madden won more than 76% of his games. His closest active pursuer, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, has managed only a .672 winning percentage. John Madden also coached the Raiders to an impressive, physical victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI, 32-14. After leaving the sidelines, Madden carved out the most unique, imposing and meaningful niche in the history of sports broadcasting. And, if that was not sufficient, he also established the premiere video gaming series that has redefined how our society views, plays, and understands football. Simply, John Madden’s football legacy is incomparable. In 2006, John Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2nd in Playoff Win Percentage Behind Vince Lombardi (10 games, min.)

Madden’s successor in Oakland and Los Angeles was the man pictured above, Tom Flores. Back in 1960, Flores shared passing duties with George Blanda and Babe Parilli, but he did most of the heavy lifting in the Raiders first season and over the next 6 seasons. The Raiders laid the foundation for one of the greatest offensive machines in league history. In the popular mind, the preeminent offensive teams were Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins of Dan Marino. However, Al Davis’ Raiders ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense every year but 1 from their inception in 1960 until 1984. No team in the league has enjoyed a similar run of offensive prowess…not even the San Francisco 49ers during the era of Walsh and Seifert.

During this run, Tom Flores was the leading passer on the team for five of their first 7 seasons. And, he won two Super Bowls as head coach – one in Oakland and one in Los Angeles.

Time doesn’t permit a full exploration of all that Tom Flores achieved on the sidelines, but the recent nominations of Bill Cowher and Bill Parcells for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, suggest a few bullets may be in order.

Flores and Plunkett Defeat the Eagles in Super Bowl XV

 Consider these facts:

  • Tom Flores coached the Raiders for 9 seasons and won 2 Super Bowls. John Madden coached the Raiders for 10 seasons and won 1 Super Bowl.
  • Tom Flores amassed an 83-53 record with the Raiders, and a winning percentage of .610. Bill Walsh’s career winning percentage is .609. Marty Schottenheimer, another nominee for induction to Canton, has a .613 winning percentage.
  • Tom Flores ranks 2nd all-time in playoff win percentage (10 games minimum) behind Vince Lombardi. Bill Parcells has an 11-8 career playoff record. Bill Cowher has a 12-9 career playoff record. Marty Schottenheimer has a 5-13 playoff record. Tom Flores is 8-3.
  • After the 4th Super Bowl title of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1979-80, Tom Flores’ Raiders were the only AFC teams to win the Super Bowl until 1997. The NFC dominated the Super Bowl for two decades with powerhouse teams in larger markets like New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, and northern California.
  • Tom Flores won 2 Super Bowls in 4 years, and in 1983 he handed Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs his only loss in a Super Bowl.

Perhaps the thing that has kept Tom Flores out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame these many years, aside from a bias against Latino excellence and a league-wide contempt for the Raiders, is the fact that he coached in Seattle. The Great Northwest has been the equivalent of a Black Hole for talented football players. It’s where careers go to die. Flores coached the Seahawks for 3 years. His teams had a combined record of 14-34.

Flores went from being a coach with a sterling 83-53 record to a rather pedestrian 97-87 (At .527, he’s tied with the recently fired Brad Childress…but he’s still ranked higher than Dick Vermeil). However, this should not undo the greatness that he achieved in Oakland and Los Angeles for the Silver & Black. Did a stint in Seattle keep Franco Harris from induction? Of course not. Did two 8-8 seasons in Seattle keep Warren Moon out of Canton? Of course not. The remoteness of Seattle and the irrelevance of many of their games may have shattered our collective memory of players like Cortez Kennedy, Kenny Easley and Curt Warner (with a C), but Flores should be teflon in this regard.

Mike Holmgren is still regarded highly even though he’s only managed to win one Super Bowl and lost two. Holmgren has a 13-11 playoff record and, unlike Flores, he had prized QB’s at the helm in each of his playoff games. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells are still revered though neither has been able to ameliorate the morass or mend the mess that is the Miami Dolphins.

And, Tom Flores’ quarterbacks in Seattle were Stan Gelbaugh and Rick Mirer!! That he managed to win as many as 14 games in 3 years with these passers qualifies as a minor miracle.

Some other thoughts to consider on Tom Flores:

  •  In 1980, the Raiders won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card. Statistically, the Eagles were “better” than the Raiders on both sides of the ball, but Flores and his staff and team figured out a way to win that game.
  • Since 1980, Eagles QB Ron Jaworski has become nationally known as a broadcaster and analyst for ESPN. Perhaps he could take up the mantle on behalf of Tom Flores. It’s long overdue.
  • In 1983, the Raiders beat a team with one of the largest statistical advantages in league history entering a Super Bowl. The Redskins were defending champions and were perceived to be a juggernaut. Jack Squirek did to Joe Theismann what Rod Martin did to Ron Jaworksi. And Marcus Allen did to the Redskins defense what Kenny King had done to the Eagles only three years prior.
  • Since 1983, Redskins QB Joe Theismann has become nationally known as a broadcaster and analyst for ESPN and the NFL Network. Perhaps he could take up the mantle on behalf of Tom Flores. It’s long overdue.
  • Tom Flores won two Super Bowls with an over-the-hill, washed up, washed out quarterback named Jim Plunkett. He beat long odds twice and still stands in the record book — right next to Vince Lombardi as the second-winningest coach in the post-season with an astounding .727 winning percentage.

It’s time for Flores to make his speech and be heard…for perhaps the first time.

Running Out on You — The Favre Edition

Week 11 was the week the chickens came home to roost — sort of.

Brad Childress was handed his walking papers and the cash cow jumped over a Warring Moon.  Brett Favre has been firmly established by his interim head coach Leslie Frazier as that ride or die dude for the rest of the 2010 season.

Vince Young went ball-istic on his idiot savant idiot coach Jeff Fisher for being benched — again — with the game in the balance.  At the end of their rat-a-tat boom bap, Fisher called to Young, “Don’t run out on your teammates.”  The prodigal QB with the penchant for pounding the alma mater of his coach and pulling out close games responded, “I’m not running out on them…I’m running out on YOU!”  Young’s on-field success (a .638 winning percentage) has provoked the question, in some circles, of whether or not the Titans win games in spite of Jeff Fisher (.551 winning percentage).  In a bit of a twist, Young tends to catch flack for taking clothes off, whereas Fisher tends to catch hell for the clothes he puts on!

Jeff Fisher Working the Trifecta: Boobs, Belly, Butt. GO JEFF!!

Take that!

Brett Favre never needed to run OUT of the locker room and he certainly never ran IN to the locker room.  He mosied here and there, to and fro…from Green Bay to New York (into the waiting cell phone of Jenn Sturger) to Mississippi (into the waiting arms of wife Deanna) to Minnesota (to the waiting chauffeured ride with Brad Childress) back to  Mississippi (to the waiting arms of wife Deanna) and back to Minnesota (with hunting buddies Jared Allen and company).

In all of this back and forth, Favre made it clear that when he skipped the types of activities intended to keep interceptions to a minimum, he wasn’t running out on his wide receiving corps or his offensive line or his running backs.  He was running out on Brad Childress.  Now, Childress is gone.  Last Sunday, Favre ran out on a conversation with his BFF, Darrell Bevel (aka, the Guy Who Couldn’t Pull a ‘Jason Garrett’ and Get the Job He’s Coveted for 10 Years).

Running out on coaches is a common theme around the NFL this season.  Brett sets the records and writes the book — just like those career marks for interceptions, and one big incomplete pass.

And….fade to gratuitous Sterger shot:

Brett Favre may not be able to see defensive backs in zone coverage worth a damn, but he’s not blind.

2010 NFL Season: 6 Questions Before Week 3

After two weeks, there are many teams around the NFL with some tough, hard questions at hand.  For those teams that had high expectations entering the 2010 campaign, these questions better get answered quickly.

1.  Minnesota Vikings. Are you willing to meet the demands of the San Diego Chargers for wide receiver Vincent Jackson?  The Brett Favre Experiment concludes at the end of the 2010 regular season.  The Vikings will not compete for a Super Bowl (and may miss the playoffs) without the addition of a high-quality pass catching option like Vincent Jackson.  Sidney Rice, thinking optimistically, cannot be expected to be a force on the field until Week 8 or 9.  While management debates the value of a 3rd round pick in a season that may or may not happen (2011), your offense will gear up to get beat down by and/or keep pace with the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.  It won’t be fun.  By Week 8, Brad Childress could be looking for a job as a color analyst on the NFL Network — covering Viking’s games.

2. Buffalo Bills. Are you willing to trade Marshawn Lynch to ensure that you make one positive contribution to the 2010 NFL season?  This team is going nowhere this season.  As you prepare to face the New England Patriots and their confounding defense, you’ve decided to ditch the “smart quarterback from Stanford” (Trent Edwards) for the “smarter quarterback from Harvard” (Ryan Fitzpatrick).  It won’t make a shred of difference.  If C.J. Spiller is supposed to be the Bills Most Valuable Player on the roster, Marshawn Lynch in the Most Valuable Player in trade. The Bills can retain Coe College’s Fred Jackson and then focus on figuring out a way to get these guys the ball.  The Packers could use a runner with Lynch’s power around the goal line.  It’s time to pull the trigger.

3.  Dallas Cowboys. Are you willing to reign in the Romo-Garrett Show and cede some time to the true triplets of Jones, Barber and Choice?  If the Dallas Cowboys are to win and compete for a Super Bowl title in 2010, they need to run the ball more, pass the ball less, and figure out a creative way to dump Roy Williams.

4.  Baltimore Ravens. Are you willing to start Marc Bulger ahead of Joe Flacco?  The Ravens signal caller ranks 32nd in passer rating at 41.2 and has a completion percentage of 48%.  At this rate, Flacco would have to throw something like 70 passes a game just to post mediocre numbers.  He has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions.  His receiving corps is as accomplished as any in the league.  Will the first matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 determine the long-term fate of this franchise?

5.  Kansas City Chiefs. Are you ready to find out what is behind Door #1?  Over the next four weeks, you will host the hungry, angry San Francisco 49ers; have a bye week; then travel in consecutive weeks to Indianapolis and Houston.  Surely each of these opponents will take you lightly.  You will retain the element of surprise.  Are you ready?  If the Chiefs can get through this portion of the schedule, they have some “winnable games” ahead with Jacksonville, Buffalo and Oakland beginning in Week 7.

6.  New England Patriots. Are you leaning toward Julian Edelman or Aaron Hernandez to replace the injured Kevin Faulk?  The Patriots are going to need another reliable go-to-guy on 3rd down.  Edelman has the experience, but with Wes Welker healthy, are his services really just a duplication?  Is Hernandez flexibility as an in-line tight end and an outside receiver or H-back better suited to replacing Kevin Faulk?  After scoring a mere 14 points vs. the Jets, the Patriots need to come up with answers fast.  Everyone is pouring over that video tape and looking to replicate what New York was able to do.

2010 NFL Pre-Season: Early Thoughts

It’s that time of year again.  The NFL season opens on Thursday with a highly anticipated rematch of the defending champion New Orleans Saints and the team that thoroughly dominated them in the NFC Championship Game, the Minnesota Vikings.  Darrelle Revis is on the roster and ready for a visit from Anquan Boldin.  And Anquan’s not coming alone.  He’s bringing a 10,000 pound offensive line, that “other” defense, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.  These are great bookends to the first week.

Anquan Boldin Discussing Exit Strategies

"Don't Leave Me Hanging on the Island!"

But before we get ahead of ourselves, I have a few takeaways from the pre-season.  Last pre-season, I was impressed by a few teams.  There was something about their intensity, passion and power that stood out.  The Jets were not on that list.  I did put a spotlight on the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals.  Not bad…those teams went 33-15.  That was much better than their combined 20-27-1 record in 2008.  I was also down on Denver.  When they started out 6-0, I was thinking — “Hmmm, might have missed on that one.”  When they finished 2-8, I felt better.

So, who do I think is the real deal this season? (more…)

The Tale of the Tape: Matt Leinart vs. Tarvaris Jackson

On draft night back in 2006, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart was being considered for the top spot among signal callers.  The discussion about overall top pick centered squarely on North Carolina State’s standout defensive end Mario Williams and Leinart’s teammate Reggie Bush.  The Texans selected a perennial Pro Bowler in Mario Williams and the Saints captured a Super Bowl title this season with Bush in the fold.  Leinart, as general managers would have it, was not the first quarterback selected…and he sat longer than many pundits imagined.

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A Challenge to the Pittsburgh Steelers

You love to hear the story, again and again, of how it all got started way back when.” — MC Shan

Earl Campbell: 17 carries, 15 yards. STEEL CURTAIN.

I am a fan of the game of professional football.  I am a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  That’s been my team since the early 1970′s.  My affection for the team was born of a rivalry with a dear cousin who had pledged his football soul to the Minnesota Vikings and the Purple People Eaters.  He taught me most of what I knew about the game: players, teams, formations, terminology.  For him, it was all about Sir Francis (Tarkenton), Sammy White, Ahmad Rashad,  and Chuck Foreman.  We both felt like we’d lost a loved one when Drew Pearson caught that Hail Mary pass back in ’75.  Still, I liked the team with the black uniforms and the black helmet and the logo on just one side.  I liked Terry Bradshaw and Jack Lambert and Joe Greene and Mel Blount and Lynn Swann and Franco Harris.  I even liked Frenchy Fuqua.  What a name!  Maybe it was as simple as just liking the team that could beat the Cowboys. (more…)

Super Bowl XLIV: Three Downs to Remember

The Indianapolis Colts were defeated by the New Orleans Saints last night by a score of 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.  The signature plays of this game included an onside kick to start the second half by the Saints, an overturned 2 point conversion by Lance Moore and a brilliant 74-yard interception return for touchdown by Tracy Porter.  There were, however, a number of other plays that were just as critical to the outcome of this game — and they will be forgotten before long.  I am putting the spotlight on three plays to illustrate the point that momentum is sometimes really only as good as the next play.

Early in the 4th quarter, the Colts had the ball and a lead.  Indianapolis was about to go forward on the 8th play of a drive that began on their own 11-yard line.  It was 4th down with 2 yards to go from the New Orleans 46-yard line.  I remember saying at the time, “Caldwell’s telling the Saints, ‘I’m not scared of you’s!’”  Peyton Manning executed a slant pass to Reggie Wayne for 14 yards.  Wayne cut inside of Tracy Porter (something he was unable to do later in the game), bobbled the ball and held on just as he was crunched by free safety Darren Sharper.

Reggie Wayne Converts a 4th Down in the 4th Quarter

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2009 NFL Playoffs: Why Brett Didn’t Run

In the analysis and over-analysis of Brett Favre’s final pass of the 2009 NFC Championship Game, many analysts (and Favre, himself) suggested that running would have been a better choice on that fateful 3rd and 15 play.  I don’t think so.  Here’s why:

Running Was Not An Option

As Favre rolled to his right, the Saints defenders kept an eye on him and played the pass.  Favre is standing three yards BEHIND the line of scrimmage and has 5 Saints defenders close enough to keep him from getting to the 33 yard line.  From where Favre is standing, he’d have to outrun 5 defenders 8 yards.  That wasn’t going to happen.

Perhaps if Bernard Berrian blocks toward the middle and lays out the linebackers eyeing Favre — and Shincoe blocks to the sideline and lays out the DB…maybe, just maybe Favre can outrun the three linemen bearing down on him.  That’s just too much coordination to expect with 15 seconds remaining in an NFC Championship game.

This was a tough play to make and given how fast guys like Remi Ayodele can close ground, Favre really didn’t have a lot of good options.  This play was shaping up as a six-car pile up at the 37 yard line with Favre at the bottom.  The receiver at the sideline is probably the best option.  Maybe Favre had committed to getting the ball in the middle of the field.

Whatever the case, running was not an option.

2009 NFL Playoffs: The Other Play that Killed the Vikings

With conversations about retirement and recuperation in full bloom, what better time to take a quick look back to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints.  The game was won by the Saints 31-28 in overtime, but was dominated statistically by the Vikings.  Minnesota held large advantages in first downs, yards, and time of possession; but, the Vikings were defeated largely due to turnovers forced by the Saints.

Even though New Orleans surrendered 475 yards, there were some instances where the defense stepped up to set the table for big turnovers that would eventually decide the outcome of this game.  Brett Favre has been roundly criticized for flinging an interception at the end of regulation that kept kicker Ryan Longwell on the sidelines.  Tracy Porter’s pick sent the game into overtime and allowed the Saints to escape.  Before Porter’s play, however, the Saints interior defensive linemen Remi Ayodele and Sedrick Ellis stepped up to stuff Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson on consecutive plays (first and second down) from the Saints 33.  It was their defense on first and second down that created a 3rd and 10 situation, and caused the Viking coaching staff to consider the best course of action.  The ensuing 5-yard penalty for having 12 men in the huddle influenced the Vikings decision to pass, and the rest is history.

The True Turning Point

These invisible plays in the fourth quarter could not have happened if the Saints didn’t do a few important things earlier in the game.  The Vikings dominated on both sides of the ball and New Orleans committed just one turnover.  That fumble, a muffed punt by Reggie Bush (I am uncomfortable using “muff” and “Bush” in the same sentence.)  gave the Vikings the ball deep in the Red Zone.

The Vikings first play after the fumble may have been one of the biggest plays of the game.  Minnesota lined up in a conventional power run formation and Adrian Peterson took the handoff on a power run to the right side.

First and Goal...Power I

Take a look at where the Saints defensive tackles are lined up in this play.  Sedrick Ellis is on the far left, inside of the defensive end, and Remi Ayodele is in the left defensive tackle (on the right side — offensive viewpoint).

Vikings Center and Guard Go to Second Level

At the snap of the ball, the Viking center and left guard fire off the ball and get to the second level.  Neither of them engage the defensive tackles.  They lock on to the linebackers (inside the yellow circle) and are clearing a path for Adrian Peterson.  The tight end is working on sealing the edge and the full back is coming through the hole to deliver a lead block.  The Saints defensive tackles appear to be caught up in traffic.

Ellis and Ayodele in Hot Pursuit

Adrian Peterson has made it to the corner.  He has his shoulders turned toward the goal line.  There is a defensive back in the picture, but he is engaged by a Viking blocker.  That Saints DB is in no position to make a tackle.  The man around Peterson’s leg is Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.  Check the video.  Vilma got mauled and is hanging on for dear life.  He is in no position to bring down Adrian Peterson.  The ONLY player in a position to stop Adrian Peterson on this play is defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.  Remi Ayodele is just a bit too far away.  Ellis came all the way from the other side of the formation to get in on this play.  If Ellis doesn’t run, Peterson walks into the end zone.

Sedrick Ellis: Finishing the Job

Sedrick Ellis finishes this play by tackling Adrian Peterson and taking him out of bounds.

The next play from scrimmage for the Vikings was a fumbled hand off between Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson.

Ellis’ hustle on this play is not the stuff of highlights, but it is the type of play that makes a tremendous difference in how games play out.  If Ellis doesn’t get to the edge, Peterson very likely scores.  Favre never gets to fumble the snap, and more importantly, the Vikings would have led 21-14.  Given how Leslie Frazier’s defense played, that might have been decisive.  Instead, the Vikings played the entire second half from a trail position.

The Saints could continue to have a run/pass balance without getting desperate about playing from behind.  When a team is minus 4 in turnovers, you can point to any number of plays that make a big impact on the final score.  This was one such play.  Kudos to Sedrick Ellis for hustling and making a play.  (End Note:  Remi Ayodele also recoverd a fumble in the fourth quarter which led to the Saints building a 28-21 lead.)

2009 NFL Playoffs: Championship Edition

2009 AFC Championship Game

J-E-T-S! Jets, Jets, Jets.  What are the Jets doing in this game?  I have no idea.  I’ve picked against them for weeks and they keep winning.  I thought the Bengals were a superior team — and I am certain there are people in Cincinnati who STILL feel the same way.  Shane Graham’s missed field goals have done nothing to ease the pain.  I thought the Chargers were a superior team — and I know that people in SoCal are still stunned that Nate Kaeding missed three kicks.  Those playoff games were decided by more than missed field goals.  They were decided by the ability of the Jets offensive line to create navigable lanes for Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones, while also providing time for Mark Sanchez to complete a handful of passes.  The games were also won by a top-ranked defense that has yet to allow a single opponent to breathe.

The Jets are for real, but I can’t help thinking that the Colts are going to win this game.  During the Ravens-Colts playoff game, there was a big 4th down play where Indy decided to go for it.  They were in Baltimore’s territory and the decision made sound football sense.  I had an opportunity to watch this play on Game Rewind.  The Colts spread the Ravens out and threw a quick out pass to Joseph Addai for the first down.  How quick?  From center snap to release by Peyton Manning, the Colts took 1.45 seconds.  That’s amazing by any standard.  This play was successful by the narrowest of margins because a Ravens LB (Ellerbee) came from nowhere and delivered a powerful blow on Addai which stopped his momentum.  It is this type of precise execution that the Colts are accustomed to on a weekly and annual basis.  It’s why I think they’ll win on Sunday afternoon.

The Colts don’t have an offense that overwhelms you.  They have an offense that drains you.  Scoring drives are not typically punctuated by deep passes as in Philadelphia or New Orleans.  The highlight package isn’t full of bruising red zone rushes like in Minnesota or New York.  Instead, the Colts have scored using all of those approaches, infrequently, and a bevy of precise, indefensible passes to players like Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.  Indianapolis simply takes what the defense gives them — and no defense can take away everything.  The Colts have also won games because of a blazing fast, hard hitting, and opportunistic defense that is tough against the pass and solid against the run.  The Colts have lost some depth at cornerback, but that doesn’t figure to be a problem on Sunday.

What the Jets need to do on offense.  1)  Throw the ball early to loosen up the defense.  I would attack Freeney and Mathis directly by throwing middle screens to Dustin Keller or Tony Richardson.  The Jets can also use bunch formations to throw middle screens to wide receiver Braylon Edwards.  A couple of short throws might give him the confidence to make catches down field later.  2)  Run at Freeney and Mathis, but don’t try to pop it outside…stay inside the tackles.  Teams often make the mistake of trying to outrun the Colts LB to the sideline.  The Jets would be better off making cut back runs off of those edge attacks.  3) Use running backs who chip on edge rushers as receivers.  Jones and Greene will be much more valuable to Mark Sanchez if they can make themselves available as receivers after delivering chip blocks on the Colts rushers.  4) Use play action and throw deep.  The Jets can make big plays down the field if they can get Cotchery, Keller and Edwards down the field on a jump ball.  Antoine Bethea is the Colts best aerial defender, but after that — they can be beat.  With Marlon Jackson out and Jerraud Powers doubtful, the place to strike is deep.

What the Jets need to do on defense. 1) Move Revis.  If Revis is matched up on Wayne for the entire game, it will make it easier for Manning to focus on other targets.  Keep the chess game alive by moving Revis — but not too much.   2) Challenge and bump the Colt receivers.  Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon may be comfortable playing at home, but they’ve never been in this situation before.  Nerves can be a factor for anyone in a championship game.  The Jets shouldn’t give them any room to breathe — unless they’re trying to direct Manning to throw into a particular coverage.  3) Bring pressure up the middle.  Manning has excellent pocket mobility, but the physics of the game remain the same.  Bring the most guys from the shortest distance and force the longest throw.  That means if the Jets send more defenders than Indy can block, they have to take away the shortest and easiest throws (short over the middle and deep vs. man coverage).  If the Jets can take away those LOOKS early, that may give them the extra second they need to get a hit on Manning or snatch an interception.

What the Colts need to do on offense and defense: Play their game.  This team is heavily favored and playing at home for a reason.  Indianapolis does not need to do anything spectacular to win.  The need to execute.  That means make field goals, avoid penalties and turnovers, and maintain composure.  If they do that, they win.  If they don’t, they will join the Bengals and Chargers as the answers to one really interesting trivia question.

THE PICK:  Indianapolis 27, New York Jets 17. Look out for Michael Hart in the Red Zone.

2009 NFC Championship Game

I had the good luck of watching the Minnesota Vikings play a game in the pre-season this year.  My immediate thought was that the Vikings were going to be a tough out this season.   They have proven to be just that and now, they are poised to make a long-awaited trip to the Super Bowl if they can defeat the New Orleans Saints on the road.  My reservations about the Vikings were based on my reservations about Brett Favre.  His production has been nothing short of spectacular.  This is arguably the best season he has ever had.  I have maintained that the Vikings would lose to a team that was capable of stopping Adrian Peterson from running.  I thought, initially, that it would be a team like the Eagles (with Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Ellis Hobbs) or the Cardinals (with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Bryant McFadden and Antrel Rolle).  The Cardinals did pummel the Vikings this season, but could not conquer the Saints for a chance to replicate their earlier success.

The Saints have a dynamic balanced team.  The offense is simply superb.  The team can run and pass.  They have backs that catch and run with power.  They have receivers that block and get deep.  The line is anchored by a left guard, Jahri Evans, who thoroughly dominated Darnell Dockett last week.  And, the Saints have Drew Brees and Darren Sharper.  These players could have claimed Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively, and there would have been little grumbling around the league outside of Tennessee and Green Bay.  I believe New Orleans has what it takes to beat the Vikings — but they may not do it the way I envisioned.  I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how Saints DT Sedrick Ellis has played a critical role in allowing that defense to hold teams under their rushing averages.  Ellis is going to play today and he should play well — as long as he doesn’t spend too much time on Viking LG Steve Hutchinson.  Peterson could have a big day — and the Vikings could still lose because the Saints can win a shootout with anyone…and they’re just not going to lose a shootout at home.

What the Vikings need to do on offense: 1)  Don’t worry about getting Peterson off.  The Saints will be expecting an early emphasis on the run game.  Instead focus on mixing up the play calling and getting first downs.  The key to the game will be sustained offense.  The Vikings have a very good offense, but it doesn’t have the versatility of the Saints attack.   2)  Don’t get cute with Darren Sharper.  It didn’t work for Tom Brady or Kurt Warner or Eli Manning.  It isn’t going to work for Brett Favre.  3)  Attack the Saints outside linebackers.  If the Saints have a weakness, its Shanley and Fujita on the outside.  Chester Taylor and Visanthe Shincoe are the perfect weapons to keep the chains moving and foil the efforts of Gregg Williams to get the ball back to Brees.

What the Vikings need to do on defense: 1)  Don’t get beat deep.  The Vikings were able to sustain enough pressure on the fumble-fingered Tony Romo to prevent deep throws.  The Saints are going to throw deep no matter what.  They’ll throw deep to Henderson or Meachem or Bush or whomever is on the field.  Nothing cheap, nothing deep.  2)  Stop Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell on first and second down.  Contrary to popular wisdom, the Saints actually like to run the ball.  When Thomas and Bell get going early, everything is easier for everyone else.  Reggie Bush has more room to get to the corner.  Brees has more time to throw deep and the receivers have more time to run deep digs or double moves.  3) Force turnovers.  If the Vikings are going to win, they are going to have to deliver a few signature hits.  With Antoine Winfield playing principally in the slot, that challenge may fall to Bennie Sapp and Michael Griffin.  Can they bring the wood?  We know the Saints have the bat.

What the Saints need to do on offense and defense: See the Colts game plan (above).

THE PICK:  New Orleans 34, Minnesota 28. Maybe we’ll see Lance Moore running Winfield ragged in the slot?