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?