By Bryan Jeon
Apologies for my near-three week hiatus while taking care of personal matters. I’m back on the Couch and ready to share my wisdom.
The NFL has not featured the regular season’s top two teams in the Super Bowl since 1993. That streak will stretch for one more year, as the Cowboys fell to the New York Giants last week, 21-17. Hell, Dallas became the first top-seeded NFC team to fall in the divisional playoff round since the current 12-team playoff system began in 1990. The San Diego Chargers also repeated their regular-season win over the Colts, upsetting them in Indy despite a slew of injuries to their stars for a 28-24 victory. Meanwhile, the Patriots stayed perfect with a 31-20 win over the Jaguars while Brett Favre‘s magical season continued with a 42-20 romp over the visiting Seahawks. I give to you a quick preview of what each team must do to advance to the NFL’s biggest game.
AFC Championship – San Diego (11-5, 4-4 away) @ New England (16-0, 8-0 home), 12 PM PT on CBS
What San Diego must do to win: First off, they’ll need an absolutely healthy corps to have a shot against the Pats. If LaDainian Tomlinson (bruised left knee), Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) or Philip Rivers (partial ACL tear on right knee) spend a significant amount of time on the sideline during the game, the Bolts’ offense will sputter. Right now, it’s looking like that will happen, as Rivers is listed as doubtful, despite his optimism in playing. I’ll tell you right now, Billy Volek will not be able to engineer any game-winning drives this time around. He hasn’t attempted more than four passes in a single game this season. With that, the weight of the offense will fall back on L.T.’s shoulders, who has 28 carries for 70 yards (2.5 YPC) and one touchdown in the Chargers’ two playoff wins. The Pats have never scored less than 20 points all season so L.T. must have a monster game (100+ yards rushing) and hit paydirt multiple times for the Chargers to contend.
What New England must do to win: Play like they’ve been playing, play like they did last week and especially, play like they did in Week 2. These two teams met up then in New England, which is where this game is as well, giving them a thorough 38-14 spanking. In that game, they limited L.T. to 18 carries for 43 yards and no scores. What’s the game plan this time around? Much of the same, really. The Chargers led the league in takeaways and turnover margin so Tom Brady and co. will focus on ball control and time of possession. Brady showed the world last week that he can win a big game without giving the ball to Randy Moss, who had just one catch for 14 yards. So if the Chargers think that by shutting out Moss, who had 8 catches for 105 yards and 2 scores against them in Week 2, will win the game, they better think again.
My take: With a high of 25 degrees expected Sunday in Foxboro, things will get really cold and dark quick for the Chargers, who are riding an 8-game winning streak. I say the Pats cover the spread of 13.5 to improve to 18-0 and be just one game away from shutting up every member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
NFC Championship: NY Giants (10-6, 7-1 away) @ Green Bay (13-3, 7-1 home), 3:30 PM PT on FOX
What New York must do to win: For Eli Manning, every game is the most important game of his career. The more surprising Manning to remain in the playoffs has made it three consecutive solid performances, and a win here could salvage his disappointing regular season. His most impressive statistic in the two games combined is throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. He needs to keep that up, and the Giants ‘D’, which has four takeaways, needs to contain Brett Favre and Ryan Grant for the Giants to pull off the upset at Lambeau Field.
What Green Bay must do to win: Think those two early fumbles had rookie running back Ryan Grant packing it up and calling it quits. Think again. He finished with an impressive 201 yards on 27 carries and 3 scores, as the Packers recovered from an early 14-0 deficit to score touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. Snow showers usually make for an ugly, low-scoring game but the Packers went on to score the most postseason points in franchise history. Brett Favre continued his magical season with 3 touchdown passes and no interceptions, and what better way to end his 17-year career with another trip to the Super Bowl (granted, he retires after the season).
My take: No NFC team in the last 20 years has been able to win a third time on the road in the playoffs and for the Giants, that stop would be here in the conference championship game. The Giants are on an amazing 9-game winning streak on the road, including the playoffs, but will have never encountered a tundra like in Green Bay, where more of the same snow showers that covered the field last week will come again. The high is currently 6 degrees with wind chills possibly approaching -20 degrees, perfect for Favre’s liking.