While everyone else considers divisional weekend "the most exciting professional football weekend of the year," for me nothing has ever come close to conference championship weekend; even if there are no games on Saturday.
This weekend we're in for a particular treat. Even if the games fail to be legendary, this will be a weekend that football historians will look back on because of the significance of the four quarterbacks involved.
Mark Sanchez is the fourth rookie quarterback to take his team to a championship game in the past 11 seasons (Shaun King 99, Ben Roethlisberger 04, Joe Flacco 08). Up to this point Drew Brees has been this generations Warren Moon; great stats, few important wins, a win this weekend would put Brees in an enetirely different category historically. Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are both trying to get ring number two; Otherwise known as the ring that would validify either quarterbacks claim as the best ever.
Even when the games don't have this sort of historical significance it's still a cool weekend considering the winner goes to the friggin' Super Bowl. That's why we watch right? To crown a champion.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts - In week 3 a Jets @ Colts AFC title game wouldn't have been quite the shocker it would have been entering week 16, the week the Colts gave up on their perfect season to avoid injuries, consequently allowing the Jets to "back in" to the playoffs.
Personally I loved the week 16 Jets @ Colts game because it added to the name Curtis Painter to the "all time most hilarious players in NFL history list." Other than that there is little to take from the outcome of that game.
This week, uneducated Colts fans and Jets fans have been at each others throats over the implications of that game. "We beat 'dem once, we can beat 'dem again," proclaim the Jets fans calling into WFAN NY, while Colts fans continue to defend (half-heartily) Jim Caldwell and Bill Polian's decision to pull Peyton and company.
Though the outcome of the game is completely useless, it may actually have lead to the deciding outcome of this game.
Peyton Manning is notoriously a film-hound. The guy, more than any quarterback in NFL history, lives in the film room. In 2 quarters and one drive in the third quarter, Manning was on pace to have the best game against the Jets defense of the season. The Jets were giving 110% with their playoff hopes on the line, but Manning was able to move the ball. Save for a few off-target throws. Manning and the Colts could have put the game away early.
Fast forward to wild card weekend. Reports were coming out all over the place that the Colts were firing on all cylinders at practice, practicing harder than any first-round-bye team has ever practiced. You know who the Colts were preparing for that week?
The New York Jets.
It turned out the Baltimore Ravens would come to town instead. Not exactly the worst thing for Manning. After all, if any team in the NFL resembles the Jets the most it's the Ravens: young QB not asked to do much, ridiculously talented running game, top tier defense.
The Colts beat the Ravens 20-3. From 2005 to 2008 when Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Ravens, Manning and the Colts beat the Ravens top tier defense 24-7 in 2005, 15-6 in 2006, 44-20 in 2007, and 31-3 in 2008. Obviously the Jets of 2009 are a different batch of players than those Ravens teams, but the looks will be similar. Simply put, it shows that Rex Ryan doesn't scare Peyton Manning.
Counting week 16, Manning has now had three weeks to prepare for the Jets number one ranked defense. If there is one player in the NFL you don't want to give time to prepare, it' Peyton Manning. The key to the Jets winning is going to be somehow creating something new to throw Manning off on a few plays that cause turnovers.
Peyton Manning is far from infallible. He can make mistakes and we've seen it this year. The key to a Jets victory will not be forcing those mistakes, but capitalizing on them. One way or another the Colts are putting at least twenty points on the board, the Jets are going to somehow have to match that number, and raise it by a few.
The wild card in this match up is the Colts defense. Last week they shot down a brilliant Ravens offense that ran all over the New England Patriots the week before. This season the Colts have been successful stopping the run by being persistent. In years past where the Colts would allow teams all the way down the field, now the Colts give every down 100%, forcing teams into red zone turnovers and field goals instead of touchdowns. If there's one thing the Jets cannot afford this week it's field goals. A great day of field goals equals only twelve points; a bad day for Peyton is 17 points.
In order for the Jets to get those points they're going to have to pass the ball in the red zone. Unfortunately for the Jets they'll be going up against the leagues top ranked red zone pass defense, with the leagues bottom ranked red zone quarterback.
When all is said and done it's going to be hard for the Jets to win this one. Cincinnati and San Diego featured favorable match ups against teams that aren't mentally or physically tough. The Colts are neither a favorable match up or soft. All season long the Colts overcame adversity, coming back from immeasurable deficits in games to win. They're going to win this one, too.
I'm taking the Colts at Home.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints - The Saints and the Vikings both got off to hot starts in 2009 before limping into the playoffs. Fortunately for both teams, they ran into self-destructing teams at home last week, allowing both teams to advance to the conference finals. For both teams, this is their second trip to the conference finals this decade. Their combined conference championship record is 0-2 this decade, after Sunday that will change to 1-3.
The team that wins this game is going to be the team that plays better defense. It sounds simple but it's true. At times this season both teams have look incredible on defense, and at times both teams have looked miserable on defense. Naturally, the Vikings have the higher ranked defense so you would assume they'd win.
Having the better defensive unit and playing better defensively are two different things. The Saints defense will also be given a slightly easier task, considering the Vikings offense is undeniably less explosive than the Saints offense. The key to a successful defensive game for the Vikings is a strong offensive ground attack. If Favre starts throwing the ball, at some point he's going to make a turnover, and at some point he's going to force a quick three and out. Both situations favor the Sains immensely in this game.
The Vikings are going to need to control the ground, to control the clock, and keep Drew Brees off the field. That sort of tactic will add pressure to Brees and a young Saints team that the team is not used to. It will also open plenty of opportunities for Favre and the Vikings potentially dominant passing game.
To put it plainly, if Adrian Peterson is sick of hearing about how Chris Johnson is the best tailback in the NFL, this week would be a good time to shut that debate up.
For the Saints the key to victory will be putting the ball in Brett Favre's hands. Though forcing one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history to win a game doesn't exactly sound like the smartest idea ever, remember that in his 19 year career, Brett Favre has only one Super Bowl victory, and this decade is 0-6 in playoff berths ending with a Super Bowl berth. Favre has come out sour more often than not in big game situations this decade, and the Saints cannot be afraid of putting the ball in his hands if they want to win.
The second key for the Saints is going to be avoiding interceptions. All season Drew Brees was good with handling the ball. This Sunday he needs to be great. One turnover against the Vikings can be the difference maker in this game. Brees cannot fear the Vikings defensive line. At some point they're going to get to him, put him on his back, and make him wish he was still in San Diego. A sack is better than an interception, especially with an offense like the Saints where losing yardage doesn't exactly change the game plan on the following down.
This game will probably be competitive entering the final moments of the game, but I'm going to give the advantage to the team that puts up a better ground performance. For this game I'm going to assume that will be Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, and the Minnesota Vikings.
I'm taking the Vikings on the Road.