North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

NFL Conference Picks

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Whatever happens on Sunday, at least one thing will be sure: the Super Bowl will be a good game.

Some matchups are obviously more desirable then others, but even the worst matchup (New York v. Minnesota) is still a great game. On paper, anyway. And on all the talk shows that kick into high gear this season.

After all, this is the time of year where not much else happens in football. Nothing usually happens, although this year the Super Bowl has been wisely scheduled to follow the Pro Bowl – no more bye week that means absolutely nothing.

That, I suppose, is the best thing of all to look forward to. Breakdowns and picks after the jump, home team in CAPS.

AFC Championship (Sunday, 3pm)

NY Jets @ INDIANAPOLIS

This game is a little sneakier then I’d think most would realize. The Colts are more then a good team, even better then their 14-2 record. When they tore off 14 straight wins, they didn’t give off an impression of peaking too soon (that was Denver) or of an underwhelming schedule (NY Jets). The biggest standout for the Colts has to be their defence, which may not be stopping the ball well, but can force turnovers.

They showed this last week in a complete domination of the Baltimore Ravens. While the Ravens nearly matched the Colts in yardage (they even out-rushed them 87 yards to 42) the Colts defence still held them to just three points. How? Turnovers.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco was picked off twice in the game, only the third time all season he threw more then one pick. Both were thrown late in the game, when the Ravens were forcing the pass to catch up, and both were deep in Colts territory. Here’s all three of the Ravens turnovers:

  1. Ed Reed fumbles while returning an interception at Indianapolis’ 27 yard line. It’s recovered by the Colts. This leads, eventually, to a Colts field goal. 20-3, Indianapolis.
  2. Joe Flacco’s pass to Derrick Mason is picked off by Colts safety Antoine Bethea at the Indianapolis 2 yard line. This leads to a three-and-out that burns 90 seconds off the clock. 20-3, Indianapolis.
  3. Flacco’s pass to Ray Rice is picked off by Colts defensive back Jerraud Powers at the Indianapolis 14 yard line. The Colts run out the clock to win the game, 20-3.

While all three of those turnovers came with the Colts already ahead by multiple scores, they also represent something else: after the Ravens scored a field goal early in the game, their possessions inside the Colts 40-yard line all ended with turnovers.

Another line for the Colts defence: after they allowed that FG, the next three Ravens possessions were quick three-and-outs where Baltimore never moved the ball past it’s own 25-yard line. In the meantime, the Colts pushed from a 3-3 tie to a 17-3 lead.

So what does that mean? It means that the Colts defence doesn’t just get stops, it gets stops that shut down the team early – and when later, when the Ravens were able to throw on them, they were able to force a turnover.

But this also means that the Colts will match up very well against the Jets. As noted above, the Colts were outrushed by the Ravens; New York is a run-heavy team that won’t give the Colts many pick off possibilities.

In his two postseason games thus far, Jets QB Mark Sanchez hasn’t shown a whole lot of the poise that seems to be directed his way. His numbers are underwhelming (282 yards, 7.2 per attempt, 1 INT and 2 TD) and he hasn’t yet made a big play – most of his passes were short; his big pass attempt against the Chargers was picked off. ¬†Expect Rex Ryan to keep Sanchez on a similar game plan – quick, outside, low-risk (and low reward) passes.

This has a great chance of keeping the Colts on their heels because of how well the Jets can rush the ball. In their lone meeting this year, a week 16 win that started the Jets current win-streak, New York had over 200 yards rushing; they had four other games with 200+ rushing yards. If they can control the clock, they have a great shot at winning this game.

But even if they can control the clock it might not be enough. Flash back to the Colts week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins. Despite holding the ball for less then 15 minutes, the Colts were able to pick apart the Dolphins with ease and win 27-23.

My pick: Colts

Storylines to watch:

  • How will the Jets vaunted defence handle Payton Manning? Their pass defence was first in the NFL this regular season with about 134 yards allowed per game, but in the postseason it’s bloated out to nearly 200.
  • Will the Colts rushing woes continue? They haven’t had more then 100 rushing yards since November. Since scoring two majors against Tennessee on December 6, Joseph Addai has only scored once – against New York in week 16.
  • Who does Manning want to play (if he wins)? He grew up a Saints fan… but even he has to now that two weeks of Manning vs Farve blather will drive most of the Western Hemisphere insane.

NFC Championship (Sunday, 6:40pm)

Minnesota @ NEW ORLEANS

Is it just me, or is Brett Farve having a more successful end to his career then his middle? This marks the second time in three years that Farve has made it to the NFC Championship game. He had only been to three before, with a 10-year gap between.

Sunday marks his return to the NFC Championship game. When he last appeared, it was when his Packers memorably lost in overtime to the NY Giants (A damn fine game, I should add). At the time, most assumed the loss would be his final game (I surely did). It wasn’t.

Instead, Farve has had something of a comeback season in 2009, throwing for over 4200 yards, which is pretty close to his career high. He’s helmed a high-powered Vikings offence that scores nearly 30 a game, gets just under 380 yards per game and was tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns (with 34). By numbers alone, one would assume they’d have a great shot at advancing to the Super Bowl.

But they’re playing a team that can score right along with them: the equally high-powered Saints.

In every offensive category, the Saints are either leading (points per game, total yards per game, first downs per game) or tied (passing TD). If anybody could outscore the Vikings, it’s the Saints.

It’s odd just how mirror image these teams are. Look at both of their starting quarterbacks:

  • Brett Farve: 4202 yards, 68.4 per cent on passing, 33 TD, 7 INT
  • Drew Brees: 4388 yards, 70.6 per cent on passing, 34 TD, 11 INT

It’s as if the Saints are a slightly better version of the Vikings; the 2.0 version, if you will.

How will they match up against each other? Defensively, Yahoo has the Vikings ranked sixth overall, based mostly on the strength of their run defence. This season, Minnesota has limited it’s opponents to just under 90 yards rushing per game. The most they allowed on the ground was 129 yards, in a week two win over Detroit. Against the pass, they’re not quite as solid: three times this year they’ve allowed over 400 yards passing and the 26 passing TD’s allowed is more then five times what they allowed on the ground.

The Saints can’t claim any such success. Their defence is ranked 26th by Yahoo, with their rushing defence 21st. It’s waiting to be exploited by Adrian Peterson. He’s had nearly 1400 yards rushing this season (fifth in the NFL), 18 majors (first) and has another 400+ yards¬†receiving. His presence gives Farve room to operate. Since he’s always a threat, his presence opens the secondary for Farve and gives him room to throw the ball.

His presence is what tips the scales in the Vikings favor; I’d expect him to have a big game.

My pick: Vikings

Storylines to watch:

  • Reggie Bush exploded last week for 80+ yards and a touchdown. Given how average Pierre Thomas has been lately, will he play his way into becoming the number one running back?
  • If this game does go down to the wire, which kicker would you trust? Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell is kicking nearly 93 per cent this season and hasn’t missed a kick since Dec. 20. In a little less then half a season, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley is nearly 82 per cent, including two game-winners. But he also missed a potential game-winner against the Falcons in week 16.
  • Who does Brett Farve want to play (if he wins)? While he left the Jets in the offseason, his departure has turned out to be a pretty good thing for both teams. And while the Jets have changed a lot in the past season, they still likely feel like they know Farve pretty well – would he rather play Indianapolis, a team thats less familar with him?

Last Week: 2 of 4

Overall: 5 of 8

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Written by M.

January 24, 2010 at 2:59 am

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