Hall of Famer John Madden has long said the most difficult loss to take is not in the Super Bowl, but in the conference championship. It’s one thing to fall on the NFL’s biggest, brightest stage. Quite another to come up one game short of reaching that stage. This Sunday, you’ll see four teams playing with a desperation not often seen in professional sports. Here are some thoughts on the matchups, along with a forecast of the final scores.
AFC: New England at Indianapolis
Talk about disorienting. On Saturday afternoon, I watched an NFL team named the Colts break the hearts of NFL fans in Baltimore . . . by winning. The ghost of Johnny Unitas must have been spinning himself silly trying to figure out who the good guys were. Turns out the Colts Indianapolis variety can win a playoff game without their latter-day Unitas (Peyton Manning) imposing his will.
Maligned all season for their atrocious run defense, Indy has held Kansas City (with Larry Johnson) and Baltimore (with Jamal Lewis) to a total of 14 points in two playoff games. If this franchise is to reach its first Super Bowl in 36 years, that defense will have to hold once more, and Manning will have to overcome the one team and one opposing quarterback that has held his number. (If he doesn’t, the Dan Fouts comparisons Hall of Fame numbers, nary a Super Bowl appearance will gain in legitimacy.)
As for Manning’s foil, was there ever any doubt once New England’s Tom Brady got the ball in his hands, down eight in the fourth quarter against San Diego? Only a legend of Brady’s ilk can engineer a game-tying drive with an INTERCEPTION in the mix. No Adam Vinatieri to kick the game-winning field goal? (He’s a Colt now, drama lovers.) Up steps rookie Stephen Gostkowski the career scoring leader at the University of Memphis to send the Chargers home for good. The Patriots are trying to match Pittsburgh’s dynasty of the Seventies by winning a fourth Super Bowl in six years.
The pick: New England 27, Indianapolis 14
NFC: New Orleans at Chicago
NFC: New Orleans at Chicago
Tennessee fans will be calling this the Doug Atkins Bowl. (The Hall of Fame defensive lineman and All-America at UT spent the bulk of his career in Chicago before wrapping things up as Saint.) The game carries an important historical angle, as the Bears’ Lovie Smith could become the first black head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. If he does, the Gator karma that has lifted the University of Florida to preeminence in both men’s basketball and football will have reached the Windy City, where Florida alum Rex Grossman continues to win games as the playoff quarterback no expert wants behind center.
If Chicago is to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years (the Bears won Super Bowl XX in, ahem, New Orleans), it will be their defense which gave up the fewest points in the NFC and had the most takeaways in the NFL that gets them to Miami. And that defense will be sweating over a multi-threat offense wearing the uniform of everyone’s second-favorite team, the New Orleans Saints. (The Saints 3-13 a year ago are one of only four teams that existed before 1995 to have never reached the Super Bowl.) Quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL in passing yardage (4,418) and was runner-up in the MVP voting. Rookie tailback Reggie Bush caught 88 passes, while his platoon mate, Deuce McAllister (of Ole Miss fame) ran for 1,057 yards. Throw in rookie wideout Marques Colston (1,038 receiving yards), and you have the kind of attack that makes even an All-Pro like Brian Urlacher fairly crosseyed in his film preparation.
The pick: New Orleans 27, Chicago 10 (Saints are my second-favorite team, too.)