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NFL Weekly Picks - Championship Week
By Bob Cunningham
January 15, 2003
 

STRAIGHT-UP
Last Week -- 2-2
Overall -- 156-108 (59%)

AGAINST THE SPREAD
Last Week -- 1-3
Overall -- 135-119-10 (53%)

PREMIUM PICKS*
Last Week -- 0-1
Overall -- 16-12-2 (57%)

So much for sticking with the home teams.

Last week's results were the polar opposite to the wild-card week, at least when it comes to my ability to prognosticate. Truth is, Carolina's upset at St. Louis really isn't all that shocking -- I should have seen it coming -- but it is somewhat of a surprise that all four underdogs covered against the pointspread last week.

For the conference championships, I'm predicting one home favorite and one road 'dog to come away victorious. Check out which game is which below.

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

INDIANAPOLIS at NEW ENGLAND - 3 p.m. EST

Records: Colts 14-4, South Division champs, No. 3 seed; Patriots 15-2, East Division champs, No. 1 seed

Line: Patriots favored by 3 1/2 points

Key Injuries: None.

Fantasy Take: The first meeting between these two, in late November at Indianapolis, was a high-scoring affair played indoors. This rematch, on the other hand, will be played at frigid Foxboro Stadium. The defenses should have the advantage, but Colts QB Peyton Manning has been so hot it's tough to bet against him. And remember that Manning had a big day against the Pats' vaunted D in that first contest, won by New England 38-34 aided by a last-minute goal-line stand. I'm guessing RB Edgerrin James is an even bigger factor, however, and that his results will directly correlate with who prevails. For New England, QB Tom Brady has performed well against the Colts in the past and unquestionably, he's a big game player. The running game continues to be iffy, and it's always unclear which receiver (if any) will step up for the Patriots. I still like the score to stay relatively low.

Summary: For all the talk that Brett Favre was this year's darling of destiny, it seems to me like Manning can claim that honor now. Not only has he quieted his doubters by winning in the playoffs for the first time in his career, he's done so twice in most impressive fashion. But against the New England defense, things won't come as easy. Something has to give here... and while I admit the intangibles would favor the Patriots, I like the Colts to get the upset because the stage has been set for Manning to etch his name alongside the greats. He's not just a fine passer, he's the best on-field leader in the league. And, he has plenty of support. Yes, the Patriots are 9-0 at home. But Indy is 8-1 on the road. After several previous failures, Manning has gotten over the hump. He'll be the hero in a close Indy victory.

Prediction: COLTS, 24-17 (premium ATS pick)

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

CAROLINA at PHILADELPHIA, 6:30 p.m. EST

Records: Panthers, 13-5, South Division champs, No. 3 seed; Eagles 13-4, East Division champs, No. 1 seed

Line: Eagles favored by 4 1/2

Key Injuries: Panthers: RB Stephen Davis (ques), Eagles: DB Troy Vincent (ques)

Fantasy Take: Let's hope my outlook on this game is better than my take on the Panthers-Rams last week. While DeShaun Foster is a decent runner, the Panthers need Stephen Davis to fully exploit Philly's suspect run defense. I'm impressed with QB Jake Delhomme's decision-making -- he stays calm under pressure and finds open receivers that aren't there at the play's earliest stages. Philly's pass defense is first-rate, especially at home and especially if veteran Troy Vincent returns. The Eagles were burned by a couple of big plays against Green Bay, but I don't expect them to have as much difficulty with the Panthers. On offense, QB Donovan McNabb re-discovered his running ability which is a key to his fantasy production. Philly will be balanced, so there aren't likely to be any individual statistical standouts.

Summary: After losing the last two NFC Title Games -- at St. Louis in January of 2002 and at home to Tampa Bay last year -- coach Andy Reid's troops are due to get it right this time. A letdown isn't usually applicable in the playoffs, because of what's at stake, but how can Carolina hope to get back all the way up emotionally after such a roller-coaster victory last week? Also, the Eagles have the added confidence of having handled Carolina earlier this season, scoring a 25-16 win at Carolina last Nov. 30. Philadelphia's defense has persevered all season, McNabb has done likewise, and as I indicated the Eagles have been here twice before. The third time is the charm for Philly.

Prediction: EAGLES, 19-13