Before I begin analyzing this weekend’s conference title games, I want to look back to last week for just a moment.
Specifically, I want to comment on the Patriots’ win at San Diego. Two unrelated topics that were the talk of the NFL town this week.
Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment after the Bolts’ loss, and it’s blatantly unfair. The Chargers players lost that game with dropped passes, squandered opportunities, and stupid bursts of emotion at the wrong times. It’s highly dubious to believe a different head coach would have done better than a 14-2 regular season or made a difference in Sunday’s game. The players are paid big, big bucks to make plays. San Diego didn’t. New England did, when it counted. New England won.
As for LaDainian Tomlinson’s post-game issues with the Patriots’ celebration, I was with him until he continued to besmirch the Patriots the day after. You made your point L.T., but now you’re beginning to come off as a sore loser. I’m a huge Tomlinson fan because in addition to his obvious talents I believe he carries himself with dignity, but he really needs to drop it (and if he’s not sure how to go about doing so, he can just ask Eric Parker).
I know, I know… cheap shot. But it wasn’t Parker’s punt muff or even his two ridiculous drops that bothered me as much as him trying to pick up the ball after the muff, rather than just falling on it like every kick returner in the country – pro, college and otherwise – is taught. A physical mistake, compounded by utter stupidity.
Still, we’re left this week with a pair of pretty fascinating matchups. The New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game is a story unto itself, because the Saints have never gotten that far before in their 40 years of existence. And a renewal of the New England-Indianapolis rivalry should make for great theater, especially considering that – at last – the Colts get to be the home team this time.
On to the breakdowns… And disregard last week’s prognosticating results, if you’d be so kind.
2006 Prognosticating Statistics:
FOR THE SEASON: Straight-Up – 156-108 (59 percent); ATS – 134-122-8 (52 percent)
LAST WEEK: Straight-Up – 1-3; ATS – 1-3
OVER/UNDER: 129-129-6 for the season, 0-4 last week
NEW ORLEANS (11-6) at CHICAGO (14-3)
Line: Bears favored by 2 (total points line is 43)
2006 Records Against-The-Spread: Saints 10-7, Bears 9-8
Strongest Trend: New Orleans is 7-1 ATS on the road this season.
Last Meeting: The Bears edged the Saints at San Antonio, 20-17, in November of 2005.
Saints Status Report: New Orleans nipped visiting Philadelphia in last week’s divisional playoff, 27-24 – the identical score to the Saints’ regular season win over the Eagles less than three months before.
Bears Status Report: The top-seeded Bears beat Seattle at home in overtime, also 27-24, to win a playoff game for the first time since 1990.
Postseason History: New Orleans is making its first-ever appearance in the conference title game… For the Bears, that aforementioned most recent playoff victory came at home over the Saints in a 1990 wild-card game. Chicago is 1-2 in conference championship games, having lost to San Francisco in both 1984 and 1988, and blanking the Los Angeles Rams, 24-0, in 1985 en route to a rout of New England in Super Bowl XX.
Game Summary: It stands to reason that if Seattle can have success moving the ball on the vaunted Bears defense, the top-ranked New Orleans offense will do likewise. In fact, the Saints’ diversified rushing attack may cause more problems for Da Bears’ D than top-rated passer Drew Brees and hotshot rookie wideout Marques Colston. But will the New Orleans defense be able to slow the big-play Bears offense? And might sensational rookie kick returner Devin Hester break another for a score? My statistical breakdown favors Chicago pretty much across the board. If it comes down to Brees vs. Rex Grossman, the Saints will go marching into Miami come Feb. 4. But I don’t believe that will happen. Instead, the Bears will make enough big plays on defense to make the franchise’s second Super Bowl trip. As for forecasting the actual score, isn’t it obvious?
Prediction: BEARS, 27-24
NEW ENGLAND (14-4) at INDIANAPOLIS (14-4)
Line: Colts favored by 3 (total points line is 47½)
2006 Records Against-The-Spread: Patriots 11-6-1, Colts 9-8-1
Strongest Trends: New England has whipped Indianapolis twice in the last four years in the playoffs, and is 12-1 SU in the postseason under coach Bill Belichick.
Last Meeting: The Colts won at New England, 27-20, in early November.
Patriots Status Report: New England rallied at San Diego for a 24-21 victory last week in the divisional round. The Patriots have won five in a row and eight of nine.
Colts Status Report: The Colts shut down host Baltimore for a 15-6 triumph in the divisional round. Indy has won three straight and four of five.
Postseason History: New England has won three of the last five Super Bowls which, of course, means the Patriots have won three AFC Title Games over that span. Included in that trio is a 24-14 victory over visiting Indianapolis in 2003. The Patriots are 5-0 in AFC Title Games. They won at Miami in 1985, beat Jacksonville in 1996, and toppled Pittsburgh on the road twice (2001, 2004) in addition to the win over the Colts. The Colts’ last world championship was as the Baltimore Colts, when they defeated Dallas in Super Bowl V. Since that time, the franchise has made only two AFC Championship appearances, a 20-16 loss at Pittsburgh in 1995 as well as the ’04 clash with the Pats.
Game Summary: The feel-good story would be Colts QB Peyton Manning finally leading his team to a Super Bowl. It would vindicate a lot for him and the franchise, and would do likewise for my incessant preseason predictions of Colts glory the last few years. But the statistics that I typically rely on to assess games, plus the intangibles of history and trends, strongly point to the Patriots. If a player was ever under huge pressure, it’s Manning in this game. Tom Brady? The New England QB is under virtually no pressure, because he’s done it three times before. The Pats are on the road this time, Manning is due, yada yada. If the Patriots lose this game, Brady (unless he amazingly awful) will still be considered one of the great clutch players of all-time. But if Manning’s Colts stumble – again – Manning will be buried as a choke artist in the same category that Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is currently enduring. Statistically, the Patriots are stronger on defense, they run the ball better, and they have history on their side. The Colts have homefield advantage, and they’re 9-0 at home. But New England is 8-1 on the road – hardly a big edge for the hosts. Indy’s defense has been great in the playoffs, allowing only 14 points in two games, but the Pats present a whole new set of issues. And remember that New England held the Chargers, who were also unbeaten at home going in, to more than 10 points under their season scoring average last week.
Prediction: PATRIOTS, 23-17