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Weekly Game Breakdowns - Championship Week
Bob Cunningham
January 17, 2008

Admittedly, there have been plenty of occasions for readers to tell me they told me so regarding picks I’ve made that they took issue with.

This week, it’s my turn.

I told y’all there would be at least one stunner last week.  San Diego winning at Indianapolis over the defending Super Bowl champion Colts qualifies.  But for good measure – and as forecasted by yours truly – the Giants made it a clean underdog sweep Sunday by beating the NFC’s top seed at Dallas.

As I mentioned last week, that’s why I love the divisional round of the playoffs.

This week, the conference championships are much less likely to produce a shocker.  Not only because there are half the number of games, but primarily due to all four combatants having at least one playoff game already under their belts.  It makes a big difference.

2007 Picks Record Straight-up:  174-90 (66 percent)
2007 Picks Record Against-The-Spread:  135-120-9 (53 percent)
Last Week:  3-1 SU, 1-3 ATS

Here’s how I see the conference championship games: 

AFC Championship
SAN DIEGO (13-5) at NEW ENGLAND (17-0)
Sunday, Jan. 20, noon PT

Line:  Patriots favored by 14   

Strongest Trends:  San Diego has won eight in a row overall and covered ATS in all eight. New England is 2-6 ATS in its last eight including four straight when it failed to cover as well as a 1-4 ATS home mark in that span.

Last Meeting:  The Patriots routed the visiting Chargers, 38-14, in Week 2.

Chargers Status Report:  Despite injuries to its star RB and starting QB, the Chargers edged host Indianapolis in Sunday’s divisional playoff game, 28-24.

Patriots Status Report:  The Patriots pulled away to beat visiting Jacksonville on Saturday, 31-20, for their 17th victory without a loss this season.

Conference Title Game History:  This is San Diego’s first berth in the conference championship game since winning at Pittsburgh in 1994 (Jan. of 1995, actually).  The Chargers are 1-2 all-time in title games since the AFL-NFL merger, losing at home to Oakland in 1980 and at Cincinnati the following season.  The Patriots are playing in their fifth conference title game in the last seven years.  They are 3-1 in the first four, losing last season to the Colts after having won in 2002, 2004 and 2005 (each of which they followed with Super Bowl victories).  Overall, the Patriots are an impressive 5-1 in conference championship games.

Game Summary:  If San Diego was playing at full strength, I still wouldn’t give the Chargers much of a shot.  But I’d give them at least a small chance.  As it is, with QB Philip Rivers questionable, RB LaDainian Tomlinson playing at less than 100 percent, and TE Antonio Gates somewhat limited by a painful toe, I just don’t see San Diego putting up enough of an offensive fight.  Billy Volek did nicely last week filling in for Rivers, and the honest truth is that the Chargers don’t lose all that much with Michael Turner toting the rock instead of L.T., should it come to that. Turner is that good. But Gates’ effectiveness – or potential lack thereof - is huge even considering the vastly improved WR play the Chargers have “received” of late from Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson.  The Patriots go in pretty much at full strength.  And this is QB Tom Brady’s stage. He doesn’t lose playoff games at home, where he’s 10-0 as a starter.  Sorry, upset-minded Bolts fans… the only question here is to determine if San Diego can cover the more-than-two-touchdowns spread.  Because of the recent pattern of the Chargers’ fine play and teams playing the Patriots closer as the season has progressed, it would be logical to allow San Diego that much credit.  And I would most likely do so if San Diego was healthy.  But the Chargers are badly dinged.  Ultimately, I believe we’re going to end up with a game that is very similar to the Week 2 clash between these two that was dominated by the Pats.

Prediction:  PATRIOTS, 34-17

NEW YORK GIANTS (12-6) at GREEN BAY (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 20, 3:30 p.m. PT

Line:  Packers favored by 7    

Strongest Trends:  The road team has won the last four meetings.  The Giants have won their last nine road games.

Last Meeting:  Green Bay romped over the Giants at The Meadowlands in Week 2, 35-13.

Giants Status Report:  New York stunned top-seeded host Dallas, 21-17, on Sunday in the divisional round.

Packers Status Report:  Green Bay spotted visiting Seattle an early 14-0 lead Saturday before dominating the rest of the way for a 42-20 triumph in the first NFC divisional game.

Conference Title Game History:  The Giants are making their first appearance in the NFC Championship since 2000, when they thrashed visiting Minnesota, 41-0, before getting drubbed by Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. They have never lost a conference championship game since the merger, beating Washington in 1986 and San Francisco in 1990 in their only two previous showings before ’00.  Green Bay has won four conference titles in its history – 1967-68 and 1996-97.  This is the Packers’ first return since ’97.  They are 4-1 all-time in NFC title games – their only defeat coming at Dallas in 1995.

Game Summary:  Being the visitors certainly won’t intimidate the Giants, who have lost only once in 10 road games this season.  But going to Lambeau Field in January is unlike any other trip.  Green Bay has been dominant at home for most of this season, and the Packers also easily handled the Giants back in Week 2.  That was a long time ago, though, and the stakes are obviously a lot greater this time.  For the Packers, the ability to protect Brett Favre probably will decide this game.  If Favre can avoid the rush enough to utilize his typically amazing ability to improvise – and not try to force things – the Packers will score aplenty.  QB Eli Manning has played very well in the postseason for the Giants.  He has become a solid game manager, but the flipside of that means New York must be able to run the ball effectively.  Teams have tried that against the Packers, especially at Lambeau, and have mostly failed.  The difference in this game?  Favre coming up big, on the big stage.  The Giants have enjoyed a marvelous run.  But it ends Sunday, and what we will be left with is a rematch of Super Bowl XXXI, when Favre picked apart Coach Bill Parcells’ Patriots for his only world championship to date.

Prediction:  PACKERS, 30-20

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