Championship Round Preview
For the Saints, it's obvious. They have become America's Team this season in a way the Cowboys could never touch, and a Super Bowl win, even just an appearance, could be a serious boost to the city's economy and spirit.
For the Bears, it's a return to glory for the NFL's oldest team and a shot of respectability for a franchise that's been treading water since not long after the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video was filmed.
For the Colts, it's a chance to get the monkey off their back, and a chance for Peyton Manning to do something more important than MVP awards and a Hall of Fame bust: a chance to play for a championship.
For the Patriots, it's the possibility of being called the greatest dynasty in modern NFL history. Four Super Bowls in six years is a pretty compelling argument.
There's absolutely no reason to believe that these two penultimate playoff games will be any less incredible than the rest of this amazing postseason has been. So let's take a look-see.
NFC Championship: New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears. There are a lot of reasons to pick the home team here. The one-two ground punch of Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones is a testament to the stoutness of Chicago's offensive line. Being a Redskins fan from years past, you can imagine how much I love O-linemen. Soldier Field (the ugliest stadium in the NFL ever since the mothership from Close Encounters landed on top of it) eliminates a lot of the Saints' advantages, particularly their offensive speed, and I worry tremendously about the New Orleans secondary.
But I'm going with the Saints for a third straight week. It's largely a question of my confidence in the quarterbacks. Drew Brees has never been anything but great, and seems to have lifted his game ever since the removal of that weird hairy mole on his face (good use of your signing bonus, Drew). Steve Spurrier has said that Rex Grossman is the best quarterback who ever played for him. Looking at the track record of ex-Gator QBs in the NFL, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. But there's more to it than just Grossmanphobia. I simply don't trust the Bears yet.
Sean Payton will unleash yet another dazzling offensive game plan, which will befuddle the Bears' thinning D and put Rex Grossman behind early. Grossman having to press and come from behind is a frightening concept if you're a Bears fan. The Saints will get a lead early and then spend much of the second half grinding down clock behind a 150+ yard performance by Deuce McAllister. Sorry, Bears fans. Sexy Rexy's got a lot of growing up to do before I'll pick him in an NFC Championship game against anybody. Saints 30, Bears 17.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts. Looking at this game makes me feel like Tevye the milkman. The Colts' defense has looked dominant this postseason. On the other hand, they looked bloody awful for most of the previous sixteen weeks. Indy has been winning without great performances from Peyton Manning, and he's due for a better game. On the other hand, Manning struggles against 3-4 defenses, and absolutely stinks against the Pats in January. The Colts are 9-0 at home this year. On the other hand, the Chargers were 8-0 at home until the Patriots came a-knocking. The Colts have home-field advantage with that crowd noise and speedy turf. On the other hand, Tom Brady is 10-0 in domes.
Here are some more compelling stats: Tom Brady is 12-1 in the postseason; Manning is 5-6. Bill Belichick is 13-2 in the playoffs; Dungy is 7-8. But of course football is played on Sunday, not on the previous Sundays, and there are tons of intangibles that make stat-mongers look stupid on a weekly basis.
Maybe this is the game where Manning and Dungy get over the Foxboro hump. Maybe the Indianapolis defense is for real all of a sudden, and maybe Joseph Addai + Dominic Rhodes = Edgerrin James. But I can't help but think that the very worthy and likable Colts' road to the Super Bowl comes in a year when someone else eliminates the Patriots. You know, like last year. The Colts are to Tom Brady what the Niners were to Aikman's Cowboys. I don't care if the Colts are 16-0 and the Patriots squeaked into the postseason at 8-8; I'm picking the Patriots until proven otherwise. Patriots 31, Colts 23.
So I'm picking both underdogs to win, a New Orleans-New England Super Bowl. However, I kind of secretly hope I'm dead wrong. Bears vs. Colts would feature the first two black head coaches ever to reach the Super Bowl.