I had only planned on doing a little preview, since I’m not generally a betting woman. However. Now that Aaron’s given you his picks, I can’t let him completely take over my turf without chiming in myself, now can I?
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts (3p EST)
The more I think about this game, the more I think the Jets pull off the upset. It starts and ends with the Jets offensive line. I am beyond jealous of this unit, let me tell you. 3 of the 5 are Pro Bowlers (and rightly deserve to be so recognized), and they might be the most cohesive unit around. (Check out these videos: one, two, three, four.) This line does a great job blocking for the league’s best rushing offense, and they’re also not shabby in pass protection. The 30 sacks are inflated by a rookie QB who’s still learning the game. They’ve seen Indy’s bookend Pro Bowl rushers, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, before, and they’re not afraid of Freeney’s slick moves. They run an effective Wildcat formation with Brad Smith, but they rely on more than gimmick plays and can straight up pound the ball.
Speaking of that rookie QB, Mark Sanchez has impressed me in the postseason. He’s not a field marshal, but he doesn’t need to be. I expected to see him rattled in the Wild Card round, facing the Bengals two weeks in a row, but some of his throws to Jerricho Cotchery were downright pretty. I expected him to look frazzled in San Diego, facing a tougher pass rush and the expectations that come with going back home. Instead, he held up pretty well, especially in the second half. I saw him stepping up into the pocket, being patient despite an outside rusher coming free, and confidently throwing slants into small windows. He's already made it through two road playoff games...I don't think he's going to crack this week. He’ll never win “Air Player of the Year,” but I respect him for sticking with OC Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme and making the effort -- we've seen him mature from week to week. And again, credit the line – with C Nick Mangold identifying pressure schemes and OTs D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Damien Woody holding the edge, Sanchez has been given the time to learn this game. The Jets passing offense does just enough, and I think that we can expect a similar outcome on Sunday.
I know the argument well. “Who cares, it’s Peyton Manning, the best to ever play the game.” And it’s a valid point to be considered. However, I’m going to take a step back and follow the trends, because no matter what you think about momentum going into the playoffs, momentum in the playoffs can allow a team to stop thinking and just execute. Peyton did not play transcendent football last week against the Ravens. He threw two picks to Ed Reed in a span of seconds (one negated by penalty, the other by Austin Collie’s quick thinking). The Jets’ passing defense is better than Baltimore’s, and with the league-best rushing defense likely bottling up Joseph Addai behind the line, Peyton will have to take the Colts offense on his shoulders. Obviously, it’s something he can do. After all, the Jets don’t have much of a pass rush. But I keep coming back to that secondary, which I’ve come to respect the more I watch them play. I’ll take Darrelle Revis and Jim Leonhard over Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Domonique Foxworth any day in pass coverage. The Jets are deeper, too – Kerry Rhodes, Lito Sheppard, and Dwight Lowery all contribute. I think Manning will find receivers (I agree with Aaron that Dallas Clark could come up big --- but I thought the same about Antonio Gates, and what did that get me?), but I don’t think the Manning Factor can overcome all other aspects of the game. Besides -- as San Diego found out last week -- yards aren't points.
There are several other key match-ups that I could talk about…Wayne v. Revis, Leonhard v. Dallas Clark, LBs Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas v. Joseph Addai, LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session v. Shonn Greene/Thomas Jones, etc. I agree that the Colts defense is underrated. I agree that Peyton Manning might be the best ever to play that position, given his responsibilities on the field. However. This game comes down to the battle between an unstoppable force (Colts passing offense) and an immovable object (Jets defense), and I think the Jets slow them down enough. (For those people asking if we remember the IND-MIA game, I’d like to point out that Miami’s secondary was squishy and less willing to tackle than Antonio Cromartie last week.)
I don’t anticipate a pretty game. But I think the Jets, with their advantages on special teams and defense (I mean, come on, PK Jay Feely was a better punter than 90% of all punters), will be able to do enough. I’ll be pulling for them, anyway. After all, everyone loves an upset, and I sure as hell am not pulling for one in the other game. Jets 20, Colts 17
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints (6:40p EST)
Normally, articles about “key match-ups” are gimmes – QB v. QB, WR corps v. secondary, DE v. OT, etc. In the AP’s discussion of the coaching match-up in this game, however, I was thrown for a loop:
Two of the finest offensive minds in the game go at it… Favre probably wouldn’t have postponed retirement—again—for any other coach, save Mike Holmgren… The fact Favre had his best passer rating and threw only seven picks in 531 attempts says much about the influence Childress and coordinator Darrell Bevell have had on the old QB.
Um, really? I mean, sure, the scheme had an impact on Favre’s production, but I’m not willing to crown Childress as an offensive mastermind. After all, it was Childress’s playcalling that got the Vikings blown out in the first half against the Bears in W16. I’m certainly not buying the idea that it was Childress’s coaching prowess that got Brett to hop off the tractor and back on the field. Favre had an axe to grind. Chilly just picked him up from the airport.
As far as the actual game, I’m not going to go into as detailed a preview as the previous game, and it’s for a pretty simple reason. The longer I stare at the match-up, and not just the numbers, the clearer the picture in my head gets of Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin cutting through the New Orleans defense like a hot knife through butter. I’m not quite as convinced as Gene is that the game’s a 50-50 tossup, but I see a lot of ways that New Orleans loses this game, but I’m not going into them, because it’s just not going to happen. Period.
It’s not going to happen. Brett Favre will try to fight an aerial battle, and the Saints secondary will win that match-up all day long. Reggie Bush will bounce around the Williams Wall straight into the end zone, and Drew Brees will do what he does best – show up any QB who comes in thinking they’re hot stuff. John Carney came back to the team as a kicking specialist, but the Saints offense won’t need a kicker for more than extra points. No one will hear a peep out of Minnesota’s defensive ends, and OG Jahri Evans will make it all happen.
It will happen this way because I believe it will happen this way. Only one ex-Packer can make it to the big dance, and my heart says it's Darren Sharper. Saints 35, Vikings 24
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