Coming off one of the best weekends of football in recent memory, one would think this weekend couldn't match up. This couldn't be further from the truth. The two games on Sunday are exactly what the Conference Championship games should be. Both are going to be hard fought, ultra-competitive game, and cases can be made for any of the teams remaining to win. So now that we have that out of the way, let's get on to the picks.
New Orleans at Chicago
What a great match-up. Offence vs. Defence. Cold, cold weather, with hopefully some snow thrown in there. This feels like one of those games where regardless of who you think will win, there is a decent chance you are going to feel stupid about your choice because either of these teams can win if they can put it all together. Let's take a look at some of the match-ups that will be important in this game.
Drew Brees vs. Chicago Secondary
The Saints run the West coast offence, meaning they like to make those short and intermidiate throws and they like to move around their personnel (see: Bush, Reggie) creating mismatches all over the field. The Bears play the Cover 2 and rely on their front seven to create a pass rush and play the run so they can keep both their safeties back in coverage. I think if they can keep these safeties back to provide over the top help for the corners, it will be tough for Brees to find his receivers on the outside. The Saints can counter this with Bush in the slot who could force one of their safeties to man up on him and would allow Brees to take some shots. Brees is one of the most accurate passers in the game today, and if he is given the opportunity to, he will pick apart a defence. As long as the Bears can keep the Saints receivers in front of them, I think they can create some turnovers, which is really the key to them winning.
Reggie Bush/Deuce McAllister vs. Chicago's Front Seven
This is a great match-up because Chicago may have the most athletic linebacking group in the league. They are very good at flowing sideline-to-sideline, not allowing RB's to get to the corner but also, and very importantly, not allowing cut-back opportunities. It is true that the Chicago defence has not played up to their normal level lately, but it's not like they aren't still winning games. Where the Saint's can have success is with pounding the ball up the middle on the Bears. It has been shown that Urlacher is much better when moving side-to-side to attack a run, and can be succeptible if a team runs right at him. That being said, you think Urlacher isn't going to be bringing his A-game on Sunday? Right. When the Saints split Bush out wide and then bring him into the backfield on a fake reverse, the Bears LB's will need to be very disciplined to stay in the middle if Deuce pounds it.
Cedric Benson/Thomas Jones vs. NO's Front Seven
This is a very important match-up for the Bears because if the Bears running game can get going and the saints front seven can't stop them, the Saints' are in trouble. New Orleans rarely blitzes, and actually usually only does so in passing situations. If the Bears can force the Saints to bring an 8th player into the box, it gives them great opportunities in the passing game. This of course is no secret so expect the Saints' to try and emphasize the run with their front seven and try and make Rex Grossman beat them.
Bears' WR vs. NO's Secondary
In my opinion, this is where the Bears can really take advantage of the Saints. The Bears have two WR's who can stretch the field in Muhammad and Berrian, and the Saints have a very succeptible secondary, in particular corner Fred Thomas. Because NO's corners are not great, they need to keep their two safeties in coverage for over the top help. This is where the previously mentioned running game comes into play because if the Saints have to bring a safety dwon for run support, the Bears can and will turn the game into a track meet when they have the ball. They did this against Seattle, in particular Berrian's big TD, when Muhammed ran an intermediate in route and the lone Seattle safety bit on the route, leaving Berrian 1-on-1 down the seam. If this can happen on a regular basis, expect people to be talking about how great Rex Grossman is on Monday.
Reggie Bush vs. Devin Hester
These two are straight-up gamebreakers, both in a good way and a bad. They are feared punt returners who can take the ball all the way to the house on any opportunity, but both have also had some problems putting the ball on the ground. this could be the first game ever where both teams just punt the ball out of bounds every time, though if they decide to take their chances, don't be surprised if these two X-factors change the game for their team.
Prediction: Bears win 34-30 with the Saints failing in a 4th quarter rally that scares the crap out of every Bears fan.
New England at Indianapolis
**NOTE: I am a die-hard Colts fan and it will definitely effect the way I see the game, just a disclaimer**
This is exactly what I wanted. I was cheering for the Pats last weekend, not just because that would mean the game would be played on the track in Indy, but because I felt for the Colts to truly prove to everyone that they are a great team they need to beat New England in the playoffs. Well, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. For the third straight week, the experts are saying this is a bad match-up for the Colts, first because LJ would run wild on their pitiful defence, then because Baltimore would completely shut-down Indy's offence (which in reality they basically did with the exception of big 3rd downs). Now New England is too complete a team for the Colts, something I don't necessarilly disagree with. The Colts will need to play a near-perfect game on Sunday, but it just might be time for that to happen. On to the matchups:
Reggie Wayne/Marvin Harrison vs. New England's Secondary
This is a HUGE matchup for the Colts because so many of what they do on offence is built around how these two can dominate on any given play. Marvin will likely draw Asante Samuel all day long, and Samuel is having a great season, but there is no way he can cover Marvin 1-on-1 all game, meaning he will likely need safety help. the problem is that Reggie Wayne will likely be up against Ellis Hobbs, and you saw what Wayne did to Rolle last week. Look for SS Sanders to be helping out all game long, so then FS Antrell Hawkins would need to stay in centerfield to defend the middle and help with Harrison. This means the Pats won't be able to bring eight into the box to pressure Manning or help in the run game and leaves one of the Pats slower LB's covering TE Dallas Clark, a great match-up for the Colts.
The Stretch Play vs. The Pat's LBs
The Colts had a tough time with the stretch play against the ravens because their LBs are so fast, it's hard to get the corner when the LB is waiting there for you. They had some success running between the tackles, but with the Pats front 3 don't look for them to try and do this. If Clark is split out wide, this will likely leave the Pats with three linebackers to defend the stretch play, taking some of the bite out of their vaunted 3-4 base defence. If Addai can get to the corner and make the Pats front three start guessing and playing the run, the play-action will become deadly. You can't give Harrison, Wayne or Clark (especially up the seam) a step or they will make you play and that is exactly what the stretch play can make happen.
Corey Dillon/Laurence Maroney vs. Bob Sanders
This is the scary part for the Colts. This is a team that even if they get behind early, they aren't going to abandon the run, and Bob Sanders needs to have a very big game to try and neutralize the NE run game. Even though the Colts usually have sanders back in the cover 2 set, he is like a heat-seeking missile on run plays. The effect he has had on the run defence is evident in the first two playoff games. Maroney is the real X-Factor here, he has the talent to break some big runs against the run D and Sanders needs to really make some big tackles to make sure this doesn't happen.
M. Light/ N.Kaczur vs. D. Freeney/R. Mathis
NE's OTs against Indy's pass-rushing DE's. The Pats will try to neutralize Mathis and Freeney by running at them, since they are both undersized and do not play the run well at all, but if the Colts can get the Patriots into passing downs, look for these two to really take it to Light and Kaczur and try to get to Brady. The Chargers showed last game that Brady's mechanics have been breaking down when pressured, and this is Indy's best chance to get Brady to make mistakes. If NE's OTs can neutralize the DE's, the Colts will be forced to bring more defenders to try and pressure brady, since he can pick apart any defence if given time. This is exactly what the Pats want to happen since Indy plays the bend but not break D and the less guys there are in coverage the more holes for the Pats receivers, especially the TE's.
Prediction: Indy 34 - New England 31 on a Vinitieri field goal finishing a Peyton drive that gets them down the field with less than 2 minutes left after a Brady touchdown pass to tie the game.