AFC Championship Game
New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)
The last meeting between these two teams ended in controversy when Head Coach Jim Caldwell decided to fore go Indianapolis' opportunity for an undefeated season, and instead chose to bench his stars midway through the third quarter. A slim Colts lead quickly became a season saving win for the Jets, a victory that allowed them to eventually secure a wild card berth.
Due to the circumstances many people doubted whether or not New York even deserved a playoff appearance at all, but here they are in the AFC Championship. Having proven their mettle in the first two rounds of the postseason the Jets now return to Indianapolis, the place where their playoff run began in the first place.
If New York is going to advance to the Super Bowl they will need to rely on what has gotten them this far, running the football and defense.
Expect cornerback Darrelle Revis to match up 1-on-1 with Reggie Wayne. Revis has routinely shut down the oppositions' number one wide receiver this year, so I like his chances to keep Wayne in check for the majority of the game. This should allow the Jets to keep two guys on Dallas Clark. Clark is a very difficult matchup for any defense, but stopping him is the key to slowing down Indianapolis' passing attack.
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Don't be surprised if the Colts are unable to run against New York's front seven. They only averaged 1.7 yards per carry in last week's game against Baltimore, and they have struggled to find balance all season. Indianapolis is going to live or die on the strength of Peyton Manning's arm, and he will have his hands full going up against the number one pass defense according to DVOA.
While it is true that the Jet's defense has the talent to keep Manning in check, it remains to be seen whether or not their offense is capable of putting up enough points to outscore him. First round pick Mark Sanchez is attempting to become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Keep in mind that the word lead is very deceiving in this context because for most of the season New York has been winning in spite of Sanchez, not because of him.
The Jets have relied on a steady diet of Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene to help protect their quarterback from having to make too many throws. Rookie sensation Shonn Greene needs just 91 yards to set a new franchise record for most rushing yards in a single postseason. The incumbent starter Thomas Jones is just one touchdown short of a franchise record for most rushing touchdowns in a single postseason. Together they combined for the league's 11th best Rush Offense DVOA (5.8%). For New York to have success on offense they will need to be able to run consistently against a Colts team ranked 20th in Run Defense DVOA (0%).
After what they've done in the first two rounds, I would not be too surprised if the Jets pulled off this upset on the road. But I think that the Colts are a better overall team, and they also have a home field advantage.
Prediction: New York Jets 13 Indianapolis Colts 21
NFC Championship Game
Minnesota Vikings (13-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)
This game features two of the league's most prolific offenses. Minnesota finished the regular season averaging 29.4 points per game, second only to the Saints' 31.9 points per game. On the other side of the ball, both defensive units are roughly league average according to their regular season DVOA. Consequently, I think we can expect yet another high scoring game.
While Adrian Peterson did set a franchise record for most rushing touchdowns in a single season (18), the Vikings made a fundamental shift this year from a power running attack to a more dynamic pass first offense. The addition of Brett Favre has allowed Head Coach Brad Childress to open up the offense and rely on his quarterback's decision making. If he continues to be smart with the football Minnesota should be able to keep pace with New Orleans in a shootout.
Favre certainly has no shortage of options when it comes to receivers. The Vikings are the first team in NFL history to have six players with over forty receptions in a season. His favorite targets have been wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Rice lit up the Cowboys secondary last week for 141 yards and tied an NFL record for most receiving touchdowns in a playoff game (3).
While the young wide out has become one of the NFC's most dangerous big play threats, Visanthe Shiancoe has had the majority of his success inside the red zone. He finished second among tight ends with 11 touchdowns during the regular season, and his execution near the goal line will be a key to Minnesota's success.
The Vikings certainly boast an impressive stable of playmakers, but nobody is more dynamic on offense than the Saints. New Orleans led the league in total offense (403.8), and they were the only club to finish in the top six in both rushing (6th) and passing (4th) offense.
Despite lacking a marquee every down back, the Saints actually have better overall rushing numbers than Minnesota. Their ability to move the ball with their power running game has given this offense a balance that is rarely seen over the course of an entire season, and the 510 points they scored this year prove that they are among the all-time great offenses.
But make no mistake about it, when they do decide to pass quarterback Drew Brees is more than capable of throwing the ball all over the field. He tied his own club record with 34 touchdown passes during the regular season, and his 109.6 quarterback rating was a career high as well as a franchise record.
Brees' favorite target throughout his tenure in New Orleans has been wide receiver Marques Colston. The Hofstra alum has become one of the league's most dependable receivers after being drafted in the 7th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Look for Colston to have a big game against a Vikings defense ranked 20th in Pass Defense DVOA.
With all of the stars on these two offenses it's easy to forget about special teams, but this match up features two of the most explosive kick returners in the NFC. Reggie Bush electrified the Superdome last week when he returned a punt for a touchdown and recorded a 46 yard touchdown run. Meanwhile, rookie Percy Harvin has proven to be every bit as dangerous in his first year in the league. He has already returned two kick returns for touchdowns and piled up 2,081 total yards en route to becoming the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Don't be surprised if one of these two players makes a big play to get their team to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Minnesota Vikings 31 New Orleans Saints 34