Who has the edge in championship games?
OK, the improbable happened. The Jets are a game away from the Super Bowl. Everybody will be picking Peyton Manning in the rematch. And down in New Orleans, the season’s second-best quarterbacks prepare for an NFC title game that potentially could do something that Katrina couldn’t -- blow the roof off the Superdome!
Let’s get started with next Sunday’s comparisons. First, the AFC Championship Game:
Quarterbacks: There is no one in the league who would take Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez over Peyton Manning. Well, maybe in five years, but not now. Rex Ryan went with the rookie, who should have been playing for USC this season, because he saw how well the formula worked last season when he was in Baltimore with Joe Flacco. Remember, the Ravens lost to the Steelers in the AFC title game. But Manning has been spectacular the season, particularly in the clutch, in the fourth quarter and with the outcome on the line. Just think of his touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne in the final seconds of the first half last Saturday. Meanwhile, Sanchez is wrapped in some don’t-mess-up cocoon. He’s learning and awfully competitive, but HUGE EDGE TO THE COLTS.
Who Can Run: Obviously, the Jets can. They finished the season No. 1 in that department and their rookie Shonn Greene has run for over 100 yards in both playoff victories. New York has the game’s best run-blocking offensive line while the Colts are built to pass protect and maybe finesse you as they misdirect some defensive linemen and open a hole for Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. The money runner in the group is Thomas Jones of the Jets. He’s the guy who will convert in short-yardage and keep the chains moving just like he did at the end in San Diego. EDGE to the Jets.
Defensive Match-Up: The Colts beat a one-dimensional Baltimore team and were good enough to stuff the Ravens’ running game. They are one of the quickest defenses in the NFL with two premier pass rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Colts have two very talented rookie cornerbacks in Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey, but neither is as good as the Jets’ Darrelle Revis, who came up with an improbable interception in San Diego on a ball that bounced out of Vincent Jackson’s arms, down his legs, then off and onto Revis’ hands as he rolled on the ground. The Jets have enough of a pass rush and plenty of smoke-and-mirrors schemes to rattle Manning. OK, they could confuse him like they did Philip Rivers, but do they have enough to fool him for 60 minutes? We’re going to find out. EDGE to the Jets.
Key Storyline: Well, the Jets are alive, right, because the Colts quit in that Week 16 game? Talk about backing into the playoffs. The Jets will hear that all week although the Colts won’t fuel the debate because head coach Jim Caldwell has instructed them to quit talking about being benched and missing out on an unbeaten season. Still, it’s pretty funny stuff and Rex Ryan’s boys are laughing all the way back to Indy to see if they can sweep the Colts at home this season. The Colts should be emotionally high for revenge, wouldn’t you think? We all think that the starters, guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Gary Brackett, were dying on the sidelines watching the reserves getting beat by the Jets. TOSS UP.
The “X” Factor: It has to be Rex Ryan. This is one charismatic dude. Granted, he didn’t know his team was even alive for the playoffs a month ago, but he’s figured it all out now. And what an open-door rapport he has with his players. I mean, he’s definitely the anti-Belichick. There is nothing fancy about the Jets. They play hard-nosed defense and they run the ball and they try not to make any mistakes. The formula has been working pretty well. Conversely, the Colts are almost robotic by comparison. They play smartly and almost effortlessly and always seem to be on top at the end. Now, if Ryan had to debate Jim Caldwell, he would probably lose, forgetting his notes. But if it got emotional and turned into a shouting match, Rex would win hands down. EDGE to the Jets.
I wasn’t a believer until Sunday. The Jets were in the Chargers’ heads because it was San Diego who self-destructed with 10 penalties, two chip-shot misses by their All-Pro kicker and overall sloppy play. Yes, Norv Turner doesn’t motivate like Rex Ryan does, but players win and right now the Jets are winning.
Now, let’s do the same to the NFC Championship:
Quarterbacks: There are too many Favre haters out there to give him a fair and balanced review. But, come on, this guy is 40 years old, nine years older than Drew Brees. Favre has also done something no one thought him capable of -- throw only seven interceptions through 17 games compared to 37 touchdown passes. There were two red-zone series against the Cowboys where he didn’t risk an interception and simply tossed a third-down pass short of the marker, hoping a teammate would make a play. The old Favre would have gambled the field-goal opportunity away. It’s like he’s on a mission, a man possessed to prove that fateful interception against the Giants was some fluke. You know, the one that got him booted out of Green Bay. Conversely, everyone in the world loves Brees. He’s the guy who is saving New Orleans from being an also-ran, a forgotten city. Brees has the arm to go deep while also wise enough to dump off to a variety of speedsters. He did lead the league’s highest-scoring team this season and no one in history has ever been as accurate as he was this season. TOSS-UP
Who Can Run: The Saints can. They returned to their regular bag of tricks against the Cardinals, proving that they still know how to remain balanced on offense. Who Dat was that Reggie Bush? I mean, was this guy in mothballs or something? And, seriously, why did the Cardinals ever punt to him? Now, the best runner in the game is Adrian Peterson even though he’s gone eight straight games now without reaching 100 yards. OK, we like Chris Johnson better, but Peterson is at least this game’s best running back. The thing about the Saints is that Pierre Thomas is a more natural runner while Bush is some exotic speedball. When he’s seeing his lanes, Bush can be long gone and put Minnesota in his rearview mirrors. In his first NFC title game, remember how he taunted Brian Urlacher on his 88-yard catch-and-run that ended in an end zone somersault? EVEN
Defensive Match-Up: If Ray Edwards, who had a career-high three sacks of Tony Romo, is really all right to play, the Vikings have a huge edge on the defensive line. They proved they have the game’s best front four in reducing Romo to a bumbling, stumbling loser. The Saints like to disguise their bag of blitzes; they prefer to fool you while the Vikings prefer the steamroller style. New Orleans has the better secondary, but Minnesota the better front seven even without E.J. Henderson. Now, if you think DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer made Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod look like a novice, what will he resemble after Jared Allen gets through with him? EDGE to the Vikings.
Key Storyline: We all know that Saints safety Darren Sharper, who once played in Green Bay with Favre, went to bed Saturday night hoping for a Minnesota victory. Sharper also played with the Vikings, so he has a weird angle here, wanting to get even with Favre and also to show the Vikings they made a mistake by not paying him. Can Sharper really get into Favre’s head? Can he read his deep-ball intentions? You can bet that he plans on getting a pick and returning it for a touchdown. That’s what he does. Just think about. There’s no defender on earth on knows Favre better than Sharper, a 13-year NFL veteran. EDGE to the Saints.
The “X” Factor: The citizens of New Orleans. This town may party for two straight weeks if the Saints win and go to the Super Bowl. OK, the Metrodome is loud, but the Superdome will be louder come Sunday night. For a change, the Vikings will have to worry about false starts and jumping off-sides and not hearing the snap count. Life might become a little disconcerting for them. Interestingly, Favre grew up a Saints’ fan and now he’s in position to either help or deprive the loyal Saints’ fans of their first ever Super Bowl experience. If Brett had only stayed retired, New Orleans wouldn’t have to worry. EDGE to the Saints.