NFL Conference championships preview

Jan. 21, 2007, midnight | By Pia Nargundkar, Abe Schwadron, Josh Zipin | 15 years ago

The NFL's Final Four battle it out for a trip to Miami

The NFL's Final Four is set, and the smell of the Super Bowl is in the air. Will it be the Pats, Colts, Bears or Saints, time will only tell. But before we get to the Big One in Miami, today's games will be fought. So as you enjoy the day's snow flurries, be sure to holla at the TV, too, because some great NFL action is goin' down. Here are our picks:

NFC Championship – New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears
January 21, 2007 – 3:00 p.m. on FOX

Abe's Pick Josh's Pick Pia's Pick Phil's Pick
Bears 24
Saints 21
Saints 26
Bears 17
Saints 24
Bears 16
Saints 27
Bears 19

Abe's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Devin Hester, CB/PR/KR, Bears Wherever he lines up on the field, Hester has the ability to make game-changing plays. The Seahawks contained Hester last week by keeping the ball away from him. But when the Bears' D pins New Orleans deep in their own territory, Hester will have a shot at returning punts, which is a scary thought for the Saints. Sean Payton and his staff should be thinking only two words on special teams: squib kick.

Key Matchup: Saints RBs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister vs. Bears LB Brian Urlacher The Bears' do-it-all middle linebacker will have his hands full Sunday trying to wrap up the two-headed monster that occupies the New Orleans backfield. But Urlacher is the hardest tackler in the league, and his confidence at home makes him ten times better. If he and his fellow linebackers can contain the Saints rushing attack, the Bears could force the Saints to become one-dimensional and eliminate a large chunk of New Orleans' gameplan. If not, it could be a long day for the Bears; McAllister punished the Eagles last week and is running like a man on a mission.

Bottom Line: The Saints have been a nice story all season, but the Bears are the real deal. If Rex Grossman can keep his cool and his O-line can protect him adequately, the Bears should be able to move the ball effectively and keep the Saints' defense on the field. The Bears' will run the ball right at the heart of the Saints' D and contain Bush and McAllister on the other side of the ball on their way to the Super Bowl.

Josh's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Saints RB Deuce McAllister Against the Eagles, the Saints decided they would just feed McAllister the ball, and he delivered with 143 yards and a touchdown on the ground. If Deuce can establish the run against the Bears, he will free up all sorts of options down the field. If Deuce gets over 120 yards, I really don't think there is a way the Saints can lose.

Key Matchup: Bears QB Rex Grossman vs. the Saints secondary The Saints have a banged up, unheralded secondary, going against one of the most criticized quarterbacks in recent years. If Grossman can get off to a good start and complete some passes down the field like he did against the Seahawks, the Bears will be in the game at the end. If he turns the ball over, makes bad decisions and throws, the Saints will take advantage and win the game.

Bottom Line: Rex Grossman is too shaky to lead his team to the Super Bowl. If this were week five or six, I would pick the Bears in a heartbeat. Unfortunately for them, it's not, and the Saints are playing better football. The Bears defense has gone downhill the second half of the season, and with the loss of nose tackle Tommie Harris, they are going to need to send more guys to pressure Drew Brees. Brees should find the openings in Chicago's defense and lead New Orleans to yet another feel-good win.

Pia's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Saints QB Drew Brees Not many people expected a lot from Drew Brees this year, after he was traded from the San Diego Chargers following a shoulder injury in the last game of the season. But boy has he delivered. The league leader in passing yards and the NFC's starting Pro Bowl quarterback, Brees is a huge part of the Saint's Cinderella season.

Key Matchup: Bears QB Rex Grossman vs. Saints DE Will Smith Most of this game will rely on how well Rex Grossman fares against Will Smith and the Saints defense. Smith, with a team-high 10.5 sacks won't be easy to subdue and Grossman has had plenty of less-than-par games that have cost the Bears.

Bottom Line: If you don't want the Saints to win, you're either a diehard Bears fan or you don't have a heart. But sentiments aside, the Saints are honestly the better team. With offseason acquisitions Drew Brees and Marques Colston, the Saints offense is terrific while the Bears offense is terrible. Seeing as the supposedly great Bears defense has let up 20+ points the last five games, I don't see them pulling it off this year.

Phil's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Saints DE Will Smith I would steer your eyes towards the over-nicknamed and under-performing Rex Grossman but that would be the easy way out. What will determine if Grossman and, consequentially, the Bears offense is at all productive is the penetration of the Saints D. enter team sack leader Will Smith. The times in the first half he disrupts the back field play either by hurrying or knocking down Grossman and closing holes that Cedric Benson or Thomas Jones attempt to shoot threw will determine this game.

Key Matchup: Saints WR Marques Colston vs. Bears CB Charles Tillman This may prove to be one of the most entertaining wide receiver-cornerback competitions we see all season. At 6'1" Tillman actually has the size to compete for jump balls with the towering Colston and his ability to keep the Saints' #12 out of the offensive flow will be integral in Chicago's defensive plans.

Bottom Line: Drew Brees and the Saints attack has to much fire power and while the Bears defense puts up a valiant fight Grossman crumbles sending Sean Payton and New Orleans to the 'Ship.

AFC Championship – New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
January 21, 2007 – 6:30 p.m. on CBS

Abe's Pick Josh's Pick Pia's Pick Phil's Pick
Patriots 31
Colts 30
Patriots 30
Colts 24
Colts 27
Patriots 24
Patriots 24
Colts 22

Abe's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots Although much of the drama surrounding this game will likely surround the kicker on the other sideline, the Patriots' rookie has flown under the radar while having a great season. No, he can't match Adam Vinatieri's clutch-ness, but he has a strong leg and is extremely confident. The game's outcome may hinge on his success in the kicking game.

Key Matchup: Patriots Coach Bill Belichick vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning Belichick has confused Manning many times before, using a variety of defensive schemes, blitzing from everywhere and moving back and forth from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. For the Colts to win, Manning must read Belichick's schemes and beat them. If Manning plays like he has in the past two playoff games (5 INT), his team won't win. Period. Belichick will have his Pats ready to batter and bruise Peyton, who will have to avoid the pressure and get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. Has Manning seen the Pats enough to finally beat them, or will New England be the Colts-killer once again?

Bottom Line: Simply put, the Patriots own the Colts. It's not just one factor, but rather a series of intangibles that the Pats have over Indy. And the fact that Manning has never beaten the Pats in the postseason doesn't help his team's chances. Not to mention Tom Brady, perhaps the best clutch quarterback in NFL history, a title that will likely rest next to his name if he leads his team to a victory in this game. All schematic breakdowns and critical analysis aside, the Pats will find some way to win, because that's what they do: win. Can you say Dynasty?

Josh's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Colts K Adam Vinateri. Some may question this pick because of his position, but if he trots onto the field at the end of the game with a chance to win it, the Patriots are done.

Key Matchup: Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Patriots S Ellis Hobbs Ellis Hobbs was picked on a little bit last week by the Chargers, and I'm sure the Colts will try to do the same thing. They will throw balls inside, outside, over-the-top, and underneath him. If Peyton picks on him well, the Colts could get some points out of that side. But, if Hobbs plays a good game, and say intercepts Manning, the game could turn in the Patriots favor.

Bottom Line: The Patriots have a mystique about them in the playoffs, especially with the Colts. Bill Belichick coached teams don't lose games, they make other team's win them. I think the Patriots three-headed running attack and Brady's golden arm advance the Pats to the Super Bowl.

Pia's Breakdown:

Players to watch: Indianapolis Colts' WRs Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison Peyton Manning doesn't do it all by himself. With this dynamic duo of receivers the Colts will have some big offensive plays.

Key Matchup: Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady This will be the battle of the battle-tested quarterbacks. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady is 12-1 in the playoffs. (His spirits must be high as he is also now dating Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, for those who care.) Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning on the other hand is 5-6 in the playoffs, but had a stellar season – leading the league in QB rating, throwing over 30 touchdowns and passing for more than 4000 yards. Will Brady pull off another playoff win or is it finally Manning's year?

Bottom Line: The Patriots shouldn't have won the last game against the Chargers. They slipped by due to a few costly mistakes by a team giddy to be in the playoffs. They won't manage it again and it'll be all too ironic when they lose by a field goal to their old kicker Adam Vinateri.

Phil's Breakdown:

Player to Watch: Colts S Bob Sanders The most important defensive player to his team in this conference championship weekend is the Colts' Bob Sanders. Since his return, the team has had the personnel and confidence to stop the run, a task they struggled with the entire time he was injured while also preventing the deep pass.

Key Matchup: Patriots Coach Bill Belichick vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning In each of the Colts and Patriots last few the defensive strategy of New England has determined the outcome. Manning had the upper hand the last few meetings but if Belichick draws up a scheme similar to that of the 2004 playoff meeting in which Manning threw four picks this could be a very interesting game.

Bottom Line: Brady + Belichick = Blowout

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Pia Nargundkar. Pia Nargundkar was Editor-in-Chief of Silver Chips Online during the 2007-2008 school year. More »

Abe Schwadron. Abe is a huge basketball, baseball, and football fan that likes to read up on sports in SLAM, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN magazines. Hobbies include streetball, poker and film-making. A sneaker addict, Abe likes to keep his kicks fresh. Abe likes reggae and hip-hop music, … More »

Josh Zipin. Josh Zipin has trouble paying attention for more than three seconds at a time... More »

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