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NFC Championship Preview

In NFL on January 19, 2010 at 11:37 pm

The expected shootout at the SuperDome never materialised last Saturday as the Saints crushed a weary Arizona 45-14. The Minnesota Vikings also strolled to a 31 point win, smashing the Cowboys 34-3 as both sides advanced to the NFC Championship game with ease.

Brett Favre celebrates his Minnesota's crushing win last weekend

It would be a major shock if either team wins that easily on Sunday though

What the Saints did last week was deeply impressive, as they recovered from an early Arizona score to crush the Cards inside three quarters. They did this by scoring on five of their first six possessions, taking full advantage of the three week break most of their starters enjoyed.

This freshness was a stark contrast to the poor Cardinals, who had spent what seemed like forever on the field trying to stop Aaron Rodgers in an overtime win just six days before. Their defence deteriorated so badly that they gave up 31 points to the Packers in last week’s second half, and had already given up 45 midway through the third quarter in New Orleans.

Not even Kurt Warner at his best could make up for that kind of generosity, and certainly not the Kurt Warner that played last weekend. It was always a big ask for him to recapture his Wildcard form, and he was not helped by his receivers fumbling passes and big Bobby McCray serving him up a car crash hit after an interception in the second quarter.

Despite facing a tired team, the Saints were still at full throttle and they will fancy their chances against the Vikings. They rediscovered a bit of devil on defence after their late season travails, forcing three fumbles and an interception, and they recovered brilliantly from Tim Hightower’s 70 yard TD run from the first play of the game.

They answered that hammer blow with a ruthless five minute drive, and then rattled up 28 more points on their next five possessions. They ground out over 170 yards on the ground, with Reggie Bush looking particularly good. He only had five carries too, so you can guarantee he’ll be in fine form next week. He came up with a number of big plays, including a 46 yard touchdown run, and also served notice of his special teams threat with an 83 yard punt return which he took right to the house.

Always a speedy player who could make tacklers miss, he seemed to relish the contact situation against the Cardinals, regularly looking to blast through defenders. In situations where he’d usually look to break an ankle, he seemed to be set on cracking some ribs. He’ll need this intensity against the Viking’s ferocious interior.

Reggie Bush celebrates the 83 yard punt return which broke the back of the Arizona Cardinals

With the running game working so smoothly, Drew Brees was able to dominate from the pocket. The great man connected on 23 of his 32 pass attempts, hitting three different receivers for touchdowns. That’s the kind of efficiency that will destroy teams who can’t force him out of his comfort zone.

Whether the Vikings can hit him and make him move will be what the NFC Championship hinges on.

Many had prematurely hailed Tony Romo as a new, more mature quarterback that would lead Dallas to the Superbowl. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, all the old frailties remain. While his offensive line afforded him all the protection of a torn Trojan, he still managed to give up three fumbles, an interception and six sacks. Under pressure, he takes the wrong option far too often to be considered an elite quarterback.

Drew Brees is one of the most dangerous gun-slingers in the game

You can be sure Drew Brees won’t allow himself to be bullied so easily. But his effectiveness can be reduced with pressure. Brad Childress probably ordered an extra case of playoff strength cortisone to make sure Ray Edwards is fit and firing, because he was a bad man last Sunday. He helped himself to three sacks, five tackles and a forced fumble, and along with Jared Allen he will be the key to disrupting the Saints silky smooth passing game.

The Saints are a hard team to contain fully though. If Brees can’t find his speedsters on the outside, he’ll look for Colston over the top or Shockey down the middle. They also have an effective running game. If Pierre Thomas isn’t bringing the pain on the ground then they’ll look to spring Bush on the outside. Minnesota will never stop Brees completely, and the Saints are such an explosive and varied team that they will find some points from somewhere. But if the Vikes D can keep them under 25, they will give their offense a great chance of winning the game.

The Saints stoppers looked much improved from the unit that ranked in the bottom half of the league in the regular season. Randall Gay and Tracy Porter had great games last weekend, and they’ll need to reproduce that kind of form to keep Favre from finding Sidney Rice as easily as he did against Dallas. Darren Sharper will help here, as he’s a threat on the interception, and Favre will need to keep tabs on him all day.

Saints corner Tracy Porter will need to come up with another big game

New Orleans’ front seven are a tight group too, with linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle the main men along with defensive end Will Smith. Against the Cowboys, Adrian Peterson was kept to just 63 yards on the ground at less than three yards a carry, but a lot of those yards came from him driving through contact and carrying tacklers with him. The Cowboys interior surprised me with their toughness and intensity, and they proved themselves to be an elite group. It remains to be seen whether the Saints can do the same kind of job. If they don’t then Peterson will be desperate to break off a few big ones and shake off his unfamiliar recent slump.

That slump can’t go on forever, and Peterson is due a big game. With the way he runs, that game will come against the first team that drops its concentration or starts falling off a few tackles. I think he’ll get close to the 100 yard mark at least, and if Brett Favre can come up with anything like the performance he toasted the Cowboys with on Saturday, then the pressure will be on Brees and Bush to keep up.

Adrian Peterson will need to be kept quiet

This one will be close. In the same way that I’m never comfortable backing against Kurt Warner in the playoffs, I feel uneasy picking anyone over a Drew Brees team too. I’m going to though.

It would take a superhuman effort for Bush and Thomas to come up with the running numbers they managed against Arizona, and I think Brees will have Vikings linemen breathing down his neck all day. In contrast, Favre should have the time to be able to find an open man, whether it’s Rice again, Harvin, Berrian or Shiancoe. For all the great plays the Saints came up with at the Superdome last weekend, they registered just a solitary sack. That could be the difference in this one.

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