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Championship Round-Up

In NFL on January 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

After a furious Sunday night of Championship games, only two teams remain. When the dust settled and the stadiums emptied, we were left with one final showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints.

The NFC title game was 60 minutes of sport at its absolute pinnacle. The first half especially was a perfect example of what every contest should be; a series of challenges met. The Saints and the Minnesota Vikings matched each other drive for drive, catch for catch and tackle for tackle, as each player on the field stood up and played as if their career depended on it.

Drew Brees (9) and the Saints have New Orleans dreaming of its first ever Superbowl

In the end, the Saints needed some luck and five minutes of overtime to overcome a worthy Minnesota Vikings. Once again it was their defence that came up trumps. They’ve been the masters at forcing the turnover all year, and it was the key to claiming the NFC Championship.

Looking at the stats, it’s still hard to believe they actually won. Adrian Peterson was due a big one, and sure enough the Vikings key weapon caused some major damage. He rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Brett Favre threw for 310 yards to Drew Brees’ relatively prosaic 197. The Saints were held to just 68 yards on the ground compared to the Vikings 165. Minnesota gave up 32 yards in penalties, while New Orleans were tooted for 88, and the time of possession and total first downs were both around 2:1 in favour of the visitors.

But the key stat was turnovers, which favoured Sean Payton’s men by 5 to 1.These turnovers not only came at crucial times but also caused a huge swing in the game.

With the game in the balance right before half time, Reggie Bush’s short career must have flashed before his eyes when he tried for a special play that was never on, and handed the ball to Brett Favre in the red zone. That should have been a guaranteed 3 points and a probable 7, which would have seen the Vikings gain the lead and a crucial psychological advantage going into the break.

It wasn’t to be though, and Mr.Kardashian must have been feeling a lot better about himself when a muffed handoff between Favre and Peterson was recovered and the Saints escaped.

That particular miscue left the Vikings fans frustrated, but they must have gone from frustration onto anger and right through to disbelief in a rollercoaster 2nd half. Peterson went on to fumble twice more, Harvin once and then Berrian, as they gave up another two red zone turnovers. With Favre throwing two interceptions, including one on the final play of the game which cost them a shot at a field goal, it was clear that this was not going to be their day. With 3 red zone gifts letting their opponents off the hook and another leading to a Reggie Bush touchdown, you could reasonably suggest that this was at least a 16 point swing.

Vikings wideout Bernard Berrian gives up yet another costly fumble

In a 28-28 game, you don’t deserve to get the rub of the green if you’ve been this sloppy. Sure enough, that rub went to the Saints. That final OT drive was blessed. First of all, they won the toss. That was followed up by a lengthy kick-off return which gave them prime field position. Then they converted a tight 3rd down before the final insult for the Vikings, a debatable pass interference call followed by a hometown completion. That left the game on kicker Garret Hartley, who strolled out and coolly iced the game from 40 yards with a veteran’s poise.

In truth, the zebras were bizarrely off all day. There was Pierre Thomas’s touchdown when he was clearly downed at the 1, weighed against the Reggie Bush lunge which was obviously inside the pylon but required a challenge before the right verdict was reached.

This Pierre Thomas 'touchdown' was one of a few strange calls by the officials

There were also some heavy hits meted out to Brett Favre, and one in particular from Bobby McCray should have been called, which resulted in a sprained ankle for the OAP QB. When your quarterback is getting hit as often as poor Brett was though, you’re always going to have one or two borderline calls, and any Vikings fan that tries to lay this loss at the officials’ door will rightly be laughed out of town. It would take some industrial strength self-pity for anything other than an acceptance of guilt on their part. They threw this one away, a few times over.

The questions for the Vikings now revolve around Brett Favre and Pat Williams. The 40 year old quarterback must be mulling retirement once more, and if Brad Childress wants him to come back next year he’d do well to keep any crowd footage of Favre’s tortured wife and daughter under lock and key. They watched him take some fearful punishment from the Saints man-mountains, and his supernatural ability to keep coming back for more must have even Rocky fans feeling a little sceptical.

Brett Favre was beaten up all day by the Saints defence

Personally, I don’t think he should come back. But he probably will. That’s what makes him such a great competitor. Williams too. The premier nose tackle in the NFL will want another shot at a Championship with these Vikings, and that drive will likely drag them both back next year.

The AFC title game wasn’t quite so close in the end, but that was primarily down to one man. Peyton Manning.

Rex Ryan’s Jets came into this game with the no.1 rushing attack in the NFL, and one of the most ferocious defences of recent times. The forecast for the Colts was simple – stop the Jets on the ground, and hope Manning could get the offence going. So after a cagey first quarter, the smelling salts were being passed around the ground as Mark Sanchez pitched a perfect up and under to the streaking Braylon Edwards for an 80 yard touchdown.

The Colts pulled within a point with Matt Stover’s second field goal, but with Manning unable to move the chains as freely as usual they were vulnerable. Sanchez showed once again why he is such a highly-regarded prospect by buying time in the pocket and connecting with tight end Dustin Keller for another score, and when Jay Feely nailed a 48 yard field goal, the upset was very much on.

Jets receiver Braylon Edwards (17) celebrates his early touchdown

Trailing 17-6 approaching the half, the Colts needed a score. No-one was more aware of this than Manning, and he stepped up to propel his team 64 yards in just 3 plays before finding Austin Collie for a 16 yard score. Instead of going into the break 11 points down and with visions of their general being sacked on consecutive plays, the Colts were just 4 points down and energised. The tide had turned.

With Shonn Greene leaving the field, the Colts run defense, which had been doing a great job up to then, completely shut their opponents down. Thomas Jones was held to just 42 yards on 16 carries, and Sanchez began to feel the pressure. The Jets didn’t score again in the second half, and Manning eased them out of sight by finding Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark in the end zone and setting up a 21 yard chip shot for Matt Stover.

So 30-17 it finished, and Indianapolis once again showed that they are no one trick pony. The defence, which has been doubted all season, held the most feared rushing attack around to just 86 yards on less than 3 a carry. The secondary also recovered from a shaky start to reduce Sanchez’ options and cornerback Kelvin Hayden came out with a pick as they asserted their dominance over the Jets’ receivers.

Austin Collie hauls in a Peyton Manning special for a Colts touchdown

On the other side of the ball, the expected duel between Revis and Manning never really materialised. True to form, Manning simply left Reggie Wayne on Revis island and went to Garcon and Collie instead. Wayne and Dallas Clark got 7 receptions, while Collie and Garcon went to work on the weak points in the secondary, torching poor Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman for 18 receptions and 274 yards. They even beat New York at their own game, with Joseph Addai galloping for 80 of their 101 yards.

That’s the scary thing about this Colts attack. The offensive line showed some great power at times on Sunday, creating gaps for Addai and giving their quarterback just enough time to survey the field. Some of the throws he unfurled were undefendable, and with the options he has it’s virtually impossible to shut him down. The question then becomes, ‘how many can you score’? The answer for most teams this year has been, ‘not enough’.

Pierre Garcon caused problems for Jets corner Dwight Lowery

The Jets came up against a superior team on Sunday, but they can be proud of their team and their rookie coach. Rex Ryan has crafted a top notch defence, and with a little more experience (and maybe another receiver or two) Mark Sanchez could be a difference maker. Add that improving passing game to the best offensive line in the league and a quality rushing attack combining experience, youth, power and speed, and they have all the ingredients to be a serious force for years to come.

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