I want to like the sentimental favorites in Sunday's AFC and NFC championship games, but I can't seem to shake the lingering doubts.
In the AFC, I would love nothing more than to see the Jets ruin another Colts season. I am a firm believer that resting players instead of chasing a perfect season should not be rewarded. And I believe that decision kept my team, the Steelers, out of the playoffs.
The Jets are red hot and not because their coach's wild comments are the darling of the New York media. It is because all that talking has taken most of the pressure off the players. Instead of talking about what it would be like to play in the Super Bowl or upset the favored Colts, the players mostly are responding to their coach's comments. While I do think Rex Ryan believes what he said about his team, I think there is more there than simple vanity. The last thing he needs is for his players to remember they were never supposed to get this far. Ryan is helping maintain the team's momentum by consistently telling everyone the Jets are good.
I think the Jets can stay on their roll this weekend. This two players that will determine the outcome: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
Clark had seven catches for 59 yards against the Ravens, including four receptions that resulted in first downs. Since the Colts' top wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, will be double-covered the entire game, Clark will become Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's go-to guy.
If the Jets figure a way to keep the ball out of Clark's hands, it will put them in a great position.
A rookie quarterback started last year's AFC Championship game and probably decided the game. Joe Flacco of the Ravens completed 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and three interceptions in their loss to the Steelers 23-14. His most crucial turnover of the game was a Troy Polamalu interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. If Sanchez plays similar to Flacco, the Jets are doomed, no matter how well the Jets defense plays.
Ideally, Sanchez should not have to throw the ball a lot because that would mean the Jets running game is clicking and the team is in the lead. Sanchez has two touchdown passes and one interception in the playoffs. He needs to manage the game effectively for the Jets to win it.
I want to pick the Jets. I really, really want to pick the Jets. But I don't think Sanchez will play a mistake-free game. He'll have one turnover, either a fumble or interception, which will be enough. The Colts will win a close one, 24-21.
In the NFC, the sentimental pick is the Saints, who are in their best position ever to get to a Super Bowl. The two players that will shape this game are the two most important players on the field: Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Vikings QB Brett Favre.
Brees is playing at home and at the helm of a monster offense. Favre is at the helm of a monster offense, too, but is on the road. The Vikings may be familiar with playing in a dome, but the noise when Favre is on the field will be deafening. Favre will not be able to make too many changes at the line of scrimmage and probably will deal with false-start and delay-of-game penalties.
Favre also must deal with long-time teammate Darren Sharper in the Saints secondary. If you don't think Sharper knows Favre's tendencies, you're sorely mistaken. That should be good for at least one interception, either by Sharper or another Saints defender.
With a sizable advantage because of the crowd noise, I think Brees will do a better job managing the game. In his other NFC Championship appearance, Brees did not play all that well, but the entire Saints team fell flat that day, losing big to the Bears. Brees learned from that experience and will use it to his advantage.
Favre on the other hand, will be undone by his gunslinger mentality. He may have played within himself during the regular season and divisional playoffs, but with the pressure on, I think he'll revert back to his old self. If the Vikings fall behind or can't get their running game on track early, Favre will be throwing the ball a lot. At that point, it's only be a matter of time before he begins making mistakes.
Both teams will put points on the board, but the Saints will win it with defense in the second half. With the Vikings trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Favre will throw an interception that the Saints will convert into a field goal. The Saints will win 31-21 and earn their first Super Bowl berth.