Friday, January 22, 2010

Four players that will shape NFL Championship Sunday

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.

What is a great season for the Hoosiers?

The Hoosiers have won two games in a row, following last night's win at Penn State.

It was the team's first conference win on the road this year and the first for Coach Tom Crean since his tenure at Indiana began. The team is 3-3 in conference play and 9-9 on the season, both already improved from last year.

The Hoosiers have a win over a top 25 team, Pittsburgh, and two conference wins over teams with winning records, Michigan and Minnesota. And as of this morning, Indiana is tied for fifth in the Big Ten.

The most obvious improvement from last season, as well as earlier this season, came from Crean during last night's post-game press conference.

"There was no panic in our guys' voices; there was no deer-in-the-headlight look," Crean said after the game, according to comments posted on

Looking ahead, I'm wondering if we adjust our expectations for this season.

Before the season started, I thought a .500 or better finish was possible, but after watching the results in the pre-conference season, I wondered whether this team would win more than seven or eight games. This team has improved so much over the last month, I'm wondering if these Hoosiers could reach 15 wins or more by the end of the season.

Indiana has 12 games remaining, including four games against Iowa and Northwestern, two of the three teams below them in the Big Ten standings. The Hoosiers also will play Michigan State and Wisconsin, the top two teams in the conference, only once. The game with the Spartans is in Bloomington, which will should slightly diminish the size of the task.

Realistically, could the Hoosiers finish the season 15-15 heading into the Big Ten tournament? If the Hoosiers continuing playing with the poise they found last night, I could see them sweeping or taking three of four against Iowa and Northwestern. I also don't think a win at home over Purdue is out of the question. And these Hoosiers are not the same team that was blown out by Ohio State. When the Buckeyes come to Bloomington it will be a much different game.

That's five or six potential wins. Could this team steal the game at Minnesota or against Michigan State?

No matter what happens, year two of the Tom Crean era is turning out to be a big improvement. I think it's a reasonable goal to go for .500 for the year. If that happens, Indiana may begin the 2010-2011 season contending instead of a rebuilding.

What do you think? Tell me your expectations for the remainder of the IU season.

Next game: Against Iowa, 6 p.m. Sunday. The game will be on Big Ten Network.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hoosiers beginning to get it...

It took me a couple days to understand the significance of the IU win over Minnesota on Sunday.

The Hoosiers defeated the Gophers 81-78 in overtime, despite blowing a 15-point lead in the second half. This game was another sign the team is improving and growing.

There were questionable calls by the officials. The Hoosiers did not fold.
There were missed shots. The Hoosiers did not fold.
There were missed free throws. The Hoosiers did not fold.
Minnesota built a quick 5-point lead in overtime. The Hoosiers did not fold.

It wasn't a perfect game. The offense became too conservative late in the second half as the team tried to protect its lead. IU sacrificed points to run the clock and Minnesota was able to tie the game with a few second left.

Still, there were more things to like about this performance. The evolution of Christian Watford is particularly exciting. Early in the season, Watford appeared to be playing timidly. Against Minnesota he played much more aggressive under the boards and has become a primary option on the offensive end. He scored 16 points and now is averaging 13 points per game, second-most on the team. I wished Watford had received more touches late in the second half. He could have iced the game during regulation.

The team also is improving on the defensive end, particularly rebounding the ball. IU grabbed 43 rebounds, including 20 offensive boards, while Minnesota managed 31 total rebounds, including 10 offensive.

If you have followed the Hoosiers over the past several years, you know IU has not been able to rebound the ball well at all. And too often late in games, IU had one shot per possession, while opponents had two or more. The Hoosiers had 17 second-chance points on Sunday to the Gophers' 12, a direct result of the rebounding edge.

The offensive collapse late in the game, I think a result of overly conservative play-calling, has to be corrected. This seems to happen all too often when the Hoosiers build a lead in the second half. But there are signs the toughness Coach Tom Crean is preaching is sinking in.

This win was another glimpse of this team's upside. I think they are starting to get it.

Note: The Hoosiers stand at 8-9 on the season, and 2-3 in the Big Ten. They travel to Penn State on Thursday. The game will be on ESPN2.