It's an odd coincidence that both conference championship games are rematches of contests played in Week 13, when Sunday's home teams both won on the road. The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Carolina Panthers 25-16 on a day when Panthers kicker John Kasay missed three field goals and an extra point -- look at that final score and do the math -- and the New England Patriots, on the season's most famous goal-line stand, edged the Indianapolis Colts, 38-34.
It's football wisdom that it's very tough to beat the same team twice in one year, but five of the eight playoff games so far have been rematches of regular-season games, and the teams that won the first time around are 3-2 in the playoffs. That proves pretty much nothing except that it's not exactly impossible to sweep two games from an opponent, even if that second game is in the playoffs. Just ask the Seahawks, Packers and Titans if I'm lying. They've all been tossed by teams they lost to in the regular season, so they have a lot of time to sit and think about football wisdom.
It's also football wisdom to go with the home teams in the playoffs. They've earned that home field, after all, by playing well all year, and the results are convincing. In the last five playoff years, home teams have gone 39-11. They're 5-3 so far this year.
But that wisdom becomes less wise in the conference championship games. In each of the last five years, exactly one of the two road teams has won. The year before that, 1997, both road teams won. You have to go all the way back to 1996 to find both home teams winning. That year, the Patriots (audience gasp!) beat the Jaguars in the AFC, and in the NFC the Packers beat the -- dun-dun-DUN! -- Panthers.
All of this of course means total squat.
Last week was a tough one for us prognosticators. I felt lucky to get three out of four right, bringing me to 5-3 in the playoffs, the record I would have had if I'd just picked all home teams. The same thing happened with my picks in the regular season. ESPN's eight-man panel of experts struggled last week too, with every single expert missing on at least one game. Mike Golic leads the way at 7-1. Joe Theismann trails at 4-3.
Who wouldn't have struggled with those divisional playoff games, so evenly matched, so intriguing, so down to the wire? Who could have foreseen that two road teams would win, and that those two would be Indy and Carolina, as opposed to red-hot Green Bay or preseason-favorite Tennessee? What I'm asking is: What kind of super genius could have foreseen the exact results of last weekend!?
My son Buster, coin-flippinest almost-toddler in America, at your service.
He and his quarter ran the table. You could look it up. He now has the same 5-3 playoff record sported by ESPN experts Hoge, Salisbury and Mortensen, not to mention the guy who gave him the quarter.
Here are my picks for Sunday's games, in the order they'll be played beginning at 3 p.m. EST. Winners as always in caps, though this time they'll say "Super Bowl XXXVIII."
AFC Championship Game
INDIANAPOLIS at New England: Including their victory over the Titans last week the Patriots have won 13 in a row, one of the longest streaks in league history, and they're 9-0 at Gillette Stadium. In those nine games, they've given up a grand total of 82 points, and 30 of those were in one game, their first win over Tennessee. They have three home shutouts and have surrendered only 36 points in their last seven home games. I could go on like this for a while.
The point here is that the Patriots win with their defense, which has been of the bend-without-breaking variety, giving up a lot of yards but stiffening in the red zone. I said this last week, and if I keep saying it I might just start believing it: Bend-but-don't-break defenses, even those designed by genius coach Bill Belichick, cannot be trusted to keep bending and not breaking as the competition gets tougher in the playoffs. There's no tougher competition for a defense than the Indianapolis Colts right now, and I don't think the Patriots' vaunted defense will stay unbroken.
I could go on at some length here about the Colts offense and especially Peyton Manning, but I realize you have lives to lead and I'm not getting paid by the word or anything. You know if you've read this far that Manning, who already had the best regular season of any quarterback in the league, is the hottest player in football in the playoffs, leading the Colts to wins over the Broncos and Chiefs by hitting 44 of 56 passes for 681 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating is 156.9, the highest ever in the first two games of a single postseason, though it's worth noting that the NFL's passer rating system is almost completely nonsensical.
The knock on this offense is that it couldn't score from the New England 1 at the end of that Week 13 loss, but the short-yardage unit had been decimated by injuries that day, and the Colts have shown no particular difficulty getting into the end zone since, though to be fair they haven't played the Patriots since.
Where the Colts are vulnerable -- you may have seen that little cloud o' dust fest they played in Kansas City last week -- is against the run. Fortunately for them, that's where the Patriots are weakest. If the Pats had Priest Holmes, or the big back of any of the other three teams still alive, this game would be no contest. Instead they have Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. Oh, it's going to be a contest.
The wild card here, if you'll pardon the use of that term with only division champions still playing, is special teams. Here's more football wisdom: Special teams are a third of the game. Football coach types are fond of saying that. You know: offense, defense, special teams. A third. This is sort of like saying a third of all people are Michael Jackson. You know: men, women, Michael Jackson.
Actually, special teams are more like a sixth of the game. In the four games last week, special teams were on the field for 16.9 percent of all plays, and that's including the 19 all-but-automatic extra point kicks, which are America's cue to go to the bathroom. Discount those plays completely, as you already do, sitting there paging idly through last month's Vanity Fair, and special teams were on the field 14.8 percent of the time, a little over one in seven plays in which the outcome is in doubt.
And I think they're even less important than that, since the vast majority of special-teams plays are routine, with similar results to most other special-teams plays. Just as one example, in terms of net yardage, the difference between the best punter in the league this year, Mitch Berger of the Saints, and the worst, Micah Knorr of the Broncos, was six yards per kick. When you consider that they each trotted onto the field an average of about four times per game, that's not a big deal.
That's the good news for the Colts, who are awful at covering kicks. The bad news for them is that special teams become very important if you're great at them, like if you block a lot of kicks or run a lot back for touchdowns, or if you're really bad at them, like if you miss a bunch of field goals or give up a lot of touchdowns. The Colts are really bad at them. Specifically, they're really bad at covering punts and kicks.
It's not that big a deal to give up an extra five or six yards per return, but if you give up a long touchdown or two, it's a very big deal. The Patriots' punt returner is Troy Brown, who's OK, but their kickoff returner is Bethel Johnson, who's good. He was second in the league with a 28.2-yard average, and he broke off a 92-yarder for a touchdown. Guess who he did that against. Here's a hint: It was in Week 13, when he also set up the winning score with a 67-yard return.
NFC Championship Game
Carolina at PHILADELPHIA: The Panthers rely on the running of Stephen Davis to take the pressure off quarterback Jake Delhomme, who can make plays but can't carry a team. Without Davis, who will be out or severely limited by a strained quadriceps, the Panthers aren't as tough.
Rookie DeShaun Foster had a nice game Saturday in St. Louis, but he's not nearly the back Davis is, and he's not the kind of between-the-tackles runner that the Eagles seem to have the most trouble with. Foster needs to break off a few big runs to give Delhomme a chance to find Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad downfield. I don't think that'll happen.
On the other side of the ball is Donovan McNabb, who almost seemed to will the Eagles to their win over the Packers last week. His mad scramble and touchdown pass to Todd Pinkston at the start of the fourth quarter was a stunner. Everyone's talking about that pass to Freddie Mitchell on fourth and 26, and rightly so, but that touchdown was one of the great plays by an NFL quarterback this decade. McNabb runs more in the playoffs than he does in the regular season, and that could offset the best feature of the Panthers defense, the line. McNabb ran for 107 yards and threw for 248 against the Packers.
The Eagles are without the injured Brian Westbrook, their leading rusher, but remember that Duce Staley only spent the year on the bench because of his preseason holdout. He's still an ace back, averaging 4.8 yards a carry this season, and rushed for 45 yards last week on only five tries. The going will be tougher against the Panthers but he should be able to do enough to buy McNabb a little time, and that's all McNabb needs.
The Eagles have lost the last two NFC Championship games, to the Bucs at home last year and the Rams on the road in 2001. No team has lost three straight conference championship games since the 1980-82 Dallas Cowboys. The first of those three losses was the only conference title game ever won by the -- dun-dun-DUN! -- Eagles.
This means absolutely nothing, of course.
Playoff record: 5-3
Last week: 3-1
Final regular season record: 157-99
Remember Britney Spears' tiny shorts? Number of weeks since I've gratuitously mentioned them: 6
- - - - - - - - - - - -