King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL conference championship games: Relearning that lesson about picking against the Patriots. Plus: Saints over Bears.

By Salon Staff
Published January 19, 2007 5:00PM (EST)

I don't care about the new Colts defense. Never pick against the Patriots in the playoffs. I don't care that the AFC Championship Game's in Indianapolis. Never pick against the Patriots in the playoffs. I don't care that Peyton Manning's due for a big game, that Rodney Harrison's doubtful with a knee injury or that the Patriots beat San Diego with magic and sorcery and incantation and spells.

Never pick against the Patriots in the playoffs. I repent.

Chicago Bears? Sure.

So I'm going with the two road teams in the conference championship games Sunday, the best football day of the year. The New Orleans Saints visit the Bears in the NFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. EST, and the Indianapolis Colts host the New England Patriots -- never pick against them in the playoffs -- at 6:30.

The last time both road teams won in the conference title games was in the 1997 season, so this is really asking a lot. On the other hand, the last time both home teams won was the year before that. Eight years in a row, hosts and visitors have split the two games.

History isn't bunk, but that sort of history is.

Sunday's games serve up story lines galore. The Pats and Colts have built up one of the best non-geographic, interdivisional rivalries in recent memory, though they were in the same division until 2002. It's in the same league as the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the '80s, but without all that Dyan Cannon.

Manning and New England quarterback Tom Brady are the Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain of an earlier Lakers-Celts era, with each team's fans waving the flag for their guy as the best in the game. And the guy in Beantown collecting all the rings.

The Colts have become eternal Super Bowl contenders and habitual January losers, their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback saddled with a reputation as a playoff choker. Their excellent coach, Tony Dungy, has a similar rep, dating back to his tenure in Tampa Bay. The Colts are also -- and this is not unrelated -- an all-offense, no-defense bunch who have all of a sudden turned into a Monsters of the Midwest, a defensive beast that's shut down the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens in consecutive playoff games.

Foxboro, Mass., has been the Colts' Waterloo twice this decade, in cold and muddy playoff losses in 2003 and '04. But this time the game's indoors, on the carpet, climate-controlled, just how the Colts like it.

It's the first time the Patriots have come to Indiana since the 2003 regular season, when Willie McGinest saved a 38-34 win for New England by tackling Edgerrin James at the goal line as time ran out. The teams have played in Foxboro four times since then -- and the Colts have won the last two of those, regular-season games, in each of the last two years.

If you can arrange all of that into any kind of predictive pattern, holler.

The NFC side has its stories too. There are the Bears, preseason conference favorites who roared out of the gate, crushing their first seven opponents by an average score of 32-10, and then looked ordinary in winning six of their last nine.

Quarterback Rex Grossman looked so bad at times that people were calling for Brian Griese to replace him. The defense, powerful enough in September and October to inspire straight-faced comparisons to Chicago's legendary 1985 unit, began to weaken as injuries took a toll.

But the Bears remain the favorite -- by about a field goal, like the Colts -- to go to the Super Bowl for only the second time in their existence. That's a tale right there, one of the NFL's storied franchises finally giving its fans something to talk about other than '85.

And then there are the Saints, heroes of a devastated city, darlings of a country that seems ready to stop thinking of New Orleans as the site of a crushing disaster except when it's convenient to do so, like when looking for an angle to use when writing about the Saints or a reason to pick a team to root through the postseason.

TV coverage of the Saints has changed quite a bit in the four months since their triumphant return to the Superdome on a Monday night. Then, the football was almost an afterthought. Now, watching the Saints march through the playoffs, it's not difficult to forget that New Orleans is not just another city in the NFL.

The thrust of the chatter has changed from what the Saints mean to the people remaining in their struggling city and their fans among the Crescent City diaspora to the one-two punch of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, the cool of Drew Brees, the surprising rookie season by seventh-round wide receiver Marques Colston.

Maybe that's as it should be. At some point during the season the Saints, who went 3-13 during a nomadic, post-Katrina 2005 in which "home" games were played in East Rutherford, N.J., San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La., stopped being a plucky little underdog inspiration for the tempest tossed and started being a damn good football team with a damn good chance to go to the Super Bowl.

Plucky and inspirational football teams are fine as far as they go. There's still real work to be done on the Gulf Coast, and at some point feeling good about the feel-good story of the Saints isn't good enough.

And here's one more story: Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears each have a chance to be the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl.

But we were talking about football.

I learned my lesson a few years ago and vowed never to pick against the Patriots in the playoffs until somebody beat them. Somebody did. It was the Denver Broncos, last year. I thought that freed me to pick against New England again, which I did, with shaking hands, last week. Lesson relearned, even though the Pats would have lost if the Chargers hadn't handed them that game.

The Colts have had a dangerous pass rush all along, but their inability to stop the run has been a major weakness. They appear to have fixed that. A lot of credit is going to safety Bob Sanders, a sure tackler who has returned from injury, but Sanders played in four regular-season games, and they weren't notable for strong Indy run defense.

The Patriots running game was held in check by the Chargers last week, so the million-dollar question is whether this new Colts competence is real or a two-game anomaly. Two games can be a hiccup, even if they're playoff games. Let's not forget that only a month and a half ago the Arizona Cardinals looked pretty good for a two-game stretch.

I think the Colts defense will slide back toward if not to its habitual level, Brady will be able to find his spots in the short passing game, and Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney will provide solid ground support.

I also think the Colts offense, which has been struggling, will get in gear again, but Bill Belichick will have drawn up enough confusing schemes to keep Manning off-balance. He'll get his yards and some touchdowns, but I think he'll have the same problem indoors that he has had out in the cold against the Pats: turnovers.

In the NFC game, I like the Saints' two-headed running game, McAllister and Bush, a little better than that of the Bears, Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones, though I like the Bears' ability to stop the run a little better.

But what I really like is how the Saints mix in a quick, short passing game led by Brees. Grossman can throw some sweet passes when given time, but he's not on Brees' level. Brees could get a boost if Joe Horn, who's been out with a groin injury, can play.

Grossman can also come unraveled under a pass rush. The Saints don't get a lot of sacks, but they put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, and the key to the game could be Grossman's ability to hang onto the football when the pocket breaks down.

I picked the Colts and Bears to go to the Super Bowl in my season preview, and I've never before been right with those picks. I realize I'll get no love for being right this year if the Colts and Bears both win because I'm picking against them now, but I can't help it. I like what I'm seeing from the Saints, and I've gotten it through my skull: Never pick against the Patriots in the playoffs.

Buster's picks: New England, Chicago (coin)

Previous column: Schottenheimer's job, Vick's bottle, NBA trade

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