XLIV will be Colts-Saints ... maybe
Jets defense gives them a shot, but Colts win because of Peyton Manning
Vikings-Saints is a coin-flip, but give the edge to Sean Payton's Saints
The player under the most pressure and 10 things to watch for Sunday
NEW ORLEANS -- Greetings from P.J.'s Coffee Shop in Uptown New Orleans, where I have come to try to figure out if the Jets have another miracle-of-the-road left in them, whether Brett Favre will live to fight another Golden Age day and whether the Saints can stop the most relentless playoff pass-rush we've seen since the Ravens laid waste to the Giants a decade ago.
I saw Archie and Olivia Manning Thursday night, out to a quiet 39th anniversary dinner at Gautreau's. Archie has that nervous look on his face. You know, the look of a dad before one of his kids plays a very big game. (We dads know that look, don't we?) And I am going to project the Super Bowl match that will leave Archie Manning the most conflicted man in America for the next two weeks.
On Sunday, I'm going with the Colts, Archie's kid's team, and the Saints, Archie's town's team. With a few asterisks. Because it would not surprise me remotely to see a Jets-Vikings Brett Favre Bowl in Miami 16 days from now.
My thought process on Sunday's games:
Colts 20, Jets 16. The mentality of the Jets could win this game. In Rex Ryan's office at the Jets' New Jersey training complex, there is one photo of the current team. It's not a defensive photo. It's a photo of the New York offensive line, the one that's paved the way for the leading rushing team in the NFL this year. As Ryan told me last weekend, "I've told the coaches and players from the start of this thing, 'If we have a good offensive line, we're going to win.' It's that simple. Everything flows from that.'' And it has.
Last week, the Jets rushed 30 times for 99 yards in the first 52 minutes of the game at San Diego ... and on the 31st attempt, Shonn Greene broke the 53-yard touchdown gallop that broke San Diego's back. Could it happen again? Certainly. That's why this game is anything but a gimme for the Colts. Indy will defend the run with speed instead of power, and it'll be a different type of game for the Jets' stout line.
On defense, the Jets remind me of the New Jersey Devils. Opposing fans hate the Devils because they muck up the middle of the ice and negate the great skaters of the league with their defense-first style. I expect a similar rushing game from the Colts as I saw in San Diego last week -- 18 carries, 61 mostly fruitless yards for the Chargers -- and so, as usual, the outcome of a big Colts game will be on Peyton Manning's shoulders. That's why I'm picking Indianapolis. As good as the Jets' karma and running game and defense are, I think the one superior player in the game will find a way to win.
Take for granted that Darrelle Revis is going to shut down whoever he covers, like Reggie Wayne. "The difference with Peyton and other quarterbacks,'' Revis told me Sunday night, "is he'll try to fit a throw into a tighter spot than any other quarterback will. That's what's so tough when you play him.''
Manning's history is he won't try to force the ball into the coverage area of a great corner -- he famously avoided Champ Bailey in a Denver playoff game a few years ago and still torched the Broncos -- but he'll still throw the ball 35 times without fear. I think Austin Collie and Dallas Clark will pick up the slack with 16 to 20 catches, moving the sticks enough to generate four scoring drives. But if Revis or Lito Sheppard or Jim Leonhard can bait Manning into a vital mistake -- ala Ed Reed -- it could make all the difference.
For me, what it comes down to is: I won't be shocked if the Jets win, but I can't imagine that Manning will lose.
Saints 31, Vikings 27. Yes, I saw the Vikings defense hit or sack Tony Romo 25 times in 42 pass-drops last week. (True. Romo went back to pass 42 times, was sacked six times, scrambled once and got buried, and got hit 18 times on his 35 attempts.)
And so, yes, I should automatically pick the Vikes, because we all recall what the Dallas pass-rush did to the New Orleans tackles in tormenting Drew Brees in a Cowboy win a month ago. I've gone around and around all week about this game because I believe it's a coin-flip game. But I'm going with the Saints, because I think Sean Payton knows how to coach against oppressive rushes.
I bet in the first quarter, if the Saints run 15 plays and nine or 10 are passes, those nine or 10 will be quick throws to Reggie Bush or Jeremy Shockey, or eight-yard comebacks to the wideouts. Payton knows he can't give Jared Allen and Ray Edwards time to get to Brees. And so he'll squeeze the massive playbook into manageable throws, extended handoffs for Brees. Instead of trying to go down the field in big chunks, Brees and Payton will try to move the chains methodically. That's their recipe for success.
But the Vikings are so hot right now. Sedrick Ellis has to have the kind of day he had against the Arizona running game (14 carries, 31 yards) after Tim Hightower opened with the 70-yard touchdown romp. And Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has to do the same thing to Brett Favre that he did to Kurt Warner.
Did you notice how Williams compressed the pocket so effectively last week? His philosophy was to not allow Warner the room to step up a yard or two in the pocket when he began to feel lateral pressure; the theory being that Warner is so slow he can't scramble out of trouble, and Williams was spot-on there. The difference is Favre is much better throwing on the run. He makes some of his greatest plays while improvising out of the pocket -- so much so that the Saints rushers will need to be equally concerned with not giving him an escape route on either side of the pocket.
It's almost impossible to predict this game. Both quarterbacks are so good, and so accurate downfield, that I could see either side winning by 14 or winning a squeaker. I really like both defensive coordinators, and either Williams or his counterpart Leslie Frazier -- who got Edwards mentally prepared to play the game of his life against Dallas -- could come up with the wrinkle to make a play to win the game in the fourth quarter.
This could be like a great golf tournament where it comes down to two great players being even after 70 holes and Mickelson dumping his tee shot on 17 into the trap, and Tiger hitting his into the short grass of the fairway. What could decide it? The noise of the dome? Edwards' balky knee? Robert Meachem's bum ankle, taking away any Saints deep threat? Any or all of the above. I would not go to Vegas with this pick.
NFL Truth & Rumors