Jets left tackle Jumbo Elliott remembers the last time he played in a conference championship game. It was nine seasons ago. He was a Giant. Bill Parcells was the coach. The team traveled to San Francisco to meet the favored 49ers. "They were going for a three-peat," Elliott said after the Jets beat the Jaguars on Sunday. "We beat them, but when we checked into our Super Bowl hotel, the gift shops in the lobby were full of 49ers stuff. No one had expected us to win."
The man who runs Parcells's defense is Bill Belichick, the same guy who set up the Giants' defense that held the 49ers' star-studded cast—Rice and Montana and Taylor and Craig; you know the names—to 240 yards in the 15-13 victory nine years ago. How will the Jets respond in the AFC Championship Game against a Broncos team that, stung by whispers that its season was sliding away, unloaded early and often on the Dolphins? First there's the Jets' 3-4 defense, a good run-stopping setup, with an emphasis on closing down Terrell Davis's cutbacks. Then there are the coverage matchups: Otis Smith will probably draw deep threat Rod Smith, and 5'8" Ray Mickens will cover 6'5" Ed McCaffrey. Sounds like a mismatch, but Mickens is a terrifically instinctive cornerback. The Jets' offense will attack aggressively, as it did against the Jaguars, from some wildly imaginative alignments. If New York can make Denver play from behind, well, anything could happen.
My feeling? Two years of experience at the highest level of competition will be the difference. Broncos in a squeaker.
In the NFC title game, I have a hunch that the Falcons' Chris Chandler will come out throwing. Then Atlanta will hammer with Jamal Anderson, mindful of the way the Bucs pounded the Vikings in Minnesota's only loss. But the Vikings have simply too much firepower in their arsenal. Minnesota will be facing a sturdier defensive line than it did against Arizona, but the war of attrition will go the Vikings' way.