Look for Grossman to attack the Saints' defense with a short passing game
So, the Colts and the Patriots are back in the AFC Championship Game. But even though they arrive there as the #3 and #4 seed, respectively, is anyone really surprised? The Brady-Manning battle continues. On the other side of the ledger, the Saints go marching into Chicago to try and keep their dream season alive, but the Windy City is high on their Bears and home field will be a significant factor in this one.
Here's a little deeper look into this week's games.
New Orleans (10-6) at Chicago (13-3):
Rex Grossman said in last week's postgame press conference that he didn't care how his team got to the NFC Championship Game, as long as they got there. But it is clear that these two teams are coming together from very different paths.
The Saints are on a magic carpet ride, overcoming last season's post-Katrina debacle with rookie head man Sean Payton earning NFL Coach of the Year honors, a cast-off QB in Drew Brees at the helm, and a couple rookie sensations in RB Reggie Bush and WR Marques Colston leading the best offense in the NFC. The Saints won the second playoff game in their history by beating the Eagles and are in the championship game for the first time. Things can't get much better.
The Saints will give the ball to Brees and allow him to use his many weapons in the passing game to set up the run. The strength of the Bears defense right now is their pass rush and the ability of Brian Urlacher and the LB's to play in coverage, but Brees reads coverages well and does a very good job of picking up the blitz, which allows him to get the ball out of his hand quickly and avoid pressure; the reason he is the least sacked QB in the NFL. With the linebackers back on their heels, Brees will hand the ball to RB Deuce McAllister who will use his size and power running style to pound the Bears between the tackles, where the loss of DT Tommie Harris has been most apparent.
For the Bears, a promising start to the season has been marred by inconsistent QB play and injuries to a once dominant defense down the stretch, making it feel like the host team is hanging on for dear life. They were fortunate to get by a game Seattle team, but will have to play better on both sides of the ball to hang with the high scoring Saints and make their way to the Super Bowl.
Grossman played better last week, but he can still be unsteady and is more than capable of losing this game all by himself. Look for the Bears to lessen his responsibilities by establishing the run early with RB's Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones. The duo did a very good job of providing balance to the Chicago attack in the win over Seattle, using Benson as the power runner between the tackles and wearing down the interior defenders, and using Jones as a runner off the edge and a receiver on screens and swing passes in space. When Grossman does throw it will be off three-step drops, making short passes to WR Muhsin Muhammad on the quick slant, and to TE Desmond Clark on the seam pass.
The Bears are giving up an average of 25 points per game over their last five contests, and here comes the best offense in the NFC. Their injuries on defense have left them to susceptible to big plays in the secondary and unable to hold up against a power running attack. The Saints are running on all cylinders offensively and will score too many points for the Bears offense, which is still limited by the play of Rex Grossman.
New England (12-4) at Indianapolis (12-4):
It would be hard to characterize the play of these two teams in the postseason as dominating, inspiring, or even, well, good. However, both teams have made enough big plays to find their way to the AFC Championship Game, which is all that matters.
The Patriots have leaned heavily on All-World QB Tom Brady, who now owns a 12-1 career record in the postseason. Though he threw three INT last week, he made the big plays down the stretch and helped his team steal a game they probably shouldn't have won. New England will need a better performance from their leader next week, and will have to turn to Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney to power the run game. The defense will have to do a better job against the run as well, and will have to find a way to get pressure on Peyton Manning so as not to expose their shortcomings in the secondary.
Unlike their game plan against the Chargers, the Patriots will want to come out running in this game against the Colts undersized front. While Indy has improved against the run the last two weeks, the Patriots cannot ask QB Tom Brady to put the ball up 50 times again this week. New England will strike a balance between Corey Dillon's power running style and Laurence Maroney's speed in addition to the ball control passing attack that has carried the Patriots for most of the season. But Brady has shown in the postseason that he has the arm strength and the willingness to stretch the field with his perimeter receivers, particularly WR Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney who has back-to-back 100-yard games in the postseason.
For Indy, the concern has to be Manning's five INT in the last two weeks. He will have to make sure he does a better job with pressure in his face. New England will shut down the run and come after Manning. If he doesn't start showing the regular season version of Peyton soon, the Colts and head coach Tony Dungy may come up short of the Super Bowl once again.
The Colts will have a tough time running the ball against the Patriots front seven, particularly on the interior, so look for Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes to run the stretch play and get the New England defense moving laterally. The more often they can get the Patriots aging LB corps running in space, the better chance they have of making plays in the running game. Against Bill Belichick and the Pats, Manning will have to pay particular attention to the defense's fire zone blitz schemes. He did a good job of locating the blitzers in their win over New England earlier this year, but he can expect to see completely new schemes for this game. The LB's are solid in coverage and CB Asante Samuel led the NFL in big plays (pass break ups, INT's, and sacks) in the regular season.
If the Colts can go on the road and defeat the Ravens without a touchdown, they will have a better than fair chance to win this game at home against a tired Patriots team that is coming off two cross country trips and a physical game against San Diego that has left some of their key players banged up. Manning has overcome the Belichick factor the last two years, will protect the ball and finally lead the Colts to the Super Bowl.