Super Bowl XLIV Review: The Cinderella Saints win their first championship by Lloyd Vance

The 2009 NFL Season culminated with the formerly hard luck New Orleans hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLIV

From beginning to end the NFL’s 90th season titled “Own the Moment” seemed destined to have a climatic ending and Super Bowl XLIV followed that same pattern.  Somewhere pigs have got to be flying as the New Orleans Saints (16-3), formerly known as the “Aints”, put a big bow on the 2009 NFL Season with a remarkable 31-17 win over the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts (16-3) to bring home New Orleans’ first Super Bowl title..

In the “Year of the Quarterback”, Saints quarterback Drew Brees (32-39, 288 yards, 2  TDs, 0 Ints, and a 114.5 passer rating) willed his team to football’s ultimate prize by being cool and calm in the pocket.  Brees tied a Super Bowl record with 32 completions, the last a 2-yard slant to TE Jeremy Shockey for the winning points with 5:42 remaining. New Orleans became the just the second team to overcome a 10-point deficit to win the Super Bowl and in true storybook fashion, Brees was named the MVP of the game. 

Yes, the glass slipper fit Cinderella’s foot as Saints’ fans, who once wore paper bags over their heads in the early ‘90s, congregated in the French Quarter to celebrate.  The win brought overwhelming pride to a region that is still pulling itself together from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  But before the final brush strokes are finished on the 2009 NFL Season and New Orleans miraculous tale is told over and over again, Super Bowl XLIV must be rehashed.

In the most watched television show ever — 105.97 million viewers (most since the MASH finale in 1983 — young head coach Sean Payton’s team reached the mountain top by displaying “guts”.  After a slow first quarter in which the Colts powered by quarterback Peyton Manning (31-45, 333 yards, 1 TD, and one costly interception) appeared ready to run away with the game including a 96-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter tied the 1985 Bears (Super Bowl XX) for the longest in Super Bowl history. 

However the Saints showed gumption late in the second half and never looked back.  The Saints could have folded after failing to score deep in Colts territory on a 4th and goal play.  But Payton and Brees put their disappoint aside by leading the Saints on a long half ending drive that ended with Garrett Hartley’s 44-yard field goal.

Hartley’s field goal left the score at halftime at 10-6 in favor of the Colts and everyone anticipated that once “The Who” finished their halftime set, that Manning and the Colts would close the door on the Cinderella Saints.  But a play that will forever live in Super Bowl lore changed the course of this game.  With the Colts offense that quickly piled up 10 points in a dominant 1st quarter ready to get back on the field, Payton thumbed his nose at conventional wisdom. 

Payton gambled with an onside kick to open the second half. After Colts backup receiver Hank Baskett bobbled the ball and the biggest scrum to end all scrums, the Saints changed destiny by recovering the onside kick.  With that one play, momentum forever swung in the Saints favor.  Just six plays later, Saints RB Pierre Thomas slammed into the endzone to give the Saints a 13-10 lead.

During the span from the end of the 2nd quarter to Thomas’ score, the Saints held the ball for 26 straight plays and kept the Colts’ high-powered offense off the field for over 70 minutes including halftime.  During this timeframe, the Colts offense got cold and their defense became tired.  The biggest loss was that the miraculous return of feared Colts DE Dwight Freeney from a much-reported about ankle injury was basically over after halftime.  But the Colts, who have won an NFL record 12 games for 7 consecutive seasons, did not gently go into the night as Manning still had some fight left in him.

The 4-time NFL MVP responded by leading his team on a 10-play, 76 yard drive that ended with Colts RB Joseph Addai scoring on a tough 4-yard run as the Colts looked be back in control 17-13.  But the Colts’ fortunes after Addai’s score were all downhill from there.  First, NFC Championship game hero Hartley connected on his Super Bowl record 3rd field goal of 40 yards of more from a distance of 47 yards to cut the score to 17-16. 

Then the Colts thought that their ancient kicker Matt Stover could equal the youngster, but the 42-year old veteran wasn’t even close as he missed a 51-yard field goal attempt.  With Brees finding his rhythm, the Saints took advantage of the short field that Colts head  coach Jim Caldwell had handed them.  New Orleans marched 59 yards to regain a 23-17 lead on Shockey’s catch in traffic.

But Payton, who was hot all night, had one last gamble in his pocket.  The former Bill Parcels disciple seized the day by going for a two-point conversion to give the Saints a 7-point lead.  Another play, that many would point to later as one of the biggest plays of the game, Brees found receiver Lance Moore near the front corner of the endzone.  Initially, the play was ruled incomplete, but upon review it emerged that Moore had possession of the ball and extended it over the goal-line before a Colts’ player knocked it out of his hands.

But before the Gulf Region could celebrate their improbable victory, Manning wasn’t not finished with the team he grew-up rooting for.  Manning mixing the pass and the run led the Colts to New Orleans’ 31-yard line and it looked like overtime was soon in the offing.  But destiny as shown by some earlier successful plays was on the Saints side this night. 

New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracey Porter, who had picked off Vikings QB Brett Favre to end the NFC Championship Game, perfectly timed and read a Manning pass intended from receiver Reggie Wayne.  The former University of Indiana star stepped in front of Manning’s pass and raced 74 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 remaining in the game that basically ended 43 years of frustration for the formerly downtrodden Saints.  Not even a desperation drive by Manning in the game’s closing minutes that ended on a 4th down stop in the endzone could spoil the Saints party as Super Bowl Champions.

It was a storybook ending that no one saw coming when the 2009 NFL Season started.  But the New Orleans Saints –only 10 winning seasons since 1967 – could finally call themselves a Super Bowl champion by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.  “There’s a lot of grit, a lot of determination in this team,” Payton said. “We fought so hard, and this is what makes us uniquely different.”

In true unbelievable fashion, the Saints, who lost their final three regular-season games, are the first team to take a three-game losing streak into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Enjoy your championship “Who Dat” nation, your classy organization deserves it as your team was rewarded for 43 years of fighting to establish themselves from a one-time expansion team. 

Definitely congratulations are in order to the entire Saints’ organization including  their players, coaches, front office, and staff.  Special kudos must also go to the architects of this team, head coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson.  Your team did the NFL proud by winning with persistence, grit, determination and a little magic.

“You don’t take it for granted, these moments,” Payton said. “You want to slow it down and for our players, everyone else, our coaches, you just want to put it on rewind a little bit. It’s special, obviously.” 

Lloyd’s Leftovers

  • I thought the pre-game performances by Queen Latifah (sang America the Beautiful) and Carrie Underwood (national anthem) were solid.  The only disappoint may have been that Underwood had trouble with the last note.
  • Everyone always wants to know the commercials that I liked and didn’t like. I just found it amazing that in our tough economy, about 28 advertisers paid over $3 million per 30-second spot. My number one has to be the “Doritos: Put it Back” ad (I like that a kid is willing to protect his Mom and his snacks) followed closely by the Snickers “Betty White” spot. Some stinkers I thought were the Super Bowl shuffle commercial reprise with the ancient 1985 Chicago Bears and the unneeded Tim Tebow and his Mom political spot.
  • The 14 minutes of 1960’s icons “The Who” at halftime was more than enough and can they please get some next year that is not ready for social security – my vote is for the Foo Fighters. If anything, I would have rather watched more of Bill Cowher’s  informative interview with jailed former New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress.

Now that Super Bowl XLIV is over, I can take a quick break.  Like most people, my NFL season ends with the Super Bowl.  But the NFL Combine (later in February into March) and the NFL Draft (in April, with the St. Louis Rams currently on the clock) will be he before we know it.

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).

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Super Bowl XLIV Preview: Colts-Saints

Head Coach Sean Payton leads the underdog New Orleans Saints against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV

The 2009 NFL season themed, “Own the Moment”, will climax  with Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida as the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints take center stage in the biggest game in sports. The catchy Don King-esque box office selling theme for Super Bowl XLIV should be “History Book vs. Storybook”. 

The Colts have been one of the NFL’s cornerstone teams since their Batimore heyday with NFL legend quarterback Johnny Unitas in the late 1950’s.  In fact Unitas, who led the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship Game – some call it the Greatest Game Ever – definitely has passed his  winnning ways along to current Colts’ certain Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who already has led his team to a Super Bowl win back in 2006.  While the Colts have usually been a winning franchise — second Super Bowl in four years and their fourth trip in franchise history — the Saints have always been the NFL’s version of the heartbreak kids – only a 4-6 postseason record in an over 40-year franchise history.  Many years since their inception in 1967 have ended in disappointment for the folks in the Bayou – only ten winning seasons in franchise history. 

There was the brown paper bag wearing years back in the early 1980’s and Peyton’s father, Archie, also took a beating as the Saints starting quarterback during their struggling years (1971-1982).  But the Saints have perservered and now the city known for Mardi Gras is ready to put the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina behind it by the Saints bringing home a Super Bowl title in their team’s first trip to the Big Dance. “There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the ‘Who Dat’ nation,” said Brees.  “Just the bond that we have with them is special.  They give us strength.  They give us motivation.  We want to do it for them.” However former Saint Archie Manning will still root on his son’s Colts.  The former Ole Miss legend and Saints first overall pick in 1971 said of the upcoming Super Bowl match-up, “I’m pulling for the Colts 100 percent, it’s not even close”

“Super Bowl Sunday” is America’s unofficial holiday filled with fellowship, trash talk, and of course eating.  Everywhere you turn, people are talking about the Colts and Saints locking horns this Sunday.  Even my 80-year old plus grandmother, who usually is not in front of the television on Sunday’s watching NFL gridiron action, will be attending a Super Bowl party.  She and almost 200 hundred million other folks will be watching this Sunday as the upstart Saints led by former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush take on the Colts and the NFL’s best pitchman, Peyton Manning.  It will be interesting to see if Super Bowl XLIV ends the ‘09 season with a bang or a blowout, which seems to have happened way too much in Super Bowl history.  One of the bigger storylines is that Manning will also be facing the team he grew-up rooting for, the Saints.

No matter how the Super Bowl ends, the 2009 NFL Season will be remembered for explosive offenses and will most likely be themed “The Year of the Quarterback”.   This season, 10 quarterbacks each passed for at least 4,000 yards, which is the most in a single season in NFL history – Texans’ Matt Schaub (4,770), Colts’ Peyton Manning (4,500), Cowboys’ Tony Romo (4,483), Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (4,434), Patriots’ Tom Brady (4,398), Saints’ Drew Brees (4,388), Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (4,328), Chargers’ Philip Rivers (4,254), Vikings’ Brett Favre (4,202) and NY Giants’ Eli Manning (4,021).  The previous record was seven in 2007.  Also twelve quarterbacks passed for at least 25 touchdowns this year, which is the most in a single season in NFL history – Brees (34), Favre (33), P. Manning (33), Rodgers (30), Schaub (29), Brady (28), Rivers (28), Bears’ Jay Culter (27), E. Manning (27), Roethlisberger (26), Romo (26) and Cardinals’ Kurt Warner (26). The previous record was 10 in 2007. 

Not surprisingly two of the quarterbacks who are both great leaders and can really fling-it, Manning and the Saints‘Drew Brees, will meet in Super Bowl XLIV.  Colts head coach Caldwell said of his on the field leader, “Peyton had just an outstanding game. He’s one of those guys that can adjust to different situations. … A real champion.”  Both teams, who seemed to be on a collision course earlier this season — combined 27-0 starts — showed their mettle by turning back extraordinary efforts by the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings in their respective Championship Games to earn tickets to the NFL’s biggest stage.  For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed predestined as both of these teams remained undefeated teams through 14 weeks – first time two 13-0 teams in NFL history –  and an 18-0 undefeated showdown seemed very possible.  Of course any talk of the “Perfection” Bowl ended with the Saints losing to the Cowboys in Week 15 and the Colts choosing to “rest” their players in a Week 16 loss to the NY Jets. “Everything that’s happened previously, you can throw out the window,” said Caldwell.  The outstanding rookie head coach added, “Those records don’t matter.  All that matters is what happens from here on, and we know that we’re facing a solid team.” 

Though the match-up will be sans the undefeated part, many people’s intrigue around the Colts-Saints big game should be maximized by the NFL’s first No. 1 Seed battle since 1993 (Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).  Of course, the two aforementioned marquee quarterbacks taking the field for America’s Game, doesn’t hurt either.  This season, Manning became the NFL’s only 4-time MVP while Brees threw more regular season touchdowns (34) than anyone else in the league.  Offensive fireworks are sure to fly in Super Bowl XLIV as both teams can put up points while their defenses are not known to be the stoutest — Colts ranked 18th in defense and the Saints finished 25th

All the hype around the Super Bowl will be at a fever pitch once Carrie Underwood belts out the national anthem.  The pressure for some players can be suffocating.  But the key for both teams will be focusing on their precious opportunity to win a Super Bowl and forgetting everything else that has transpired in the past 20 weeks leading up to the big game.  As for on the field, don’t forget about our usual playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” all factorin in on who wins this Sunday.

Before we move-on to our preview, in a very odd side note, my crystal ball for the 2008 season said the Colts over the Saints in the Super Bowl.  Of course I am a year late and my picks for this year, the Steelers and NYGiants,  are nowhere to be found.  But no matter, who cares who predicted this match-up all the way back during training camp in July as Super Bowl XLIV should provide some fireworks.

To everyone, I want to wish you a  Happy Super Bowl Sunday !!!

Lloyd’s Leftovers for Super Bowl XLIV

Not much Trash Talking at this Super Bowl – With the mutual respect between the Colts and Saints there has not been the obligatory player trash talking. Remember in Super Bowl XL how then Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens made some comments about Steelers that got the dander up of then Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.  This time both teams were complimentary and guarded during media day interviews. 

NFL Television numbers support that the league is more popular than ever – Expect a huge contingent of NFL fans and fringe viewers to be watching  this Sunday. There is no doubt,  that the 2009 NFL season kept fans glued to their televisions.  Across America, fans  tuned into NFL games in the largest numbers in two decades.  According to Nielsen Media Research, the average 2009 regular-season game was watched by 16.6 million viewers – up 2 million viewers per game from last year and the NFL’s highest viewership average since 1990 (16.7 million).

Caldwell trying to make history – If Caldwell wins, he will become the 3rd rookie head coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl win.  He also would become the third African American head coach to lead his team to victory in football’s biggest game – would join Tony Dungy (Super Bowl XLI) and Mike Tomlin (Super Bowl XLIII).

Watch for everyone’s favorite Super Bowl Ads – Every year one of the bigger events of the Super Bowl is watching the ads.  It was feared with the economy going south that not many companies would be buying time.  I heard CBS will be charging  $3 million or more for a 30-second commercial.

Game Notes and Prediction

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (15-3) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (16-2) (Sunday February 7th, CBS, 6:25 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

The AFC #1 seeded Indianapolis Colts and the NFC #1 seeded New Orleans Saints will square off in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.  The road for these two teams was similar (both started the regular season 13-0), but also different.  The Colts won the AFC Championship by dominating the scrappy New York Jets in a 30-17 win.  While the Saints won the NFC Championship in an overtime thriller 31-28 over the Minnesota Vikings when little known kicker Garrett Hartley connected on a 40-yard game-winning field goal. 

The AFC Champion Colts even though they have made it to their second Super Bowl in four years still have something to prove to themselves and their fanbase.  Don’t forget that the Colts still want to prove that they were right in “resting” key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to be prepared for the playoffs.  Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players at the end of the regular season, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” The AFC’s No. 1 seed chose to not chase the perfect 1972 Dolphins (NFL’s only undefeated Super Bowl winner) in order to chase a Super Bowl victory.

If the Colts are to succeed and shutup their very disgruntled fan base, Manning (regular season stats: 393-571, 4500 yards – 2nd in NFL, 33 TDs (first in AFC), 16 INTs, and a 99.9 QB rating) will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to his multitude of weapons including Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and emerging youngesters Pierre Garcon – the pride of Haiti had 11 catches for 151 yards and 1 TD  in the AFC Championship Game — and Austin Collie.  Even as good as Manning and his offensive passing weapons are, the Colts must find a running game with RB’s Joseph Addai and Donald Brown to keep the Saints from pinning their ears back on every play.  New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R, but expect veteran safety Darren Sharper (9 INTs) to spearhead New Orleans’ defensive effort.  

I am sure Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ will have something up his sleeve to rattle Manning (+ 11 in turnover ratio, placing them 3rd in the NFL) and the Colts high flying offense.  But they better be careful as the 4-time MVP is known to dissect a blitz-happy team, just ask the New York Jets (five different targets throughout the AFC Championship).

On defense, the Colts may have to rely on D-lineman Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock to apply pressure as Pro Bowl DE Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks) is very iffy with a much-reported about ankle injury.  The Saints are very explosive and scored over 500 points this season (510), so they want to make the Colts’ defense chase them.  The Saints also ranked No. 1 in the NFL with an average of 403.8 yards per game.

Brees (17 of 31 for 197 yards and three TDs in NFC Championship Game win) will have many weapons at his disposal (WR Marques Colston, RB Mike Bell, TE Jeremy Shockey, and others), but you know Saints head coach Sean Payton wants the ball in jitterbug running back Reggie Bush’s hands.  The former Heisman winner has really picked it up this postseason and look for Colts playmaking linebacker Gary Bracket and safety Antoine Bethea (4 INTs in 2009) to keep an eye on him at all times.  Look for Payton to slowdown Mathis and Freeney by using his three-headed backfield monster of Bell, Bush, and Pierre Thomas.

LV’s Pick: Now that all of the hype and talk around Super Bowl XLIV is almost finished, our attentions can turn to Sun Life Stadium in South Florida.  The Colts have been installed as a 6-point favorite, but I truly believe that the youthful Saints will make this a game.  In this battle of marquee quarterbacks, I still believe that the team that runs the ball more effectively and causes turnovers will win.  The Saints have really picked it up since losing their last three games of the regular season, but they have also been a little sloppy.  Expect the veteran laden Colts to play smart and opportunistically, especially Manning.  The Colts win their second championship this decade and Manning will add to his already Hall of Fame resume — Colts 27, Saints 20 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

The AFC wins the Pro Bowl 41-34 over the NFC, but Does Anyone Care

Not even a new venue and great performances from players like Cleveland Browns WR/KR Joshua Cribbs could make the 2010 Pro Bowl more noteworthy

Though it was a change in venue and playing date, the NFL’s annual Pro Bowl proved once again to being  just another ”blip” on most sports fans’ radars.  The AFC won 41-34 over the NFC in a game that featured defensive players basically taking the game off — the AFC totaled 517 yards and the NFC 470 with both teams throwing for more than 400 yards. 

Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub after throwing for 189 yards and two touchdowns was named the most valuable player of the 2010 Pro Bowl.  The game’s longest play was a 58-yard touchdown pass from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (15-of-18, 197 yards, 2 TDs) to Philadelphia Eagles WR DeSean Jackson (2TDs in the game and showed his explosiveness) at the start of the 3rd quarter.

Some good news was that the stadium hosting the game was full for a change with a crowd of 70,697 showing up — the largest for a Pro Bowl since 1959 in Los Angeles.  But most emailers, texters, and callers that I talked to, had no intention of watching the game.  I think the new location (Miami, Florida) and play date (week before the Super Bowl) might have helped the in-stadium attendance, but overall it took away what little panache that the Pro Bowl possessed. 

At least when the game was in Honolulu, there was the built excuse that people after watching the Super Bowl forgot to tune into the NFL players’ annual vacation in paradise.  Now with the game being a “speed bump” before the Super Bowl, interest amongst the masses was lost even further by everyone getting ready for the week long media blitz before the Super Bowl. 

To make matters worse, players also seemed to be less interested in the honor of playing in the Pro Bowl by staying away in droves — nearly 40 percent of the players originally selected for the game didn’t play. Many of the players seemed to come up with more excuses than ever this year as they were not as thrilled for the game.  And who could blame them as most had already been to South Beach to party and a good majority were disappointed to not have the chance of going to paradise for the game/vacation. 

The “carrot” of playing in Hawaii – had hosted every Pro Bowl since 1980 — and getting away from everything after a long season always made players, league personnel, and coaches usually show-up for the game.  Did I also mention that the NFL in their infinite wisdom said that defenses could not blitz or run zones and offenses could not run the Wildcat formation – no wonder the Pro Bowl is the least anticipated game on the NFL calendar.

Unfortunately this year, the biggest buzz around the game was Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie being sent home – already lived in Miami – for missing Pro Bowl practices — missed four of the NFC’s five practices — due to “Partying”, which he basically gloated about via his Twitter account.  McKinnie said he withdrew because of “injuries”.  But his early morning tweeting didn’t help his case.  “If U coming 2 (Mansion Miami nightclub) 2nite U better hurry! Getting packed!”.  

NFL spokesman Greg Aeillo has said the NFL is reviewing why Minnesota Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie failed to show up for multiple practices in advance of tonight’s Pro Bowl game, which prompted the league to remove him from the NFC roster.  It will be interesting to see if the Vikings pay McKinnie the $5 million dollars tied to incentives in his contract for making the Pro Bowl.

In the end, the AFC players won $45,000 dollars which will help for their room service and bar bills, while the NFC team got $22,500 compensation.  “It’s different. It was like 7 on 7,” Washington Redskins rookie Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “Everybody came out here trying not to get hurt and give the fans a good show”. 

The AFC still leads the all-time series 21-19.  The game will return to Honolulu in 2011 and 2012, but the league hasn’t decided whether to hold those games before or after the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl site for 2013 and beyond hasn’t been determined.

You have to feel bad for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as there really is no way to “spice-up” the Pro Bowl on the mainland or in Hawaii.  Because most players don’t want to get hurt and some quite frankly don’t care about the game, money or not.  Unfortunately football can never be played half-speed — especially defensively — and still be enjoyable to most astute fans.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Championship Round Review

Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the “Who Dat” Nation were all smiles as New Orleans made their first Super Bowl by beating the Vikings in OT.  The upstart Saints will play the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV

We now know that the 90th NFL Season will culminate at Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida with the Indianapolis Colts (16-2) against the New Orleans Saints (15-3).  Both teams, who seemed to be on a collision course earlier this season, showed their mettle by turning back extraordinary efforts by the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings to earn their respective tickets to the NFL’s biggest stage. 

For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed predestined as both of these teams remained undefeated teams through 14 weeks – first time two 13-0 teams in NFL history —  and an 18-0 undefeated showdown seemed very possible.  Of course any talk of the “Perfection” Bowl ended with the Saints losing to the Cowboys in Week 15 and the Colts choosing to “rest” their players in a Week 16 loss to the NY Jets. 

Though the match-up will be sans the undefeated part, many people’s intrigue around the Colts-Saints big game should be increased as two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks will be taking center stage.  This season, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning became the NFL’s only 4-time MVP while Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw more regular season touchdowns (34) than anyone else in the league.  Offensive fireworks are sure to fly in Super Bowl XLIV as both teams can put up points while their defenses are not known to be the stoutest — Colts ranked 18th in defense and the Saints finished 25th

Before we move onto the inordinate amount of hype that is sure to follow in the 2-week build up to the Super Bowl, let’s review the two Championship Games from this past Sunday that has brought us the NFL’s first No. 1 Seed battle since 1993 (Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII). In a very odd side note, my crystal ball for the 2008 season said the Colts over the Saints in the Super Bowl.  Of course I am a year late and my picks for this year, the Steelers and NYGiants,  are nowhere to be found.

2009 AFC Championship Game Review

In the end, surefire Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and rookie head coach Jim Caldwell held the Lamar Hunt trophy, signifying the AFC Championship, aloft  after a dominating 30-17 win over the scrappy New York Jets.  After enduring much talk during the week of their inability to out-tough the physical New York Jets, the Colts showed their gumption by scoring 24 unanswered points after trailing by a deficit of 17-6 late in the 2nd quarter.

This time around Manning and the Colts’ regulars played the entire game and there was no “rest” until the job was complete.  The Colts showed the heart of a champion as they had to endure the brash young New York Jets, who turned their swagger into some early points. 

The Jets continually throughout the 2009 regular season got early leads on teams and then allowed their vaunted defense to close the door.  But this time was different as Manning and the rest of his mates knew a 60-minute effort would be needed to make their 2nd Super Bowl in the last four years possible.

“We talked about being patient against these guys,” Manning said. “We knew it would be a four-quarter game.”  The road warrior Jets answered early Colts’ field goals by putting up two quick touchdowns and definitely seemed to be following in the footsteps of the old J-E-T-S of Joe Namath who beat the Colts in Super Bowl III. 

Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, the fourth rookie quarterback to lead his team to the conference title game, brought Jets’ nation to their feet with an 80-yard touchdown pass to  Braylon Edwards giving New York a 7-3 lead.

Then Jets Wildcat QB/receiver Brad Smith, a former dual threat passer at Missouri, connected with receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 45-yard pass to the Colts 12.   Just three plays later, Sanchez hit TE Dustin Keller with a 9-yard touchdown pass to give the Jets a 14-6 lead and cause many Colts fans to recall playoff disappoints of the past.  The doom and gloom only got worse for Indy when running back Joseph Addai’s fumble set up Jay Feely’s 48-yard field goal to make the score 17-6 with halftime looming.

Alright queue the NFL Films music…Knowing that going into halftime down to the Jets, who sported the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense coming into the game, was recipe for defeat, the Colts offense answered the bell.  Manning led the Colts on an 80-yard scoring drive in only four plays.  The 4-time MVP found one his new favorite young targets, rookie Austin Collie, three straight times with the drive culminating with a 16-yard touchdown pass to the former BYU player with little over a minute left in the first half.  By leading the Colts to a more manageable 17-13 deficit, Manning and Caldwell (fifth rookie coach to reach the Super Bowl) grabbed back the momentum for the second half. 

After stopping the Jets to start the second half, Manning and Colts took the lead for good when the veteran quarterback hit the Player of the Game, receiver Pierre Garcon (11 catches for 151 yards and 1 TD), in the end zone to make the score 20-17 with 8:03 left in the third quarter.  The Colts never looked back and there were a variety of players that made their Super Bowl trip a reality.  Manning finished with unbelievable numbers of 26/39, 377 YDS, and 3 TDs while becoming first player to pass for three touchdowns against the Jets this season.  The veteran quarterback made the Jets pay for their blitz-happy ways as he moved the ball around to five different targets throughout the game. 

The Colts had to find other options than No. 1 receiver Reggie Wayne and they did.  With the Jets focusing their entire scheme on getting pressure on Manning and having Pro Bowl sticky corner Darrelle Revis shadow Wayne. Manning’s other targets Garcon, Collie, and TE Dallas picked up the slack with each catching a touchdown pass in the win. Collie and Garcon, both had career highs in yardage, combined for 18 receptions for 274 yards and two touchdowns while repeatedly coming up with big receptions in the clutch.  With the Colts’ O-line keeping the Jets at bay, Manning — first player in league history with seven 300-yard postseason games — got the ball out his hands quickly and dropped passes into “shoeboxes” despite tight coverage in the win.  Caldwell said of his on the field leader, “Peyton had just an outstanding game. He’s one of those guys that can adjust to different situations. … A real champion.”

Credit for the win must also be given to the Colts often maligned defense, who shutout the Jets in the second half.   The Colts knew shutting down the Jets’ vaunted rushing attack was key and they did.  After averaging 170 rushing yards in their first two playoff games, the Jets’ top-ranked ground game was held to just 86 yards on 29 attempts – knocked rookie runner Shonn Greene out of the game with a rib injury.  And allowed the Colts to win the time of possession battle 31:25 to 28:35.  To his credit Sanchez (17 of 30 for 257 yards with two TDs and 4th quarter interception) did play some good football and produced some plays, but the Colts veterans on defense played with pride and forced one turnover.

The Colts are now headed back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years and their fourth time in franchise history. To make things even more magical, the Colts will be playing at the same venue where they won Super Bowl XLI to close out the 2006 season.  Manning will also be facing the team he grew-up rooting for, the New Orleans Saints, who won 31-28 in overtime against the Minnesota Vikings in NFC Championship.  Peyton’s father, Archie Manning, who played many years for New Orleans said of the upcoming Super Bowl match-up, “I’m pulling for the Colts 100 percent, it’s not even close”

“We’ve been here before, we had seven comeback wins this year. I think the guys were a little rattled at first, I think we took their best shot, but we came back,” linebacker Gary Brackett said. “I think we did a great job of being the hunters and imposing our will today.”  The Colts their resiliency after the win, but they need to remember that is still one more game to go.  I know their fans will remind them as they will accept nothing less than a Super Bowl title to put “Rest-Gate” truly to rest.

2009 NFC Championship Game Review

Some will call this overtime thriller, where little known kicker Garrett Hartley connected on a 40-yard game-winning field goal to send the New Orleans Saints to their first  Super Bowl, an Instant Classic.  But I am not so sure as the Saints’ hard fought 31-28 overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings was thrilling  however it was very sloppy too. 

The great ending overshadowed a tough game that featured 9 fumbles (4 lost) and 2 interceptions between both teams including five turnovers by the Vikings.  Of course the “prettiness” of the win didn’t matter to the Saint’s faithful who packed the Superdome – franchise’s largest of 71,276 – then afterwards flooded Bourbon Street for a celebration that New Orleans had not seen in years. 

The biggest play of the game of course was Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre’s risky cross-field pass that was intercepted by Saints DB Tracy Porter near the end of the regulation (19 seconds left in the game). The Saints defense had harassed and battered Favre the whole game and the aging quarterback wanted to make a play so bad that he made a huge mistake that setup overtime.   “I’ve felt better,” said Favre after the game. “It was a physical game. A lot of hits. You win that and you sure feel a lot better.”  Favre’s final pass as a member of the Packers, Jets and Vikings are all interceptions.  I wonder when old No. 4 is going to start his retire/unretire talk this offseason.

The seesaw game also showed the good and bad of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who ran “violently” for 122 yards and three touchdowns, but also lost two fumbles.  Overall, the Vikings piled up 475 yards and 28 points but were undone by five turnovers and penalties.  Conversely, Saints quarterback Drew Brees (17 of 31 for 197 yards and three TDs) was cool and calm in the pocket as he led one of the NFL’s most downtrodden franchises to their first Super Bowl.   Brees showed the savvy and leadership that caused New Orleans to embrace him before the 2006 season.

In overtime, New Orleans won the coin toss and Brees quickly guided the Saints to the Minnesota 22 mixing both the pass and run.  Before Hartley’s field goal, the biggest play of the drive was RB Pierre Thomas converting a fourth-and-1 with a goal-line type leap.  After Hartley’s game-winner, the Superdome that once serve as a refuge for many after Hurricane Katrina was now alive as the “Who Dat” Nation” celebrated their unlikely hero.  New Orleans is the first team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after entering the playoffs with a losing streak of three or more games. The Saints’ record at home improved to 14-4 since 2008, including the playoffs.

Now former paper bag-wearing Saints fans could finally put their No. 1 fingers in the air as they had made it to the NFL’s ultimate game.  “It’s a moment I’ve been waiting for a long time and obviously we’re not done yet,” said Brees.  The Saints (15-3) will meet Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts (16-2) in the Super Bowl in two weeks in South Florida.

 The Super Bowl match-up will be a highly anticipated offensive match-up, but Brees and the upstart Saints will have to finish the job against the veteran-laden Colts.  Immediately following Sunday’s game, Indianapolis was installed as 4-point favorites and already the line is moving higher.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

  • With the NFC Championship Game ending in overtime on the Saints’ first drive after winning the coin toss of the extra session, there is sure to be much discussion around the league of giving both teams a chance to score in overtime.  However recent history has shown that no one around the league is really “crying” over the current rules other than some fans and media.  Back at the 2009 NFL League Meetings, the Competition Committee listened to the evils of sudden death overtime and they decided to not vote on any proposals to change the existing overtime rules. Despite the fact that back when the discussion occurred after the 2008 season that 63 percent of overtime games were won by the coin toss winning team.  Most players that I have talked to, do not mind the current overtime format and want to fight it out in sudden death – just have your defense stop the other team.  And I must admit that I am also in agreement with the Competition Committee.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Playoffs – NFC Championship Game

Quarterback Drew Brees leads the home team Saints against the Vikings in the NFC Chammpionship Game

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-4) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET) 

Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

This features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Vikings QB Brett Favre squaring off in a highly anticipated offensive pinball type game.  This meeting marks the 5th time in NFL history top-2 scoring teams in NFL meet in Conference Championship Game.  Minnesota since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season has pointed to playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference and against the Dallas Cowboys last week, he paid dividends by producing a 34-3 dominating win.

Though the quarterbacks are the marquee players, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game.  The Vikings are more than just Favre (363-531, 4202 yards, 33 TDs – 2nd in the NFL, 7 INTs, and a rating of 107.2 – second in the NFL) as the 40-year old passer has many offensive weapons at his disposal including Rookie of the Year explosive receiver Percy Harvin, Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and TE Visante Schiancoe. But don’t forget the key part of the Vikings offense is their formerly ground-churning running attack led by Pro Bowl RB Adrian Peterson – hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 8 games — and a huge offensive line built around Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. 

The main key for me will be the Saints (+ 11 in turnover ratio, placing them 3rd in the NFL) ability to rattle Favre as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harassed – threw over 20 INTs last year for the NY Jets.  New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R, but expect veteran safety and former Packers Favre teammate Darren Sharper (9 INTs) to spearhead New Orleans’ defensive effort.   Gregg Williams’ Saints defense will also have the 70,000 plus Super Dome noisy crowd behind them to rattle Favre and the Vikings high flying offense. “There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the ‘Who Dat’ nation,” said Brees.  “Just the bond that we have with them is special.  They give us strength.  They give us motivation.  We want to do it for them.”

On offense the Saints, ranked No. 1 in the NFL with an average of 403.8 yards per game, need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score over 500 points this season (510).  Though the Saints struggled down the stretch (lost last 3 regular season games), Brees and rest of the team proved last week against the Cowboys (dominated in a 45-14 win) that these are the new-look Saints in the postseason – now have an all-time 3-6 postseason record. The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardis Gras type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans. 

The Saints offense has many weapons (WR Marques Colston, RB Mike Bell, TE Jeremy Shockey, and others), but last week they re-discovered explosive jitterbug running back Reggie Bush.  The former Heisman winner got the home crowd on their feet as he produced 217 total yards and became just the second player in NFL postseason history to score a touchdown on a rush and punt return in the same game.  “He’s a guy who can change the game,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton.  Surely the Vikings’ veteran defense led by Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield and All-World pass rusher Jared Allen (14.5 sacks to lead the NFC) will look to rattle Brees before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Colston, Bush, Robert Meachem and others).  And Saints head coach Sean Payton will probably look to help Brees by using their three-headed backfield monster of Bell, Bush, and Pierre Thomas against the Vikings D-line led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams). 

These two teams are meeting in the postseason for the 3rd time with the Vikings currently holding a 2-0 advantage.  In the overall regular season series, the Vikings lead that too by a count of 18-7.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively.  But the two “X” factors of running the football and getting to the quarterback will be prevalent.  I still believe the Vikings’ defense, led by Allen, can get to Brees as the Saints O-line has been a little leaky since losing LT Jamal Brown.  Expect a motivated Peterson to show-up and for Favre to be relaxed in his 5th NFC Championship Game (current record of 2-2).  The Saints home crowd should make it tough on the Vikings, but I believe Minnesota is more ready to go to the Super Bowl –Vikings 31, Saints 27

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Conference Championship Round Preview

Everything will be on the line “Championship Sunday” as the Colts (TE Dallas Clark pictured) take on the Jets in the AFC Championship and the Vikings square off with the Saints in the NFC Championship

The Conference Championships of the 90th NFL Season, titled “Own the Moment”, are upon us and for the final four teams (Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, and Minnesota Vikings) it is time to show their mettle, in order to achieve their goal of playing in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida. 

For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed destined to be the NFL’s two undefeated teams through 14 weeks, the Colts and Saints, meeting in an 18-0 undefeated showdown.  Though the match-up could still materialize, sans the undefeated part, there is no denying that the 2009 NFL Season has truly been a wild rollercoaster type affair.  Not even the best prognosticators could have predicted two undefeated 13-0 teams through 14 weeks (first time ever), two rookie head coaches squaring off in the AFC Championship Game, the NY Jets going from last season’s Brett Favre led collapse to making the Conference Championship round, Favre unretiring and looking like the Vikings’ last piece for Super Bowl glory, and many other storylines that flipped the script on NFL history. 

Unfortunately last week’s divisional round was very ho-hum as the higher seeded Colts, Saints, and Vikings all won by double-digits.  Only the Jets-Chargers game produced a competitive battle, where rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez — only the 4th rookie quarterback to start in the Conference Championship since 1970 – led the J-E-T-S to the next round.  But there is no denying that this year’s NFL Final Four has produced two marquee games that feature some great storylines. 

These extraordinary teams have a combined regular/postseason winning percentage of 78% — combined record is 53-15. And did I mention this Sunday’s action on the field will feature the NFL’s career leader in quarterback wins and touchdown passes (Brett Favre), the NFL’s only 4-time MVP (Peyton Manning), the NFL’s number one rushing attack and defense (NY Jets) plus the NFL’s regular season passing touchdowns leader (Drew Brees – 34 TDs).

In Sunday’s early game, the Indianapolis Colts (15-2) will attempt to wipe away the nasty taste of their first defeat of the season, a 29-15 loss to the NY Jets in Week 15, and justify their “resting” players philosophy by winning a rematch this weekend in Indy.  You know irrate Colts’ fans, who have been ballistic since the team used back-ups in the Week 15 loss to the NY Jets, want revenge on Rex Ryan’s brash young upstart team. 

This game also has some of the same subplots of the historic Super Bowl III game between these two teams  — a heavy underdog Jets team, a young borderline-cocky NY Jets quarterback, a fiery Jets’ defense led by a Ryan, a good Jets’ running game and defense going against the an established team with a great record over a decade with a future Hall of Famer (Johnny Unitas) on their roster.  The Jets’ 16-7 win in Super Bowl III over 40 years ago put the AFL on the map and a win by the 2009 version of the J-E-T-S in the AFC Championship Game would be huge, but sorry…not historic. 

As good as the anticipation for the Colts-Jets “Rest-Gate” rematch game has been, the majority of NFL fans that I have talked to — via Twitter, email, and radio – all are looking more forward to the NFC Championship Game featuring the No. 1 seeded Saints against the No. 2 seeded Vikings.  After Week 12 of the 2009 NFL season, this match-up seemed a no-brainer, but both teams led by a pinball machine offense and an opportunistic defense had their moments where doubt crept into the conversation.  However both teams last week put up huge points on offense and their pass rushes were fierce in dominant wins over the Cardinals and Cowboys respectively.  So everyone is anticipating  a shootout in  the Super Dome between Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Brett Favre as the NFC Championship is on the line.

With three of the NFL’s best teams playing on Sunday, there is a distinct feeling that the cream of the NFL has risen to the top.  There is even a chance of the NFL’s two number one seeded teams can meet in the Super Bowl for first time since the 1993 season (Dallas and Buffalo).  Of course with the majority of the top teams still being in the playoff hunt, some NFL fans are asking, “Has parity finally left the NFL?”  I am not sure, but while some people like teams like the 2008 Arizona Cardinals going from a poor 9-7 regular season to the Super Bowl, it is wasn’t for me.  Though it has been nice to see Wildcard Round winners taking home three of the last four Super Bowl titles.  As someone who grew-up watching  perennial Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers, Dolphins, Niners, Cowboys, and Raiders serving as the bully for the rest of the NFL, I like watching the best teams fight it out.  Nothing against the upstart NY Jets, who are trying to match the 2007 NY Giants as a Cinderella team made good.  But I have always believed having the top teams in the Conference Championship round leads to more competitive games.

Whatever happens in this Sunday’s games, this round of the playoffs is truly special as the NFL’s junior prizes — conference championship trophies (George Halas Trophy for the NFC and Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC) — and a trip to the Super Bowl are all on the line.  However players on all four teams better focus on first winning this Sunday before looking ahead to confetti laced on-field celebrations and planning trips to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.  All the prepartion that the players and coaches have been through from OTA’s to training camp to the long grueling 17-week regular season, and two playoff rounds all hangs in the balance.  As Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre recently said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “This is what I came back for”. 

Some Lloyd’s Leftovers for the Conference Championship Round:

NFL Television numbers support that the league is more popular than ever — There is no doubt that all of the excitement from the 2009 NFL season kept fans glued to their televisions and Football fans across America tuned into NFL games in the largest numbers in two decades.  According to Nielsen Media Research, the average 2009 regular-season game was watched by 16.6 million viewers – up 2 million viewers per game from last year and the NFL’s highest viewership average since 1990 (16.7 million), before the explosion of viewer choice on television and online.

Jets quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground — New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan and his rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez can reach two milestones when they play Indianapolis Colts on Sundday.  Sanchez can become the first rookie quarterback to lead his teawm to the Super Bowl  — already tied with Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who won two playoff games on the way to the AFC Championship game  in 2008.) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

Ryan and Caldwell make history – When the Jets and Colts meet in the AFC Championship, their respective head coaches (Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell) will become the first two rookie head coaches to oppose each other in the game.  In a great non-story, Caldwell if his team wins will be the 3rd African American head coach to lead his team into football’s biggest game – will join Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, who opposed each other in Super Bowl XLI.  After the Jets’ divisional round win over the Chargers, Ryan became the sixth rookie head coach in the Super Bowl era to win at least two playoff games.  But this is a much bigger prize and with the win, the winning coach will become the fifth rookie head coach to lead his team into the Super Bowl.  . 

Favre to add to his legacy – Certain Hall of Famer and Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre will not only be looking for a win against the Saints on Sunday.  But the NFC Championship Game  is an opportunity for him to extend his historic playoff numbers.  No. 4 ranks first in NFL playoff history in completions, and attempts.  But he is still second in passing yards and touchdown passes.  Favre needs 224 yards and three touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category.  But getting a win against the Saints may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer, who 2-2 for his career in the NFC Championship Game including throwing a bad interception to end the 2007 rendition against the NY Giants.

With both No.1 seeds (Saints and Colts)  in action, we will see this Sunday if the trend of the top seeds in each conference  seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true.  Hard to believe it has been sixteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).  But remember, since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all. 

Not surprisingly both home teams (Saints and Colts) are favored this week by Vegas –- Saints are a 3.5-point favorite while the Colts are a suprising 9-point  favorite over the underdog Jets. Everyone including yours truly will be pontificating on what will happen, but luckily the games will be played on the field and anything can happen — Any Given Sunday…right??  “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen” said New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan this week.

My predictions are to follow and one game I have strong feelings about while the other is a lot tougher to pick.  But as is the case with most games, I still believe time-tested playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense causing turnovers, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to”  will be the key determinants in all of the team’s fortunes this Sunday.

2009 NFL Playoffs Championship Round Games

NEW YORK JETS (11-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (15-2) (Sunday, CBS, 3:00 PM ET)      

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-4) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET) 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round Preview

The 2009 NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round is here and it is time for teams and players (Arizona Cardinals’ WR Steve Breaston pictured) to make their mark or go home

At times the 2009 NFL Season seemed to have already written its playoff script with the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, both undefeated for the majority of the season, headed for a collision course at Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.  But as fate usually does in the National Football League, the Colts and Saints plus other early season favorite, the Minnesota Vikings, have shown towards the end of the regular season that nothing is pre-determined in the world’s best sports league.

I am not saying that none of the top four seeds (Colts, Saints, Vikings, and San Diego Chargers) may not go full throttle through the playoffs and win it all, but I am expecting that this year’s playoffs will be another wide-open affair.  As Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said, “It’s an exciting time right now, it’s the NFL playoffs!”  There are now 12 teams scratching to survive on the long road to the Super Bowl and there are obstacles everywhere in the toughest single-elimination tournament around. 

“We’re all 0-0 now”, said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.  It doesn’t matter how any of the teams got into the playoffs, all that matters is that the remaining teams are in the mix for the biggest prize in pro football.  It has been one wacky NFL season with many exciting storylines and I am sure the excitement will continue in the 2009 “Own the Moment” NFL post-season. 

 Every team has a chance as ten of the twelve teams in the postseason have double-digit wins and for the 14th consecutive season, five or more teams qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year — six new playoff teams are the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and Cincinnati Bengals.  Anything is possible and hope rightfully abounds in all twelve playoff cities. If the 2009 NFL Regular Season has taught us anything, it showed that “On Any Given Sunday” any team can step-up their level of play to beat any other team in the parity-filled NFL (Remember the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers knocking off the playoff bound Green Bay Packers way back in Week 9). Besides attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference is no guarantee of Super Bowl entry as surprisingly it has been fifteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).

The theme of the 2009 NFL Wild Card Playoff round should be the same as one of my favorite ’70s films, “Let’s Do It Again”.  The film starred African American film icons Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitiere making a killing by prearranging boxing matches with all the marbles riding on a big payday rematch.  The word “rematch” fits perfectly when talking about this year’s Wild Card round as all four games will be rematches with 3 out of 4 being immediate rematches from the regular season’s Week 17.  Since 1990, when the current playoff format was adopted, there have been nine instances when two teams have played in the final week of the regular season and again the next week to start the postseason. The losing team in Week 17 has won five of the nine playoff games. 

Of course having played and beaten a team in the regular season may cause some “familiarity” and a psychological edge in game planning along with dissecting tendencies. But playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the key factors as to which teams move on to the Divisional round on long treacherous road to the Super Bowl.

Other storylines for Wildcard Weekend include: 

  • Third Times a Charm?? – The Dallas Cowboys will host the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night after sweeping them in the regular season.  Since 1970, 19 teams have gone 2-0 against an opponent in the regular season and then faced that club in the playoffs.  The sweeping team has won the postseason meeting 12 times (63.2 percent).  Most recently, Pittsburgh beat Baltimore for a third time in last year’s AFC Championship Game.  The last time a team swept an opponent and then lost to them in the playoffs was 2007, when the New York Giants defeated the Cowboys in the Divisional round after Dallas had defeated them twice in the regular season.
  • Future Hall of Famer is back in the playoffs –New England quarterback Tom Brady will line up under center for the 18th time in the playoffs when the Patriots face the Ravens on Sunday.  With 46 passing yards, Brady will reach 4,000 in the postseason, a feat accomplished by only five quarterbacks in history.   Brady also led to the Patriots to a perfect 8-0 record in Foxborough this season and has never lost a home playoff game (8-0).  With a win against the Ravens, Brady can become the first quarterback to win his first nine postseason home games in the Super Bowl era.  The Patriots have won 11 consecutive postseason games since 1997.
  • Rex Ryan’s J-E-T-S are tough on both sides of the ball —  The New York Jets led the NFL with 172.3 rushing yards per game on offense and allowed an NFL-low 252.3 yards per game on defense.  The Jets became the eighth team since 1970 to lead the NFL in both rushing offense and total defense.  Ryan is trying to become 10th rookie head coach since 1990 to win his playoff debut.
  • The Cardinals are back — Last season, the Arizona Cardinals advanced to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.  The Cardinals, who have won back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1974-75, are just the 10th Super Bowl runner-up since 1990 to qualify for the playoffs the following year.
  • Undefeated at Home – The New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings both finished the 2009 regular season undefeated at home.  Since 2000, only 15 teams have posted a perfect regular-season record at home.  Of the previous 13 teams, five have gone to the Super Bowl (38.5 percent).
  • Belichick trying to climb the postseason wins board — New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has compiled a 15-4 (.789) record in his postseason career.  Belichick ranks fifth all-time with 15 playoff victories, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, and Chuck Noll.

My advice to everyone watching this weekend’s wildcard action is to pay very close attention to the winners as teams advancing from the Wild Card round have won the Super Bowl 6 times including three of the last four.  A prime example of going from the Wild Card to great heights were the 2007 New York Giants, who went from the NFC’s fifth seed to winning the Super Bowl.  The G-Men won three road games and then triumphed in Arizona over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.  Three years ago, the AFC third-seeded Indianapolis accomplished the feat.  And four years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first sixth seed to win a Super Bowl.

I usually like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites and no team is hotter than the San Diego Chargers.  The Chargers enter the postseason with 11 consecutive victories, the NFL’s longest current win streak.  San Diego has clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC and is tied for the fifth-longest win streak to enter the playoffs since 1970.  Other teams entering the 2009 NFL playoffs on a roll are the Dallas Cowboys (3), NY Jets (2), Green Bay Packers (1), Baltimore Ravens (1),and Minnesota Vikings (1).  Conversely six teams enter the postseason carrying a losing streak led by the suddenly reeling New Orleans Saints (3) – other losing streak teams are the Indianapolis Colts (2), Arizona Cardinals (1), Philadelphia Eagles (1), New England Patriots (1), and Cincinnati Bengals (1).

2009 NFL SEASON – WILD CARD WEEKEND

Saturday, January 9 

AFC:    4:30 PM  New York Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati (10-6) (NBC)
   
NFC:    8:00 PM  Philadelphia (11-5) at Dallas (11-5) (NBC)

Sunday, January 10

AFC:    1:00 PM Baltimore (9-7) at New England (10-6) (CBS)
   
NFC:    4:40 PM Green Bay (11-5) at Arizona (10-6) (FOX)

 

Wild Card Game Previews and Picks to follow

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)