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)