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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 by Lloyd Vance

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-linemen 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 by Lloyd Vance


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 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 at 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 NFC Championship Game Preview by Lloyd Vance

Quarterback Drew Brees leads the home team Saints against the Vikings in the NFC Championship 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 Playoffs – Conference Championships Preview

January 25, 2010 2 comments

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)

NFL CBA-related Q & A by Lloyd Vance

 

 

NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith (pictured) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will soon be at the negotiating table to discuss the NFL’s soon to be expiring CBA

With the 2009 NFL Playoffs moving to the Conference Championship Round this weekend, everyone associated with the league including fans are starting to wonder about the impending Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) labor negotiations. 

NFL Free Agency is scheduled to start on March 5th, but before that the NFL and the NFLPA must see if they can work out an extension of the current deal CBA –  set to expire in March 2011.  If no CBA extension or new deal is worked out, there is the likely scenario of an uncapped year in 2010 and an owner imposed “lock-out” in 2011 (i.e. No Football that season). 

We will have to see if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his counterpart, NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith, can come to the table and sort this mess out by March 2010.  But from what the people I have talked to have said is that the world’s greatest sports league has a very high chance of having it’s first labor unrest since the very ugly 1987 Strike season.

In an attempt to bring NFL fans and everyone else up to speed regarding the multifaceted Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league this week released the following Q&A data:

Q. When does the CBA expire should there be no extension to the agreement?

A. In March of 2011.

Q. Will there be a college draft in 2011?

A. Yes.

Q. What is the “Final League Year” in the current agreement?

A. The “Final League Year” is the term used in the CBA to refer to the last year of the agreement. Without a further extension of the CBA, the “Final League Year” would be the 2010 League Year, which begins on March 5.

Q. What are the differences between the “Final League Year” and any other “League Year?”

A. The principal differences are that in the “Final League Year” there is no salary cap and there are substantial additional restrictions on player free agency and reductions in player benefits.

Q. Are current player benefits affected in the Final League Year?

A. We expect current player benefits to decline in the Final League Year. The union agreed that in the Final League Year, clubs would be relieved of their obligation to fund numerous benefit programs. Examples include second career savings (401K), player annuity, severance pay and performance-based pay. The total league-wide contributions to such plans in 2009, the last capped year, were in excess of $325 million or more than $10 million per club.

Q. Are retired player benefits affected in the Final League Year?

A. Commissioner Goodell has stated in a letter to the NFL Alumni Association Board of Directors that there will be no reduction in pension or disability payments to retired players during the Final League Year (2010). Since at least the fall of 2007, NFL owners have consistently agreed and planned that they will not reduce the funding for pension or disability benefits for retired players. Nor will they reduce funding for the 88 Plan during the Final League Year.

Q. What determines an unrestricted free agent in the Final League Year (2010)?

A. In capped seasons, a player whose contract has expired becomes an unrestricted free agent if he has four or more accrued seasons. In the Final League Year (2010), a player whose contract has expired becomes an unrestricted free agent only if he has six or more accrued seasons. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any club with no compensation owed to his old club.

Q. What determines whether a player is a restricted free agent in the “Final League Year?”

A. In capped seasons, a player whose contract expires becomes a restricted free agent if he has three accrued seasons. In the Final League Year (2010), a player whose contract expires becomes a restricted free agent if he has three, four or five accrued seasons. The first refusal/compensation rights of restricted free agents remain unchanged in the Final League Year.

Q. In addition to the right to designate a franchise (or transition) player each capped year, can clubs designate additional players in the Final League Year?

A. Yes, one additional player can be tagged. In capped years, a club may designate a franchise player or a transition player. In the final league year (2010), a club may designate one additional transition player. A transition player must be offered a minimum of the average of the top 10 salaries of the prior season at the player’s position or 120 percent of the player’s prior year’s salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no draft pick compensation from that club.

Q. What is the Final Eight Plan?

A. During the Final League Year, the eight clubs that make the Divisional Playoffs in the previous season have additional restrictions that limit their ability to sign unrestricted free agents from other clubs. In general, the four clubs participating in the championship games are limited in the number of free agents that they may sign; the limit is determined by the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs. They cannot sign any UFAs unless one of theirs is signed by another team.

For the four clubs that lost in the Divisional Playoffs, in addition to having the ability to sign free agents based on the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs, they may also sign players based on specific financial parameters. Those four only will be permitted to sign one unrestricted free agent for $5.5 million (estimated) or more in year one of the contract, plus the number of their UFAs who sign with another team. They also can sign any unrestricted free agents for less than $3.7 (estimated) million in year one of the contract with limitations on the per year increases.

In the case of all final eight teams, the first year salary of UFAs they sign to replace those lost cannot exceed the first year salary of the player lost with limitations on the per year increases.

Q. Is there an Entering Player Pool in the Final League Year?

A. There may be. The CBA provides that the league has the unilateral right to keep or eliminate the rookie pool in the Final League Year.

Q. Is there a Minimum Team Salary in the Final League Year?

A. There is no Minimum Team Salary in the Final League Year. The Minimum Team Salary in 2009 is $107,748,000, meaning each team is required to allocate more than $107 million to player costs (not including benefits). The team salary cap in 2009 was $123 million.

Q. Are there individual player minimum salaries in the Final League Year?

A. Yes, but they rise at a rate somewhat slower than player minimum salaries rise in capped years.

Q. Do any player contract rules from capped years remain in place for the Final League Year?

A. Yes, some rules like the “30% increase rule” are still in effect in the Final League Year for player contracts signed in capped years. That rule restricts salary increases from 2009 to 2010. For example: a player with a $500,000 salary in 2009 would be limited to annual salary increases of $150,000 ($500,000 x 30%) beginning in 2010.

 

 

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 – Divisional Round Preview by Lloyd Vance

New York Jets multi-purpose threat Brad Smith leads the J-E-T-S versus the host San Diego Chargers in one of this weekend’s four divisional round playoff games

The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Divisional Playoff Round starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.  Most fans and media live for the hype of the NFL Conference Championships and Super Bowl, but you can put my hearty vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar.  The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the four best teams from the NFL’s regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the playoff fracas to take on pumped-up wildcard weekend upstarts.  The wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture.  But if some frauds are leftover surely the divisional round will sniff them out.  The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in. 

The great thing about the NFL divisional playoff games is that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most.  “Everything that’s happened previously, you can throw out the window,” said Indianapolis head coach Jim 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.”  For a long time teams coming off byes seemed to have it made in the playoffs.  Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, which gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes,  the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are 57-19 (.750) in their first playoff game. However since 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are just 7-9 (.438).  A prime example was in the 2008 NFL playoffs, both No. 1 seeds (Tennessee Titans and New York Giants) and the number two seed Carolina Panthers came off byes and lost. Only the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won in the divisional round and then they went on to win the Super Bowl.  Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as teams advancing from the round have won the Super Bowl 6 times including three of the last four. 

I usually also 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 is the No. 2 seed in the AFC and they carry the fifth-longest win streak to enter the playoffs since 1970.  Other teams currently on a roll are the Dallas Cowboys (4), NY Jets (3), Baltimore Ravens (2), Arizona Cardinals (1) and Minnesota Vikings (1).  Conversely the New Orleans Saints (3) and Indianapolis Colts (2) are entering the postseason on losing streaks.  Speaking of this year’s No. 1’s, the Colts and Saints both came out the gates with unprecedented 13-0 records, but now none of that not matters.  The Saints (13-3) surely will have their hands full with the Arizona Cardinals, who are coming off an impressive 51-45 shootout win over the Green Bay Packers.  The Saints will have to show that they are back in playoff form after trying for perfection and stumbling home with three straight losses to end their season.  The Cardinals are one the NFL’s most exciting teams and quarterback Kurt Warner has been in and won many big playoff games over the years.  While the nation will have an eye on the Saints-Cardinals game, interest in the Colts match-up with the physically tough Baltimore Ravens will be high too.  Since the Colts are at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate. 

The Colts having locked up the AFC’s No. 1 seed way back in Week 15 and with 2 games remaining, decided to acquess a legitimate shot at matching the 2007 New England Patriots 16-0 regular season mark.  To the ire of Colts’ fans, the team’s management decided that “resting” players for the playoffs was more important than any regular season glory.  Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” GM Bill Polian and Irsay’s plan began in the second half of the Colts-Jets game in Week 16.  With the undefeated Colts (14-0 at the time) holding a faint 15-10 lead, Indy sent in backup QB Curtis Painter and host of second stringers.  The Jets fueled by Colts’ mistakes, responded in the game’s final 25 minutes to win 29-15. Of his team resting players in a home loss and the fans reaction, veteran Colts center Jeff Saturday said, “I don’t blame them a bit, man, I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.”

Think about it, the Colts (14-2) haven’t played a meaningful game since beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 17th and now they must turn the switch back on.  Their record says that they were the best team in the NFL during the regular season, but the hungry Ravens are waiting to pull an upset. The decision to throw away “perfection” so easily and not ride into the playoffs “hot” has firmly put a bull’s eye on the collective backs of rookie head coach Jim Caldwell, Polian, and Irsay.  And given the Colt’s poor history in gaining the bye this past decade, you would have thought team management would have wanted their guys hitting on all cylinders for the playoffs.  History is difficult to ignore if for no other reason than how poorly the Colts have fared in similar situations. The Colts record with Peyton Manning at quarterback after earning a postseason bye stands at 0-3.  While it is nice that the Colts have earned a playoff berth in 10 of the last 11 seasons, too often they have been one-and-done (six occasions), including the past two years losing to the upstart San Diego Chargers.  Right now the Ravens are looking a lot like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers who led by their strong defense stormed out of the Wild Card round and came to Indy to face a “rested” Colts team with a similar 14-2 record.  In the game, the Colts were out-physicalled by the hungrier AFC North tested Steelers and went down to defeat by a score of 21-18.  I know Colts fans are hoping for a different result this time, but all of the pressure is on Indianapolis.  If the Colts do go on to win the Super Bowl, sure all will probably be forgotten within their fan base, but nothing is guaranteed.  If my two cents matters, I thought the Colts should have tried to enter the playoffs on a good note.   BTW… In the AFC since 1990, the No. 1 seed has compiled an 11-8 (.579) record in the Divisional round.

Others storylines to follow in the divisional round include:

Cowboys know how to win in the playoffs – As if the Cowboys’ Week 15 win over the formerly undefeated Saints and their total domination over the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t enough, there is more evidence that Dallas is a dangerous team in the playoffs.   In fact, the Dallas Cowboys have won 33 postseason games, the most in NFL history.  With a victory against Minnesota in the Divisional Playoffs on Sunday, Dallas would advance to its 15th NFC Championship Game, surpassing the Pittsburgh Steelers (14) for the most appearances in a Conference Championship Game since 1970.

Jets head coach and 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 Saturday.  Sanchez can become the second rookie quarterback to win his first two playoff games (Joe Flacco in 2008) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

The Cardinals are flying high after their pinball machine win last week – In their huge 51-45 overtime win over the Packers, the Cardinals used an offensive display for the ages.  Arizona and Green Bay combined for an NFL postseason record 96 points and 13 touchdowns.  The game featured 1,024 yards of total offense, tied for the third-most in an NFL playoff game.  Yet, the decisive score came on a defensive touchdown when Arizona cornerback Michael Adams forced a fumble that was returned 17 yards by linebacker Karlos Dansby for the game-winning touchdown. 

Warner can still play at age 38 – Despite constant “retirement” questions, Cardinals veteran quarterback Kurt Warner is playing at a very high level.  Warner was nearly flawless as he completed 29 of 33 passes (87.9 percent) for 379 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Cards’ overtime win last week.  The former Super Bowl MVP also improved his postseason record to 9-3.  He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four), becoming just the sixth starting quarterback to accomplish that feat in a playoff game.  Warner outdueled Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who passed for a team postseason-record 422 yards and threw four touchdowns in his first career playoff start.  It marked just the second playoff game in the Super Bowl era in which both quarterbacks threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns.  With 253 passing yards against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, Warner will reach 4,000 passing yards in 13 career playoff games, making him the fastest player in NFL history to reach the milestone

The Ravens are tough on the road — This Saturday marks the 13th playoff game in Ravens’ history and the club’s ninth on the road.  Baltimore holds a 6-2 playoff record away from home, which stands as the top road winning percentage (.750) in NFL playoff history (minimum five games).  Baltimore looks to improve the mark against Indianapolis in the Divisional round. 

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 Cowboys, but also the game is an opportunity for him to extend his playoff numbers.  No. 4ranks second in NFL playoff history in completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes.  Favre needs 23 completions, 14 passing attempts, 462 passing yards and seven touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category.  But getting a win against the Cowboys may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer as he is 0-3 for his career against Dallas in the postseason.

We will have to see this weekend if the trend of No. 1 seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true.  Hard to believe 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).  But remember 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 Conference Championship round on long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.

Surprisingly all four home teams are favored this week by Vegas after a Wild Card round where home teams went 2-2.  Remember to watch for turnovers in all four games as nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house.

2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games

ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3) (Saturday, FOX, 4:30 PM ET

Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)

After the Cardinals shootout win over the Green Packers last week, everyone is expecting another high-scoring affair.  In a game that features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game.  The Cardinals are no longer just Warner and his awesome receivers (Fitzgerald, Boldin, Breaston, and Doucet), Arizona can also run the ball with rookie Chris “Beanie” Wells and Tim Hightower.  The main key for me will be the Saints ability to rattle Warner as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harrassed.  New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R.  On offense the Saints need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score over 500 points this season (510).  Though the Saints struggled down the stretch, Brees and rest of the Saints want to prove that they can win in the postseason – only 2-6 postseason record in franchise history. The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardis Gras type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans.

LV’s Pick:  Though not the pinball machine game from last week, there will be plenty of scoring dowin in the Bayou.  Look for Brees and WR Robert Meachem to hook-up for a big play or two — Saints 27, Cardinals 23

BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-2) (Saturday, CBS, 8:15 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after coming off a bye.  The Ravens are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging second-year running back Ray Rice and attacking defense led by veteran linebacker Ray Lewis.  If the Colts are to succeed and shutup a very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne.  Even as good as Manning and Wayne are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Ravens from pinning their ears back on every play.  Running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against big defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg.  On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney and the rest of their D-line as Ravens QB Joe Flacco is essentially a caretaker right now – only 10 passing attempts last week.  However Freeney and the rest of the Colts defense will need to shutdown Rice and a rejuvenated Willis McGahee as the Ravens want to pound the rock on the way to an “ugly” win.  There is no love lost between these two teams as the Colts will forever be known as the team that left the Charm City for the “greener” pastures of Indy.  These two teams will be meeting in the postseason for 2nd time and the last time in January of 2007, the Colts beat Ravens 15-6 in Divisional Round.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Colts by virtue of “resting” in their last two games will lose.  But I just believe that the Colts will find a way to knock Flacco around and that will make all the difference in the world – Colts 20, Ravens 14

DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-4) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)      

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

This is the game that a large portion of the country really wants to see.  TheCowboys are probably the hottest team in the NFC right now and have found a swagger that has not been seen in Dallas since 1996.  Dallas got their playoff monkey off their backs with a dominating 34-14 win over the Eagles and now they are looking to knock off the second-seeded Vikings.  Minnesota since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season has pointed to playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference and now is the time for him to pay dividends.  Favre and the Vikings were the darlings of the NFL earlier in the regular season, but after stumbling a little down the stretch, some are saying they are ripe for the picking.  If the Vikings and their head coach Brad Childress are smart, they will try to get RB Adrian Peterson going – hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 7 games.  Surely the Cowboys highly ranked defense led by pass rushers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware will look to rattle Favre before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Berrian, Rice, and Harvin).  For Dallas offensively the plan is simple, run the ball behind their huge offensive line to help quarterback Tony Romo.  The Cowboys three-headed monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice will have to find holes against the Vikings D-line led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams).  Romo will also be looking for emerging WR Miles Austin.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively but you are not sure about their quarterbacks.  Favre has been known to throw interceptions in playoff games and Romo just finally has proven that he can win in the playoffs.  However in this kind of match-up I always like to look at the defenses.  The Vikings of late of struggled without MLB EJ Henderson while the Cowboys are playing a dominating brand of “D”.  Look for the Cowboys to return to New Orleans for a huge rematch with the Saints – Cowboys 31, Vikings 24

NEW YORK JETS (10-7) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:40 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

Jets QB Mark Sanchez returns to the West Coast in search of another playoff win.  But this time the NFL’s hottest team, the San Diego Chargers, await.  The absolute key to this game will be the Chargers ability to take away the Jets’s NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them.  Remember the rookie quarterback is in his comfort zone when he is throwing the ball 20 times or less.  However look for Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to dial-up pressure from his linebackers and secondary to force some turnovers.  Another intriguing match-up will be the Jets’ NFL leading defense’s ability to shutdown a Chargers offense that has Pro Bowl players everywhere.  San Diego triggerman Philip Rivers has an embarrassment of weapons at his disposal (RB LaDanian Tomlinson, RB Darren Sproles, and gang of giant pass catchers including TE Antonio Gates).  The Chargers can beat you with the run or the pass and it is going to be a difficult challenge for Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan to design a scheme that can shutdown such an explosive offense.

LV’s Pick:   Of all the games this weekend, I am the most sure of this one.  The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs.  No matter how great the Jets’ defense led by Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis can be, I just believe the Chargers have too many weapons — Chargers 38, Jets 10

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)