Conference Championship Games
As many of you know, I am essentially bound by this working theory (re: resting the starters in Week 17 and Super Bowl success) to pick the Vikings and the Jets this Sunday. There might not be a more difficult challenge to this theory than these games.
One thing that is nearly impossible to find out in this whole thing is how many teams made the Super Bowl by playing their starters for a half in that final game. You can look at stats and figure out whether they played or not and whether they made many plays, but you can't tell what the overall situation was. It might actually be wrong to say the Colts rested their starters enough to qualify for this phenomenon, because many of the guys were in that final game trying to achieve individual records (Manning went 14-18 for 95 yards in that final game against the Bills). There have been teams that played their starters for a half or less and went to the Super Bowl, but not many.
In the past, with bye weeks, the Colts played their starters very briefly before pulling them, then usually lost in the playoffs. This year, they played a little bit more than usual.
This upcoming game with the Jets is loaded with all sorts of tidbits. We start with the fact that the Colts paved the way for the Jets to make the playoffs in Week 16 by pulling the starters in the third quarter, leading to a 29-15 loss. The prevailing sentiment about that game, as close as it was, is that Manning had solved the Jets' blitz and was ready to just go on a rampage against their defense. I again call the "there is no way to look at an alternate universe" rule for this. We just don't know what would have happened. It's as if most analysts don't believe in teams making adjustments, as if the Jets would have simply played the exact same game that they were playing and would have been helpless against Manning. We just don't know.
Some people could say, "Well the Jets will feel disrespected that the Colts laid down for them and they don't deserve to be here," and the Jets will therefore get "mad" and show the Colts but good. I certainly don't believe in that. It's just as easy to say the Colts allowed a team in the playoffs that very well took care of a long-time nemesis (the Chargers) for them and now they'll have a much easier road to the Super Bowl because of it.
If the Jets are going to win, they have to stay away from penalties. The Colts, already a relentless offensive team that nickels and dimes teams to death with lots of "We've got 'em 3rd and 4 boys!" only to see the Colts complete an easy slant route right at the 1st down marker, don't need any help. They played a lot of close games that if their opponents had just cut down on mistakes, had a good chance to turn the game. Even last week's Ravens game, where the Colts won handily 20-3, was one play from being interesting, and that play was Ed Reed's interception that turned into a fumble recovery for the Colts. You ever see a guy holding the ball, thinking there's no way he's keeping it if he gets hit? I thought that way not only about Reed but later, Ray Rice. You sit there and go, "Oh no...this guy's losing the ball," and then to no surprise, he does. Hate to say something cliche, but the Jets have to stay away from turnovers, too.
The Jets will be playing an even worse run defense than the Chargers this weekend, which favors them greatly. The emergence of Shonn Greene cannot be underplayed. The Jets are also a better defense than the Ravens. The Jets have to stop the Colts from getting those easy passes, limit touchdowns, run the ball, not get penalized or turn the ball over to win this game. It's a tall task. The other thing they'll need to do: not allow Peyton Manning to have the ball with two minutes left in either half. The Colts will try to score in those minutes and have a great success rate. Think again how different that Ravens game would have been if they hadn't given the Colts such an easy 7 points at the end of the 1st half by dropping passes and not running the clock down in that last possession. The Ravens cut out about three easy-to-fix mistakes and that game is going down to the wire.
I think the Jets will cut out those mistakes and will win this game Sunday. If not, it'll be one of those 34-14 games.
As for the Vikings and Saints, I think we're still not entirely certain what team we're getting with the Saints this weekend. The Saints got a favorable Divisional matchup against an Arizona defense that couldn't stop anything (gave up 90 points in two playoff games, which is a record), lost Kurt Warner and most of the starting secondary. Meanwhile, the Vikings beat a team that by all measures was playing the best heading into the playoffs and looked primed for a Super Bowl run. They just killed them.
I think the Vikings play much better than the Cardinals, which is not a stretch by any means, will score more points, and will make this a closer game. If it's in any way close, I like my chances with Favre should the Vikings need to score in the closing minutes. This matchup is so good on paper. Too bad it'll probably end up being 47-28 by the time it's over.
So there's my reasoning. Looking forward to it.