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NFL Conference Title Games
by Bryan Leonard - 01/17/2007
It certainly was a wild football weekend, with two games decided by late field goals, one OT game and the top two AFC seeds losing. The Patriots stunning comeback at San Diego was a field day for second-guessers. Certainly the interception and fumble by the Chargers Marlon McCree was the most talked about San Diego miscue, but so many other things took place that were significant.
WR Brandon Marshall had a near-TD pass in the second half but one foot just touched out of the end zone. The Chargers had numerous dropped passes, three fumbles, an interception, and allowed a New England TD pass with 8 seconds left in the first half. All were pivotal at allowing New England to stay close and rally late.
Handicappers need to approach analyzing games in a similar fashion: Don't look at one play as deciding a game, but more likely many factors linked together will better explain the outcome. The Chargers proved how talented they are, with 123 rushing yards by LaDainian Tomlinson, allowing just 51 Patriots rushing yards, and picking off three Tom Brady passes. Think retaining QB Drew Brees might have made a difference? We'll never know.
In the NFC, the Bears were expected to be one of the top teams in the NFC, while the Saints are this year's Cinderella story. The Saints offense is No. 1 in the NFL (391 yards pg) and New Orleans is 6-2 SU, 7-1 ATS on the road. They are also 6-3 SU/7-2 ATS as a dog!
The Bears defense will get a test against this potent offense. Saints QB Drew Brees completed passes for 35, 29, 28, 23, 21 and 19 yards to six receivers in beating the Eagles this weekend. The Chicago defense suffered injuries late in the season and struggled down the stretch, allowing 27, 31, 21, 26 and 24 points the last five games. This does not appear to be the dominant unit that roared through the first eight games of the season. One question to consider: If Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander can run for 108 yards and an average of 4.2, what might Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister do?
In the AFC, old rivals New England and Indy battle. The Patriots held the Colts to 14 and 3 points during the 2003 and 2004 playoffs, but those games were at frigid New England. This time Peyton Manning gets home field, where the Colts haven't lost since the Steelers topped them 21-18 in the playoffs over a year ago.
The Patriots abandoned the running game Sunday against San Diego, passing 51 times. However, look for them to get back to their preferred balanced offense this weekend, using RBs Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon. And don't expect the quarterbacks to be as bad as they have been: Brady threw 3 interceptions Sunday, while Manning has one TD and 5 picks thus far in the playoffs!
It's interesting that after losing 21-0 at Miami, Bill Belichick cut WR Doug Gabriel, Brady called out his teammates to start listening to the coaching staff more, and the offensive line shaved all the beards and refused to talk to the media for several weeks while they focused on improving. The Pats are 5-0 SU/ATS since, winning three times as a dog.
The Colts are 2-0 SU/ATS the last two seasons against the Patriots, scoring 40 and 27 points. The Colts are also 9-0 SU, 6-3 ATS at home this season, though the Patriots are 8-1 SU/ATS on the road! It's power against power, not to mention two veteran QBs, and the winner of this game will be the Super Bowl favorite.