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Conference Championship Games

   by Al McMordie - 01/20/2008

So what do we have left in the NFL playoffs? First let’s look at what we DON’T have, several big-name head coaches are already out: Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, and Joe Gibbs. First-year San Diego head coach Norv Turner is still going, along with second-year Green Bay coach 44-year-old Mike McCarthy.

The Packers are the most surprising story of this 2007 season. You might not realize this, with 37-year old Brett Favre at QB, but the Packers are the youngest team in the NFL. This passing attack is devastating, No. 2 in the league, because of Favre’s experience and a great group of young wideouts in WRs James Jones, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. They were down 14-0 at home Saturday to the Seahawks, before going on a 42-6 run in a blowout win (and cover). Their defense is young, but has been outstanding, especially a hard hitting secondary with veteran Charles Woodson and Atari Bigby, who should have his own video game. The Packers are 18-3 SU, 16-4-1 ATS their last 21 games.

The second thing that stands out is the QB spot. No one left has poor or inexperienced QB play. This is still a league dominated by the QB position. If you don’t believe me, just remember last year’s Super Bowl when the Bears had no chance to win because of the horrible play of Rex Grossman.

Green Bay has become a more balanced offense since the middle of the season because of RB Ryan Grant. John Marshall, the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, played eight in the box much of the game Saturday, but the Packers ran anyway. Grant finished with a Packers playoff record of 201 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry and three touchdowns. It will be interesting to see if the NY Giants key on Grant, which would allow some single coverage for Favre and his great wideouts.

Another point is rest. The teams that had the bye week rolled on Saturday by double digits. Even in the locker room, some of the players admitted it. The Packers hadn't played in 13 days, and even in the finale, they were able to withhold six healthy starters. On the other hand, Seattle had a hard battle a week earlier before eliminating Washington. Players in the Green Bay locker room said they felt energized by the long break. Last season, the Seahawks had to go the same wild-card route and, in the divisional round, lost at Chicago in overtime, 27-24. "Of course they were fresher, and it's a big advantage," Seattle fullback Leonard Weaver said Saturday. "We had the same advantage in '05."

The Jaguars had played at Pittsburgh in the opening round, then had to travel again to the frozen north to play the Patriots, who were rested. A 14-14 halftime tie turned into a one-sided game as the Pats won the second half 17-6.

The coaching battle for the AFC championship game on paper is a complete mismatch: Norv Turner against Bill Belichick. The teams met back in Week 2 at New England, when the Pats destroyed the Chargers, 38-14. The Pats had the edge in yards 407-201. The No. 3 seeded Chargers can only hope they are a different team since then, and they are on a 12-2 SU/ATS run. Sunday’s surprising 28-24 win at Indianapolis was even more so when you realize QB Philip Rivers (knee) and star RB LaDainian Tomlinson (thigh) left the game. And TE Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) was not 100%. They won with backups QB Billy Volek and RB Michael Turner! That’s doing things the hard way.

Of concern for San Diego fans is that their defense gave up 446 yards to the Colts, including 406 passing. Now they face Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the No. 1 offense. On the one hand, over the past eight games, no team in the league has allowed fewer points than San Diego and only the Jaguars have scored more than the Chargers. On the other hand, the Chargers are 5-4 SU/ATS on the road (and 7-1 over the total away from home). The Patriots are 12-5 over the total and 21-1 SU/14-8 ATS their last 22 games.

The Giants have played three straight playoff-like games, two on the road, and are alive for the NFC title game, playing at Green Bay. The Giants went all out to try and beat New England in the finale in a playoff-type atmosphere, then won as road dogs at Tampa Bay and Dallas. It will be a rematch as the Giants lost 35-13 at home to the Packers in Week 2. But they are on a remarkable 8-0 SU/7-1 ATS run on the road. They pulled off a 21-17 upset at Dallas on Sunday, but it was more of a game the Cowboys lost than the Giants won. Dallas had the edge in yards 336-230, including 154 rushing yards and an edge in time of possession 36:30-23:30. The Cowboys looked panicked late in the game, blowing timeouts and committing 11 penalties for 84 yards. It was not an impressive performance by Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, in his first year with the team. Another first-year coach, Norv Turner, hopes to avoid the same fate this weekend. And another trend continues: The top two seeded teams in the playoffs haven’t met in the Super Bowl since 1993.

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