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NFL's Final Four

   by Larry Ness - 01/22/2010

The NFL conducted a season-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the AFL during the 2009 season, as most know. Using simple math, one didn't have to attend Ohio University to realize that since the AFL began in 1960 and the first year of the merger was the 1970 season, that this weekend's AFC and NFC championship games are celebrating their 40th anniversary. Both home teams have won and advanced to the Super Bowl 15 times, there have 22 years in which one visiting and one home team won and advanced and just two times, both visiting teams have won and advanced to the Super Bowl.

Those two instances occurred in 1992 (Buffalo won 29-10 at Miami while Dallas won 30-20 at San Francisco) and in 1997 (Denver won 24-21 at Pittsburgh while Green Bay won 23-10 at San Francisco). >From 1981 through 1984, home teams were dominant on championship weekend, winning all eight games. However, from 1998 through 2005 (an eight-year span), one home team and won visiting team each season. Both home teams won in 2006 (the Colts 38-34 over the Pats plus the bears 39-14 over the Saints), it was a split in 2007 (Pats won at home over the Chargers with the Giants winning at the Packers) and then last year both home teams won again (Steelers over the Ravens and the Cardinals over the Eagles).

Both No. 1 seeds (Colts and Saints) have advanced to the NFL's version of its Final Four for the first time since 2004, the Vikings are the NFC's No. 2 seed and the 9-7 Jets are the AFC's No. 5 seed. The Jets are also just the fifth 9-7 team to advance to a conference championship game since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule back in 1978. The first team to do it was the the 1979 Rams, who beat the 10-6 Bucs in Tampa, 9-0. The 1984 Steelers went 9-7 and lost 45-28 in Miami to the the 14-2 Dolphins, the 1996 Jaguars were 9-7 and lost in New England to the 11-5 Patriots 20-6 and just last year, the 9-7 Cardinals beat the 9-6-1 Eagles 30-24 at home in a game which featured the worst combined records (18-15-1, .578) of any two championship game opponents.

I've been focusing on the point spread records since 1990 in each of my previews, as this is when the NFL went to its 12-team playoff field. This marks the 20th playoff season since that time and home teams are 23-15 SU (.605) over the 19 postseasons in the conference championship games, failing to win reach 50 percent ATS at 18-19-1 (48.6 percent). That's significantly lower than in the wildcard round, where home teams went 51-25 SU (.671) and 40-33-3 ATS or in the divisional round, where home teams have gone 56-20 SU (.737) and 39-35-3 ATS. Home teams have gone 2-2 SU and ATS in the wildcard round and 3-1 SU and ATS in the divisional round.

One could argue it makes sense that road teams in conference championship games would do well, as by this time, teams have played at least one and sometimes two games. Playing away from home generally affects good teams less than weak ones. However, that would not explain why home teams went 18-6 SU (.750) and 17-7 ATS (70.8 percent) in conference championship games from 1978 through 1989 (the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games beginning in 1978). Both home teams have won their conference championship games six times, on two occasions both visiting teams have won and in the other 11 seasons, one home and one road team has won.

Home teams are 5-3 SU and ATS through eight postseason games this year with favorites going 4-4 ATS (Arizona was a home dog vs Green Bay). The pointspread has not come into play in a single game, as every favorite to win SU has covered, or the game’s underdog has won outright (Jets in both of their wins, along with the Ravens against the Pats and the Cards over the Packers). The average margin of victory after those eight games is a healthy 17.2 PPG. In comparison there had been a total of 209 playoff games (including Super Bowls) since 1990 heading into this postseason. The average margin of victory in those games was just under two TDs, at 13.1 PPG.

This has become a recurring theme and history shows that the pointspread comes into play least often in the conference championship round since 1990. The SU winner in the 38 conference championship games since 1990 has also covered the spread in 32 of those wins with one push and just five ATS losses. Doing the math, the SU winner has covered the spread in 86.5 percent of the conference championship games. Twenty-six of the 38 games (68.4 percent) have been decided by more than seven points and 14 of the 38 (36.8 percent) have been decided by more than 14 points. However, while from 2002 through 2005 both conference championship games were decided by double digits, five of the last six (including both in the past two seasons) have been decided by single digits.

There here have been five overs and three unders this postseason with the average score being 32.3 PPG for the winning team and 15.1 PPG for the losing team. The history of this round since 1990 shows that the overs have been more prevalent, cashing 23 times with 14 unders and one push (62.1 percent). However, the average games score of 43.4 PPG is no higher than the wildcard average of 43.0 or the divisional round average of 43.2. Margin of victory has also been amazingly similar with wildcard games being decided by 12.4 PPG, divisional round games by 14.0 PPG and conference championship games by 13.4 PPG.

NY Jets at Ind Colts (Colts minus-7 1/2 and the total is 39):

These teams met in Week 16 but little can be drawn from that meeting as the Colts famously (infamously?) removed their starters in the third quarter with a 15-10 lead, making it easier for the Jets to score the game's final 19 points in a 29-15 victory. This marks the first conference championship game to feature two rookie head coaches (Rex Ryan and Jin Caldwell) and it also matches two teams which couldn't be less alike. The Jets were the NFL's No. 1 rushing team during the regular season (172.3 YPG / 4.5 YPC) while the Colts were the worst (80.9 YPG / 3.5 YPC).

The Jets will go with rookie QB Mark Sanchez, who completed only 53.8 percent of his passes in 2009, averaging 162.9 YPG with 12 TDs and 20 INTs (63.9 QB rating). Meanwhile, the Colts have some guy named Peyton Manning, who will likely finish his career as the the NFL's all-time leader is almost every significant category. He topped 4,000 yards passing (his 4,500 yards were 57 yards of a single-season high) for the 10th time in his last 11 years, completed 68.8 percent of his passes with 33 TDs and 16 INTs (99.9 QB rating).

Sanchez became just the fourth rookie QB to win his playoff debut when the Jets won at Cincinnati on January 9 and last Sunday in San Diego, joined Joe Flacco as the only QBs to earn two wins in their rookie seasons (Flacco did it last year with the Ravens). Sanchez was efficient in the win over the Bengals, going 12-of-15 for 182 yards with one TD pass and zero INTs (139.4 rating). However, he completed just 12-of-23 passes for 100 yards with one TD and one INT vs the Chargers (60.1 rating), registering the fewest passing yards by a Jets QB in a playoff win (minimum 20 attempts).

Manning was solid vs the Ravens, completing 30-of-44 passes for 246 yards with two TDs and one INT. However, the Colts ran for just 42 yards on 25 attempts (1.7 YPC). Can they win (or cover?) doing that again? For all his accomplishments, Manning is just 8-8 in the playoffs (includes a 4-0 mark when the team won the Super Bowl in 2006). The Colts have won seven division titles this decade and their 128 wins are not only more than any team this decade, it's the most wins of any team in any decade in NFL history. However, the Colts own just one Super Bowl appearance in that span, beating the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

The Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III, arguably the most important football game in NFL history. In their win last Sunday over the 13-3 Chargers, the Jets became just the second 9-7 team since 1997 to beat a team in a divisional playoff game that was 12-4 or better. Here, they meet the 14-2 Colts and the five-game difference between two teams meeting in a conference championship game matches the largest margin since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule (in 1978). It's happened just two times before, both in the 1984 season. The 14-2 Dolphins beat the 9-7 Steelers 45-28 in the AFC championship game that season, while the 15-1 49ers beat the 10-6 Bears 23-0 in the NFC title game.

Min Vikings at the NO Saints (Saints minus-3 1/2 and the total is 53):

The Saints (31.9 PPG) and the Vikings (29.4 PPG) were the two highest scoring teams in the NFL during the regular season and New Orleans scored 45 points in beating the Cardinals last weekend (Brees completed 71.9 percent of his passes with three TDs, no INTs and a QB rating of 125.4) while the Vikings scored 34 points in beating the Cowboys (Favre threw four TD passes for the first time in 23 career playoff games, posting a 134.4 rating). Head coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans for the 2006 season and have led a major turnaround. Favre famously came out of retirement again to play in 2009 and is one win away from leading the Vikings to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1976 season and his first trip back since the 1997 season.

The Saints were 63-97 (.394) in the 10 years prior to the arrival of Brees and Payton but are 38-26 (.594) these last four years, while averaging 27.6 PPG (third-best in the NFL in that span). Brees has topped 4,000 yards in passing all four seasons (threw for 5,069 in 2008) with 122 TDs and 57 INTs. His QB rating of 109.6 in 2009 represents a career-best. Favre threw 33 TDs (9th time in 19 seasons) and just seven INTs (fewest in a season by far, as his lowest had been 13) in 2009, posting career bests in completion percentage (68.4) and QB rating (107.2).

While the QB matchup takes center stage in this game, which team runs the ball better may be the deciding factor. The Vikings have Adrian Peterson but the Saints averaged more YPG on the ground during the regular season than the Vikings (131.6-to-119.9) plus averaged more yards per carry (4.5-to-4.1). Note that while the Saints ran for 171 yards vs the Cards last week (Bush had 217 all-purpose yards), the Vikings had just 92 yards rushing vs the Cowboys (3.7 YPC), as AP was held to 63 yards on 26 carries (2.4 YPC).

It can't go unmentioned that AP has failed to gain 100 yards now in EIGHT consecutive games, averaging 66.1 YPG during that span and 3.3 YPC. However, the Saints allowed 122.2 YPG on the ground this year (4.5 YPC), while the Vikings ranked second in the NFL in rushing D, allowing 87.1 YPG (3.9 YPC). I should point out though, that after Hightower ran 70 yards on Arizona's first play from scrimmage last weekend, the Saints held the Cards to just 31 yards rushing on 14 attempts the rest of the way. Neither pass D has posted good numbers but while the Vikings allowed 26 TDs and intercepted just 11 passes, the Saints allowed a modest 15 TD passes and came away with 26 INTs.

Enjoy the games and I'll be back Monday with a recap.

Good luck, Larry

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