Crystal ball: Saints in Super Bowl
Monkeys on the backs of two coaches and a star QB and the Saints' march to a Super Bowl (yikes!) will be among the hot topics during the playoffs, Michael Smith writes.
Another memorable regular season is nearing its end.
The journey began Feb. 6 -- the day after Super Bowl XL, when everyone was undefeated again.
The free-agent frenzy, the draft, offseason workouts, minicamps, training camp, four preseason games, 16 regular-season games, injuries, rehab sessions, practices, meetings, news conferences, wins, losses, highs, lows -- 32 teams endured it all hoping to be part of what's up next: the playoffs.
Here are five things we might be talking about come Feb. 5 -- the day after Super Bowl XLI in Miami.
1. Running backs: By the close of business Sunday, there could be a record six running backs with 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Quarterbacks may be the game's marquee position but, if the regular season was any indication, running backs will be behind the wheel on their teams' drive to the Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers
The Colts need Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes to be effective so Indianapolis' defense is off the field as much as possible. Along with QB Jeff Garcia, Brian Westbrook's running and receiving have fueled the Eagles' late-season run. The Cowboys have a lot of weapons in the passing game, but their offense starts with running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber III. Denver, if it makes the postseason, especially needs its running game to click with rookie quarterback Jay Cutler at the controls. Chicago must run the ball well with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson to take some pressure off Rex Grossman. Rookie running back Laurence Maroney is the Patriots' most explosive offensive player.
2. Officials: Don't mention them around Seahawks fans. They still think the officials owe them an apology for Super Bowl XL. Earlier in last season's playoffs, the eventual champion Steelers nearly were victims of a bad call against the Colts, and the Patriots believe a couple of bad calls cost them dearly against Denver. There are questionable calls in every game, but when the stakes get higher, the spotlight gets brighter on the men who make those calls.
This season pass interference (again) and the emphasis on protecting the quarterback have been cause for controversy. There are certain to be game-changing penalties and replay decisions in the playoffs -- and the inevitable ensuing cries to overhaul the system.
Are you familiar with the name Mike Pereira? Remember it.
3. Monkeys: Specifically the back-dwelling species carried by Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and Marty Schottenheimer.
The Colts are in the playoffs for the fifth time in as many seasons under Dungy, who owns the highest regular-season winning percentage (.650) among active coaches and has led his teams to more regular-season victories (89) than any other coach since 1999. But his playoff record in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis is 5-8. Manning is widely considered the best quarterback in the game. But his teams are 3-6 in the playoffs. This season the Colts became the first team to begin consecutive seasons 9-0, but thanks to the worst run defense in the league, it's widely assumed that the Colts are headed for another early playoff exit.
The thing everyone must remember is that whether or not Schottenheimer and Dungy/Manning get the monkeys off their backs, they're still great at what they do, among the best ever.
4. The AFC Championship Game: Because the AFC has been the superior conference this season, its title game will be billed the unofficial Super Bowl. The winner will be favored to win the whole thing. For sure, whoever survives the AFC's playoff field will have earned it. The Chargers and Ravens have been considered the league's best teams pretty much all season. If they meet for the Lamar Hunt Trophy, it might be the most highly anticipated semifinal since the Cowboys-Niners-Packers NFC showdowns of the mid-1990s.
5. A Saint-ly Super Bowl? The feel-good story of the 2006 season has a chance to get even better. A good chance. By securing the franchise's first first-round bye in a wide-open NFC, New Orleans is two steps from what was unthinkable this time last year -- a Super Bowl appearance a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. It's going to be hard for someone to go into the Superdome and overcome the Saints and their fans in the divisional round, and with the help of an upset on the other side of the bracket, the Saints could have two home playoff games. Regardless, New Orleans has proved itself to be quite capable of winning the conference title game in Chicago. We're talking about a team that last season didn't have a home period.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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