- Adam Schefter, NFL
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On deck are the StarCaps NFC Championship Game and the Peyback AFC Championship Game, two compelling matchups. All week, we've heard almost everything there is to hear about them.
So it's time to get a jump on the future. It's time to look ahead to Super Bowl XLIV and some of the storylines that would await each of the four potential matchups.
Colts versus Saints: New Orleans helped raise the Manning boys. Yet with the Saints trying to win their first Super Bowl, the son of one of the city's most famous families would attempt to prevent it from happening. Peyton Manning's high school, Isidore Newman, would be torn.
Colts versus Vikings: Two of the game's all-time greatest players, Manning and Brett Favre, squaring off in the matchup every CBS exec would love. Manning is so classy that whenever an NFL legend retires, he sends the player a handwritten letter describing what he meant to the game. Last year, he had Favre's note written but never sent it. Wise move. If it's this matchup, Manning could hand deliver it.
Jets versus Saints: Rex Ryan's defense versus Sean Payton's offense would be this year's answer to Bill Belichick's defense against Manning's offense. This would be two hard-luck franchises squaring off in a Super Bowl that would leave USC fans in a tizzy: former Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez versus former Trojans running back Reggie Bush. It also would be a rematch of Week 4, when New Orleans beat New York 24-10.
Jets versus Vikings: Favre's two most recent teams matched in one game. Of course, Favre's decision to walk away from the game was what propelled the Jets to trade up in the draft and select Sanchez. Now Favre would go up against the team that essentially allowed him to do what Green Bay had tried to prevent -- go play for Minnesota. It wouldn't be Favre versus the Packers, but it wouldn't be bad.
And now back to this Sunday's games and this week's 10 Spot.
Near the end of New Orleans' divisional-round win over Arizona, Fox flashed a graphic that was equally revealing and stunning. The New Orleans Superdome has hosted some of the most significant sporting, political and cultural events of our lifetime.
Six Super Bowls, including the only one Favre won, Green Bay's 35-21 victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI.
Four NCAA basketball Final Fours, including the one in which Michael Jordan launched his legend.
Three BCS Championship Games.
Thirty-four Sugar Bowls.
Two Yankees-Red Sox spring training games.
A 1978 Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fight that Ali won in a unanimous 15-round decision.
The 1978 Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran "No Mas" fight.
The 1981 Rolling Stones concert that was the largest-ever indoor concert.
The 1987 Mass led by Pope John Paul II and attended by an estimated 80,000 people.
The 1988 Republican National Convention in which the party nominated George H.W. Bush of Texas for U.S. president and Dan Quayle of Indiana for the vice presidency.
Used as the 2005 housing area for thousands of area residents who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina.
Yet with all these historic events and moments, the Superdome never has hosted an NFC Championship Game. All those events, but zero NFC Championship Games.
Congratulations, New Orleans.
When the season started, no player was more explosive or dynamic than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. But with the arrival of Favre and the emergence of wide receiver Sidney Rice, it's almost as if Peterson has become a secondary option and an afterthought. This is hard to believe, but Peterson has gone eight straight games without rushing for 100 yards. In those eight games, Peterson has had 159 carries for 529 yards -- a paltry average of 3.3 yards per carry. These are not Peterson numbers. Something's wrong with him or with the Vikings' offense.
But if ever he had a chance and a time to bounce back, this would be it. At various points, the Saints' run defense has looked vulnerable. This season, some great backs have had some great days against New Orleans. The Saints have allowed five running backs -- Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, Cadillac Williams and Jonathan Stewart -- to rush for more than 100 yards in a game. This might be the game for Peterson to break loose and break out. If he does, he can carry the Vikings to an NFC championship and to Miami.
From Manning's first start for the Colts on Sept. 6, 1998, Indianapolis has been set at quarterback. Although the Colts have been a one-quarterback franchise, other teams have sifted through them the way John Mayer does with girlfriends. In fact, since Manning's first start, the 31 other NFL teams have gone through 313 starting quarterbacks. That's right, 313, like the area code in Michigan.
The Jets, Indianapolis' opponent in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, have had 10 starters in the time Manning has been a Colt: Brooks Bollinger, Quincy Carter, Kellen Clemens, Favre, Glenn Foley, Ray Lucas, Rick Mirer, Chad Pennington, Sanchez and Vinny Testaverde.
The Minnesota Vikings have had 11 starters during Manning's tenure: Bollinger, Todd Bouman, Daunte Culpepper, Randall Cunningham, Favre, Gus Frerotte, Jeff George, Kelly Holcomb, Tarvaris Jackson, Brad Johnson and Spergon Wynn.
And the New Orleans Saints also have had 10 during Manning's reign: Jeff Blake, Bouman, Drew Brees, Aaron Brooks, Mark Brunell, Kerry Collins, Jake Delhomme, Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver and Danny Wuerffel.
So the more things change for other teams, the more they stay the same for Indianapolis. Now Manning is attempting to lead the Colts back to Miami, to the same stadium in which Indianapolis beat the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI.
Used to be that rookie quarterbacks watched, waited and learned. Not anymore. These days, rookie quarterbacks are accomplishing feats that some of the great quarterbacks in history never did. For the second consecutive year, a rookie quarterback will start in the AFC Championship Game. Last season, Joe Flacco did it for Baltimore; this season, Sanchez is doing it for New York. Sanchez will become only the fourth rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to start in a conference championship, and he's hoping to become the first to win one.
Buccaneers rookie quarterback Shaun King lost to the St. Louis Rams in 1999; Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Patriots in 2004; Flacco lost last season to the Steelers; and now Sanchez draws the Colts.
So it hasn't worked out well for the rookies in this round of the playoffs, with no rookie quarterback ever starting a Super Bowl. But this also is a trend worth tracking. It might make teams less hesitant to play rookie quarterbacks sooner in the future. Should next season unfold the way the past two have, Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow could be leading his team into a conference championship game.
The antithesis of Sanchez is 40-year-old Favre, who is 17 years older than the Jets' starting quarterback. Few quarterbacks in history have produced like Favre, and no one in postseason history has produced like this at his age. The four touchdown passes Favre threw against Dallas on Sunday are double the total that all other 40-something quarterbacks had thrown in NFL postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In fact, the only other 40-year-old quarterback to throw a postseason touchdown pass was George Blanda, who tossed two in the Raiders' loss in the January 1971 AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts. Now Favre looks to add to the most recent of the many records he has set not far from where he grew up in Kiln, Miss. He'll try to become the oldest quarterback ever to start in a Super Bowl on a day he would be 40 years and 110 days old. And no matter how much Green Bay despises it, this much is undeniable: Watching Favre never gets old, even if he does.
Before Favre blazed a trail from Green Bay to Minnesota, safety Darren Sharper did it first. Sharper went from the Packers to the Vikings in 2005 after spending eight seasons playing in Green Bay with Favre. Each left for similar reasons; the franchise was lukewarm at best on keeping each one. But Sharper took it one step further, going last year from Minnesota to New Orleans after the Vikings invested millions in free-agent safety Madieu Williams and a second-round pick in Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson.
Now Sharper and Favre will square off with an NFC championship and Super Bowl berth on the line. Sharper is just the type of player of whom Favre must be leery. This season, Sharper tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, and he returned three of them for touchdowns. He also was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time. Sharper and Favre would have been NFC Pro Bowl teammates once more had each been able to play in the Pro Bowl on Jan. 31. But only one will be able to. One of the former Packers will be advancing to a more significant game than the Pro Bowl.
These are championship games for the whole country, but especially Charleston, Ill., and West Lafayette, Ind. No schools will be better represented Sunday than Eastern Illinois and Purdue, which have key contributors on three of the final four teams. Vikings coach Brad Childress and Saints coach Sean Payton attended Eastern Illinois. Brees represents Purdue for New Orleans, and no player has meant any more to his franchise or city than the Saints quarterback. Defensive end Ray Edwards represents Purdue for Minnesota, and he's coming off a victory over the Cowboys in which he had four tackles for loss, three sacks and one forced fumble. Tight end Dustin Keller represents Purdue for New York, and he caught the key touchdown pass in the Jets' upset of the Chargers.
Even the Colts have a connection to Purdue beyond both operating in the same state. Indianapolis' backup quarterback, Curtis Painter, played at Purdue. But Painter is the one Boilermaker whom Purdue does not want to see on championship Sunday.
All season, Jets coach Rex Ryan has provided his organization with hope and reporters with material. Moments after the Jets lost to the Falcons 10-7 on Dec. 20, Ryan opened his postgame news conference and declared, "We're obviously out of the playoffs, and that's unfortunate." As it turned out, Ryan should have been penalized for a false start. The Jets weren't out of the playoffs. Far from it. First, with the help of Painter, the Colts helped hand the Jets a win and hope.
Then the Bengals did the same, changing the Jets' outlook and Ryan's tune. Before the playoffs for which they qualified kicked off, Ryan sized up his team's chances.
"We should be favorites," Ryan said. Asked to clarify his comments, Ryan said, "I mean in the whole tournament. You know the way that I feel. I think we have the best defense; I know we do. I know we have the best rushing attack. Those are two huge factors in our favor. With a couple of exceptions on our staff, myself probably, I think we have a great coaching staff."
At the time, Ryan's remarks seemed as humorous as the itinerary he passed out to his players, spelling out every detail of every day leading up to the Jets' Super Bowl parade on Feb. 9. But first the Jets knocked off the Bengals. Then the Jets took care of a Chargers team that had won 11 straight and thought it was fortunate to be facing New York. And now comes an AFC Championship Game matchup against the Colts team that could have eliminated New York but made this whole Jets run possible. As one football fan, @cyrob21, wrote on Twitter this week: "Hey Colts, it's me, Karma I've got my tickets ready. See ya Sunday!"
Postseason football is supposed to produce drama, intensity, intrigue. But this postseason has produced six blowouts and only two classics (Packers versus Cardinals, Jets versus Chargers). There hasn't been a recent postseason, if any postseason, that has had so many one-sided games and so little suspense. Five of the eight games have been decided by 17 or more points; four of those games have been decided by 19 or more points; and to advance to Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the Saints and Vikings each won by 31 points.
The eight playoff games have produced an average margin of victory of 17.1 points.
And if Sunday's games turn out to be as close as fans hope, maybe the kickers will come into play, as well. So far, they've been as off the mark as some of these games. This is the worst postseason kickers have had in decades. They've missed 11 of 26 field goals, succumbing to the pressures to which these players are supposed to be immune. Should either of these games come down to kickers, it will be the Jets' Jay Feely versus the Colts' Matt Stover and the Vikings' Ryan Longwell versus the Saints' Garrett Hartley.
And one other stat to keep in mind: This postseason, kickers have attempted five field goals against the Jets. And on those five attempts, Shayne Graham, the Bengals' franchise player this past offseason, and Nate Kaeding, previously the most accurate kicker in NFL history, are a combined 0-for-5.
If nothing else, football promotes diversity -- plenty of it. In the past 14 seasons, the NFL has had at least five different playoff teams from one year to the next, including six new playoff teams this season. The NFC will send a different team to the Super Bowl for the ninth straight year. And in the past three postseasons, the maximum number of 12 different teams have reached the conference championship games, with not one team being able to repeat.
The message is obvious: The Jets, Colts, Vikings and Saints had better enjoy their time this week because a return engagement is neither guaranteed nor even likely. It also sends out hope to any team that is hoping to reach the second-to-last Sunday of the season, a spot that has been unattainable for only a few. In fact, the only teams not to reach the NFC Championship Game since 2001 are the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers.
The Schef's Specialties
Game of the week: New York at Indianapolis, Minnesota at New Orleans. No sense in picking one over the other.
Player of the week: Jets RB Shonn Greene. If the Jets have any hope of winning, Greene will have to run over the Colts and into the record books with his third straight 100-plus-yard rushing game this postseason.
Upset of the week: Minnesota over New Orleans. As tough as it will be to win in the Superdome, Minnesota has the ingredients to do it.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
10hBy Dan Graziano
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com
14hBy Michael DiRocco