Colts, Panthers get chance for revenge
For the Colts and Panthers, the conference championship games provide a second chance to get it right.
For a good portion of his postgame news conference on Sunday evening, during which he rehashed his winning 31-yard field goal in overtime, Philadelphia Eagles kicker David Akers described the swirling winds that buffeted the surface at Lincoln Financial Field.
And there is a pretty good chance that, by now, Akers' counterpart in this Sunday's NFC conference championship game, Carolina Panthers kicker John Kasay, has reviewed the unsolicited scouting report several times.
Flash back nearly six weeks, to the Panthers' 25-16 regular-season loss to Philadelphia on Nov. 30, a personal day of infamy for the normally dependable Kasay. The veteran kicker missed just six of 38 field goal attempts all season and half of them came in that defeat. Wide right, all three misses, from 32, 38 and 49 yards. Just for bad measure, he missed an extra point try as well.
"It's not the kind of day you ever want to have," said Kasay, a stand-up guy who didn't try to dodge reporters, the way some of his colleagues might have. "Not the kind of day that you would wish on anyone. But in this league, you don't get any do-overs, right?"
True enough. But sometimes a player or a team gets an opportunity for redemption. And that chance -- for John Kasay and his teammates, and for the Indianapolis Colts players, as well -- that opportunity will come Sunday in the conference championship contests.
In a strange bit of symmetry, Indianapolis' most inglorious moment of the season also came on Nov. 30, in its 38-34 loss to the New England Patriots. On the day when Kasay was consistently wide, the Colts came up maddeningly short, stopped on four straight plays on a last-gasp drive that reached the New England one-yard line.
And so on Sunday in the rematch with the Patriots, the Colts don't have the luxury of a do-over, but they do get a do-or-die shot, just as the Panthers do in their matchup with the Eagles, at a Super Bowl berth. Such encore games are becoming, it seems, a part of the NFL landscape in recent years. And the results have been mixed, with the results of the regular-season meeting often auguring very little about the postseason rematch.
But knowledge is everything, even in the NFL, and there are players and coaches from all of the Final Four entries who have suggested that the information they gleaned in the first meeting could be valuable the second time around. There are also some elements, such as the emergence of Brandon Stokley as a dangerous slot receiver for Indianapolis, that will have to be elicited from video scrutiny, because there was no empirical basis from when the Patriots lined up to defend the Colts six weeks ago.
"You can say that the more things change, the more they remain the same, because teams don't undergo some kind of dramatic makeover in just (six weeks)," said New England cornerback Tyrone Poole. "But you'll see some stuff in the film room that looks a little different from when you played a team the last time. At the same time, there is always a thing or two you picked up when you played them before, and you rely some on that."
Patriots 38, Colts 34
Question on the Patriots: Are you starting to sense that this is another magical year for the Pats?
This team is absolutely phenomenal in pressure situations. They truly play as a team, and that contributes to tough, close victories like these. The Patriots are definitely starting to regain the swagger they had in their championship season, and that makes them extremely dangerous down the stretch run.
Question on the Colts: Were you surprised with the play calling at the goal line on the final series?
Eagles 25, Panthers 16
Question on the Eagles: Because of their overall improved health, do the Eagles now have all the pieces in place for a title?
Currently, they have the pieces necessary for a run at the NFC championship game. But for a run at the ultimate prize, they need more production from their receivers and running game. Their receivers need more one-on-one opportunities and the only way that'll happen is if their running game forces opposing defenses to respect it.
Question on the Panthers: Is the dependence on the running game starting to hurt the Panthers?
Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.
One obvious item the Colts will certainly recall is that Pats rookie return man Bethel Johnson burned their kickoff coverage unit twice. The first time came on the final play of the first half, with Johnson bursting 92 yards for a touchdown, just seconds after the Colts had whittled a 17-point deficit to just seven points. On his second key runback, Johnson went 67 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown after Indianapolis tied the game at 31 late in the fourth quarter.
That jive dancing the Colts coverage unit performs is going to be more like a funeral procession if Johnson is allowed to get free again. In all, the Patriots rang up 229 yards on kickoff returns in the first meeting. To complement the strong special teams performance, the New England offense had one of its best outings of the season, with quarterback Tom Brady throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns, completing passes to nine different receivers in the club's trademark spread-the-wealth aerial design.
Noted an Indianapolis defender: "You have to shut down all the stuff that they throw between the hashes. Plus all those screens and hitches. (Brady) is really accurate in that 18-yard range and he gets the ball out as quickly as anyone in those situations. If you let him get into a rhythm, it's just bang, bang, bang, and you can't catch your breath."
Perhaps the most breathtaking performer in the NFC title game will be wide receiver Steve Smith, the Carolina speedster who has blossomed into a big-play threat and the obvious go-to guy for quarterback Jake Delhomme. In the first meeting, the Panthers were still a team offensively centered around tailback Stephen Davis, who rushed 23 times for 115 yards, but who might not even dress for the encore, because of a quadriceps injury suffered in last week's divisional-round victory at St. Louis.
In just six weeks, the Panthers' offense has experienced an obvious makeover, a notable evolution to a far more balanced attack. Always-clever coordinator Dan Henning now has provided Delhomme a lot more leash. He has opened the playbook much wider, called more pass plays on early downs, created an extensive variety of options.
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson won't simply scrap a game plan which stifled the Carolina offense in some stretches of the first meeting -- he certainly should retain the sections relating to "red zone" defense -- but he will require more pressure on Delhomme than his charges delivered the first time around. And, obviously, the Eagles can't count on Kasay having another disastrous outing.
The Carolina defense will have to make some alterations as well, since the Eagles will be without starting tailback Brian Westbrook, a darting, do-everything threat. Instead the Panthers must gird for the heavier style of Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter. And for the scrambling of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who once again demonstrated in the comeback win over Green Bay last Sunday evening that he runs more in the playoffs.
So what, if anything, can be taken from the first meetings of the only four teams that haven't packed away their equipment for the winter?
"I think, when you look back, maybe you just got a feel for the (other team)," allowed one New England defender. "There might have been one or two things, moving forward, that you can carry over. But, hey, every game is different. Look at how the Colts got waxed by Denver (in the regular season) but then came back and pounded them in the playoffs (two weeks later). You can't predict anything based on the earlier meeting.
"You take what you can from the first time around. But you take nothing for granted."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.