New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, 2 p.m. (Central).
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms).
Keys to the game
The Colts faced a familiar offense last week - a run-based attack led by a young quarterback - and essentially shut it down. Sanchez has been efficient but has also been well protected with a strong ground game that is featuring more of rookie RB Shonn Greene with Thomas Jones (knee) not at full strength. Indianapolis' undersized front seven could struggle with the physicality of the Jets' offensive line. But when backed into passing situations, Sanchez will have to make quick, smart decisions with DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis attacking off the edge. ... The Jets' defense has done an excellent job of using a variety of blitzes and excellent downfield coverage to upend Cincinnati and San Diego. The two critical factors will be whether the Colts' receivers can win their individual matchups off the line and whether Manning is accurate in very tight windows to burn the blitz. Manning is one of the league's best at making pre-snap adjustments, and will need to be on his game to read where the pressure is coming from.
This will be the first conference championship game in league history to feature two rookie head coaches (Rex Ryan, Jets; Jim Caldwell, Colts). ... Manning is fifth in NFL postseason history in completions (378) and passing yards (4,454). ... Both teams are relatively healthy. Colts safety Antonie Bethea was limited on Wednesday and Thursday after landing awkwardly with his fourth-quarter interception vs. Baltimore.
Inside the Jets
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Except for one, perhaps, postseason wins and losses. Consider that Manning, even though he's an all-time great, has only an 8-8 record in the playoffs.
Sanchez, however, is 2-0, although his early postseason success has more to do with the team around him than his own contributions. Still, he has been poised when he has had to be, and has 282 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception in the Jets' two playoff victories.
Call him a game manager, but he doesn't mind, as long as his team is winning.
"I do feel more comfortable as the days go on, as you get more experience each game, there's no substitute for that," Sanchez said. "The big difference these last few games is knowing what gets you a win and also knowing what gets you beat. And that's turnovers."
Sanchez has thrown a touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller in each game.
"(I like) his confidence," wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "He's always so calm, it kind of allows him to think he can make any throw, and it gives you chances. I think Mark is extremely good. I think he has a chance to be one of the better ones in this league if everything keeps going like it is where his confidence continues to get better."
"The guys truly like him," veteran kicker Jay Feely said. "He's not arrogant at all. He's very confident, but he's not arrogant. He doesn't push people away from him, he's the opposite. That aspect of his personality really reminds me of (fellow Michigan alum and Patriots' QB) Tom Brady, and I think that's Tom Brady's greatest strength, his ability to lead."
The rookie is doing his best to deflect the credit, despite his growing fame.
"There's a whole other side of this thing and being a quarterback, a quarterback in New York, a rookie, a starter, there's a lot of stuff going on, a lot of people pulling on you," said Sanchez, who has a brother living with him to help manage non-football activities. "That's been our motto all year — don't put the cart before the horse. You've got to prove you deserve to be a guy in the commercials, like Peyton Manning. I've got a (long) way to go."
Inside the Colts
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
New York had the National Football League's top-ranked rushing attack, led by Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene and Leon Washington. While Washington is injured and sidelined for the remainder of the year, the combination of Jones and Greene has proven to be a formidable duo during the postseason.
Indianapolis, though, has displayed an improved run defense this year. Although it's an area that has caused the Colts and their fans headaches in the past, the team's run defense has been able to slow down such runners as Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher this year with 2,006 yards, averaged just 73.5 yards in two meetings with the Colts. Rice, meanwhile, had 138 total rushing yards (an average of 69 yards per game) in both of his appearances against Indianapolis. Jones-Drew did the best of the three, going for 207 yards in two games and averaging just over 100 yards per outing.
More important, Indianapolis won all six of those games against the Titans, Ravens and Jaguars. Colts coach Jim Caldwell and several of his team's defenders expect to see something of a mix of what Baltimore and Jacksonville tried to do this season.
"There actually are probably more similarities than differences (between the Ravens and the Jets). I think they both are real power-oriented, downhill running games. They both employ their tackles sometimes as their tight ends. They'll over shift and sometimes give you an unbalanced line. Those things are similar. Obviously, the styles of back are just a little bit different. Ray Rice is a bit different than Jones and certainly different than Shonn Greene, but they are all very capable runners," Caldwell said this week.
"Shonn Greene is maybe one of the most powerful runners that we've seen. He's a big, downhill back that can really do a tremendous job of carrying the load an entire game and gets stronger as the game goes on. Obviously, Jones is multi-talented. But I do see a lot of similarities, in terms of what they do from that standpoint. They will employ a little bit more wildcat and utilize (wide receiver Brad) Smith, who is a weapon unto himself. So they do give you a few problems there."
Middle linebacker Gary Brackett sees the same similarities.
"They are a physical group of guys. Obviously, their offensive linemen are very savvy. Those guys have been healthy the whole season. They are leading the league in rushing, I think because they are not afraid to run the ball, no matter what the score is. It seems like they are still running the ball, so it's definitely something we want to get stopped," Brackett said.
"Very similar (to Baltimore's running attack). Actually, their plays are very similar. I think what they do is they cutback a little more I would say with Shonn Greene. He's doing a good job cutting back, making people miss, and that's a tribute to some of his longer runs."
Minnesota Vikings (13-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, 5:40 p.m. (Central).
TV: Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers).
Keys to the game
Favre needs eight completions and 28 passing yards to pass Joe Montana (460; 5,772) for first place in NFL playoff history. ... New Orleans (510) and Minnesota (470) were the league's two highest scoring teams during the regular season. ... There are some key injuries. For Minnesota, defensive end Ray Edwards did not practice Wednesday or Thursday because of a knee sprain suffered on Sunday against Dallas. It's uncertain if he will be able to play at New Orleans. Vikings receiver Percy Harvin was added to the injury report because of another bout with migraine headaches. Harvin did not practice Thursday after being on the field the day before. For the Saints, Jeremy Shockey didn't practice on Wednesday and Thursday. (knee).
Inside the Vikings
Forty-six of the 53 players on the Vikings' roster will be making their first appearance in a conference title game Sunday when the Vikings play at New Orleans for the NFC crown.
However, the newcomers will head to the Superdome with the confidence that their quarterback has plenty of experience in these games.
Brett Favre, 40, played in four NFC title games in his 16 seasons with the Green Bay Packers and went 2-2, beating Carolina and San Francisco in the 1996 and 1997 seasons and losing to Dallas and the New York Giants after the 1995 and 2007 seasons.
Favre has passed for 1,057 yards and thrown eight touchdowns and five interceptions in the four games.
"I hope the little experience I have in these games — which is more than most — will help some," Favre said. "That's not to say I don't get nervous and stressed and all those things as well. I think, for me, as far as my leadership goes, of course practice and things like that, it's what you always do.
"But I try to keep not only myself but the other guys calm and relaxed. It's OK to be excited, but especially in an environment like we're going to face ... to be able to focus — and I've played them at home, and I've played them away — these games, they're tough anyway. But they're really tough on the road because of the noise."
Noise certainly will be a big factor at the Superdome, which will have upward of 70,000 people in it on Sunday. Favre will have to employ a silent count when he works out of shotgun. The anticipation of these circumstances could make a player anxious but Favre's experience should help any of his teammates who begin to feel nerves.
"You go back to the pressure thing," coach Brad Childress said. "That (pressure) that you feel and that you apply. ... (Favre's) able to calm things down, whether it's practice or whether it's any heightened anxiousness. He does a great job with it himself and it kind of spreads to others."
Inside the Saints
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Naturally, Sharper was excited about going against the team he played for from 2005-08 before the Vikings allowed him to walk in free agency last March.
And he relished the thought that he and old teammate Brett Favre, whom he played with from 1997-2004 in Green Bay, would be facing each other once again with so much at stake — especially after he urged his friend to give it one more shot.
"It's funny how it can transpire that we have a chance to meet each other to go to the Super Bowl," Sharper said this week. "I had a chance to talk to him when he was thinking about going to Minnesota, and I told him, 'Listen, if you go there, you guys have a Super Bowl-caliber team. You have all the pieces in place.'"
Little did Sharper know that he and Favre would wind up in the same building, which they will when the Saints and Vikings meet in the Superdome on Sunday.
More irony comes from the fact that Sharper played in Super Bowl XXXII as a rookie, only to have the Denver Broncos spoil the part — just one year after Favre and the Packers beat the New England Patriots.
It only took Sharper 12 more years to reach the NFC Championship Game, which he laughed about earlier in the week.
"Being a naive rookie and playing in the Super Bowl my rookie year and having Brett Favre, them (winning) the year before, you're thinking, 'Oh man, this is gonna be easy,'" he recalled. "So I was thinking I would have plenty of chances to get back there. But until now, I'm like Dan Marino.
"Hopefully, I can get back there."