Conference Championship Key Matchups

This is it… the final week of games before the "big show" in Miami. In this installment of Fantasy Insider Online's Fantasy Football Report, we turn our attention to the two Conference Championship games going down on Sunday. It's plain and simple: the winners get a shot at a ring, and the losers go home.

In the following, we take a look at both match-ups and focus on the things each team must do (and be weary of as well) in order to keep their dreams alive. It's a great time of year to be a football fan, and this week's Conference Championships should provide for some great entertainment.

New Orleans Saints vs. Chicago Bears

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush plays plays against the Tennessee Titans in the first quarter of their pre-season football game in Nashville, Tenn. on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2006. (AP Photo/John Russell)

SAINTS KEY TO VICTORY: The Deuce is Loose
Last week, the Bears gave up 127 rushing yards in their 27-24 victory over the Seahawks. 108 of those (plus two rushing touchdowns) were attributed to RB Shaun Alexander, who in 2006 was clearly off the benchmark he set for himself last season. For a team that has a critically acclaimed tough defense, Chicago has had its fair share of letdowns… like in Week 9 when Miami RB Ronnie Brown gashed the Bears for 157 yards on the ground. Ever since DT Tommie Harris went down in late December, it has been pretty apparent that this defensive juggernaut can be taken down.

With game time temperatures that may dip down into the mid-20's, it may be hard for New Orleans to really get their stellar air attack going. Insert RB Deuce McAlister. McAlister is coming off of a huge performance in the Saints Divisional showdown against the Eagles last week. In that game, he posted 143 yards on the ground (163 total) with two touchdowns. Since the beginning of December, McAlister has rushed for 100+ yards in four out of five contests (he did not play in the Saints final regular season game). The man is on a hot-streak, and you can tell that he really wants to make a statement… just look at McAlister's five-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter of last week's game. It seems as though he will keep the Saints Super Bowl dreams alive by any means necessary.

The fact that McAlister knows that he doesn't have to do it all by himself (insert RB Reggie Bush), makes him that more effective. Really, this is what the team from New Orleans is all about… making plays together as one unit. In turn, everyone has succeeded - from McAlister to Bush to Brees to Colston. With a city rallying behind them, and a lot of pride on the line, McAlister & Co. will look to exploit the deteriorating Chicago defense in this Sunday's NFC Conference Championship.

BEARS KEY TO VICTORY: Ride the Hot Running Back
It doesn't matter if QB Rex Grossman throws for 300 yards with two touchdowns or 150 yards with three turnovers… you just can't rely on this guy to win ballgames. He is no Manning or Palmer or Brady, and chances are that coach Lovie Smith would be sweating big time if this Conference Championship is put in the hands of his young quarterback. Especially against a New Orleans secondary that ranked third in the NFL this season in defending the pass (allowing only 178.4 passing yards per game).

Conversely, just as solid as they are against the pass, the Saints are equally as poor against the run (ranking in the bottom-third of the league this year, allowing 128.9 rushing yards per game). In last week's Divisional Playoff game, New Orleans was burnt by Eagles RB Brian Westbrook, who rushed for 116 yards on 13 carries with two trips to the endzone.

Chicago, using the dual-back setup that has become so popular in the NFL, has a solid one-two punch at running back. Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson combined for 1,850+ rushing yards and 12 TD's in the regular season, with Jones seeing a brunt of the work (1,210 rushing yards). Over the last month or so of the season, the two have been splitting carries in the backfield pretty evenly. However, the Bears need to find out quickly which back is on point this Sunday and ride him to a victory. Especially in the cold of the new Soldier Field, Chicago will look to grind out the clock and keep the ball away from Brees and the Saints offense. Rather than risking turnover opportunities for the Saints, Smith will put the ball in the hands of his talented rushing duo, which has combined for only two fumbles in 2006.

BEWARE OF: The Bears Defense
Of course the Chicago defense can be very stingy… holding opponents to 15.9 points per game in the regular season (third best in the NFL) and under 300 total yards per game. Nevertheless, as was previously mentioned above, this unit has been a big bust on certain occasions. New Orleans will move the ball... there is no doubt about that. Everything depends on which defense will show up for the Bears this week. If it's the same unit that played against Miami in Week 9 or Green Bay in Week 17, then the Saints could put up 30+ points.

New Orleans simply has a great barrage of young, talented weapons on offense. They didn't get to be the top-ranked offense in the NFL for no reason. And the Saints have dominated some pretty formidable opposing defenses in 2006, such as Carolina, Dallas and Green Bay. In their last five games, the Bears have allowed 25.8 points per game… far off their season average of 15.9. As the season has progressed, things on the defensive side of the ball in Chicago have been loosening up. On Sunday, this could really be exploited when New Orleans unloads its offensive arsenal.

 

New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts

Laurence Maroney #39 of the New England Patriots runs against the Buffalo Bills Oct 22, 2006 (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

PATRIOTS KEY TO VICTORY: Keep the Ball on the Ground
Here's an interesting statistic: in the regular season, Indianapolis ranked dead last in the NFL against the run (allowing 173.0 rushing yards per game)… however, in their two playoff games, the Colts have allowed 127 rushing yards total. That's less than 65 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, and one of those contests came against RB Larry Johnson (KC), the league's second-best back. Could it be possible that this Indy defense has returned to 2005 form?

With that being said, it doesn't matter how effective the Colts have been against the run in the playoffs… they still have a lot of question marks in the front-seven. And many times, history can catch up to a team. So, coach Bill Belichick will most likely look to control the game clock by grinding the ball out on the ground. Especially at the RCA Dome, the Patriots can't afford to let QB Peyton Manning and the Indy offense get in any sort of rhythm.

Why not let QB Tom Brady lead the Patriots to another playoff victory? Well, Brady will play a substantial role… he always has in the playoffs. However, after last week's 57.6 QB Rating and three INT's, Belichick may shy away from Brady in lieu of sticking with the running game. Couple in a Colts secondary that ranked 2nd against the pass in the 2006 regular season (allowing 159.3 passing yards per game), and the New England rushing duo of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney should see a lot of action this week. Besides, there's no need to give safety Bob Sanders any additional opportunities to make a big play for Indianapolis.

COLTS KEY TO VICTORY: Manning Makes Smart Decisions
Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning has not been looking like himself thus far in the playoffs. He has posted a 58.3 overall QB Rating in the Colts two playoff games with a 5:1 interception to touchdown ratio. To emphasize the point, in the regular season, Manning threw nine INT's in 16 games… he has already eclipsed the halfway point of that total in this year's two playoff contests. It seems as though the chips are always stacked up against Manning and the Colts… that's critics' biggest claim: Manning just can't get over the hump and make it to the Super Bowl.

This week, against a Top 10 defense, Indianapolis won't be able to advance if Manning can't get his act together. The Colts have been winning without relying on exceptional play from their quarterback, yet this can only last so long. The Patriots have a stout run defense, allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game in the regular season. And though running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai have been more than effective, it could be hard for the Colts to establish the run game against New England. As a result, this leaves Manning alone to take over the role of general on the field.

Also, he won't simply need to perform well… Manning will also have to play smart, which pretty much goes hand-in-hand. The Patriots ranked fourth in the NFL this season in interceptions (22). This means that the New England secondary, anchored by CB Asante Samuel, has been conditioned well by the defensive-minded Belichick. So, Manning will need to forget about the five postseason picks he has already thrown, and get back to being smart with the ball. After all, isn't that what he's known for?

BEWARE OF: A Tom Brady Collapse
Yes, Brady is 12-1 in the playoffs. Yes, he has three Super Bowl rings. Nevertheless, Brady is coming off what could be classified as the worst playoff showing of his career. Pats fans everywhere are hoping for him to bounce back, but it may be tough against a Colts defense that has forced eight turnovers in the last two playoff games. Brady has always been known for keeping his cool, but insert a very loud domed stadium into the picture, and things may get ugly.

New England can't afford for Brady not to be at his best. If you really think about it, he is the glue that has held the Patriots together all year. Brady has taken this group with no "huge" names within one game of another Super Bowl appearance. He has passed for 3,500+ yards and 20+ TD's without a true #1 receiver. Honestly, the guy can do it all. However, the Colts defense has been on point in the playoffs this year… holding Kansas City and Baltimore to 14 total points in Indy's two playoff games so far. The Patriots always play as one unit, but if the New England offense gets shutdown early, Brady won't be able to win it by himself. Ultimately, the Patriots reliance on their quarterback could lead to his demise.

Before we know it, February 4 will be here and then football will be over for this year. So, let's savoir these final games before the culmination of the season. There are two great match-ups this week that will determine which teams will be squaring up for the coveted Lombardi Trophy. It might be two dome teams playing against each other in the Super Bowl for the first time ever… or a quarterback in search of his fourth Super Bowl ring… or the rebirth of the Super Bowl Shuffle? As football fans, we wait in anticipation to find out.


This week's Patriots Fantasy Football report is brought to you by Matt Hinzpeter at FantasyInsiderOnline.com. If you have any questions for Matt, you can reach him, or any of the other FIO experts, at TheTeam@FantasyInsiderOnline.com.

If you are interested in becoming a contributor to Patriots Insider's group of independent experts, contact us at feedback (at): patriotsinsiders (dot) com

 


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