Conference championship game scouts

Get some of the storylines from the AFC Championship game, notes from the Vikings and Saints, keys to the game and fast facts.

New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)
Minnesota Vikings (12-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/24/10
SURFACE: Artificial turf
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.

FAST FACTS: 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).


When it comes to statistics, Mark Sanchez cannot compare with Peyton Manning.

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."


The Indianapolis Colts expect a heavy-dose of the Jets' running game during Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

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 (12-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/24/10
SURFACE: Artificial turf
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers)

KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Brett Favre threw four touchdown passes last weekend, but the Vikings would be wise to try to get RB Adrian Peterson untracked early. Peterson has gone eight consecutive games without rushing for 100 yards as the run-blocking has been spotty. But while the Saints have an active, ballhawking secondary that will try to bait Favre into dangerous throws downfield, New Orleans is vulnerable to the run. A strong ground game would not only let Favre work off more play-action, but also help take the crowd out of the game. ... The Saints had a 34-32 run-pass ratio last weekend, getting back to the type of balance that propelled them to a 13-0 start. Of course, it helps to be grinding out a big lead, but RBs Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell need to make some headway against Minnesota's stout run defense. If not, the Vikings' front four could dominate for a second consecutive week. LT Jermon Bushrod will get some help against DE Jared Allen on QB Drew Brees' blind side, and the Vikings' secondary will be overmatched if Brees has time in the pocket.

FAST FACTS: 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.


  • WR Bernard Berrian caught five passes for 85 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown, as a member of the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game against the Saints on Jan. 12, 2007.

    Berrian had a game-high 110 receiving yards on six catches and a 33-yard touchdown reception when the Vikings beat the Saints in October 2008.

  • QB Brett Favre had two outstanding games against the Saints when he was playing for the Packers. In 1995, he completed 21 of 30 passes for 308 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions en route to posting a 142.8 passer rating. In 2005, Favre was 19 of 27 for 215 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 130.9 passer rating.

  • CB Antoine Winfield recorded his first career interception as a Viking by picking off the Saints' Aaron Brooks and returning it 56 yards in a 38-31 victory on Oct. 17, 2004.

  • Winfield had a night to remember in the Vikings' victory over the Saints last season. He had a sack and forced fumble against quarterback Drew Brees to go along with seven tackles. Winfield also picked up a blocked kick and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown, making him the first Vikings player to return a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the regular season.

  • S Tyrell Johnson recorded his first career NFL interception in that 2008 game as he picked off Brees in the final seconds of the three-point victory. Johnson also had a fumble recovery.

  • The Vikings are looking for their 20th postseason victory in their 45th playoff game and their fourth playoff victory since the 2000 season.

  • WR Anthony Carter had an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught six passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings' 44-10 victory over the Saints on Jan. 3, 1988 at the Superdome in their first-round playoff game. The Vikings defense did not give up a rushing first down and surrendered only 53 yards on the ground.

  • QB Daunte Culpepper passed for 302 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Vikings to a 34-16 victory over the Saints on Jan. 6, 2001 in a divisional playoff game at the Metrodome. WR Randy Moss had only two catches on the day but gained 121 yards and turned both catches into touchdowns.


  • The Saints will host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in the 43-year history of the franchise when they face the Vikings on Sunday in the Superdome.

    In their only other NFC title game appearance, the Saints dropped a 39-14 decision to the Chicago Bears following the 2006 season.

    The Saints are 3-3 all-time in the postseason at home, winning their third straight last Saturday in their 45-14 clubbing of the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game.

  • The home team is 26-13 in NFC Championship Game history dating to 1970, the first season after the AFL-NFL merger.

    Since the NFL expanded the playoff field to six teams from each conference in 1990, the home team is 13-6. In the last 12 games, however, the home team is only 7-5.

  • When Saints running back Reggie Bush ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run and returned a punt 83 yards for another score in the victory against the Cardinals, he did something that had been done only once before in an NFL postseason game.

    Bush joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Charley Trippi as the only players in league history to rush for a touchdown and return a punt for a touchdown in the same playoff game. Trippi did it as a member of the Chicago Cardinals in the 1947 NFL Championship Game.

    Bush also became only the second player in NFL history to have touchdowns of 40 yards or more and 80 yards or more in the same game, joining Washington Redskins wide receiver Ricky Sanders, who did it in Super Bowl XXII.

  • Strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita has been chosen as the Saints "Man of the Year" for 2009.

    He was selected by media members, Saints front office staff and local non-profit and business executives for his community service, charitable efforts and his performance on the field. An eight-year veteran, Fujita has worked for several community endeavors, including breast cancer awareness and the Adoption Services of Catholic Charities of New Orleans.

    Fujita is now eligible, along with one player from each of the other 31 teams, for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The award is given to the player who demonstrates balance in his life on and off the field.

    The winner will be announced prior to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

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