Sunday, January 21, 2007

NFC Championship Game Preview

New Orleans Saints (10-6) @ Chicago Bears (13-3)
3:00 EST FOX
Line: CHI -3

The NFC Championship game features two teams in desperate need of a marquee win to reestablish themselves as true conference powers.

The Saints have been so bad for so long that they earned a derisive nickname and played host to paper bag-wearing fans for the better part of two decades. This season that all changed as the team's return to hurricane-ravaged Louisiana injected new life to the devastated region and the subsequent ride to the NFC South crown, a home playoff win and now their first trip to the championship game has seen the them go from "The Aint's" to the new "America's Team" (sorry, Dallas, it's not 1983 any longer- your rights to the moniker have expired.) A trip to the Super Bowl would not only bring joy and positivity to the bayou but bring legitimacy to the franchise that once was the laughingstock of the league.

The Bears have had good seasons in recent history, winning the NFC Central in its last year of existence, 2001, as well as few winning campaigns in the early '90s. But other than that the franchise has been trying-and failing-to live up to the myth & memory that is the 1985 Bears for over 20 years. That team had great coaches, wild characters, Hall-of-Fame players and most memorably, a Super Bowl shuffle. The organization has been trying to shed that 300-lb gorilla for decades but failed miserably until this year. Even now though, with a great defense,a solid coach in Lovie Smith and an NFC best 13-3 record the doubting Thomases are out in full force, probably because their quarterback is as shaky as a 3-year-old on roller blades and their vaunted defense sputtered down the stretch. One win today and everything will change, and you might even hear strains of Marley's "Redemption Song" blaring through Spaceship Soldier Field's loudspeakers.

So which team will find redemption today? Only one way to find out- my patented, world famous breakdown method.

NO-Drew Brees: 4,418 yards, 26 TDs, 11 INTs, 18 sacks, 64.3% completions
CHI-Rex Grossman: 3,193 yards, 23 TDs, 20 INTs, 21 sacks, 54.6% completions

Hmmm, this is a tough one...let's see, either the guy who resurrected an offense, team, and region while finishing second in the league MVP balloting or the dude who has been ridiculed, lambasted and vilified by his home fans and every analyst, talk show host & columnist in the country for his poor decisions which have led to a slew of bad turnovers. Tough choice.

The confidence and character Brees brings to the team is the reason the Saints are where they are today. His intensity in the huddle is something that had been sorely lacking in the Aaron Brooks era. Brees' performance was directly responsible for the Saints having the top passing offense in the league during the regular season and he has multiple targets to choose from.

Grossman had a roller coaster season. He started out hot, throwing 10 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions as the Bears raced out to a 5-0 start, but suddenly he started using the other team as his favorite targets; he went through a miserable stretch where he threw 14 picks in the next 7 games, which included a miraculous comeback win over Arizona and embarrassing losses to Miami and New England. By the end of the year he had regained his form until a stinker to end the season against the Packers. In limited action Grossman went 2-12 for 33 yards and 3 INTs as the Bears got clobbered by Green bay. Afterwards Rexie admitted that he didn't prepare properly for the contest and his mind was elsewhere during the game.

It was around this time that the calls for Grossman's ouster became full-fledged screams.

All I know is I'll take Brees on a bad day over Grossman on his best day. Rex better have another game like last week against the Seahawks where he controlled tempo, minimized mistakes and put his team in a position to win the game. That's all he needs to do today. He should be able to take advantage of New Orleans' weak link, its secondary, and go deep to big play receiver Bernard Berrian against aging cornerback Fred Thomas like Philly did last week. Unfortunately for the former Gator he sometimes seems incapable of doing just those simple things.
ADVANTAGE: Saints (big time)

Running Backs:
McAllister: 1,057 yards, 10 TDs
Bush: 565 yards, 6 TDs
Jones: 1,210 yards, 6 TDs
Benson: 647 yards, 6 TDs

These two rushing attacks couldn't be more different. Chicago uses the combination of Thomas Jones & Cedric Benson to move the chains in a methodical and powerful way. There's not a lot of razzle-dazzle or sneakiness with these two-what you see is what you get. Although Jones has been the featured back for most of the season, Benson's slightly craftier running and bigger gains have seen him get more playing time of late. But Jones got the call more in last weeks win over Seattle (21 carries to 12) and chipped in with 66 yards and 2 scores.

New Orleans boasts one of the new wave of NFL backfields- the change-of-pace backs. When Reggie Bush was drafted with the second overall pick last year many assumed he would just step right in and become the everyday stater. Not so fast my friend. The Saints still had power back Deuce McAllister and he wasn't about to go quietly into the Louisiana night, especially with Bush struggling to pick up the nuances of the pro game early on- like the fact that every defender wanted to take him down and welcome him to the league the hard way.

Now the two provide a nice contrast in style- Deuce will punish defenders with his battering ram running while Reggie can turn a 5 yard loss into a big gain with his leg-breaking cuts. The pair has to be riding a wave of confidence, also, after torching Philly for 208 yards on the ground last week, 143 from McAllister.

A pretty even heat here, but I would give a slight edge to the Saints for the way they are running right now and the ability to mix things up in the backfield.
ADVANTAGE: Saints (barely)

Colston: 70 recs, 1,038 yards, 8 TDs
Bush: 88 recs, 742 yards, 2 TDs
Muhammed: 60 recs, 863 yards, 5 TDs
Berrian: 51 recs, 775 yards, 6 TDs

To say the Saints like to spread the ball around is like saying Will Ferrell likes to act like a retarded goofball. New Orleans had 10 guys with 14 or more receptions, 7 with more than 300 yards receiving. Compare that to Chicago, which had 7 receivers with more than 14 catches, 4 with over 300 yards, and it's safe to say that the saints have the advantage as far as passing the ball around over the limited Bears.

Rookie of the Year runner-up Marques Colston was one of the surprise stories of the season. The kid out of Hofstra was the 3rd to last player drafted last year and stunned the league with his incredible season that would have been even better had he not missed 3 games with an ankle injury. The big (6'4", 230 lbs) Colston provides a nice target for Brees to see down field, and his excellent hands, ability to catch the ball on the fly and large frame made him a formidable weapon for other teams to stop. Combine his talents with that of Mr. Bush, who had a better year receiving the ball than running it (although many of his 88 catches were of the 3-yard dump, catch-and-run variety) and the emergence of 3rd year man Devery Henderson (32 recs, 745 yards, 5 TDs) as a deep threat and what you've got is a potent, capable fleet of receivers.

Chicago relies heavily on two receivers to move the chains: possession man Mushin Muhammed, who at the age of 33 showed signs of wear & tear but still managed a team-high 60 catches, and deep threat Bernard Berrian, who started the year with long TD catches of 49, 41, 46 & 62 yards in the first 5 games. He is a big play receiver and will be the key to Chicago being able to stretch the field and set up scoring opportunities. After those two the pack thins out; Grossman likes to use TE Desmond Clark (45 recs, 626 yards, 6 TDs), and Rashied Davies and Thomas Jones will get some balls thrown to them as well.

Once again the Saints seem to be the more dangerous team here due to the sheer number and versatility of their receivers.
ADVANTAGE: Saints (by far)

NO: 307 (11th in NFL)
CHI: 294 (5th)
NO: 20 (13th)
CHI: 16 (3rd)
Pass YPG-
NO: 178 (3rd)
CHI: 195 (11th)
Rush YPG-
NO: 129 (23rd)
CHI: 99 (4th)

Finally we come to a category where the Bears have a decided advantage. Chicago's defense was one of the stingiest in the league for most of the season until massive T Tommie Harris went out with an injury and Tank Johnson decided to like up to his nickname by stockpiling more weapons than some third world nations. The last 5 games, including playoffs, Chicago allowed a mediocre 24 PPG, including 31 to the Bucs and 26 to the Packers. The D will have to play better than that today if it hopes to shut down the Saints powerful offense.

As always the key to Chicago's D is All-Everything linebacker Brian Urlacher. The throwback defender needs to be a force in this game, not only in stopping the runs but in getting pressure on Brees so he can't make the easy throws down field. As is so often the case as the Urlacher goes, so goes the Bears defense, and if he doesn't have a monster game the Bears have little chance of winning. As for the secondary Charles Tillman will have the unenviable task of trying to stop Colston while Ricky Manning, Jr & Nathan Vasher are also going to have to stay close to the Saints multitude of receivers.

Although the Saints defense has been criticised as being the weak link of the team they do employ a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. The main component of the unti is the line, led by the immovable run stopper Hollis Thomas and ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who combined for 16 1/2 sacks this year. The linebackers are solid if unspectacular, with Scott Fujita, Tommy Polley & Scott Shanle doing most of the damage, and the secondary-Thomas, Mike McKenzie, Josh Bullocks, Jay Bellamy, Omar Stoutmire- is unspectacular and susceptible to the big play (see Fred Thomas comment above.)

Like I said this is the one category where the Bears should have the advantage in their favor and they need to exploit it if they hope to pull out this win. In other words they need to play like the first 10 weeks of the season rather than the last 5.
ADVANTAGE: Bears (clearly)

Coaching & Intangibles:
New Orleans' Sean Payton was the Coach of the Year and his masterful play calling, ability to mix things up according to the situation & team and rapport with his players is one of the big reasons why the Saints had such a turnaround season. He is one of the best young minds in the game, doesn't get out coached often, and is unafraid to do something different if it means giving his team an advantage.

Lovie Smith is another solid young coach who has turned the team around by going back to basic Bears football- running the ball and playing smash mouth defense. He is soft spoken and fatherly and his insistence on sticking with Grossman ("Rex is our quarterback"- repeat ad nauseum) both endeared him to his players and infuriated an impatient fan base. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if his team gets down early and how he will handle the heat if Grossman starts tossing the ball to the other team again.

The home field advantage could be the deciding factor in this one. The weather will not be pleasant- cold, windy possible snow- which would most definitely favor the Monsters of the Midway, who live for conditions like that. New Orleans being a dome team has a decided disadvantage when it comes to weather and notoriously dome teams do not fare well in outdoor Championship games. Old Mother Nature might be the one who has the most say about who wins this contest, which doesn't bode well for New Orleans & their pass-happy attack.

As for an X-Factor the Bears rookie return man Devin Hester set the league on fire after he returned his 6th kick for a touchdown back in early December. Since then he has fumbled more balls than he's caught and looks like he is out-thinking himself and trying to return the ball before he catches it. If he can concentrate and rip off some big returns, or even a touchdown, he could be a big advantage for the offensively-challenged Bears.

For New Orleans I am going with Devery Henderson. He is somewhat the forgotten man because of the presence of Bush, Colston, and Joe Horn when he is healthy, but Henderson always seems to get open downfield for a backbreaking gain- he only had 1 catch last week but it was a big 35-yarder that set up the Saints first touchdown. How big is this guy's catches? He averages 23 yards per catch.
ADVANTAGE: Bears (slight)

After all of this scientific analysis I can only come to one conclusion- it should be a close, tough game that could be dictated by weather and will benefit the team that can control the ball and play mistake free. New Orleans has the better offensive team, better coach, and the backing of an entire nation that would like nothing better than to see this downtrodden franchise reach the pinnacle of the sport in its first year back in its Big Easy home.

Chicago will have the weather, home field, and determination to stifle all the doubters and bring a playoff winning team back to the Windy City on their side. Grossman would love to quiet all the critics and enjoy the recent run of Gator-related success and the whole team would enjoy being the squad that finally quiets the ghosts of yesteryear and gives Chicago its first championship team in 21 years.

MY PICK: The Saints, are coming, the Saints, are Miami.

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