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Monday, January 15, 2007
Three things each team needs to do to win

By Len Pasquarelli

A quick breakdown of the conference championship games.

AFC Championship game: New England at Indianapolis

ColtsThe Colts will win if …

1. Quarterback Peyton Manning keeps throwing the ball between the hashes and up the seams to tight end Dallas Clark, and continues to check down to tailback Joseph Addai. There is no doubt that the studs in the Indianapolis passing attack are wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But Clark provides the Colts a different dimension and, when he is flexed into the slot, is a difficult matchup for any defense. Because the cornerbacks need help from the safeties to cover the wide receivers, Clark becomes almost impossible to bracket sometimes. In his last three games since returning from a knee injury, Clark has 15 catches for 200 yards. And Addai, with 10 receptions in the playoffs, helps move the chains.

X Games
X's and O's: Familiarity breeds contempt. But these two franchises have faced each other so often in the past six years that familiarity usually breeds just more Byzantine and baffling defensive game plans from New England coach Bill Belichick as he attempts to get inside Peyton Manning's head. Belichick will certainly have a trick or two up his sleeve for this AFC Championship game, but it's difficult to confound Manning, arguably the game's greatest student. It isn't so much that the Patriots have fooled Manning in the past. They have, however, made more plays. One notable thing about the Indianapolis offense: It doesn't usually vary from game to game. The Colts' aim is to come out, play their game and force the defense to conjure up a way to stop it.

The X-factor: This could be a game in which the tight ends take center stage. Dallas Clark is a primary threat for the Colts and, for New England, Brady likes to get the ball to Benjamin Watson, who definitely can add yards after the reception. Look for the Pats to try to get the ball to Watson out in space, like on a screen pass, and to also make use of third-down tailback Kevin Faulk. For Indianapolis, the noisy crowd at the RCA Dome, one of the loudest facilities in the NFL, will try to have an impact.

The Rx factor: Most of the Patriots' wounded -- tight end Benjamin Watson (knee), cornerback Ellis Hobbs (wrist), linebacker Mike Vrabel (back) and defensive lineman Richard Seymour (elbow) -- seemed to get through the divisional-round victory at San Diego with no further setbacks. So that leaves strong safety Rodney Harrison (knee), who has missed the past two games, as the big question mark. For the Colts, the condition of safety Bob Sanders (knee) bears watching. Sanders appeared in just four games during the season, but has started both playoff contests and his presence has made a difference. Among some of the other starters nursing injuries but expected to play are offensive tackle Ryan Diem (back) and guard Ryan Lilja (ankle).
-- Len Pasquarelli

2. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis generate sufficient pressure on the pocket to keep New England quarterback Tom Brady from getting into one of his hot-streak rhythms. The Colts have seen Brady at his marksman's best in the past, working out of three- and five-step drops and throwing the ball with uncanny accuracy and timing. If he gets into one of those grooves, all the noise in the RCA Dome won't be enough to disrupt the Pats' timing. Mathis and Freeney, particularly the latter, are big-game players who seem to be at their best when the national spotlight is on them. Freeney had a career-low 5½ sacks during the regular season, but has two sacks and two quarterback strips in the playoffs.

3. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, who provided all the scoring in Saturday's divisional-round upset victory at Baltimore, is on the field, lined up over a potential game-winning field goal in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship game. Some irony, huh, if that's the case? The guy who put two Super Bowl rings on the fingers of Patriots' players with winning field goals in a pair of title games and was part of a third Super Bowl win as well, beating the Patriots. The Colts signed the game's greatest clutch kicker for such an occasion. Vinatieri has nailed all eight field goal attempts in two playoff games this season. He is now 34-for-42, an .810 conversion rate, on field goal tries in the playoffs. The Colts will feel more comfortable with him on the field than they did when Mike Vanderjagt was lined up for the potential game-tying kick in last year's divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh.

PatriotsThe Patriots will win if …

1. Strong safety Rodney Harrison miraculously returns from the sprained medial collateral ligament that has sidelined him the past two weeks and owner Bob Kraft successfully petitions the league to allow him to borrow Kansas City cornerback Ty Law for the game. Both secondary stalwarts are the longtime nemeses, of course, of Peyton Manning. Seriously, the New England secondary is going to need a big game from everyone, including suspect safeties Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders. Cornerback Asante Samuel has played lights-out of late, but he can only handle one of the wide receivers. The Pats have to keep the action in front of them, tackle well and not surrender any game-altering big plays.

2. Offensive tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur, neither of whom has enjoyed a sterling season, repeat their solid performances of Sunday evening. The two were magicians, making the San Diego pass-rush tandem of Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips disappear at times. They'll have to play just as well against Freeney and Mathis. If the Pats give Tom Brady clean passing lanes, and the snippet of time he needs to unload while working off quick drops, he's apt to find some room in the Indianapolis secondary. Brady loves to spread the ball around, and typically throws to eight or 10 different receivers in a game, and he'll try to distribute the ball evenly against a Colts' defense he knows well.

3. The up-front defenders in the New England 3-4 scheme manhandle the Colts' interior blockers in the running game. The Patriots' trio of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren is really on a roll and is steamrolling opponents right now. All three are capable of simply rag-dolling a blocker, stepping up into the hole and stymieing a play. How good is the unit, which features three former first-rounders? Consider this: Seymour is the lone representative from the New England defense voted to the Pro Bowl game and, while he registered another strong year, he might not have even been the best defensive lineman on the roster. If this group gets cranked up, it could make it a long day for the Indy line.

NFC Championship game: New Orleans at Chicago

BearsThe Bears will win if ...

1. They can knock the high-octane New Orleans offense, ranked first in the league during the regular season, off the field on third down. New Orleans was third in the NFL in third-down conversion rate, 44.9 percent, during the season and quarterback Drew Brees has a knack for being able to keep third-down plays alive. The Chicago defense permitted a minuscule third-down conversion rate of 31 percent, but it faltered late in the season, surrendering 39.1 percent in the last month of the year and in Sunday's divisional-round win over Seattle. Because it wasn't able to get off the field, the Bears' defense wore down and allowed an average of 25.8 points in its past five outings.

X Games
X's and O's: Their philosophies may diverge in many ways, but these are two teams that still want to run the football, even though each has had its share of explosive plays in 2006. When they do throw, neither coach is shy about going vertical with the ball, and expect the safeties from both teams to be tested in the conference championship game.

The X-factor: You always look for an edge in the kicking game in playoff contests and rookie Devin Hester, who had six returns for touchdowns, certainly provides Chicago a lift in that area. Hester is a threat to score anytime the ball is in his hands and he clearly impacts field position. At age 35, Michael Lewis isn't as explosive as he was a few years ago. The New Orleans returner did average 24.7 yards on kickoff runbacks this season and remains capable of a big play or two.

Rx factor: Chicago is remarkably healthy for this juncture of the season and had no players listed as worse than probable for its divisional-round victory. Explosive wide receiver Joe Horn (groin) missed the last five games for the Saints, including Saturday's playoff win, and speculation is that he might not play again this year. There is a suspicion that coach Sean Payton doesn't mind using his younger wide receivers. Safety Omar Stoutmire (sprained knee) is also injured.
-- Len Pasquarelli

2. They throw early and often at Saints cornerback Fred Thomas and nickel defender Jason Craft. The Eagles' passing game exposed Thomas on Saturday as the most suspect cover defender in a secondary that somehow ranked No. 3 in the league during the season. The 11-year veteran doesn't run very well anymore at age 33, and pure-speed wide receivers can sprint right past him, as Philadelphia's Donte' Stallworth did for a 75-yard touchdown catch Saturday night. The Bears may try to isolate speed receiver Bernard Berrian, who averaged 15.2 yards per catch, on Thomas. Craft has lost some of his feistiness, and, thus, some of his overall effectiveness as the New Orleans nickel cornerback.

3. The Chicago interior offensive linemen can figure some way to uproot mammoth defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, one of the NFL's best run-stuffers, and then control tempo with the inside run. Thomas was suspended the last four games of the regular season for violating the steroid policy. But he returned for the Saturday playoff contest and was immediately a factor, clogging things up inside, and contributing three tackles. When he gets himself anchored, Thomas is virtually immovable. The Bears have to get some push against him to be able to operate their offense. The other tackle, Brian Young, is very active, but he can be run out of some plays by using his pursuit skills against him.

SaintsThe Saints will win if ...

1. Their offense stays as balanced as it has been most of the season and head coach Sean Payton, who calls nearly all the plays, remains fearless in dialing up creative calls. Against a typed defense like that of the Bears, it's often beneficial for an offense to go out of character and the Saints like to do that, passing on early downs and running on third down. The New Orleans offensive mix keeps a defense guessing. It also allows the Saints to dictate the tempo and keep their high energy offense moving. Tailback Deuce McAllister remains the centerpiece, but the real beauty of the New Orleans attack is that Payton will throw the ball anywhere on the field. The Saints have nine players with 15 or more receptions.

2. Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant have strong performances, not just in terms of applying pressure on Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, but also in pinching against the run. The New Orleans ends represent one of the best two-way tandems in the game. Grant and Smith are very active and figure to own an advantage in quickness over Chicago tackles John Tait (left) and Fred Miller (right). They combined for 16½ sacks in 2006. Tait has slipped some this season, particularly when facing elite speed rushers, and will have his hands full with Smith, a rising star who plays bigger than his size. Grant is a nasty player and when his motor is revving high, he's hard to control.

3. Brees attacks the middle of the field. The season-ending foot injury suffered by standout safety Mike Brown left the Bears without a viable, playmaking presence between the hashes. That could be critical against the New Orleans passing game. The Saints averaged 12.4 yards per completion in 2006, about the NFL average, but had four players with 30-plus receptions and averages of 14.8 yards or more. New Orleans will throw the ball outside the numbers, especially with quick hitches to Marques Colston, but they make most of their big plays in the passing game between the hashes. Colston and Devery Henderson are very good running post patterns and inside slants, where they can use their size and speed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for