Thursday, January 21, 2010
Pressure's on NFC QBs to seize moment
By John Clayton
Brett Favre continues to stress to his Minnesota Vikings teammates how tough it is to get to an NFC Championship Game. Super Bowls are even tougher.
He hopes they're listening. Favre has done everything during a pro career that has spanned almost two decades. He has won three MVPs. He has a Super Bowl ring. He holds an iron-man record for consecutive starts that may never be challenged again. At 40, he's throwing as well as any QB in the league.
But the last time he played in a Super Bowl was after the 1997 season. The Packers lost to the Denver Broncos and John Elway, 31-24. It took him until January 2008 to get back to a conference title game -- a loss to the Giants that turned out to be his final game with the Packers.
Now, as he prepares for Sunday's NFC Championship Game, Favre knows this could be his last run at glory. He hopes his teammates rally around him and give him a chance to win another Super Bowl ring.
Equally pressured is Drew Brees. The Saints' quarterback might be considered the fourth-greatest unrestricted free-agent acquisition in NFL history, joining Reggie White, Deion Sanders and Rich Gannon on that list. Like Gannon in his days with the Raiders in the early 2000s, Brees has elevated his team to a championship level. The Saints are one of five current NFL franchises that have never played in a Super Bowl.
In 2006, Brees and the Saints were one game from the Super Bowl but lost in the NFC title game to the Chicago Bears, 39-14. Brees has plenty of good football left, but he might never have a better chance to get to the Super Bowl.
The Saints are at home and their offense is hot. Brees set an NFL record for accuracy in the regular season, completing 70.6 percent of his passes. He's at the top of his game as a thrower, and coach Sean Payton is at the top of his game as a playcaller.
No offense spreads the ball to as many players as the Saints. The Saints had seven players who caught at least 35 passes. Marques Colston led the way with a modest 70 catches. Ten different pass-catchers had touchdown receptions. Even though the Saints surprisingly ran the ball an average of 29.25 times a game, they didn't have a 1,000-yard runner. Pierre Thomas had 793 yards, and Mike Bell had 654 yards. Reggie Bush had only 70 carries and 390 yards.
A week ago, QB Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals came into the Superdome after a 51-point performance against the Packers. Brees and the Saints dominated them, 45-14. Sunday's NFC Championship Game figures to be high-scoring, but more competitive.
Here are key factors in these championship games:
1. All Day an X factor: Could this be the game Adrian Peterson returns to being the superstar everyone has been looking for? Peterson, whose nickname is "All Day," hasn't had a 100-yard game in the past eight contests. Some might say that was because the offense turned more toward Favre, but there might be more than that. Is Peterson following the blocking as well as everyone would like? For the past couple of seasons, guard Steve Hutchinson kept nagging Peterson to follow his blocking better, but Peterson's skills as a runner made anything work.
Even though Chris Johnson rushed for more than 2,000 yards this season, Peterson still might be considered the best running back in football. In many ways, that makes him the X factor in this game. If Peterson has a lot of success against a Saints team that gave up 128.7 yards a game on the ground in the regular season, the Vikings could go in the Superdome and pull out a victory.
2. Leniency lends a hand: One small reason that both teams made the championship game could involve a glitch in the league's supplemental substance policy and a bold ruling by commissioner Roger Goodell. Saints defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant and Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams tested positive for a water pill called StarCaps. Pat Williams found the right court to delay a possible four-game suspension, while Smith and Grant lost their cases through conventional grievances.
Because both Williamses got into a lawsuit that is still being fought, Goodell made a competitive judgment that allowed both the Williamses and Grant and Smith to play the entire season and through the playoffs. If that hadn't happened, the Saints and Viking might not have ended up with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NFC. The Saints' Smith ended up having a great season. He had 13 sacks and ended up as the NFC's first Pro Bowl alternate at defensive end. Grant had a decent season, but he went on the injured reserve list right after the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams are the toughest tackle tandem to run against in the NFL.
3. Red alert: One of the best matchups is how Favre will do against the Saints' defense if the Vikings get into the red zone. Favre had an incredible year in the red zone, throwing 27 touchdown passes. The Saints had the best red zone pass defense, allowing only seven touchdown passes and a 40.8 completion percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has always been great in teaching a Cover 4 concept, which is very effective as offenses get close to the end zone.
The Saints have added quick-reacting cornerbacks in the past couple of years, and Williams finds ways to get pressure on the quarterback. The Saints' defense carved up a lot of young quarterbacks this season because it faced virtually every rookie quarterback in the league. At 40, Favre is experienced against good defenses. If he can come up with touchdowns instead of field goals, the Vikings might pull this one out.
4. Early risers: The offense that sustains the fastest start could win. That's what happened when the Saints jumped out early on the Cardinals on Saturday. No quarterback in football follows a 15-play script better than Brees. During the regular season, he completed 80.2 percent of his passes in the first quarter, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He went 9-of-11 in the first quarter against the Cardinals.
Favre isn't a bad starter himself. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes in the first quarter and has seven first-quarter touchdown passes. More of his sacks come in the first quarter, though (12 of his 34 regular-season sacks). Favre tends to get looser in the pocket as he gets more into the game.
5. In the line of fire: In the AFC Championship Game, Peyton Manning must handle the Jets' blitzes. In the regular season, the Jets rushed extra defenders 57.9 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They've blitzed at a slightly higher rate during the playoffs. But Manning's patience allows him to be a master of finding hot receivers and completing passes against the blitz. During the regular season, Manning completed 67.8 percent of his passes against the blitz and had close to a 100 quarterback rating.
Expect Manning to work out of his usual three-receiver formation. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis might limit the numbers of throws to Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, so Manning will try to work more throws to Austin Collie, Dallas Clark and maybe running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. The game will be a chess match between one of the game's best quarterbacks against the blitz and the most aggressive blitzing team in football.
6. Colts can hold their ground: Don't expect the Jets to run all over the Colts. Even though the Colts gave up 126.5 rushing yards a game and 4.3 yards a carry in the regular season, their defense is better-suited to contain running teams. During the Tony Dungy days, the Colts ran a pure Cover 2 scheme that featured light, quick defensive linemen and smaller, quicker linebackers. By the middle of last season, the Colts and Dungy realized the game was changing. Officials were calling fewer holding penalties, so Dungy's light line was getting pushed around. General manager Bill Polian made an effort to add more bulk, and defensive tackles Antonio Johnson (310 pounds) and Daniel Muir (312) have become decent run-stoppers.
Last year, the Colts had 254-pound Keyunta Dawson playing a lot at defensive tackle. Outside linebackers Philip Wheeler (240) and Clint Session (235) are bigger than the Colts' previous outside linebackers, who often played in the 220-pound range. The Jets will get their running yards because they are committed to the run, but that doesn't mean they'll dominate in the trenches.
7. Keep it clean: For the Jets to win, they almost have to play a perfect game. QB Mark Sanchez can't afford to throw an interception or lose a fumble. The Jets can't afford to blitz at the wrong time and give up a big play for a touchdown. One of the keys to playing Manning is making the most out of each offensive possession. The Jets know that won't be easy because they don't have a lot of explosiveness to get big plays to burn the Colts.
On the flip side, Manning and the Colts know they can't afford to make mistakes. Dungy used to tell the Colts to make sure they do what they are capable of doing. That's a simple statement, but it's an important one. Dungy would tell his kicker to make the field goals within his range (the Chargers lost to the Jets in part because Nate Kaeding missed two makeable field goals). He'd ask his receivers to make the routine catches. He'd make sure the center doesn't have snapping issues with the quarterback. The Chargers didn't do the routine things last Sunday and lost to the Jets.
8. Manning's maturity: Finally, this game will illustrate how Manning has grown as a quarterback. All the pressure is on him. He's 8-8 as a playoff quarterback, but he is 5-3 at home, losing three divisional games after a bye week. Everything is set for him to make a second trip to the Super Bowl. His team is healthy and favored by 7½ points. He has young receivers who have the ability to get yards after the catch. Even though his offensive line doesn't open up big holes for the running game, Manning has two first-round running backs -- Addai and Brown -- who have reasonably fresh legs.
The home crowd will play a big factor in this game. In the early days of his playoff career, Manning would get rattled by some defensive schemes. That's no longer the case. Manning has faced enough pressure defenses that he doesn't get too flustered, even if they make him uncomfortable early in games. He's patient, and as long as he doesn't fall behind by too much, he knows he can to win the game in the last possession if necessary.
|Adrian Peterson is looking to break his surprising string of sub-100-yard games.|
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.