The conference championship week hangover
Vail, CO Colorado
So here we are less than two weeks from the most important day of the year to football fans.
The best teams have risen to the top and all of their strengths and weaknesses will be heavily scrutinized in the coming week. While there is plenty to talk about regarding the upcoming showdown between New Orleans and Indianapolis, I’ll save that for later. First, let’s recap the fantastic games from this past weekend.
Indy’s depth the key
In the first contest, there were several intriguing storylines, most stemming from the stark contrasts between the teams: The Colts and their decade of dominance against the Jets and their long string of disappointments; possibly the best quarterback ever in Peyton Manning against oft-shaky rookie Mark Sanchez; a high-flying offense against a top-ranked defense.
Nobody really thought the Jets would pose much of a threat to Manning and the Colts, but early in the game, New York dominated. By blitzing Manning frequently on defense, and pulling off some uncharacteristically big, game-breaking trick plays on offense, the Jets led 17-6 with just over two minutes left in the half.
Things were looking bleak for Indianapolis as the Colts hadn’t been able to generate much offense, with tight-end Dallas Clark being contained well and star receiver Reggie Wayne getting absolutely shut down by Darrelle Revis (something star receivers have become accustomed to this year). The Colts needed other players to step up.
And boy, did they. The Colts’ depth became increasingly evident throughout the game, starting with their response to the Jets’ field goal with two minutes left before half. Manning connected on three consecutive passes, taking the Colts 80 yards for a touchdown.
The recipient of all three passes? Rookie wide receiver Austin Collie. Amazingly though, Collie didn’t have the best day of a Colts receiver. Second-year wideout Pierre Garcon caught an AFC Championship-record 11 passes, for 153 yards and a score. With the Colts’ usual stars bottled up by the Jets’ brutal defense, these young players were the difference.
This says a lot about the Colts’ depth and progression of young players. Remember, the Colts have played the entire year without Anthony Gonzalez, their usual No. 2 receiver, who went down in Week 1 with a knee injury. On defense, Indianapolis has been playing without a former Defensive Player of Year in safety Bob Sanders, who also went down with an injury.
But replacement Melvin Bullitt played admirably, leading an impressive Colts defense in confounding Sanchez and the Jets in the second half, leaving them scoreless. That was all Manning needed, as the Colts scored 24 straight points to win, 30-17.
Saints’ D delivers
While the AFC Championship was entertaining, few games compare to the thriller in New Orleans. Superstar quarterbacks Brett Favre and Drew Brees both came in with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
Both franchises had long, disappointing droughts; the Saints had never advanced to the Super Bowl, the Vikings hadn’t in 33 years. And both of these much-maligned teams played like they were the team of destiny.
The game was a heavyweight slugfest; every punch had its counterpunch, as the Saints and Vikings matched each other point-for-point for four quarters. In a somewhat sloppy game which included six Viking fumbles, a muffed punt by Reggie Bush, and a fair amount of penalties; neither team stopped fighting.
The Saints’ notoriously high-octane offense never really got on track, but their opportunistic defense made the difference. While not the most fearsome unit in the league, all season the Saints were impeccably good at generating turnovers. This game was no different.
Along with three crucial fumble recoveries, the Saints forced Favre to throw two interceptions. On the second one, they exposed the ugly side of Favre, leading him to make a bad decision, which cost the Vikings a potential field goal and sent the game into overtime.
Brees didn’t have a monster game, but he was efficient all day, and when it counted, he calmly led his team down the field for the game-winning field goal by Garrett Hartley. Madness ensued. The Saints, a complete team for the first time in years, had actually advanced to the Super Bowl.
No. 1 vs. No. 1
From the games last weekend, we learned a few things. First and foremost, it’s a quarterback league these days. In Miami, we will see two extremely accomplished QBs lead their explosive passing attacks on the biggest stage.
We learned that the Saints can play defense and that the Colts don’t need everyone at their best to win a big game. But most of all we learned that for once, the two teams that have been the best all year, can indeed meet in the Super Bowl. Two No. 1 seeds are in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993 (Dallas 30, Buffalo 13). Neither team has a distinct advantage.
Get ready for an absolute showdown.
Ascher Robbins, a sophomore at UC-Santa Barbara, having graduated from Battle Mountain in 2008. writes weekly column for the Vail Daily. When not tracking the world of sports, he is majoring in communications.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.