NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
3:00 pm ET

The New York Jets and their brashly confident head coach Rex Ryan just keep believing they can beat anyone. And while rolling over the fading Bengals twice was impressive, going into San Diego and beating a Chargers team that many expected to go to the Super Bowl was another thing entirely. Sure, they had a few breaks go their way, like Nate Kaeding missing three field goals, but the Jets came to play, and they held Philip Rivers and that high-flying offense to 14 points. It goes without saying that facing Peyton Manning’s Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium will be just as challenging, if not more challenging for Ryan’s upstart squad, but anyone who counts out their “ground and pound” offense and stifling D isn’t paying attention. Meanwhile, the Colts will not be pulling their starters in the third quarter as they did against Gang Green in Week 16, and they proved to everyone last Saturday that resting those players allowed them to be a step quicker than the wild card Ravens. Sure, the Ravens held the Colts to 20 points, but the Colts’ defense squashed the Ravens’ #5 ground game, allowing just 3 points, and they hope to do the same to the Jets’ top-ranked rushing attack, daring rookie QB Mark Sanchez to beat them through the air. Last week, Sanchez made just enough plays, but he needs to be wary of that quick, opportunistic defense of Indianapolis that forced four turnovers against Baltimore. THE PICK: COLTS 20, JETS 16

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
6:40 pm ET

While both the Vikings and Saints struggled at bit down the stretch, they both flexed their collective muscle last weekend while eliminating the Cowboys and Cardinals, respectively. Minnesota sacked Tony Romo six times while holding a hot offense to just 3 points, and their own QB, old man Brett Favre, threw four touchdown passes and looked like a man half his age running around the field. New Orleans, after allowing a 70 yard touchdown to Tim Hightower, allowed only 7 more points the rest of the way, and D-coordinator Gregg Williams made all the necessary adjustments to stop Kurt Warner from keeping up with the Saints’ high-flying offense. And as for that offense, Drew Brees kept his gaudy completion percentage up high by going 23 of 32 (71.9%) for 247 yards, 3 scores and zero picks. And Reggie Bush was absolutely electrifying, rushing for a 46 yard touchdown and returning a punt 83 yards for the score that ultimately put the game out of reach. So what happens when these two superpowers meet in the, ahem, Superdome? It’s easy to say it will be a high scoring affair, but not when you consider how good each defense looked last week. More likely, it will be a close game, and one that will be determined in the final minutes or even in overtime. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about this game, so I’ll say it….get your popcorn ready! THE PICK: SAINTS 27, VIKINGS 24

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Let’s call it for what it was: The Chargers choked.

No matter how much more talent, coaching or overall advantages one squad has over another, teams still have to show up ready to play for 60 minutes on game day.

There’s no way to describe what the Jets did to the Chargers today than to stating the obvious: They just flat out outplayed them in the second half. The Jets were better today and that’s why they’re heading to Indianapolis to take on the Colts in the AFC Championship Game next weekend.

But let’s not overlook the fact that the Chargers were the hottest team coming into the playoffs and they couldn’t even make it out of the Divisional Round. They hadn’t lost since a mid-October Monday night game against the Broncos and many people considered them the team to beat in the postseason.

So excuse me for not shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Ah well, the better team won in San Diego today.” It’s not that simple to just write off the Chargers’ loss as another game when everything was set up for them to make a deep postseason run.

The Bolts had home field advantage, were facing a rookie quarterback playing in only his second postseason game of his career and they had momentum after winning 11 straight games. They weren’t supposed to lose today – no matter how good Rex Ryan’s defense played – and the defeat was eerily similar to their 2007 Divisional Round loss to the Patriots after they finished 14-2 in the regular season.

The blame cannot fall on just one man’s shoulders; it took a complete team effort for the Chargers to lose today. Norv Turner’s game plan failed, the defense had trouble coming up with a big stop in the second half (especially on Shonn Greene’s 53-yard touchdown run), Philip Rivers turned the ball over twice (although one was a fluke) and the usually automatic Nate Kaeding missed three field goals, including two within 40 yards.

San Diego just didn’t execute today, which is why they’ll be at home come February when the Super Bowl is being played – the Super Bowl that many people figured they’d be playing in.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Chargers, Bengals heading in opposite directions

Two playoff AFC playoff teams clashed on Sunday, but only one of them is heading in the right direction.

For the Bengals to have to deal with the death of Chris Henry and then have to travel cross-country to face a red-hot Chargers team was a tall task. But they did it, and they fought hard despite eventually falling 27-24 on Nate Kaeding’s last-second field goal.

That said, the Bengals have now lost two in a row and three of their last five. They haven’t looked sharp since their win against the Steelers in mid November, which isn’t good considering the playoffs are coming up in two weeks. And since their loss on Sunday was against San Diego, they now won’t have a first round bye.

San Diego, on the other hand, is scorching hot and has locked up the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Vincent Jackson came up huge with five receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the win. He routinely beat Cincinnati’s excellent cornerback duo of Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph and is really coming on of late as Philip River’s go to go on the outside.

It’s interesting how this season has unfolded for the Bolts. They were a lot of people’s preseason favorite to make an outside run at the Super Bowl, but when they struggled early on, many started to hop off the bandwagon. But now that they’ve rattled off nine in a row, people are breaking their ankles climbing back on their bandwagon.

Every team in the NFL has an opponent that is just a pain in the ass for them, and the Chargers are that team for the Colts. Indianapolis obviously looks incredible this year, but I wonder if Peyton Manning and company are getting a little uneasy with how good San Diego has looked over the past nine weeks.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Top 10 active NFL field goal percentage leaders

It’s almost fantasy football time, and many of you, like me, have already been doing your research. So let’s take a look at a category that you may not pay much attention to, and many experts will tell you not to anyway. That’s field goal percentage. I realize choosing a kicker is like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, but good references are to pick those on good offensive teams, or those that can’t score TDs and create more field goal attempts. But it’s also good to pick an accurate kicker, whether that kicker plays in a dome or not. I mean, why take your chances on someone who kicks 25 field goals but misses another 25? So here is a list of the active Top 10 in field goal percentage. You can thank me later.

1. Nick Folk, Dallas Cowboys (86.79%)—For as good as Folk’s rookie season was in 2007, he had less attempts but was even more accurate in 2008, kicking 20 of 22 field goals (90.9%). Which reminds me, what the hell ever happened to Mike Vanderjagt?

2. Nate Kaeding, San Diego Chargers (86.13%)—Sure, he kicks mostly in warm weather, but Kaeding is about as automatic as they come.

3. Robbie Gould, Chicago Bears (85.94%)—If you’re hitting better than 17 out of 20 times when your home field is in the WINDY city, you’re damn good.

4. Shayne Graham, Cincinnati Bengals (85.64%)—One of the lone bright spots on a team that is perpetually going nowhere.

5. Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots (85.56%)—No Adam Vinatieri? No problem. This kid stepped in as a rookie in 2006 and has improved each year, hitting 36 of 40 field goal attempts last season (90%) and leading the NFL in total points (148).

6. Rob Bironas, Tennessee Titans (84.50%)—Bironas is extremely dependable, but nothing topped his 2007 All-Pro campaign, when dude kicked an NFL record 8 field goals against Houston.

7. Matt Stover, free agent (83.70%)—The amazing thing about Stover is that he’s been doing it for so long. He broke in with the Browns in 1991 and moved with the team to Baltimore in 1996, where he played until last season.

8. Phil Dawson, Cleveland Browns (82.81%)—One of the original “expansion” Browns, Dawson, like his counterpart Graham in southern Ohio, has been a bright spot on a bad team for years.

9. Jeff Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers (82.65%)—Every year they seem to talk about how hard it is to kick in Heinz Field, so the fact that Jeff Reed is even on this list says a lot about his ability. I’d love to know what the guy could do playing in Minnesota for a year.

10. John Carney, free agent (82.59%)—Carney stepped in for Lawrence Tynes last season and all he did was hit 35 of 38 field goal attempts, an amazing 92.1% clip. It’s even more amazing because Carney played half his games in windy Giants Stadium, and because he did it at the age of 44.

Source: Pro Football Reference

NFL Player Profile: Eli Manning

Eli ManningGrowing up in the shadow of a famous father can be overwhelming for a child, and the challenge of following the footsteps of an older sibling can also be harmful for a kid’s ego. Then, there is Eli Manning’s childhood; his father (Archie Manning) was a football hero in the Deep South and his brother (Peyton Manning) is the advertising face of the NFL with countless commercials. And all he does is become the MVP of Super Bowl XLII, in which he led the New York Giants to an upset victory over the previous undefeated New England Patriots.

While having a successful senior year as a high school football player, Manning was still undecided on which university to attend in the fall. That changed after receiving a call from David Cutcliffe. The Manning family was familiar with him, as Cutcliffe was offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, and helped older brother Peyton elevate his overall game. He was named Head Coach of the University of Mississippi football team, and was hoping Eli Manning would become his first prize recruit in rebuilding the Rebel program. Upon hearing Cutcliffe’s recruiting pitch; Manning followed his father’s footstep, and became starting QB at Ole Miss.

Manning’s collegiate career was a lot like his personality: quiet but successful. He set or tied 45 single-game, season, and career records at Ole Miss. In his senior year, Manning won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best all-around collegiate player, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and finished in third-place for the 2003 Heisman Trophy Award behind eventual winner Jason White, quarterback of Oklahoma, and University of Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Read the rest after the jump...

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