NFL Hardline 2003 Conference Championships

By Paul Najjar

Last Week: 4-0
Season Record: 174-82
Post-Season Record: 8-0

What I saw last week:
The Patriots played a solid game against the Titans last week.  They controlled the clock, ran the ball well and played tremendous defense in brutally cold conditions.  They showed great discipline defensively and limited Steve McNair and the Titans' offense to only a couple of big plays.

The Colts' offense put on quite a show last week against the Chiefs and their raucous fans.  The offense, lead by QB Peyton Manning, played a near flawless game.  But before we anoint the Colts' offense as the "best ever," let's remember that that was the Chiefs' defense they were playing.  And the Chiefs' defense bears NO resemblance to what the Colts will see this weekend in New England.  The Colts played with confidence because they knew they could exploit the Kansas City defensive line with drive blocking, the Chiefs' slow linebackers with underneath crossing patterns, and their defensive backs with any play they called.  Again, the Colts are facing a much, much better defense than Kansas City's.  As a matter of fact, I don't think one player from Kansas City could start for the Patriots' defense.

What I see this week:
The Colts will come out driving to take an early and commanding lead.  The Patriots will counter with different defensive looks and try to bait Manning into making mistakes.  Manning won't make many, but the Pats will try to limit his options.  How will they do this?  By forcing Manning out of the pocket and limiting is field of vision.  Coach Bill Belichick will "hide" his linebackers in the seams and attempt to cut of the quick slant routes that the Colts and WR Marvin Harrison run with great precision.  And their defensive backs will smack the smallish Colts' receivers every chance they get.  The key for the Cots is to get RB Edgerrin James the ball for at least 23 carries.  If James has a good game, then the Colts can win this game.

The Patriots should have no trouble moving the ball against the Colts' porous defense.  They scored 38 points against them at Indianapolis in week 13 this season.  Another big factor in this game will be the play of the special teams units.  Simply put New England's special teams are very solid in the kicking game and in punt and kickoff coverage.  The Colts' special teams units are awful with the exception of their kicker Mike Vanderjagt and their punter Hunter Smith.  In their game in week 13 one of the New England touchdowns was a kickoff return against the below average Colts' special teams unit.  And last week the Colts gave up long returns to Dante Hall, one of which was taken to the end zone for a touchdown.

The Patriots will disrupt the Colts' offensive rhythm and limit them to only a couple or three touchdowns.  But the Patriots will score at least once on special teams, and set up another score with their defense.  I just don't see the Colts' defense doing enough to give them a win in this game.  Defense wins championships, and the Patriots' defense is the far superior defense in this game.
Patriots 27  Colts 22

What I saw last week:
The Panthers took advantage of some horrendous clock management and play calling by the Rams offense and head coach Mike Martz.  They also took advantage of the Rams' terrible rush defense.  The Panthers did have some trouble holding back the quick pass rush that the Rams threw at them, but QB Jake Delhomme stayed cool under pressure and made the big play in overtime to win the game.

The Eagles slept through the first half of their game against the Packers.  They slept through most of the second half, too.  But QB Donovan McNabb made the big plays when they were needed most, not to mention the potentially season-ending 4th and 26 in the last two minutes of the game.  They escaped with a win when they really should have lost.  But their goal line stand and their drive to tie the game were typical of the Eagles' team this season: do just enough to win the game.

What I see this week:
Just above, in the preview of the Colts-Patriots game, I wrote that defense wins championships and I firmly believe that.  The Panthers have the better defense, but the Eagles seem to rise to the occasion when they need it most.   This could be an ugly game; a war of attrition with the team getting the lucky bounce coming out as the winner.  The Eagles have had a lot of fluky-type things happen for them this season.   For example: a game winning 86 yard punt return in the final minute of the game against the Giants; converting a 4th and 26 against the Packers; and having Jon Kasay, the Panthers' kicker, miss three field goals and an extra point in their week 13 game against them… a game the Eagles won by a score of 25-16.

I'd really like to pick the Panthers in this game because of their sturdy running game and their tough front seven on defense.  But the Eagles find ways to win and this is their third consecutive trip to the conference championship game.  Coach Andy Reid and his guys will find some way to win this game.  It'll be ugly, but the Eagles will take it.
Eagles 23  Panthers 16