We are set up for a great weekend of football.
Subplot? New York's regular-season win over the Colts set the stage for the Jets to make the playoffs, allowing them to become this year's Cinderella.
Then there is this story line straight out of Hollywood: Brett Favre comes out of retirement in the middle of training camp and, at 40 years old, leads the Vikings into the NFC Championship Game in the building where he won his only Super Bowl. And the Saints, in the NFC Championship Game for the second time in four years, trying to get to their first Super Bowl, representing the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
No matter which of these teams goes to the Super Bowl, it will be a great story line too, but that is for next week's column.
Indianapolis Colts vs. New York Jets
Defense has led the Jets all year and will have to lead them in this game as well. Darrelle Revis, who has had a great season, will have to come up with another big game. The Jets have to decide how much man-to-man coverage they want to use. When they do that they will match up Revis against Reggie Wayne. I believe Revis can neutralize Wayne, but to balance that you want to vary your coverages against Peyton Manning to keep him guessing. I expect the Jets to mix it up and not have Revis on Wayne all the time.
The Colts' other wide receivers are good players but not necessarily game changers or receivers you have to build a game plan around. The difficult matchup for the Jets will be tight end Dallas Clark. I don't believe their safeties or linebackers can cover him. The Jets faced a similar situation this past weekend with Antonio Gates and survived in part because of Gates dropping balls, varied coverages and keeping Philip Rivers off balance with pressure. Containing Clark will be a key for the Jets.
The Colts do an excellent job of pass blocking while using the running game as a diversion, not a staple of their offense. The Jets do not have any individual pass rushers to cause the Colts great concern in one-on-one matchups. Manning gets rid of the ball quickly and he is adept at sliding in the pocket to buy time. The key for the Jets in getting to Manning is devising blitzes that leave a rusher free, which is where Rex Ryan excels. Manning has faced Ryan-coached defenses a number of times, with Manning usually prevailing. Who will win this pressure battle: Manning or Rex Ryan?
Another thing I will watch will be how many turnovers the Colts have. In the Jets' upset over the Chargers they took advantage of their two interceptions of Philip Rivers. A day before, the Ravens' bid fell short because they did not take advantage of their interception of Peyton Manning.
When the Jets have the ball their formula is simple. They want to run it and keep mistakes to a minimum. They have found a true gem in rookie running back Shonn Greene. I believe he is their best back and I would make sure he gets the majority of carries in this game. The Jets have a solid line and can move the ball on the ground. The Colts do not have a big defensive line but they are quick and have the ability to stop the run.
The key on offense for the Jets will be time of possession and getting touchdowns in the red zone. They must be patient with the run and rely on their defense to keep them in the game until the fourth quarter like they did against the Chargers.
Mark Sanchez will need to play better than he did at San Diego. He is best when he is outside the pocket, either on designed plays or when he is scrambling. I saw the same thing in college that I see now. He has the ability to see the field very well when he is scrambling. You saw that Sunday on his touchdown pass to Dustin Keller.
A great matchup will be a couple of Pro Bowl players going against each other: Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney and Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. And don't forget about the Damien Woody going against the Colts' other Pro Bowl defensive end, Robert Mathis. I give the Colts the edge here in part because of the crowd noise.
New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings
These were the best two teams in the NFC all year and it is fitting they are playing for the NFC title. Favre vs. Drew Brees will be the headline and it certainly deserves to be. Both have had great seasons.
I think the Vikings will be able to move the ball on the Saints. New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will surely come up with a number of combinations to try to keep Favre off balance, but you have to remember with Favre's experience and instincts, he probably will not be fooled often.
The great thing about the Vikings offense is that they are so balanced. They can run the ball with Adrian Peterson or they can throw it to a variety of weapons, including wide receivers Sidney Rice (Favre's favorite deep target), Percy Harvin (many think he is their most dangerous offensive player), speedster Bernard Berrian, running back Chester Taylor and under-publicized tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
I think New Orleans will really struggle defending all these options. The key will be Favre's execution of the offense. If he plays like he has for most of the season, the New Orleans defense will be in for a long day. Favre must realize he doesn't have to do everything himself and still win this game. I would like to see Minnesota come out and throw early to keep New Orleans off balance. If Favre does not have any turnovers, Minnesota wins this game.
The New Orleans offense will cause problems for the Minnesota secondary. The Saints do not have a true big-time receiver. What they do have is a good group of receivers including tight end Jeremy Shockey, a great quarterback in Brees and an excellent scheme.
There is a definite mismatch with defensive end Jared Allen matched up with Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Allen has to take over the game as he did to a degree last weekend against the Cowboys. This time he will not have the advantage of the home crowd, but he still holds the edge in talent. Also, the Vikings are very strong against the run, which is a quiet strength for the Saints.
New Orleans believes in the running game. This matchup will be strength vs. strength: Minnesota defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams against the Saints' two best offensive linemen, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. When the Saints have the ball I will focus on these matchups, not Brees throwing it.
I believe Minnesota is a better overall team and that is why I think they are going to win.
Pick: Minnesota Vikings