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AFC/NFC title games: Colts, Saints are Super

Colts rally from 11 back to beat Jets; Vikings stumble and bumble in crushing OT loss to the Saints; boo on the OT rule; hot player of the week.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com


How I saw the AFC and NFC title games:

After two weekends of mostly dull playoffs games, we had two first-rate games Sunday - Colts 30, Jets 17 in the AFC and Saints 31, Vikings 28 (overtime) in the NFC. The Colts rallied from 11 points down to win, while the Saints and Vikings went back and forth until New Orleans pulled it out in a thriller. All in all, a great day for football.

Prior to the games, I picked the Colts by 13 and the Saints by 7, so felt pretty good about the results. My early Super Bowl pick? Colts 31, Saints 24. I will write more about the game next week, but think Indy has a better defense than New Orleans and it will be the difference. The early line has the Colts as 5-point favorites.

Conventional wisdom: So much for momentum, the most overused piece of football analysis. The Saints (0-3) and Colts (0-2) lost their last five combined games. And so much for seeding and byes being unimportant. For the first time since 1993, both No. 1 seeds are in the Super Bowl and being at home made a huge difference in both games.

Agony: I feel for Vikings fans. That was about as gruesome a playoff loss as I've seen since ... well, the 1998 championship game where the Vikes blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and lost to the Falcons. Get a load of these stats:

  • First downs: Vikings 31, Saints 15.
  • Rush yards: Vikings 165, Saints 68.
  • Passing yards: Vikings 310, Saints 189.
  • Total yards: Vikings 475, Saints 257.
  • Third-down conversions: Vikings 7-12, Saints 3-12.

All that and the Vikings still managed to lose. Why? Five turnovers to the Saints' one, including two fumbles lost inside the Saints' 10. There were nine total fumbles by both teams.

Add to the fumbles the awful (yet typical) Favre playoff interception with 19 seconds remaining in regulation that cost the Vikes a chance at a long field goal attempt. Favre rolled out and looked to have at least five yards of running room, but the 40-year-old reverted to a 21-year-old rookie and threw across his body for an interception in what turned out to be the Vikings' last offensive play.

That last drive for Minnesota conjured up bad memories of then-coach Denny Green choking away the 1998 title game by having his team take a knee instead of playing to win in regulation. Sunday, the Saints could not stop the Vikings passing game, yet here were the calls with Minnesota 1st-and10 at the Saints' 33 and 1:06 left - run (no gain); run (no gain); timeout, 5-yard penalty for too many men in the huddle; interception on an ill-advised pass. The penalty was awesomely stupid as was the play calling by Brad Childress. How do you commit a penalty like that when you have called a timeout and should have everyone on the same page? It was a team meltdown.

Overtime was equally gut-wrenching, as the Saints got two first downs via penalties (one a highly questionable PI call), while a sure Vikings interception was lost when a linebacker accidentally knocked the ball free from a teammate ready to snag it. Add to that a non-reversal of a 12-yard catch that might have been incomplete and it was clear that Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley would not miss the game-winning 40-yarder. A glorious season for the purple ended in rubble.

As one Vikings blogger wrote:

What we're left with is unquestionably one of the most crushing Vikings losses of all time. And we've been through plenty of those.

Added another blogger:

So, weather forecast for tomorrow is partly sunny, with a few clouds, and a chance of snow. When I wake up tomorrow morning for work, I'm pretty sure my wife and kids will still love me, I know my dog will, and I even think my Mom will. Hell, I know she will. She's my Mom, she has to. She has no choice, because she's my Mom.

Here is how Brett Favre's last three seasons have ended (2007 with the Packers, 2008 with the Jets and 2009 with the Vikings):

  • Favre's last pass for the Packers? INT in overtime of NFC title game in loss to the Giants.
  • Favre's next to last pass for the Jets? INT in regular-season loss to Miami.
  • Favre's last pass for the Vikings? INT in overtime of the NFC title game in loss to the Saints.

It would be a mistake to say that Favre cost the Vikings the game (the two fumbles inside the 10 were killers), but his last pass was inexcusable and he sounded like a guy after who was ready to call it quits. He got really beat up by a Saints defense that took a lot of what seemed like cheap shots, high and low on him. I was surprised more roughing the passer penalties weren't called. It's a lot to ask a guy who will be 41 during next season to give it another go for a whole season. But we've seen that movie before, so expect more Favre drama in the offseason.

Drought: The Vikes have lost their last four NFC title games and the last time they reached the Super Bowl was during the 1976 season. The four QBs in those losses? Wade Wilson, Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre. The first three title game losers never got close to taking the Vikings back again.

Drought ends: The Saints are in the Super Bowl for the first time since they started playing in 1967.

The dumb OT rule: I have always hated the NFL overtime rule and want each team to be guaranteed a possession (at least in playoff games). We saw a rollicking game abruptly end with Favre and the Vikings offense standing on the sidelines because of a coin flip. As for the argument that the Vikings' defense needed to step up? Fine, but the Saints defense never had to prove itself simply because their offense scored. Give each team a possession, then make it sudden death.

Still rolling: Jim Allen and I screamed ourselves silly watching the Colts beat the Jets. While I had the final margin correct, I never expected the Colts to have to rally from 11 down to win. This team (which pulled its starters in the final two regular season games, both losses) still hasn't lost a game this season it tried to win.

With only one penalty and one turnover, the Colts never beat themselves. And while the Jets played very well (Mark Sanchez looks like a legitimate NFL QB), they could not withstand the relentlessness of a Colts offense that has playmaker after playmaker. Keep Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in check (seven total catches, 90 yards and a touchdown) and first-year starters Pierre Garçon (11 catches, 151 yards and a TD) and Austin Collie (7-123-1) do the damage. Throw in 101 yards rushing to go along with Peyton Manning's 377 yards in the air and the Jets simply could not keep up. Manning showed why he is the NFL MVP this season.

The key sequence in the game was the Colts driving 80 yards in four plays under two minutes in the first half to close the gap to 17-13. The key play was a 46-yard pass from Manning to Collie, one of the most beautiful throws you will see a QB make. This drive showed that the Jets would not be able to stop Indy unless there were turnovers and when none materialized, the Colts were on their way to their second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.

Comeback kids: The Colts never take the easy road in the AFC title game. In 2006, they trailed the Patriots by 18 before rallying for a win, and against the Jets they were down 11 to the league's stingiest defense before scoring 24 unanswered points. In their two playoff wins this year, the Colts have scored three TDs in the final two minutes of the first half.

They love Florida: This will be the Colts' fourth Super Bowl appearance. All have been played in the Miami area.

Rooting interest: I am a huge Colts fan, so I know where I stand, but I expect most of the country to root for the Saints. They have been a nice story since Katrina and with the Colts have won it all so recently, Drew Brees will be the sentimental favorite to get a ring. It has the makings of a thriller in two weeks. So rare to see the two best regular season teams meet in the Super Bowl.

Hot player of the week: Colts receiver Pierre Garçon has a smile that will light up South Beach. And his outspoken advocacy of the Haitian earthquake victims (he has a lot of family in Haiti) has been touching and kept the issue in front of millions.