Sports Outside the Beltway

NFC Conference Championship Preview

As I will be out of town tomorrow and unable to get to a computer until Monday morning, my pigskin prognosticating comes a day early. Beginning in the National Football Conference, the New Orleans Saints are in their first Conference Championship playing against the Chicago Bears. The Saints had the best offense in terms of gaining yards in the NFL this season. The Bears had one of the top defenses.

Drew Brees Advantage Saints Rex Grossman

Much has been made of the erratic play of Rex Grossman. And all of it has been earned. Rex looked lost going deep against the Patriots who just ate his lunch in November in Foxboro. He survived last weekend, an important test after his 0.0 quarterback rating in the regular season finale against Green Bay. Drew Brees on the other hand has been just what the Saints needed, steady, dependable and the architect of the best passing offense in the league. The Saints averaged 281.4 yards in the air as Brees exploited secondary after secondary. He split his catches among his wideouts and his backs, getting 30 or more catches to five different players. Four of them had more than six hundred yards in the air.

Deuce McAllister
Reggie Bush
Advantage Bears Thomas Jones
Cedric Benson

The Bears powerful two pronged ground game is keyed by veteran Thomas Jones, who recorded another 1000 yard season. His 4.1 yards per carry was equaled by Cedric Benson who got half the carries of Jones. Between them, they accounted for nearly 1900 yards this season. That rumbling noise you hear in Chicago is the Bears marching down the field. The Saitns are not slouches running the ball. Their tandem of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush dashed for almost 1600 yards. They present a good mix of speed and power.

Marques Colston
Devery Henderson
Joe Horn
Advantage Saints Mushin Muhammad
Bernard Berrian
Rashied Davis

The Saints offensive advantage is most pronounced in the receiving corps. Colston and Henderson did not even play in all sixteen games, and were good for a combined 1783 yards through the air. Joe Horn chipped in another 679 yards in only 10 games. The trick for the Saints has been keeping all their wideouts on the field at the same time, which is uncertain with Horn nursing a groin injury that leaves him questionable for the game. He’ll play. On the Bears side, Mushin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian lead the way. Former Arena Football player Rasheid Davis, who caught the key pass last week against Seattle rounds out the receivers.

Mark Campbell
Billy Miller
Advantage Bears Desmond Clark

This is a definite plus for the Bears. Desmond Clark is the Bears third leading receiver. Campbell and Miller are not featured in the Saints offense to any degree whatsoever. Clark is the short route that Rex Grossman sometimes overlooks.

Charles Grant
Scott Shanle
Mike McKenzie
Advantage Bears Alex Brown
Brian Urlacher
Charles Tillman

They swarm. They pile on. They gang tackle. The are ball hawks. They love playing defense. They are the Chicago Bears. Monsters of the Midway, maybe not? The Bears defense won’t make anyone forget the 46 Defense of the Super Bowl XX winning Bears. But they effectively kept their opponents out of the end zone weak after week. The Bears earned home field advantage with the best record in the NFC by shutting down teams, not by overpowering them. The Saints defense has been okay. Much like the Colts, they have trouble stopping the run but do quite well shutting down pass plays. Another advantage for Chicago.

John Carney
Steve Weatherford
Michael Lewis
Advantage Bears Robbie Gould
Brad Maynard
Rasheid Davis

Carney continues to hit field goals at a better than 90% clip (23 of 25), but missed one PAT. Robbie Gould, hero of last week, was perfect on PATs, but missed four field goal tries. He did have eleven more attempts than Carney. Brad Maynard handle punting duties for the Bears, doing a great job dropping thirty percent of his kicks inside the twenty. Weatherford was acceptable for the Saints. He did not hit as many punts inside the 20 or the 10 and had more touch backs than Maynard did. The Bears real strength has been in returns. The Bears have brought back 3 kickoffs and 2 punts for touchdowns. Only Reggie Bush has gotten into the End Zone for the Saints on a return.

Sean Payton Even Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith has wrestled with the most difficult job a coach can have. He has had his most talented quarterback, play foolishly. This has led to a reasonable desire from fans, and probably parts of the locker room as well, to try Brian Griese or Kyle Orton once or twice. His management of that situation could have cost the Bears the Divisional game against the Seahawks. Yes, the Bears got lucky. Sean Payton on the other hand is somewhat of an unknown quantity. The Saints could have put the Eagles away, but they stuck around and kept things a little too interesting. They both have never been to this stage of the game before. So to give an edge to either is unfair. We’ll learn more about who the better coach is by watching them against each other. The jobs they have done in turning around moribund franchise has been noteworthy. But turning a team around and winning a Super Bowl are very different things.

The Saints renaissance has come a year after the disaster in New Orleans. They have played with passion and determination. The Bears need to manage the clock, keep the ball away from the high powered Saints offense and play smart. They quarterback is underwhelming and probably costs them this game. Rex Grossman has a lot of talent. He seems like a decent enough guy. But he makes bad, very bad football decisions. The Bears have the two of the three most important factors to winning playoff football 1) a good defense and 2) a good running game. They lack that third crucial element a reliable, smart quarterback.

New Orleans 23 Indianapolis 14 – The Saints Go Marching to Miami

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