I thought I had it all figured out. The NFL was back to an era of dominant teams playing at a level above everyone else. Throughout the regular season, New England (16-0), Indianapolis (13-3), Dallas (13-3) and Green Bay (13-3) appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
I was confident that none of the other eight playoff teams had a realistic shot at the conference championship. I was banking on the big name quarterbacks to lead their teams to victory, setting up colossal matchups prior to the Super Bowl. Brady vs. Manning. Favre vs. Romo. It was all set.
But it was all too good to be true.
So now it’s Brady vs. Rivers. Or maybe even Brady vs. Volek. And it’s Favre vs. Manning. Favre vs. the other Manning – Eli Manning.
With two of the NFL’s titans – Indianapolis and Dallas – eliminated at least a round earlier than expected, the Patriots and Packers will both be heavy favorites at home. It’s an easy case to make for picking New England and Green Bay to meet in the Super Bowl.
Foxboro + Brady + Moss + 17-0 seems to equal a Super Bowl berth for New England.
Lambeau + single digit temperatures + Favre + his discovery of the Fountain of Youth seems to equal a Super Bowl berth for Green Bay.
And yes, I’m as infatuated as the next guy with the too-good-to-be true storylines that would accompany a Pats-Packers Super Bowl. But there’s no need to write a column explaining why New England and Green Bay will win. They’re supposed to. However, the beauty of the NFL playoffs is that it’s one and done. And you never know when Billy Volek might strike twice in one playoff run. So let me make a case for what it will take for the Chargers and Giants to win this weekend.
Road success in the conference championship
Since the NFL switched to its current playoff format of six teams per conference in 1990, 14 teams have won the conference championship game on the road. Unfortunately for the Chargers and Giants, they aren’t playing the game in Pennsylvania, where the Steelers and Eagles have combined for nearly half of all the home championship game losses over this time period.
The fact that San Diego and New York are going on the road to play against Brady and Favre, respectively, doesn’t help either. Both quarterbacks have won conference championship games on the road themselves. But here is a list of 10 ways the Chargers or Giants (or both) can pull the upset this weekend based on the performances of successful road teams in championship games past.
1. Knock the opposing team’s Pro Bowl quarterback out of the game
(1990 – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers and 2000 – Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders)
What happened back then: Leonard Marshall did the dubious deed for the Giants during the 1990 NFC Championship. It was the end of Joe Montana’s career in San Francisco.
Ten years later, the Ravens’ 340-pound defensive lineman Tony Siragusa effectively ended Rich Gannon’s afternoon when he landed on the Raiders quarterback in the second quarter. Gannon made a re-appearance in the second half but was unable to finish the game.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): The Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks this season.
The Chargers were fifth in the league with 42. If that’s not enough, Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman’s nickname is “Lights Out.”
Why it won’t be easy: According to footballoutsiders.com, Green Bay had the best pass protection in the league with an adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down, and distance) of just 3.1 percent. New England was not far behind with a fourth-best 4.1 percent adjusted sack rate.
2. Ride the NFL’s leading rusher
(1992 – Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers)
What happened back then: Dallas’ Emmitt Smith carried 24 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The Chargers do possess the NFL’s leading rusher in LaDainian Tomlinson, and he is a big reason the team rebounded from a 1-3 start.
Why it won’t be easy: Tomlinson missed the second half of the Chargers’ divisional round win against Indianapolis with a knee injury, and is questionable for the game against New England.
3. Infect the opposition with a chronic case of fumbleitis.
(1992 – Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins)
What happened back then: Miami fumbled four times, losing three of them en route to a 29-10 defeat.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): The Packers’ Ryan Grant fumbled on two of the team’s first three plays last week against Seattle.
Why it won’t be easy: Grant bounced back from his miscues to carry the ball for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns. Only Tomlinson has more rushing yards since week 10.
4. Win ugly
(1994 – San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers)
What happened back then: Take a look at the box score. The Chargers were outgained more than 2-to-1 through the air, and didn’t make up the difference on the ground or via turnovers. The Steelers also had a time of possession advantage of nearly 15 minutes.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): The Chargers won last week despite surrendering more than 400 yards passing to Peyton Manning.
The Giants won last week despite being outgained and losing the time of possession battle by 13 minutes.
Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots blow out teams who play poorly. They don’t even give them a chance to hang around and win a game they have no right winning. The Packers have a penchant for blowouts too. They won six games by 19 points or more.
5. Motivate your Hall of Famer, who doesn’t want it to end here but senses the end is near.
(1997 – Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers and 2005 – Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos)
What happened back then: In ’97, John Elway was in his 15th season, and he had already lost three Super Bowls in his career. He wasn’t stellar, but he threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns, leading his team back to the big game.
In 2005, they flipped the script. Jerome Bettis scored a touchdown to make it 17-3 Steelers and Pittsburgh never looked back.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who is fifth on the NFL’s all-time sacks list, is contemplating retirement at the end of the year.
Why it won’t be easy: The Packers have a legend of their own in Brett Favre, who also would likely retire following a Super Bowl victory this season.
6. Catch a record-setting offense on an off day
(1998 – Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings)
What happened back then: The 1998 Vikings were an offensive juggernaut. They amassed 6,264 yards and scored 556 points en route to a 15-1 season. Kicker Gary Anderson even had a perfect season, going 35-for-35 on field goals and 59-for-59 on extra points.
But against Atlanta, the Vikings were outgained, and the score was 27-27 heading into overtime. In overtime, Anderson missed his first field goal of the season, a 38-yarder, and the Vikings dream season ended in nightmarish fashion with the Falcons winning 30-27.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The 2007 Patriots eclipsed the prolific marks of those ’98 Vikings, gaining 6,580 yards and scoring 589 points this season. That’s an average of nearly 37 points per game. Yet in four games this year, New England failed to score 30.
Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots didn’t lose any of those games when they scored less than usual. Of course, they haven’t lost at all this season. Perfection may be just two wins away for the Pats, but don’t forget those Vikings had something else in common with the ’07 Patriots. Randy Moss led both teams in receiving yards and touchdowns.
7. Find unconventional ways to score
(1999 – Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars and 2001 – New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers)
What happened back then: In 1999, the Titans were leading 17-14 when they sacked Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell for a safety. Derrick Mason return the ensuing free kick 80 yards for a touchdown, giving Tennessee nine points in less than 20 seconds.
In ’01, the Patriots struck first with a 55-yard punt return touchdown from Troy Brown. Then in the third quarter, Brown made his presence felt again. After a blocked field goal, Antwan Harris took the lateral from Brown and raced to the end zone to give New England a 21-3 lead.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): Chargers second-year cornerback Antonio Cromartie returned a fumble and an interception for a touchdown in a game against Houston earlier this season. Cromartie also had an interception return touchdown called back because of a questionable holding penalty last week.
The Giants defense has three return touchdowns on the season, and punt returner R.W. McQuarters had a key 25-yard return last week against Dallas.
Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots and Packers are strong in all phases of the game, including special teams. Favre, however, is more likely than Brady to get burned by an errant pass for a pick-six.
8. Avenge the previous year’s postseason loss with a new coach
(2002 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles)
What happened back then: Tampa Bay was beaten soundly by the Eagles, 31-9 in the wild card round of the playoffs. It turned out to be the last game Tony Dungy coached for the Buccaneers. He was replaced by Jon Gruden, who promptly led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title, a run which included a 27-10 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The Chargers were the top seed in the AFC last year under coach Marty Schottenheimer. But they lost their opening playoff game at home against New England, and Schottenheimer was replaced by Norv Turner. After leading the Chargers to two postseason wins, San Diego is hopeful that they can make it 3-0 with an upset over the Patriots.
Why it won’t be easy: Prior to this season, Turner was just 1-1 lifetime in the playoffs. On the opposing sideline, Patriots coach Bill Belichick entered this season with a 13-3 career postseason record.
9. Play a second generation Manning.
(2003 – Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles)
What happened back then: Rookie cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr. intercepted three Donovan McNabb passes as the Panthers shutdown the Eagles 14-3.
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): Archie’s son and Peyton’s little brother, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has always been “the other Manning.” But thanks to his first two playoff wins, and Peyton’s Colts’ loss to the Chargers, Eli is the man among the Manning clan this Sunday.
Why it won’t be easy: After throwing four interceptions in his first two career playoff games (both losses), Eli Manning has played turnover free football in the Giants’ two playoff wins. However, the Packers possess arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league in Al Harris and Charles Woodson.
10. Win the turnover battle
What happened back then (see graphic):
So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): Winning the turnover battle is likely the most foolproof way of picking up the road victory win in the conference championship. Since 1990, no team has lost the turnover battle and won a conference title on the road. And only two (Atlanta in 1998 and San Diego in 1994) managed to win with a zero turnover differential.
Why it won’t be easy: Brady and Favre are two of the best clutch quarterbacks in NFL history. They’ve combined for five Super Bowl appearances, and are both extremely motivated to win it all this year. Of course, turnovers don’t always happen through the air. And sometimes, they don’t involve quarterbacks at all.
My final analysis
Having listed all the ingredients necessary for the Giants and/or Chargers to pull the big upset this weekend, I still can’t bear to pick them to win. Just because they have the recipe, it doesn’t mean they know how to cook the gourmet meal. More specifically, I cannot pick against Favre or Brady. While I do think both games will be closer than expected, expect a historic Super Bowl matchup between two surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks.