Friday, January 20, 2006

NFL Conference Championship Sunday Preview

Sunday is Conference Championship day in the NFL -- the day that the matchup in Super Bowl XL will be set. PaMonk still calls this the best football day of the year and his nostalgia is understandable. After all, when his young-to-teenage son and he watched Super Bowls together at the MonkHouse, the games were often blowouts (San Fran-Miami, Chicago-New England, Oakland-Philly, Raiders-Redskins, Redskins-Broncos) instead of classics (49ers-Bengals I is an exception) or dreams-come-true games (Giants 39, Broncos 20; 'nuff said for Giants fans who suffered for three decades).

Indeed, during the NFC's 13-year run of dominance from 1984-1996, only three games were decided by 10 points or fewer (49ers-Bengals II, Giants-Bills, Cowboys-Steelers III). PaMonk's hagiographical memory misses a few points -- after all, for all the classics (1990 Giants-49ers, 1986-1987 Broncos-Browns) you can also get more than a fair share of embarrassments (1990 Raiders 51-3 loss in Buffalo; 1991 Lions 41-10 losers to Washington). Even recently, allegedly well-matched opponents have engaged in ridiculously one-sided contests (Giants-Vikings 2000).

But the conference championship matches do tend to have a lot of drama (1990 NFC, 2001 NFC, 1995 AFC, and the all-timer 1981 NFC) and some notable upsets (2003 Carolina, 1979 Rams), especially in the AFC (1985 New England, 1986 Denver, 1992 Buffalo, 1994 San Diego, 1997 Denver, 1999 Tennessee, 2001 New England).

This year's matchups are just odd: #6 at #2 in the AFC, #5 at #1 in the NFC; and both home teams are undefeated at home this year. The Monk's predictions? Worth every penny you're paying for them:

Pittsburgh at Denver: I still doubt the Broncos, and will continue to do so even if they win their third Super Bowl under Mike Shanahan. I like how Ben Roethlisberger is playing right now and I think the balanced attack of the Steelers will give the Broncs trouble. The best way to curb the Broncs' blitzes = sprint draws with Willie Parker and look-ins to Heath Miller.

Carolina at Seattle: I do not doubt the Panthers anymore, nor John Fox. The question is do they have enough to beat the Seahawks -- no DeShaun Foster, possibly no Julius Peppers. Answer: no. Ray Rhodes was a middling head coach with the Eagles and Packers, but he is a very good defensive coordinator. I retract that statement prospectively if he cannot figure out how to jump the quick outs and/or stifle the bombs that the Panthers throw to Steve Smith.

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