Breaking Down the NFL Championship Games

By Evan Silva and Gregg Rosenthal
|  Monday, Jan 18, 2010  |  Updated 11:30 PM CDT
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Breaking Down the NFL Championship Games

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No playoff quarterback is playing as well as Favre, who's thrown for 25 touchdowns compared to just five turnovers since Week 8.

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As the teams prepare for the NFL championship games this Sunday, which areas of their teams are strengths or weaknesses or neither? Here's a breakdown of six key areas and the most important player involved.

NFC Championship

SAINTS

Rushing offense

Key player: Pierre Thomas
Thomas is the Saints' workhorse when healthy, but bumps and bruises have limited his effectiveness. He played through cracked ribs and a sprained ankle en route to just 52 yards on 13 carries in the divisional round. Against a stout Vikings interior defense, New Orleans may lean more on "satellite back" Reggie Bush, who has the hot hand after dropping 84 yards and a touchdown on Arizona. He can beat Minnesota's slower perimeter defenders to the edge. Weakness.

Passing offense

Key player: Drew Brees
The Vikings' pass defense dominated Sunday's win over Dallas, holding previously red-hot QB Tony Romo under 200 passing yards. Brees, however, gets rid of the ball more quickly than Romo and won't play into the hands of Minnesota's deadly pass rushers. Willing to take what the defense gives him, look for Brees to open with a short-based pass game. Successful execution could frustrate the Vikings' front four, cause them to take plays off, and open up deep-ball opportunities. Strength.

Rushing defense

Key player: Sedrick Ellis
Ellis' health was in question after being slowed for much of the season's second half by knee troubles. The defensive tackle answered by rejoining the starting lineup in Saturday's drubbing of Arizona, sacking Kurt Warner once, and playing stout run defense. After Tim Hightower ran for a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, Arizona averaged a paltry 2.21 yards per carry. The Saints will gain a sizable edge if they similarly bottle up Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Neither.

Passing defense

Key player: Darren Sharper
Arizona managed just two completions of 20-or-more yards in the divisional round at New Orleans, one ending on a fumble by Cardinals receiver Jerheme Urban that was recovered by Sharper. New Orleans' zone-based secondary is designed to limit long pass plays and produce takeaways. This makes for an intriguing matchup against Brett Favre, who's put together the most efficient and accurate season of his career while maintaining plenty of aggressiveness. Strength

Special teams

Key player: Reggie Bush
A year after scoring three times, Reggie Bush didn't return a single punt for a touchdown during the '09 season. All was forgotten when he broke off an 83-yard score in the third quarter of last week's blowout win over Arizona. Bush caught a Ben Graham line drive and made one cut before beating the Cards' coverage unit to the house. The Vikings are mediocre in punt coverage and gave up a touchdown this year. Bush figures to have some more openings on Sunday. Strength

Coaching: Sean Payton
Payton upped his career postseason record to 2-1 in last Saturday's whipping of Arizona. Still, this is just Payton's second playoff team, so there's not a whole lot of history to draw on. It's worth noting that Payton has won a tight, fairly high-scoring playoff game before. Keyed by two Deuce McAllister third-quarter rushing touchdowns, Payton's Saints edged out Andy Reid's Eagles 27-24 during the 2007 postseason. Neither

VIKINGS

Rushing offense

Key player: Adrian Peterson
Lacking patience inside the tackles and getting few holes from his overrated line, Peterson is averaging 3.33 yards a carry in his last eight games. The Saints are smallish up front, however, especially after losing 290-pound defensive end Charles Grant to a torn triceps in Week 17. New Orleans showed susceptibility in the divisional round by letting Tim Hightower bust a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. This may be the matchup A.P. needs to get back on track. Strength

Passing offense

Key player: Brett Favre
No playoff quarterback is playing as well as Favre, who's thrown for 25 touchdowns compared to just five turnovers since Week 8. At New Orleans, though, top receiver Sidney Rice won't see the constant single teams Dallas showed him in the divisional round. The Vikings will likely need slot man Percy Harvin, underused deep threat Bernard Berrian, and hulking tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to step up if they hope to keep pace with the Saints' relentless aerial attack. Strength

Rushing defense

Key player: Pat Williams
Coordinator Leslie Frazier's unit is always stout against the run, and 2009 was no different. The Vikings finished No. 2 in rush defense while allowing a league-low five rushing scores. Their strength is up the middle, however, where the "Williams Wall" resides, and Dallas running back Felix Jones showed last week that Minnesota's defensive exterior is vulnerable by averaging 4.9 yards per carry on a variety of edge runs. The Saints may take a similar approach featuring Reggie Bush. Strength

Passing defense

Key player: Ray Edwards
The Vikings run a zone-based pass defense that relies heavily on pass rush from the front four. Safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams split up the deep half. The unit is so successful because defensive ends Jared Allen and Edwards are havoc-wreaking edge presences and defensive tackle Kevin Williams is a penetrator inside. Look for the Saints to work the middle of the field early, using short passes to set up the deep ball. Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley is a liability in coverage. Neither

Special teams

Key player: Percy Harvin
Harvin finished the regular season ranked fourth overall in kick-return average (27.5 yards per attempt), and his two touchdowns tied Ted Ginn Jr. for second in the league behind Josh Cribbs' three. The real question is whether the Saints will kick to him. The Cowboys didn't. Strength

Coaching: Brad Childress
Like his adversary Sean Payton, the Vikings coach is making just his second career playoff appearance. Minnesota was one-and-done in Childress' last trip, falling to the Eagles 26-14 in 2008. The Vikings won their first game in decisive, 34-3 fashion, so perhaps this is the year for Minnesota's bearded head coach. Neither

AFC Championship

COLTS

 

Rushing offense

Key player: Joseph Addai
The weakest part of the Colts. Joseph Addai doesn’t make people miss, and rookie Donald Brown is too boom-or-bust. Against Baltimore, the team struggled at times just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Six rushing plays lost yardage and the team only gained 42 yards on the ground. The Jets present a similarly physical test. Surprisingly, the Colts do excel in short-yardage situations. Weakness

Passing offense

 

Key player: Peyton Manning
Manning is playing his best football, but this isn’t the best Colts passing attack we’ve ever seen. Young wideouts Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon have been pleasant surprises, but they are still developing. The kids will have to win their one-one-one matchups because Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark will see so much attention. The Ravens held Manning to 5.6 yards per attempt by roughing up the receivers and forcing short passes. The Jets have a similar group, but better. Manning will have to be patient. Strength

Rush defense

 

Key player: Gary Brackett
This is where the Colts are superior to past teams. The team’s no-name defensive tackle rotation led by Daniel Muir holds up well in power situations. Linebackers Clint Session and Brackett attack and their speed makes up for their size. The Colts stuffed Ray Rice last week, but stopping the Jets will be even tougher. This is an aggressive unit, but their depth will be tested. Neither

Pass defense

 

Key player: Jacob Lacey
Tony Dungy’s system left, but the Colts’ ability to stop the pass didn’t. That’s largely because of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, football's best edge rushing duo. Two rookie cornerbacks -- third-rounder Jerraud Powers and undrafted free agent Jacob Lacey -- have held up remarkably well. The Colts are willing to give up the short pass, but not long bombs. Don’t look for Braylon Edwards to get deep. Strength

Coaching: Jim Caldwell
Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has been a difference maker. He’s tweaked Tony Dungy’s system and the result is more unpredictability. Coyer isn’t afraid to blitz his linebackers or safeties at key moments. They ‘ve shown a consistent knack for making the big play with the game on the line. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and Peyton Manning have been together so long, they think with one mind. No team is better in end of half or game situations. Strength

Special teams

 

Key player: Matt Stover
Annually among the worst special teams in the league, the Colts are now closer to average. They surprisingly chose to keep Matt Stover active at kicker over Adam Vinatieri, who was recovering from a hip injury. The Colts have given up their share of punt returns, which is something to watch. Neither

JETS

 

Rushing Offense

Key player: Shonn Greene
The Jets wouldn’t be this far without their rookie running back. Greene’s passed Thomas Jones as the team’s key back, providing a lethal combination of power and big-play ability. He can make defenders miss more than Jones. The Jets also use Danny Woodhead as a slot receiver/third-down back. Unlike most teams, the Jets will continue to run all game even if it’s not working early. Strength

Passing offense

 

Key player: Mark Sanchez
Sanchez is surviving, but let’s not get carried away. The “Sanchize” threw for only 100 yards on 23 attempts last week, and did virtually nothing the first three quarters. With that said, the kid has a knack for converting third downs in big moments. He throws well on the run. Sanchez will have to stay calm in the face of the pass rush. The Colts don’t give up many big plays, but look the Jets to test them down the middle with Dustin Keller. Weakness

Rush defense

Key player: David Harris
In theory, this unit should have fallen apart when Pro Bowl nose tackle Kris Jenkins went down for the season. Instead, they’ve steadily improved. The Colts won’t bother running much. When they do, linebacker Harris will pick up tackles while the team’s unsung linemen like Shaun Ellis occupy blockers. Calvin Pace is the team’s most versatile linebacker. Strength

Pass defense

Key player: Darrell Revis
What more can be said about Revis? He’s put together the best cornerback season of any player since Deion Sanders in 2004. Revis can lock down Reggie Wayne, allowing safety Kerry Rhodes and a second defender to watch Dallas Clark. Rhodes has rebounded after a late-season benching. The team’s pass defense isn’t all about Revis. The top unit in the league has another quality starter in Lito Sheppard. Strength

Coaching: Rex Ryan
One of the most overlooked aspects of a team is physical play and tackling. The Jets excel at both and have turned it up a notch in the playoffs. The Colts better be ready to match the Jets’ intensity. The Jets had more success blitzing Tom Brady than sitting back, and saw Manning get hit a few times last week. He’s seen it all, so they probably won’t get too crazy. The Jets will try to beat on Indy’s receivers. Strength

Special teams

Key player: Jay Feely
The Jets have an advantage in special teams. They have a good kick return unit and they are above average on punts. The Colts’ coverage groups aren’t always great. The Jets would love to play a field position game. Punter Steve Weatherford has recovered from an irregular heartbeat and will play. Kicker Jay Feely hasn’t had the postseason yips like many of his colleagues. Strength

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