Throughout the year, we've talked about competitive balance in the National Football League and this year's postseason -- starting with wild-card weekend right on through the conference title games -- has proven the point. Of the 10 post-season games played through Sunday, the home teams are 5-5. In all 10 games, the eventual winner came from behind at some point in the game.
For the first time since 1975, an NFC wild-card team will play in the Super Bowl. Of course, the last time an AFC team made the Super Bowl (and won it) as a wild card was just two years ago. Will the Giants be the Steelers of 2005? Only time will tell.
Over the next two weeks, we will read, watch and listen to what will seem like endless reasons why and how either the Giants or Patriots will win Super Bowl XLII. It should be great couple of weeks leading up to the game. In the meantime, let's take one more look back at the conference championship games.
San Diego-New England
This game was all about scoring touchdowns in the red zone. New England did it and San Diego did not. Both teams opened the game offensively with three-and-outs. But the biggest news was that LaDainian Tomlinson only played one more down after that first drive, and then was forced to sit with a knee injury. The Chargers were inside the Patriots' 10-yard line three times and came away with just three field goals. If Tomlinson had played, I think it's safe to think at least one of those occasions would have resulted in a touchdown.
That said, you can't take anything away from New England's defense. On one of the series, Junior Seau made a great play. On another series, Tedy Bruschi recognized the play-action pass and made a great play on Antonio Gates.
When you check the final defensive stats, you'll see that Mike Vrabel had one tackle and two assists. However, stats don't indicate the red-zone play in which Vrabel had a great rush on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and forced him to throw the ball early -- thus preventing him from having enough time to spot a wide-open Vincent Jackson in the end zone.
As for the Patriots' offense, you have to give the New England coaches credit for running back Laurence Maroney's performance. They seem to have changed their running game in recent weeks to better suit Maroney's style. They used to be more of an inside, power running team. Now they are giving Maroney more off-tackle carries that allow him to bounce it outside. Maroney has scored a touchdown in five consecutive games.
|Tim Umphrey / Getty Images|
|Mike Vrabel made a key play in the AFC title game to keep San Diego out of the end zone.|
Meanwhile, veteran role-player Kevin Faulk may have been the MVP of the AFC title game - he seemed to make a big play every time they needed one.
As for Tom Brady, the win over San Diego was not one of his better games -- still, he won his 100th game (regular season and playoffs combined). Prior to Sunday, Brady's career record when throwing three or more interceptions in a game was 9-12. Fortunately for the Patriots, Brady's supporting cast was more than capable of picking up the slack. The Patriots draft well, but more than anything they pick up players in free agency and trades that make a difference. Vrabel, Wes Welker, Rodney Harrison, Jabar Gaffney ... it's amazing how they go get these guys.s
N.Y. Giants-Green Bay
After allowing 80 points in their first two games and starting 0-2, the Giants hit the road to face a Redskins squad that was 2-0. That game was played on Sept. 23 -- and there were some writers in New York suggesting that Tom Coughlin would be out of a job on Sept. 24. Now Coughlin and the Giants are playing in the Super Bowl.
The game plan against the Packers was to stop the run and make Brett Favre beat them. Offensively, the game plan was to run the ball, protect Eli Manning, and complete short, quick passes. The Giants front four has played terrific all season and Sunday was no exception. Earlier in the year, the Giants blitzed a great deal. They've been able to cut down on blitzing in recent weeks and that's coincided with better pass coverage.
In the first half, linebacker Antonio Pierce made a great play on a screen pass that most likely saved a touchdown. With 1:52 left before halftime, facing third-and-8 from the Giants' 19, Favre tossed to rookie running back Brandon Jackson on a screen. Pierce broke through blockers to made the play on Jackson, forcing a field goal.
The Giants established field position on the opening drive after halftime and maintained it most of the second half. There were two big plays that helped the Giants win: The first was when Al Harris intercepted a Manning pass on the fifth play of the second half, returning it to the Giants' 39, only to see the play negated by an illegal contact penalty on Harris. The Giants retained possession and scored on that drive.
The second was Lawrence Tynes' game-winning field goal in overtime. That may sound like it's overly obvious, but the credit goes to Coughlin for letting Tynes attempt the 47-yard field goal. Tynes had already missed two shorter tries, and he was fighting the history that no visiting kicker in Lambeau had ever converted a field goal of more than 40 yards in the playoffs. It wasn't so much that Coughlin knew Tynes would make it; the point is that he had faith in his defense if they didn't make it.
Two coaches on the Giants staff are unsung heroes here. The first is Chris Palmer, the veteran quarterbacks coach who joined the team in the offseason and has done a great job of making Manning a better quarterback. The other is offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who has done a great job with a line that has played better than expected this season. You never hear his name, he Flaherty just takes those guys and makes it work. He has helped David Diehl make an impressive switch this season from guard to left tackle. Flaherty has coached with three teams in the last seven years, and has been with the Giants since 2004. The Giants averaged 4.6 yards per carry this season.