I saw Archie and Olivia Manning Thursday night, out to a quiet 39th anniversary dinner at Gautreau's. Archie has that nervous look on his face. You know, the look of a dad before one of his kids plays a very big game. (We dads know that look, don't we?) And I am going to project the Super Bowl match that will leave Archie Manning the most conflicted man in America for the next two weeks.
On Sunday, I'm going with the Colts, Archie's kid's team, and the Saints, Archie's town's team. With a few asterisks. Because it would not surprise me remotely to see a Jets-Vikings Brett Favre Bowl in Miami 16 days from now.
My thought process on Sunday's games:
• Colts 20, Jets 16. The mentality of the Jets could win this game. In Rex Ryan's office at the Jets' New Jersey training complex, there is one photo of the current team. It's not a defensive photo. It's a photo of the New York offensive line, the one that's paved the way for the leading rushing team in the NFL this year. As Ryan told me last weekend, "I've told the coaches and players from the start of this thing, 'If we have a good offensive line, we're going to win.' It's that simple. Everything flows from that.'' And it has.
Last week, the Jets rushed 30 times for 99 yards in the first 52 minutes of the game at San Diego ... and on the 31st attempt, Shonn Greene broke the 53-yard touchdown gallop that broke San Diego's back. Could it happen again? Certainly. That's why this game is anything but a gimme for the Colts. Indy will defend the run with speed instead of power, and it'll be a different type of game for the Jets' stout line.
On defense, the Jets remind me of the New Jersey Devils. Opposing fans hate the Devils because they muck up the middle of the ice and negate the great skaters of the league with their defense-first style. I expect a similar rushing game from the Colts as I saw in San Diego last week -- 18 carries, 61 mostly fruitless yards for the Chargers -- and so, as usual, the outcome of a big Colts game will be on Peyton Manning's shoulders. That's why I'm picking Indianapolis. As good as the Jets' karma and running game and defense are, I think the one superior player in the game will find a way to win.
Take for granted that Darrelle Revis is going to shut down whoever he covers, like Reggie Wayne. "The difference with Peyton and other quarterbacks,'' Revis told me Sunday night, "is he'll try to fit a throw into a tighter spot than any other quarterback will. That's what's so tough when you play him.''
Manning's history is he won't try to force the ball into the coverage area of a great corner -- he famously avoided Champ Bailey in a Denver playoff game a few years ago and still torched the Broncos -- but he'll still throw the ball 35 times without fear. I think Austin Collie and Dallas Clark will pick up the slack with 16 to 20 catches, moving the sticks enough to generate four scoring drives. But if Revis or Lito Sheppard or Jim Leonhard can bait Manning into a vital mistake -- ala Ed Reed -- it could make all the difference.
For me, what it comes down to is: I won't be shocked if the Jets win, but I can't imagine that Manning will lose.
• Saints 31, Vikings 27. Yes, I saw the Vikings defense hit or sack Tony Romo 25 times in 42 pass-drops last week. (True. Romo went back to pass 42 times, was sacked six times, scrambled once and got buried, and got hit 18 times on his 35 attempts.)
And so, yes, I should automatically pick the Vikes, because we all recall what the Dallas pass-rush did to the New Orleans tackles in tormenting Drew Brees in a Cowboy win a month ago. I've gone around and around all week about this game because I believe it's a coin-flip game. But I'm going with the Saints, because I think Sean Payton knows how to coach against oppressive rushes.
I bet in the first quarter, if the Saints run 15 plays and nine or 10 are passes, those nine or 10 will be quick throws to Reggie Bush or Jeremy Shockey, or eight-yard comebacks to the wideouts. Payton knows he can't give Jared Allen and Ray Edwards time to get to Brees. And so he'll squeeze the massive playbook into manageable throws, extended handoffs for Brees. Instead of trying to go down the field in big chunks, Brees and Payton will try to move the chains methodically. That's their recipe for success.
But the Vikings are so hot right now. Sedrick Ellis has to have the kind of day he had against the Arizona running game (14 carries, 31 yards) after Tim Hightower opened with the 70-yard touchdown romp. And Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has to do the same thing to Brett Favre that he did to Kurt Warner.
Did you notice how Williams compressed the pocket so effectively last week? His philosophy was to not allow Warner the room to step up a yard or two in the pocket when he began to feel lateral pressure; the theory being that Warner is so slow he can't scramble out of trouble, and Williams was spot-on there. The difference is Favre is much better throwing on the run. He makes some of his greatest plays while improvising out of the pocket -- so much so that the Saints rushers will need to be equally concerned with not giving him an escape route on either side of the pocket.
It's almost impossible to predict this game. Both quarterbacks are so good, and so accurate downfield, that I could see either side winning by 14 or winning a squeaker. I really like both defensive coordinators, and either Williams or his counterpart Leslie Frazier -- who got Edwards mentally prepared to play the game of his life against Dallas -- could come up with the wrinkle to make a play to win the game in the fourth quarter.
This could be like a great golf tournament where it comes down to two great players being even after 70 holes and Mickelson dumping his tee shot on 17 into the trap, and Tiger hitting his into the short grass of the fairway. What could decide it? The noise of the dome? Edwards' balky knee? Robert Meachem's bum ankle, taking away any Saints deep threat? Any or all of the above. I would not go to Vegas with this pick.
Brad Smith, QB/WR/Special Teams, Jets.
A weird choice. But there's something about the way the Jets have played the season, and used Smith, that almost feels like he's been purposely hidden the first two playoff games. Three touches from scrimmage, five yards. That's it. After a 25-touch, 270-yard impact in the regular season, and with the threat of Smith being able to throw it from the Wildcat or shotgun, I just feel like Rex Ryan, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and special-teams coach Mike Westhoff are cooking up some way for Smith to be a difference-maker Sunday. If he touches the ball four or five times, the slippery, fast and athletic Smith could be the difference in a tight game.
1. The continuing downward spiral of the Pro Bowl. It's almost like it's a punishment to have to play in it. If Peyton Manning wins Sunday, that will mean that eight of the 16 quarterbacks in the AFC this year can call themselves 2009 Pro Bowlers. The three voted in were Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers. Brady and Rivers bowed out because of injury, as did the first alternate, Ben Roethlisberger, though none of them missed any time because of their injuries late in the season. Then came Matt Schaub; he'll play. Then Carson Palmer; he won't because of thumb surgery on his non-throwing hand. Then Vince Young, who started all of 10 games this year. As I said on Twitter the other day, I bet Bruce Gradkowski's next.
2. The Dome Noise Factor. Yeccch. Two championship games with no elements because of closed roofs. No elements, of course, other than ridiculous noise. "It could be a factor,'' cornerback Antoine Winfield acknowledged Thursday. Maybe. Brett Favre's played in lots of loud games in his life. "I never listen for the snap count anyway,'' Sidney Rice told me last night. "I just watch the snap of the ball.'' Maybe it's more of a factor for rookie Mark Sanchez.
3. The Sanchize. "I've never had one like him,'' agent David Dunn said, waiting for client Sanchez to come out of the Jets locker room last Sunday. "He gets it. He gets everything.''
Normally I'd say a rookie in a championship game is a recipe for disaster. It might be. But I don't think the Jets lose Sunday because of some lack of readiness on Sanchez's part. He hasn't always played well this year, but nothing's shaken him yet.
4. Percy Harvin's migraines. Talked to Brad Childress Thursday night, and he didn't seem to think Harvin would miss the game. But these migraines are maddening. Minnesota sent him to the Mayo Clinic earlier this year to get them managed, but they're not going away. The Vikings without Harvin are a diminished team.
5. The Indy cornerback depth chart. Probably not a game-changer, subbing Jacob Lacey for Jerraud Powers (foot) if Powers can't go, especially against an offense that probably won't fill the air with footballs. But Indy already is short at corner, and if Lacey gets nicked it could be a big factor.
6. Revis Island. I watched it last Sunday in person, with Revis allowing Philip Rivers one completion for minus-four yards in four quarters of football. I expect a dedicated Reviscam on Sunday, CBS.
7. Rexcam. Of course, CBS is going to need an every-snap camera on the Clarence Clemons of the NFL too.
8. The future of Brett Favre. No! Not again! A Vike loss and you-know-what will be the story du jour for the next six months, no matter how stridently you-know-who states his case about his future.
9. Al Davis. Tom Cable. Does it matter?
10. 2011 lockout talk. Get ready for it. No progress in labor talks means 18 months of stories -- which I give you permission to gloss over totally -- with the two sides belittling each other. With player reps in Capitol Hill on Wednesday, let the politicizing of a simple labor dispute begin.