The Conference Championship games are now in the books, and that means that only one game remains, the Super Bowl. Some great football action over the weekend took place, and two worthy adversaries emerged with their tickets to Houston. Should be a great game.
As for fantasy numbers this week, as is sometimes the case, the bigger the games get, the less of a fantasy impact individual players can have. The AFC game did have a couple of guys do well, but offense was at a premium in the second game, limiting those numbers. In any case, some good football was played, and hopefully you enjoyed them over some good beer and a nice big celebratory steak after your team won. Let’s get right into the games!
at New England 24, Indianapolis 14
With all the talk of Indianapolis’ high powered offense, I think people forgot that they hadn’t faced a legitimate defense in the past couple of games. Everyone knew that Kansas City didn’t have much of a defense, and the Broncos played dead in their matchup, enter the New England Patriot D. An unheralded bunch with only two pro-bowlers, but it was a squad that was the difference in this game. And this one started out in true New England fashion, cold weather and snow showers.
And speaking of good starts, New England won the toss and elected to send their offense on the field to start the game. This had been a good strategy for them, as they’d scored a touchdown on their opening drive the past few games, including last week against the Titans. The first handoff went to Antowain Smith (100 yards rushing) and nine yards later he was finally tackled, a sign of things to come for the Colts D. An incomplete pass and a rush for no gain left the Pats looking at fourth and one from their own 44 yard line, an early decision for Bill Belichick. Not respecting the Indy D at all, the Pats went for it, and got it to keep the drive going. Nearly seven minutes later, Tom Brady (237 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 int) found David Givens (8 catches for 68 yards, TD) on a nice fake and go route, and it was quickly seven nil.
Everyone then was looking forward to seeing the Colts go to work, but in another sign of what was possibly to come, they were flagged for a false start on the first play of the drive. No matter, Peyton Manning (237 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 int) hooked up with Marcus Pollard (6 catches for 90 yards, TD) for a 32 yard gain, and it was game on. Mostly going without a huddle, the Colts went down the field and were in position to score, when Manning was picked off in the end zone by Rodney Harrison, their first turnover in who knows how long. Tough play for Manning as Pollard was open but the rush forced a quicker decision than he would have liked.
New England went right back to work, with heavy doses of Antowain Smith doing the damage. The drive ended up stalling, but not before getting into range for an Adam Vinatieri (5 FG, 1 PAT) 31 yard boot. Key play was on third down, Troy Brown breaking up what was to be a sure Indianapolis interception to allow for the field goal attempt. Manning took the offense back onto the field, but on the drive’s first play, Manning was flushed from the pocket and he overthrew high man on the run, and Ty Law made a nice catch, the first of his three picks on the day. The Pats again went into ball control mode, and facing fourth and eight on the Indy 29, they again chose to go for it and registered another successful conversion the sure handed Troy Brown (7 catches for 88 yards) hauling in a 16 yard pass. This drive would also stall, and Vinatieri was good from 25 yards out.
The Colts could do nothing on their next possession, and out went seldom used Hunter Smith to punt for the Colts. He was ready to go, but the ball was snapped over his head and when he got to the ball, he didn’t try to pick it up and instead just booted it thru the end zone for a safety. I guess all that talk of him being a “running back” in that pre-game ESPN piece was just that, talk. In any case, now up 15-0, New England had the ball again, but it was the Colts that would create some life for themselves, recovering a fumble three plays into the ensuing drive. Already in New England territory, the Colts offense went back to work. At the Patriot 22, Manning found Rodney Harrison for his first catch of the game, but he was hit hard and coughed up the ball right back to New England. Time was running out in the half, and New England was content to go into the locker room up 15-0, throwing all the squares contests off the “good numbers” (I can’t be the only one that plays squares for the Conference Championship games, can I? I felt a little weird playing them last week, but was confident that this week there would be other degenerates out there like myself….)
The second half opened with the Colts getting the ball and this time they didn’t disappoint, Edgerrin James carrying for two yards for the score. New England wasted no time scoring for themselves, Vinatieri again good for three more points. The Colts would be forced to punt, this time a successful kick, and New England again went about the business of salting away some time, and again collecting three more points from Vinatieri. With time winding down in the third frame, Manning again forced things, and Law was more than happy to collect his second interception of the game. New England had the short field, and on the fourth quarter’s first play, Brady’s ill advised slant pass intended for Ward was tipped, but caught by Troy Brown for a first down. Later, from the Colt three, Brady would not be lucky again as he was picked off in the end zone, the Colts were still alive.
Manning went to work, and was very successful, until the Law stepped in again, halting this drive at the New England eleven yard line. New England chewed up some clock and punted, and it was up to Manning again. Working against the clock, he hooked up with Pollard from 7 yards out and it was 21-14 with 2:30 left to play. An on-side kick was in the cards, and kicker Mike Vanderjadt tried to get cute and catch New England off guard, and his quick kick was easily handled by New England. All the Pats needed was a first down, but they not only would not get it, but they’d throw two incomplete passes and not even take the clock down to the two minute warning.
The Colts were 80 yards away, but on this drive, they would not gain a single yard in four plays, 1:41 remained, and it was still far from over. Again, the Patriots needed one first down to end things. They ran twice for little gain, then on third down, Brady was running on a naked bootleg for the first down, he would come up short and he’d also cough up the ball while being tackled. After the play being initially ruled a fumble, replay reversed the call, and Vinatieri was again good, this time from 34 yards out. With less than a minute to go, Manning and the Colts couldn’t move the ball and time ran out. New England gets back to their second Super Bowl in the last three years.
Carolina 14, at Philadelphia 3
With the excitement of game one in the books, it was up to the Panthers and Eagles to provide some dramatics of their own in the day’s nightcap. Would the Eagles be successful in their third consecutive Conference Championship game, second in a row at home? Or would the upstart Panthers prevail?
Carolina started things off and right away they exposed the Philadelphia weak run defense. Stephen Davis shook off any ill affects from last week’s injury and gained yards by the chunk. The drive stalled, and the Panthers went the route of the pooch punt by John Kasay, instead of the long field goal attempt. Philadelphia had trouble moving the ball on their opening possession, and the seeds of a low scoring field position battle were sown.
Carolina would click on their opening possession in the second quarter, Muhsin Muhammed hauling in a 24 yard pass from Jake Delhomme for the score. And when I say pass, I really mean a ball that was heaved nearly straight up in the air and ended up in Muhammed’s arms. Two Eagles were in the vicinity but both got themselves turned around leaving Muhammed the easy catch. Key play on the drive was third and one early in the drive, DeShaun Foster was stopped for no gain and fumbled on the play, but teammate Jermaine Wiggins picked up the loose ball and hopped ahead two yards for the first down in an opportunistic move.
The play of the game would take place in Philly’s next drive. They were moving the ball nicely, and had a first down at the Panther 23 yard line. As Donovan McNabb was going back to pass, he would have his foot grabbed by a Carolina lineman on a nice speed move, and he went to the ground. As he was on the ground, another defended piled on, catching him in an awkward position. McNabb would leave the game for a play, and for all intents and purposes, he was ineffective the rest of the game with what appeared to be a rib injury. After Koy Detmer took the controls for one play, McNabb came back and on third and 20, his 10 yard pass to Freddy Mitchell was initially ruled incomplete, but Andy Reid challenged the play and had it overturned. It was not enough for a first down, but it gave them enough yards for a David Akers 41 yard field goal to get Philly on the board.
Carolina could not move on their ensuing possession, and the Eagles went back to work. McNabb’s third down pass was picked off by Ricky Manning (the first of his three on the day), ending Philadelphia’s drive. The half would end with the score 7-3. Philadelphia had the ball to start the second, but again it was Manning taking one from McNabb at the Carolina 14 yard line. This would be a common theme as Carolina would punt, then Manning would again get McNabb, this time at midfield. Sadly, Manning had more catches from McNabb than anyone on Philadelphia.
Carolina would make their next drive work, the drive aided by a pass interference call. DeShaun Foster broke thru a slew of tackles and was not to be denied the end zone from one yard out, just a great and tough run. That would be the extent of the scoring in the third period, and as it turned out, in the game. Carolina would get the ball at the start of the fourth quarter, looking to salt the game away. Delhomme’s pass to Steve Smith was good for 15 yards, but he fumbled at the end of the play, giving the Eagles some life. But the play was challenged and reversed since his knee was down. Tough break for Philly. The Panthers would not score on the drive, but would chew up over five minutes of the clock.
Carolina’s fortunes continued to be good, when Todd Sauerbrun’s punt was downed at the eight yard line, even though it was illegally touched at the one yard line (the player was in the end zone and had not re-established himself on the field). Not wanting to lose his last challenge, Reid let the play go and the Eagles offense went out onto the field – this time without McNabb, who was seen on the sideline to be having trouble just getting up from sitting down. Koy Detmer was at the controls, and with the aid of some Carolina penalties, the Eagles were moving well. With just over five minutes to go, Philadelphia was on the Panther 11 yard line facing a third and three. Detmer’s pass went right into the arms of a Carolina linebacker, and that effectively ended many of the Eagle faithful’s hopes.
The Eagle D would hold, giving the offense one more chance. With Detmer at the controls, it was a near hopeful situation. Philadelphia moved to midfield, but were unable to convert a fourth and eighteen and time ran out. Philadelphia would again taste the pains of defeat in their home stadium. Whether a healthy McNabb would have made a difference is up for debate. Their offensive line could not stop the Carolina blitz even when they knew it was coming, and their defensive tackling wasn’t that great either. It was the type of game where Brian Westbrook would return a kick to get them back into the game, or perhaps it was just not meant to be.
Carolina advances to the Super Bowl to face the Patriots, with a chance to continue that quirky thing that took last year off, but had been characteristic of the Super Bowl Champion the last five or six years. I’m talking, of course, about the Super Bowl champion having a starting quarterback that was not the starter at the beginning of the season. Hmmmm. Two weeks is a long time to wait for the answer.