Three key matchups
1. Jets CB Darrelle Revis vs. Colts WR Reggie Wayne
It's amazing how week after week, Revis shuts down the other team's best receiver. Wayne, who had 100 catches for 1,264 yards, is among the best Revis will face this season. In half a game in Week 16, Revis held Wayne to three catches for 33 yards and was upset he allowed that many receptions. If Revis can handle Wayne one-on-one, it will allow the Jets to double-team tight end Dallas Clark.
2. Colts DE Dwight Freeney vs. Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson
Freeney is one of the game's elite pass rushers, collecting 131/2 sacks during the regular season. Ferguson, meanwhile, is one of the game's top tackles. And it's imperative he plays well to protect rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez's blind side. But back in Week 16, when the Colts essentially laid down in the second half, Freeney played only 12 snaps and still beat Ferguson for two sacks and one quarterback pressure. If Ferguson can't stop Freeney, the Jets' passing game, weak as it is, is in more trouble.
3. Colts C Jeff Saturday vs. Jets NT Sione Pouha
The Colts offensive line allowed only 13 sacks and just 10 when Saturday was in the game. He might be the best center in football. Pouha is taking over for the injured Kris Jenkins and had a huge game against the Chargers last week. He had five tackles and cleared room for linebacker David Harris to make 10 tackles. This might be the game's most key matchup.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
Records: Jets 11-7 overall, 7-3 on road; Colts 15-2 overall, 8-1 at home | Time/TV/Radio: 3; Ch. 10; 1010-AM | Line: Colts by 8
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down today's conference championship games.
The Jets will win if …
They avoid a shootout. Trying to outscore the Colts is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Just like last week against the Chargers, the Jets need to run the ball, play defense and force field goals instead of allowing touchdowns. The Jets want to turn this into a battle of defenses, not a Mark Sanchez-Peyton Manning battle because the Jets won't win it.
The Colts will win if …
They get some sort of ground game going. In their past 11 games, the Colts have rushed for 100 yards once. True, with Peyton Manning, they haven't needed much of a run game. But failure to establish one could prompt the Jets to drop as many as eight into pass coverage. If the Colts can sucker in safeties on play-actions, the field opens for Manning.
Three key matchups
1. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Saints run defense
Peterson is, perhaps, the best pound-for-pound running back in football, yet he hasn't had a 100-yard game since Nov. 15. The Saints allowed 122.2 yards per game on the ground during the regular season and 101 last week to Arizona, although 70 came on one play. But that 70-yard run by Tim Hightower showed the Saints are vulnerable to the type of big plays Peterson can make.
2. Vikings QB Brett Favre vs. Saints secondary
As Sports Illustrated points out, there's quite an interesting matchup between Favre and Saints defensive back Darren Sharper. The two were teammates in Green Bay from 1997 to 2004, and you figure they know each other's tendencies after all those practices against each other. Favre knows what fools Sharper, and Sharper, who tied for second in the NFL with nine interceptions, knows what Favre likes to do.
3. Saints LT Jermon Bushrod vs. Vikings DE Jared Allen
Bushrod is in his first season of playing full time and allowed seven sacks this season — the most of anyone on the Saints' line. His assignment is to stop Allen, who was second in the NFL with 141/2 sacks this season. Bushrod might need the help of a tight end. But that would mean Jeremy Shockey, who isn't 100 percent anyway with a knee injury, wouldn't be available to do what he's best at — catching the football.
Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Records: Vikings 13-4 overall, 4-4 on road; Saints 14-3 overall, 7-2 at home | Time/TV/Radio: 6:40; Ch. 13; 1010-AM | Line: Saints by 31/2
The Vikings will win if …
They pressure quarterback Drew Brees the way they pressured Tony Romo last week. Romo went back to pass 42 times, was sacked six times and hit 18. They need that kind of pressure on Brees, who will pick the Vikings' 19th-ranked pass defense apart if he has all day to survey the field.
The Saints will win if …
They get an early lead. The Vikings are better when they run a balanced offense. But if they fall behind, they might be forced to rely solely on Brett Favre's passing. The Saints already have a huge advantage playing at home, while the Vikings have struggled on the road. In their past three, the Vikings lost 30-17 at Arizona, 26-7 at Carolina and 36-30 in overtime at Chicago.
Three things you might not know
1 The last time the Vikings made the Super Bowl was way back in January 1977, when they were thumped by the Raiders to give them an 0-4 record in the game. Meanwhile, the Saints have never been to a Super Bowl, and their 42-year championship-game drought is surpassed by only the Lions (51 years) and Browns (43 years).
2 Vikings quarterback Brett Farve is 13-10 in the postseason. He is 2-2 in conference championship games. But Favre, above, has passed for 264.2 yards per game in the conference championship — his most of the four playoff rounds.
3 The Vikings lead the all-time series 18-7 and have won seven of the past eight. The Vikings also lead the playoff meetings 2-0, 31-16 in a January 2001 division game and 44-10 in a January 1988 wild-card game.
Vikings: The Vikings' true game-breaker is former Gators receiver Percy Harvin, who has become a favorite target down the stretch for quarterback Brett Favre. And of course, Harvin can change the momentum of any game on a kick return. But Harvin missed practices last week with migraines, leaving the Vikings to wonder how effective he will be.
Saints: There are times when Reggie Bush, above, seems like a bust. In the regular season, he rushed for 390 yards and caught 70 passes for 335 and scored three touchdowns. But last week, he scored on a 46-yard run and an 83-yard punt return. In three career playoff games, he has four touchdowns.
The Vikings' Brad Childress seems to be on a mission. Sick of hearing about the Cowboys, he rammed in a late touchdown last week then snarled when asked about it. He has set a take-no-prisoners attitude. Meanwhile, Sean Payton is in his second conference title game in four years as a coach and has plenty of playoff experience. He was the Giants' offensive coordinator when they went to Super Bowl XXXV.
Three things you might not know
1 Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has won as many playoff games as Jets legend Joe Namath. Isn't that hard to believe? Namath, left, won only two postseason games — both in the 1968 season as the Jets won Super Bowl III. After that, Namath played in one more playoff game, losing in the first round the next season. Sanchez is 2-0, although he's a pedestrian 24-of-38 for 282 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
2 These teams met in Week 16, but who knows what to make of that game? The Colts were leading 9-3 at halftime then pulled their starters to rest for the playoffs. The Jets rallied for a 29-15 victory, which, as it turned out, they needed to just make the playoffs. The last time these teams met in the playoffs was January 2003 — a stunning 41-0 victory for the Jets.
3 Jets coach Rex Ryan is known as a defensive guru, but Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has done well against him, including when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator. The two have faced each other five times with Manning winning four. The only loss was the December game in which the Colts packed it in. In the five games, Manning is 82-of-132 for 1,136 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Jets: The Jets like to run the ball and play defense. But if you're looking for a real game-breaker, look at Brad Smith, above. He had a 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Colts in December. Then against Cincinnati in the playoffs, Smith ran for 92 yards and a touchdown out of the wildcat formation. He can change a game with one play.
Colts: The Jets must have the voodoo working against opposing kickers. In these playoffs, opponents of the Jets are 0-for-5 on field goals. The Bengals' Shayne Graham missed two, and the Chargers' Nate Kaeding missed three. So naturally, we focus on Colts veteran kicker Matt Stover, who has been a stable replacement for the injured Adam Vinatieri. Stover was 9-for-11 during the regular season and is 2-for-2 this postseason. But his range these days might top out at less than 50 yards.
This is the first time a conference championship game will feature two first-year coaches. The coaches, however, couldn't be more different. New York's Rex Ryan is brash and outrageous and is loved by the players and the media. Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell is quiet and humble like his mentor, Tony Dungy, but is respected by his players.