Dogs figure to bow out

January 15, 2008 4:40 AM
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LAST WK SEASON PCT
3-0 125-128-5 49.4

After form held true on Saturday when both Green Bay and New England won at home, the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts were eliminated by San Diego.

Also gone is Dallas, the top seed in the NFC, as form took another beating in the late Sunday game. The New York Giants avenged a pair of regular season losses by upsetting the Cowboys 21-17 to advance to the championship game against Green Bay.

The Packers showed their strength and resolve by overcoming a very early 14-0 deficit to Seattle, winning in the snow by what turned out to be a comfortable 42-20 victory. That win was the Packers’ fourteenth of the season and dating back to the end of the 2006 season Green Bay has now won 18 of their last 21 games. They cannot by any stretch be considered a fluke.

In each of the past five seasons the game winner in the league championship game has covered the line in both conferences. And only once in those 10 games has the winning margin been in single digits (last season when the Colts beat the Patriots 38-34). Six of the 10 have been decided by 17 points or more.

In the three playoff rounds leading to the Super Bowl, the home team fares the poorest in the Conference Championship game, having won just 20 of the 34 games since 1990 (just under 59 percent).

In 24 of the 34 Conference Championship games, 71 percent have been decided by more than 7 (the Packers-Giants spread). And, 14 of 34 (41 percent) have been decided by more than 14 (roughly the Patriots-Chargers spread). Since 1990, there have been 20 OVERs, 13 UNDERs and a PUSH in this round.

Here’s a look at both Conference Championship tilts, both rematches of games played during the regular season.

AFC TITLE

Chargers +15 at Patriots (50): Back in Week 2, the Chargers headed East to New England to avenge the loss that knocked them out of last season’s playoffs when the Patriots upset the AFC’s top seed 27-24. This turned out to be no contest as the Pats routed the Chargers by the same 38-14 score by which they had beaten the Jets a week earlier. New England outgained San Diego 402-201 while building a 24-0 halftime lead.

 San Diego won its final six games of the regular season before knocking off both Tennessee and Indianapolis in the first two playoff games. New England’s path to this game was much easier, and much more historic. The Patriots became the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season and did so while setting numerous team and individual records.

Clearly the Patriots deserve to be the heavy favorites and it truly is a shame that neither Philip Rivers nor LaDainian Tomlinson figure to be totally 100 percent healthy for San Diego after being injured last week. San Diego is in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. This group of Chargers is finally learning how to win. The Patriots already know how to win as they seek their fourth Super Bowl in the past seven seasons.

All the pressure is on New England in its quest for 19-0. The Chargers, in many respects, are playing with house money, having gone further than perhaps even their most loyal supporters expected even just a few weeks ago.
Still, asking the Patriots to win by more than two touchdowns is asking quite a bit. Turnovers could well be the key and no team forced more turnovers this season than did San Diego — 48 in the regular season and 5 in two playoff wins. The Patriots led the league in passing offense, total offense, points scored and fewest turnovers lost, all signs of yet another powerful performance.

Weather can always be a factor that would tend to neutralize many of New England’s advantages, although extreme cold is more likely to adversely affect the warm weather Chargers. All things being equal New England should benefit from their experience. In starting the season 8-0 both SU and ATS, the Patriots won each game by at least 17. In the nine games since, New England has only three wins by more than 11.

Perhaps the determining factor lies in last week’s results. New England did not play its best against Jacksonville, but performed well enough to still win by double digits. Jacksonville was one of only two teams to defeat San Diego since the fourth game of the season, after which the Chargers have gone 12-2. With or without Rivers and/or Tomlinson, San Diego comes up short. PATRIOTS.

NFC TITLE

Giants +7 at Packers (42): The Giants and Packers met in Week 2 of the regular season. Green Bay won 35-13 as a 3-point underdog. But don’t be misled by that final score. The Giants led 10-7 at halftime and trailed just 14-13 before Green Bay tallied a trio of touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Giants were outgained by just 43 yards.

New York had also just welcomed back all pro defensive end Michael Strahan, who had held out during training camp. Ultimately the Giants had perhaps the best pass rush in the NFL this past season. Favre was sacked just once for a one -yard loss in that game. The Giants should have a better pass rush in this rematch.

At the same time, the Packers now have a solid rushing attack to counteract that defensive pressure. Ryan Grant, whose lone contribution in that win was a 21-yard reception, has developed into a top flight runner over the second half of the season. He continued that development by running for 201 yards in the snow against Seattle.

At 13-3-1 the Packers have the best point spread record in the league this season. Almost as good are the Giants at 12-6. One troubling concern about the Giants is with their defense.

In their win over Dallas the defense allowed a scoring drive that lasted 20 plays and ate up 10:30 of clock in the second quarter. At the same time, the Giants and especially Manning, are to be credited for their response to that long drive.

Statistically the Packers rate a solid edge on offense, averaging 50 yards per game more than the Giants.

Defensively the teams are virtually even with just 2 yards per game separating the teams. Both allowed the same 99 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per rush, each better than the league average.

As well as the Giants have played on the road, the Packers have been dominant at home. They have won 8-of-9 home games this season and their last five, including last week against Seattle, have been by 34, 14, 31, 21 and 22 points.

Overall the Packers have scored at least 31 points in eight of their last 10 games. The Giants have topped 24 points just twice in their last 11.

New York is in the playoffs for the third straight season, all as a Wild Card. Green Bay is back in the playoffs after missing the past two seasons and this is their eleventh trip to the post season since 1993, all in the Brett Favre era.

Look for the Packers to hold up their end of the bargain at home. PACKERS.