NFL’S “FANTASTIC FOUR” READY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND
“It’s the playoffs,” says New York Jets rookie head coach REX RYAN. “Anything can happen”
And in the Divisional Playoffs, “anything” did happen, setting the stage for what is certain to be a memorable Championship Weekend:
AFC Championship Game
New York Jets
3:00 p.m. ET
NFC Championship Game
New Orleans Saints
6:40 p.m. ET
Ryan became the sixth rookie head coach in the Super Bowl era to win at least two playoff games as he led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game after a 17-14 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the Divisional Playoffs. New York, the No. 5 seed in the AFC, knocked off the red-hot Chargers, who had won 11 games in a row.
“It’s a big win for our franchise,” says Jets rookie quarterback MARK SANCHEZ. “And we’re not done.”
Up next for the surging Jets, who have won five consecutive road games, is a rematch with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts, this time for the Lamar Hunt Trophy and the AFC title. New York defeated Indianapolis 29-15 in Week 16, ending the Colts’ NFL-record 23-game regular-season winning streak.
The Colts defeated the Baltimore Ravens 20-3 in the Divisional Round, holding the Ravens without a touchdown in a postseason game for the second time in the past four years. The three points are the fewest allowed by the Colts in the postseason since the 1971 Divisional Playoffs (three vs. Cleveland).
“Our defense did a tremendous job,” says Colts rookie head coach JIM CALDWELL. “Our defense played hard, they tackled well and they were opportunistic. It was a heck of a performance.”
The AFC Championship Game will mark the first conference title game in NFL history to match rookie head coaches.
On the NFC side, the top-seeded New Orleans Saints defeated the Arizona Cardinals 45-14 to advance to their second Championship Game in franchise history (2006). With the Saints and Colts both advancing, 2009 marks the first time both No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Championship Games since 2004.
“We’re excited to get the win,” says New Orleans head coach SEAN PAYTON, who has guided the Saints to their only two NFC Championship Game appearances. “We knew we were playing a good team coming in here with postseason experience. I was encouraged with the overall team effort.”
The Saints’ REGGIE BUSH totaled 217 combined yards and scored on a 46-yard touchdown run and 83-yard punt return. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famer CHARLEY TRIPPI (1947 NFL Championship) as the only players in NFL postseason history to scored a rushing and punt-return touchdown in the same game. Bush also became just the second player in NFL playoff history to score touchdowns of 80 and 40 yards in the same game, joining Washington’s RICKY SANDERS (Super Bowl XXII).
“I knew I was going to get a lot of opportunities to make plays and just be a difference-maker for my team,” says Bush. “I just tried to make the most of it every time I had the ball.”
The Minnesota Vikings will travel to the Superdome this weekend to face the Saints as the NFC Championship Game will feature the conference’s top two seeds. The Vikings defeated the Dallas Cowboys 34-3 to advance to the club’s first Championship Game since 2000.
“This is what I came back for,” says Minnesota quarterback BRETT FAVRE, who threw a postseason career-high four touchdowns passes. “I feel like I’m playing the same way and with the same enthusiasm I’ve always had. And I know the guys feed off of that. Fans enjoy that because it is real and genuine.”
Vikings wide receiver SIDNEY RICE caught a franchise postseason-record three touchdowns and credited his veteran quarterback.
“Same old Brett,” says Rice. “He’s been doing that since he first came into the league. Moving around, getting the ball out, breaking tackles and even running down field and throwing blocks. It just shows how big a heart he has.”
A closer look at the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
NEW YORK JETS (11-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (15-2) (Sunday, CBS, 3:00 PM ET)
For the first time in NFL history, a Championship Game will feature two rookie head coaches: New York’s REX RYAN and Indianapolis’ JIM CALDWELL. The winner will be just the fifth rookie head coach to reach the Super Bowl.
For the Jets, rookies have played a big role during the team’s impressive postseason run. Quarterback MARK SANCHEZ is 2-0 in the postseason and aims to become the first rookie QB to start a Super Bowl and running back SHONN GREENE has posted back-to-back 100-yard games in the playoffs (135 vs. CIN, 128 vs. SD), becoming just the third rookie in NFL history to gain at least 100 rushing yards in each of his first two playoff games.
With the Jets leading 10-7 in the fourth quarter last week against San Diego, Greene extended the lead with a 53-yard touchdown run, the second-longest in franchise postseason history.
“The offensive line executed well,” says Greene. “I got through the first level and once I got to the second level, I had to beat a safety. I made him miss and then it was green in front of me and the end zone was clear.”
New York’s defense, which led the NFL this season allowing 14.8 points per game, held the powerful San Diego offense to 14 points, ending the Chargers’ streak of 22 consecutive games (including playoffs) with at least 20 points.
“That’s the best defense I’ve played all year,” says Chargers running back LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON. “Against the run and against the pass. They’re really prepared.”
The Jets will need a strong defensive performance this weekend against the Colts and Associated Press NFL MVP PEYTON MANNING. In the Divisional Playoff victory, Manning passed for 246 yards and two touchdowns against a tough Baltimore defense.
“I thought we had good preparation coming into that game,” says Manning. “We came out sharp and kind of set the tempo from the get-go.”
Defensively, the Colts shut down the Ravens’ powerful running game. Indianapolis will need another strong performance this weekend against the Jets’ top-ranked ground attack (172.3 yards per game).
“Our defense did not allow them to move the ball and get in a position to score,” says Caldwell. They just did a great job overall.”
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-4) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET)
For the first time in franchise history, the New Orleans Saints will host the NFC Championship Game. The NFC’s top seed knocked off the Arizona Cardinals 45-14 in the Divisional Round as quarterback DREW BREES tossed three touchdown passes and running back REGGIE BUSH scored twice.
“There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the ‘Who Dat’ nation,” says Brees. “Just the bond that we have with them is special. They give us strength. They give us motivation. We want to do it for them.”
Bush, who became just the second player in NFL postseason history to score a touchdown on a rush and punt return in the same game, electrified the crowd as he amassed 217 total yards.
“He’s a guy who can change the game,” says Saints head coach SEAN PAYTON.
Another guy who can change the game is Minnesota’s 40-year old quarterback BRETT FAVRE, who threw a career postseason-high four touchdown passes in the Vikings’ 34-3 win over Dallas. Favre’s four touchdown passes are twice as many as all other 40-year old quarterbacks have thrown in NFL postseason history combined.
“He’s playing his heart out,” says Minnesota defensive end JARED ALLEN, who had a sack and forced fumble versus the Cowboys.
Vikings wide receiver SIDNEY RICE continued his impressive Pro Bowl season as he had six catches for 141 yards and three touchdowns, tying the NFL postseason record. Rice is just the third player in the past 25 seasons to catch three touchdown passes in his first career playoff start (STERLING SHARPE and WILLIE JACKSON).
“There are faster guys,” says Favre. “There are taller guys. There are quicker guys. But the thing about Sidney is that he wants to be good. It matters to him.”