Manning faces Pats in AFC title game; Saints meet Bears

Jan 20, 2007 - 1:32 PM By John Pezzullo PA SportsTicker Pro Football Editor

Peyton Manning knew that he would have to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to get to the Super Bowl. The New Orleans Saints would like the best season in their franchise history to end with a trip to the Super Bowl.

For the third time in the last four years, Manning and the third-seeded Indianapolis Colts (14-4) will face Brady and the fourth-seeded New England Patriots (14-4) in the playoffs. The meeting takes place in the AFC championship game for the second time on Sunday.

"We knew we probably would have to go through them to get to where we want to go," Manning said.

Seventeen months after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the second-seeded Saints will meet the top-seeded Chicago Bears in the NFC championship game on Sunday.

The winners will meet in Super Bowl XLI at Miami on February 4.

Manning has been the face of the NFL with an overwhelming number of endorsements. But the two-time MVP has never been to the Super Bowl in his nine-year career.

Manning is the only player to have 4,000 passing yards in six consecutive seasons and is often compared to Dan Marino, the NFL's most prolific passer who went to just one Super Bowl.

Brady has a 12-1 playoff record, three Super Bowl titles and two Super Bowl MVP awards. He is often compared to Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers.

Then there's Belichick, who is just one of four coaches in NFL history with at least three Super Bowl titles. The others are Chuck Noll (4), Bill Walsh (3) and Joe Gibbs (3).

Adam Vinatieri had a great deal to do with Belichick's postseason success, kicking two Super Bowl-winning field goals for the Patriots. But Vinatieri signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Colts last March.

Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the Patriots a 20-17 victory over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI and drilled a 41-yarder with four seconds left in a 32-29 win over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Last week, Vinatieri solidified his reputation as the league's clutchest kicker, tying a playoff record with five field goals in the Colts' 15-6 victory over the second-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoffs.

Rookie Stephen Gostkowski is Vinatieri's successor in New England. Gostkowski has responded to the playoff pressure, making all six of his field goal attempts in the Patriots' two playoff wins.

Belichick improved his playoff record to 13-2, including 12-1 with the Patriots, after last week's 24-21 victory over the top-seeded San Diego Chargers in the divisional playoffs.

Belichick has won the mind games in the biggest battles against Manning and Colts coach Tony Dungy. But there might be a shift in the trend.

The Patriots had won six straight meetings, including two in the playoffs, from 2001-04.

In Manning's only AFC championship game in January 2004, he was intercepted four times in a 24-14 loss at New England. Brady threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

The following season, Manning set an NFL single season record with 49 touchdown passes. But in the divisional playoffs, he failed to get his team into the end zone in a 20-3 loss to the Patriots.

In the two postseason games against New England, Manning passed for just one touchdown with five interceptions. Manning has also thrown for just one touchdown with five interceptions in this season's playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore.

The trend reversed each of the last two years when the Colts won both regular-season meetings.

In November 2005, Manning was not so confounded by Belichick's multiple fronts and disguised coverages, passing for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-21 victory over the Patriots. Marvin Harrison caught nine passes for 128 yards and two scores and Reggie Wayne had nine receptions for 124 yards.

This past November 5, Manning threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns - both to Harrison - in a 27-20 win over New England.

Meanwhile, Brady was uncharacteristically sloppy, throwing a career high-tying four interceptions.

If defense wins championships, then the Patriots have the edge. Led by Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour and linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, the Patriots yielded the second-fewest points in the league (14.8 per game).

The Colts finished last in the NFL against the run, yielding 173 yards per game. But Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks have made major adjustments in the postseason. Indianapolis has allowed a total of 127 rushing yards in its playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore.

Dungy played for the Steelers in one Super Bowl, but in 15 years as an assistant and 10 as a coach he never made it back. He's 0-2 in conference championship games and his 114 regular-season wins are fourth-most for a coach who has not taken his team to a Super Bowl.

Dungy and Lovie Smith of the Bears have a chance to become the first black coaches to reach the Super Bowl.

But Smith must beat a team that is writing one of the greatest stories in NFL history.

Who could have predicted the Saints would be in this position after finishing an NFC-worst 3-13 last season? The future of the franchise was up in the air due to the damage caused by the worst storm in American history.

But the Saints came marching back to New Orleans with a new coach, a new quarterback and a Heisman Trophy-winning back. They now appear to be the team of destiny after winning the NFC South with a 10-6 record and beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24, in the divisional playoffs.

Sean Payton, the NFL Coach of the Year, overhauled the roster, shipping out more than a dozen former starters, and convinced general manager Mickey Loomis to sign quarterback Drew Brees, who was a question mark after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

All Brees did was lead the NFL with 4,418 passing yards and finish second in the MVP voting to running back LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego.

Reggie Bush fell into the Saints' laps with the No. 2 pick in last April's draft after the Houston Texans unexpectedly passed on the Heisman Trophy winner. Bush set an NFL record for rookie running backs with 88 catches for 742 yards.

"Anyone can say they're a team of destiny," Bears wide receiver Rashied Davis said of the Saints. "But only destiny knows what team it wants."

The Bears are a different story. They have won nine NFL championships, including a Super Bowl title in 1985 under Ditka.

Chicago has won back-to-back division titles under Smith, who is the first coach since Mike Ditka in 1988 to guide the Bears to the NFC title game.

"This is the first time two black men have led their teams to the final four," Smith said. "I realize the responsibility that comes with that."

Smith was the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams in 2001 when they reached the Super Bowl and lost to New England, 20-17. Payton was the offensive coordinator when the New York Giants made the Super Bowl in 2000 and lost to Baltimore, 34-7.

Under Payton's direction, the Saints ranked first in the NFL in offense and fifth in scoring (25.8 points per game). They will face off against the stingiest defense in the NFC (15.9 ppg).

Pro Bowl linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs headline that defense, which slipped considerably in the last month of the season. The Bears yielded an average of nearly 23 points and 365 total yards in their last six regular-season games.

Last week in the divisional playoffs, the Bears yielded 306 yards in a 27-24 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks.

This Sunday, Urlacher and Briggs will try to contain Bush and 1,000-yard rusher Deuce McAllister.

It was McAllister who sparked the Saints to a 27-24 win over Philadelphia, rushing for 143 yards and a touchdown and catching a scoring pass.

Chicago will need Rex Grossman to be effective against the Saints, who ranked 23rd in the league against the run and third against the pass.

Grossman has caused plenty of angst in Chicago due to his propensity to commit turnovers. During the regular season, he was intercepted 20 times and lost five fumbles. But Grossman also threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns.

The Rex Factor was certainly a positive for the Bears last week even with two turnovers - one interception and a fumble. Grossman overshadowed that by passing for 282 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown to Bernard Berrian in the win over Seattle.

Robbie Gould kicked a 49-yard field 4:58 into overtime after Grossman completed a 30-yard pass to Davis. The Pro Bowler had tied the game with a 41-yard field goal that snuck just inside the left upright with 4:24 left in regulation.

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