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Week 20: Conference Championship Picks, NFC

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Worst-to-First Faces Top Seed
Chicago vs. New Orleans

Defense wins championships. That's no secret. Both teams here have pretty good defenses. That's no secret either. Then it's coaching, then quarterbacks.

I think the jury is still out on both of the coaches. This is New Orleans coach Sean Payton's first year. That's a pretty short peg on which to hang your hat. Lovie Smith has had two great years in Chicago, but his teams beat up on minnows and get beaten by sharks, and his 1-1 playoff record with last week's 3-point win over Seattle is nothing to crow about yet either.

There's just no way you can dispute the better of the quarterbacks. Drew Brees led the league with 4,418 yards and was third in passer rating with 96.2. Rex Grossman piled up yards against the likes of Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, but still had just 3,193, good for 12th, and his passer rating was 73.9, just 24th.

Twenty-three points is quite a disparity.

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New Orleans Saints (11-6) @ Chicago Bears (14-3)
Sunday, January 21, 3 p.m.

Sure, the Baltimore Ravens won a few years ago with Trent Dilfer. But he was generally cool and efficient and not prone to mistakes. And the New York Giants had Kerry Collins. Not Drew Brees.

Brees has some reliable good-hands guys, starting with rookies Marques Colston and Reggie Bush. Bush backfield mate Deuce McAllister is also dangerous as a receiver. Wideouts Terrence Cooper and Devery Henderson have been solid all season. Joe Horn is listed as "questionable" and hasn't played since Dec. 3.

Grossman has some weapons, too, in wideouts Mushin Muhammad, Bernard Berrian Rashied Davis and tight end Desmond Clark, but Grossman is more a tunnel-vision quarterback who really doesn't spread it around a lot, especially when he's under pressure.

And that will be a key for the New Orleans defense. Of course, like it always it, stopping the run comes first, and they are far from the best in that department (23rd). Chicago has its own pretty good rushing tandem in Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, but they're not particularly good receivers, so the Saints should be able to cheat a little bit on play-calling.

The New Orleans pass defense is among the best in the league, yardage wise, but they've given up a lot of touchdowns. So, again, pressure on Grossman.

Brees should be able to handle the pressure Chicago applies, because the Bears have to be worried about McAllister and Bush, two excellent runners with completely different styles. Expect Payton to employ some misdirection to keep Chicago off balance, even more so by having Brees spread the ball all over the field, short, long, right, middle, left, screens, whatever. Brees' arsenal is far more extensive than Grossman's.

Both teams are among the top scorers in the league. Chicago is third from running up the score on pathetic defenses; New Orleans is fifth.

The key for Chicago will be to force turnovers and keep Brees off the field. That will be a challenge, because New Orleans tends to take care of the ball. But they're not good at forcing them either, hence the Bears plus-8 to minus-4 advantage in turnover differential.

Don't forget special teams. Chicago rookie Devin Hester is a dangerous return man, but he fumbled (and recovered) three kicks last week. Bush is no slouch returner either. Depending on weather, one or both could break a big play -- or even more than one.

The weather forecast calls for temperatures 30 degrees or less with moderate winds and a good chance of snow. How cold, how windy, how snowy could all affect the game, but predicting the game-time weather is almost as hard as predicting the game.

If I'm in the AFC, I want to play Chicago. I don't think that will happen.

Prediction: Saints, 30-17.

Poll

Who will win the 2006 NFC Championship?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    New Orleans Saints
    (4 votes)
  • 60%
    Chicago Bears
    (6 votes)
10 votes total Vote Now