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Championship games the final step to South Florida

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(Jan. 17, 2007) -- "Two wins away from having a ring on my finger for the rest of my life."

That's what quarterback Rex Grossman exulted after leading the Chicago Bears to victory last Sunday. And that's where every player on the four teams competing this weekend in the AFC and NFC Championship Games find themselves -- one win away from Super Bowl XLI in South Florida on Feb. 4 and another victory away from wearing a Super Bowl championship ring "for the rest of their lives."

The four teams going for those "two wins":

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
3 p.m. ET: New Orleans Saints (11-6) at Chicago Bears (14-3) (FOX-TV)

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
6:30 p.m. ET New England Patriots (14-4) at Indianapolis Colts (14-4) (CBS-TV)

The 2006 playoffs through the first two rounds have been the most competitive since the NFL went to the 12-team format in 1990. The average margin of victory in the eight wild-card and divisional games was 7.3 points per game. That is the lowest point margin since 1990. The previous low was a 9.8-point average in 2003.

The AFC-NFC championship lineup is an impressive one:

  • New England plays in its third championship game in the past four years. Indianapolis plays in its second in that span.
  • The combined winning percentage of the championship teams is .757 (53-17).
  • They are a resilient bunch. They come off a Divisional Playoff Weekend in which all four games were decided by a total of 18 points -- the fewest since the divisional round began in 1970. Three of the four games were decided by three points or less -- the first time ever in the Divisionals.
  • The top two passing offenses of 2006 are featured, led by the two starting Pro Bowl quarterbacks -- New Orleans, No. 1 ( Drew Brees ) and Indianapolis, No. 2 (Peyton Manning ).
  • The Saints are a resurrected team. In addition to going from "worst to first" in their division, winning it one year after finishing in last place the year before, they are the first team in history to go to a championship game after losing 13 or more games the year before.

A rundown of the AFC and NFC Championship Games:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-6) at CHICAGO BEARS (14-3)
STORYLINE: Top two seeds go at it.

And that's just the way the No. 1 Bears want it. "This is the matchup we wanted," says Chicago CB Nathan Vasher. "It's great for us, great for TV, everything. We wanted to see the highest-seeded team and beat the best."

It's January at Soldier Field, so the running game should play a big part in this one. Both teams come equipped with RB tandems. The Saints bring in "the big guy," as Bears LB Brian Urlacher calls him -- 6-foot-1, 232-pound Deuce McAllister -- and fleet rookie Reggie Bush. The pile-moving McAllister rumbled for a Saints playoff-record 143 yards and two TDs in the divisional game. Bush produced some spectacular moves, including a 4-yard TD scamper and a 25-yard run that set up a field goal.

The Bears have their own ground-eating tandem in Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, the second-year runner who has been worked into the rotation more and more recently. The two combined for 1,857 yards this year and 111 yards (with two Jones TDs) in the divisional playoffs.

New Orleans -- 6-2 on the road this season -- arrives with the league's No. 1 offense, controlled by the '06 passing yardage leader Brees (4,418). His key targets have been WRs Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, but the Bears also will have to keep an eye on TE Billy Miller, who, after 129 yards this season, led Saints receivers last Saturday with 64 yards.

And for all the attention Grossman has received -- "he's taken us to 14 wins," says head coach Lovie Smith -- one stat is overlooked. Grossman's seven games of 100.0 passer ratings tied Peyton Manning for second most this year in the NFL behind St. Louis' Marc Bulger with eight.

Grossman's WR targets are as potent as New Orleans' -- Bernard Berrian (105 yards in the divisional playoffs with a 68-yard TD catch) and Muhsin Muhammad.

Championship tidbit: Bush can become the fourth Heisman Trophy winner to play in a Super Bowl in his rookie year, following RB Mike Garrett, Kansas City, 1966 season; RB Tony Dorsett, Dallas, 1977; and RB Ron Dayne, NY Giants, 2000. Only Dorsett won a Super Bowl ring.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-4) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-4)
STORYLINE: Here we go again!

For the third time in the past four years, the former AFC East rivals -- with identical records -- will meet in the playoffs. The game also marks the seventh time since realignment in 2002 that the clubs have met, including for the second time this season (27-20 Colts win on Nov. 5). Overall leader during that span? The Patriots, 4-2, including both playoff meetings (2003 AFC Championship Game and 2004 AFC divisional playoffs). What does the Colts quarterback who has started all those games (vs. New England's Tom Brady) have to say about Sunday's opponent? "The Patriots," says Peyton Manning simply, "are as great a team as there is … ever."

But the Colts have two things going for them right off: They have won the past two meetings, so they know the winners of three of the past five Super Bowls are not invincible … and they finally have a home playoff game against New England. It will be the first AFC Championship Game contested in a dome.

The meeting will be one full of great positional matchups.

There's Brady vs. Manning -- pitting two of the most-recognized NFL quarterbacks, and the most successful since realignment in 2002. Manning has won 60 regular-season games since 2002, the most in that span, with Brady at No. 2 with 59. But Brady also comes equipped with a 12-1 playoff record and three Super Bowl titles.

Then there's the combo running backs. New England has basically split time between Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney the whole year. Colts RB Dominic Rhodes started every game, but Joseph Addai became the first rookie in history to rush for 1,000 yards without starting a regular-season game.

Next comes the well-known/getting-to-be-well-known wide receivers. Indy's Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne turned in their usual 1,000-yard seasons. New Patriots Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell have really come on in the playoffs, with 18 (one TD) and 12 catches (one TD), respectively.

Finally, there's the big question: Can the reenergized Colts defense, which finished 32nd against the rush this season, yet has allowed only 44 and 83 rush yards in two playoff games, replicate this performance against Dillon/Maroney?

Championship tidbit: Brady has six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in the playoffs since he became a starter in 2001 -- the most of any quarterback in that time.

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