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Predictions & Projections
David Dorey
The Huddle
Conference Championships
January 17, 2007

Sunday, January 21st
New Orleans at Chicago, 3:00 PM
New England at Indianapolis, 6:30 PM

Prediction: NO 24, CHI 23

Both home teams are favored this week. They all were last week when two visitors won. Homefield is supposed to yield a major advantage but now in the Conference Championship round, the reality is that merely playing at home is no assurance of victory. Both home teams should win - right? Then why hasn't that happened in the last nine seasons? For each of the last nine years, there has always been one home team and one visiting win in this round. Every year. In 1997, both visiting teams won and yet three of the four previous to 1997 had both home teams winning. Since the 1970 merger, there have been 36 conference championships and only 13 times have both home teams won. But since 1998 - one home team always loses. There have only been three times in NFL history where both home teams lost in this round. If you like odds, they are heavily stacked against both home teams winning this week.

Depending on where you look, both home teams are favored by three points this week - the standard when it appears to be a very even match-up. That makes predicting this season's conference championships tough since it will most likely end up with one visitor winning but could be either. Nothing like getting them both wrong. Then again - this has long been the week you just need to decide which home team is most likely to lose.

These teams did not play each other in 2006 but met in each of the previous four seasons with the Bears only winning in 2005 20-17 during November of the Saints nightmare season.

New Orleans Saints (10-6)
1 19-14 @CLE 10 31-38 @PIT
2 34-27 @GB 11 16-31 CIN
3 23-3 ATL 12 31-13 @ATL
4 18-21 @CAR 13 34-10 SF
5 24-21 TB 14 42-17 @DAL
6 27-24 PHI 15 10-16 WAS
7 Open Bye 16 30-7 @NYG
8 22-35 BAL 17 21-31 CAR
9 31-14 @TB 19 27-24 PHI
NOR Projections Rush Catch Pass
QB Drew Brees 0 0 250,2
RB Reggie Bush 40 60,1 0
RB Deuce McAllister 70,1 20 0
TE Mark Campbell 0 10 0
TE Billy Miller 0 30 0
WR Terrance Copper 0 20,1 0
WR Marques Colston 0 70 0
WR Devery Henderson 0 40 0
PK John Carney 1 FG 3 XP -
Pregame Notes: The Saints traded the lead four times last week against the Eagles, finally going up 27-21 at the end of the third quarter and then holding on to win 27-24. That was the second ever playoff win by the Saints so to say this team has much post season experience is more than a little stretch. After a brutally challenging 2005, the Saints are truly the biggest surprise this season but by no means is this the same old Saints team either. Drew Brees has been an outstanding free agent acquisition and he has been in the playoffs before (albeit not winning with the Chargers). Ironically enough, the one player with the most postseason experience here is the rookie Reggie Bush. It may have been NCAA instead of NFL, but it was against the best of the best with all the hype of a championship game.

Quarterback: Drew Brees threw for more passing yardage than any other quarterback this season but he's been even better in one big category - interceptions. Brees has only thrown one in the last seven games and not giving the ball away is almost as important as hitting your own receivers. Brees threw for 243 yards and one score against the Eagles but he did lose one fumble - his first in the last seven games as well.

Brees didn't have a huge yardage game last week because the situation called for more rushing which should be the case again this week if the weather turns cold and possibly windy. But no other quarterback has been better moving his team down the field via the pass - not even Manning.

Running Backs: The Saints offense took some time to learn how to best use Reggie Bush this year and it ends up that he is deadly out of the backfield on receptions and yet can do some damage via the run in some games. In his last road game, Bush ran for 126 yards and one score in New York and he had 125 receiving yards in Dallas in the previous road trip. But the Saints have only played in those two away match-ups over the last six games and prior to those Bush had not been nearly as effective.

Deuce McAllister has been a tremendous contributor to the most recent Saints wins, turning in over 100 rushing yards in four of the last five games and gaining a season high 143 yards and one touchdown rushing against the Eagles last week. He also added another score via a pass for the first time this season. What's even more encouraging is that most of McAllister's best efforts came on the road this year. All three games with two rushing scores were away from New Orleans (@GB, @PIT and @ATL) and his last two games on the road had over 100 rushing yards. McAllister is the constant each week with Bush being the wildcard.

Wide Receivers: Joe Horn hasn't played in the last six games thanks to a lingering groin strain and was inactive again last week after participating in some individual work but not team drills. Thanks in part to Horn's absence and the success of the running backs, there has been no 100 yard game by a wideout since week 13 - the last time Horn played. The wideouts have only accounted for two touchdowns in the last six games and Brees passing numbers reflects that to a large degree. Brees has opted to use Bush and even McAllister as a receiver and even the tight end Billy Miller last week more than the wideouts. That is partially a function of game situation and just diversity of the offense, but the absence of Horn coincides with when the wideouts stopped turning in big games each week.

Marques Colston had five catches for 55 yards last week and he has scored only once since returning in week 14 while not gaining more than 84 yards in any game. His drop-off has been significant since he came back and he had three straight games over 120 yards prior to his injury in week ten.

Pending information that Horn is likely to play, the obvious likelihood is that he will miss this week.

Tight Ends: Mark Campbell has been very consistent with catching just one or two passes for minimal yardage this year and last week was no different (1-23). But Billy Miller had 64 yards on four catches as an entirely new facet to the offense.

Match Against the Defense: The Bears defense was dominating this year but suffered many significant injuries along the way until they are not nearly as daunting as they once were. Over the final month of the season, the Bears allowed four games with more than 265 passing yards and a total of ten passing scores. It was not until last week that they held the Seahawks to only 195 passing yards and one score in a game that featured mostly rushing and was only won by a mere field goal.

Shaun Alexander ran for 108 yards on 26 carries with two scores last week in Chicago. The Bears faced few teams with a significant rushing attack in the final month and perhaps the best yardstick here is the Rams who had Steven Jackson rush for 81 yards on 18 carries and score once and also adding 10 catches for 58 yards and another score. Put Bush and McAllister together and you get Steven Jackson only fresher and faster.

The weather currently calls for a few possible snow showers and temperatures a little above freezing with winds up to 10 mph. That's no "dome weather" but it isn't bad enough to be much of a factor. The sod at Soldiers Field could slow down Bush but it shows defenders down just as much.

The Bears can give up rushing yards though very rarely a big game. Expect a solid effort here from McAllister who is running well with a good chance for a score. The Bears have been dinged by pass catching backs in the recent past (Maroney, Jackson, Moore) and that added aspect to the offense with Bush will be key to the Saints moving the ball. The absence of Horn has apparently shortened the passing game of the Saints but Bush can fill in the gaps. The Saints just need to minimize any mistakes here and won't resort to more than moderate passing unless they fall behind early.

RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST) TEAM    QB   RB   WR   TE   PK  DEF
Gaining Fantasy Points NO 4 3 5 24 11 30
Preventing Fantasy Points CHI 6 7 16 2 2 24


Chicago Bears (13-3)
1 26-0 @GB 10 38-20 @NYG
2 34-7 DET 11 10-0 @NYJ
3 19-16 @MIN 12 13-17 @NE
4 37-6 SEA 13 23-13 MIN
5 40-7 BUF 14 42-27 @STL
6 24-23 @ARZ 15 34-31 TB
7 Open Bye 16 26-21 @DET
8 41-10 SF 17 7-26 GB
9 13-31 MIA 19 27-24 SEA
CHI Projections Rush Catch Pass
QB Rex Grossman 0 0 210,1
RB Thomas Jones 70,1 10 0
RB Cedric Benson 40 30 0
TE Desmond Clark 0 20 0
WR Muhsin Muhammad 0 50 0
WR Rashied Davis 0 40 0
WR Bernard Berrian 0 60,1 0
PK Robbie Gould 3 FG 2 XP -

Pregame Notes: The Bears managed to win their first game in the playoffs unlike last season but only squeaked past the Seahawks by a field goal. A win is a win but that wasn't nearly as big as needed to bring a lot of confidence into this week. The final five games of the season were against a very soft schedule and yet the defense allowed over 21 points to every opponent. Grossman played just well enough to win but 68 yards came on one scoring pass to Bernard Berrian. The Bears are only one game away from the Super Bowl but the defense is no longer playing at a high level and the offense has yet to recapture the magic of the start of the season.

Quarterback: Rex Grossman comes into this week with a chance to redeem himself or to further the notion that he's not worthy of being the starter - with no middle ground and almost entirely dependent on whether the Bears win or lose. Grossman threw for 282 yards and one score last week against the injury depleted Seahawks but had an interception and lost a fumble. Much of Grossman's success - or failure - will depend on connecting on a few long passes. He hasn't been able to master the short game as of late. This is his big chance - or it could be his Waterloo.

Running Backs: Thomas Jones scored twice last week for his best fantasy game in about the last two months but he only gained 66 yards on 21 carries. Cedric Benson has been running better than Jones for the last month but the Bears continue to rely heavily on Jones. Benson gained 45 yards on 12 carries last week but Jones took almost all the action in the first half. This rushing attack has been much less successful than last year and continues to rely primarily on Jones with only relief work from Jones despite the added effectiveness of Benson.

Wide Receivers: Mark Bradley sprained his ankle last week in the newly laid sod and he may not be available this week - or at least be limited. Muhsin Muhammad has been much less productive over the last eight games when he only scored once and rarely had more than 50 yards in any game. Last week he only managed 38 yards on three catches. Bernard Berrian was the star last week when he ended with 105 yards on five catches with one score for his best effort since week four but 68 yards and the touchdown came on one play. Otherwise, he had four catches for 37 yards which would be far closer to his normal game as of late. Berrian is the long ball player here, he's just rarely been able to connect with Grossman in the second half of the season.

Rashied Davis had a season high 84 yards on four catches last week and continues to be promising for the future. But for the present, Davis has been under 30 yards in almost every game this year.

Tight Ends: While Desmond Clark had a big 125 yard game against the Bucs in week 15, he's spent the last ten weeks with rarely more than one inconsequential catch per game.

Match Against the Defense: The Saints rush defense ranks well thanks largely to the Saints scoring well in most games and preventing opponents the luxury of rushing when they trail on the scoreboard. The Saints rushing defense is nothing special and likely is only average at best - of the other team runs the ball 20 or more times which seems almost guaranteed in this game.

Expect the typical 2:1 ratio of carries by Jones and Benson and if the Saints were to get a lead of any note in the second half, Benson's role could shrink. The Bears should score at least once on the ground and twice depending on game situation. Splitting carries means this should be the 8th consecutive game that Jones tallies less than 100 rushing yards but notable is that Benson has been a small factor in the passing game these last two weeks with four catches for 46 yards in those games.

Grossman is the wildcard for the Bears but the only team that failed to record at least one passing score against the Saints was the Falcons with Vick. Grossman should toss at least one score here that will heavily favor Berrian since each of the last eight opponents have had scores come from their #1 wideout. While that may have been Muhammad to start the year, now it is Berrian going deep and getting lucky.

This game could go either way but the Bears have not played all that well offensively for the second half of the season unless they were going against a very soft opponent. They nearly lost last week and these Saints have played better in bigger games than in the softer match-ups. One road team usually wins this week and the Saints are in a better position to do it. The expectation here is that the Bears will come out rushing and throwing only safe passes while the Saints will open up with the pass against a softer than normal Bears defense. If the Saints can be successful via the pass and get a lead, then they will be able to run more effectively - and with a diverse attack - while the Bears will be forced to pass more and be more open to making Grossman mistakes.

RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST) TEAM    QB   RB   WR   TE   PK  DEF
Gaining Fantasy Points CHI 19 13 14 10 1 1
Preventing Fantasy Points NO 25 9 27 19 4 8