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Expect a replay of Week 2

Pigskin Pick 'Em

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

Talk about coincidence.

Or maybe it's fate.

Both encompass the events set to transpire Sunday during the AFC and NFC Championship games.

It won't be the first meeting between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers when the Bolts take the field in Foxborough. The same goes for the New York Giants, who will battle the Green Bay Packers on the frozen tundra for a spot in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3.

In fact, it was precisely 127 days ago Sunday that the Patriots dismantled the Chargers, 38-14, while the Packers took care of the Giants, 35-13.

Bizarre?

That's only the beginning.

In their first game since being publicly reprimanded for "Spygate," the Patriots opened their Week 2 tilt with a 24-point surge and never looked back. Tom Brady, who is 7-0 at home in the postseason, threw for 279 yards and three of his NFL-record 50 touchdowns that day while tossing just one of his eight interceptions on the year.

It also was around that time when Brett Favre, who received the lone other vote in the MVP race which Brady won, threw for 286 yards and three scores of his own, as well as one interception, rallying Green Bay (14-3) from a 10-7 halftime deficit for 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points and the impressive victory.

Opposing quarterbacks, San Diego's Phillip Rivers and New York's Eli Manning, were practically mirror images of each other, too. Rivers was 19-of-30 for 179 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of picks. Playing only 200 miles down Interstate 95, Manning also was a pedestrian 16-of-29 for 211 yards with a touchdown and interception.

A combined 27 wins by the victors and 897 points later, and the stage is set for an encore.

And both promise to be just as entertaining.

Or perhaps just as lopsided.

The way all four teams are currently playing, it's hard to predict the outcome well, at least in the NFC.

The Patriots, favored by two touchdowns, have all but locked up their fourth Super Bowl berth in the past seven years.

Owning a 5-1 record in title games, the lone loss occurring last year in Indianapolis, and a 10-1 postseason mark in Foxborough, the best home record in NFL playoff annals, New England is poised to make history, yet again, as the first team to win 18 games.

Never mind they'll accomplish it sans a loss.

And for everyone believing Randy Moss' recent battery allegations will transfer onto the field (like my close friend who foolishly predicted through a text message, "Pats are done. Thank Randy.") think again.

The reformed wide receiver, who was thrown to and caught just one pass in last weekend's 31-20 victory over Jacksonville, lacerated San Diego's defense for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting.

If anything, the recent accusations will fuel his already raging fire.

"He's Randy Moss," Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said after the setback. "He's Randy Moss. He still has the same athleticism he's always had when he came into the league. It makes them very hard to match up with."

Things haven't changed since.

At least for the Patriots.

Winners of eight straight, San Diego, on the other hand, is ailing.

Former league MVP and two-time rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson (bruised left knee) and Rivers (sprained right knee) sat out the second half and fourth quarter, respectively, in the Chargers (13-5) stunning victory Sunday at Indianapolis. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates also labored through the win with a dislocated left big toe.

In all likelihood, though, the trio will suit up and take the field, still harboring ill will toward the Patriots after New England's equally shocking victory at San Diego in last season's divisional round.

But, remember, it's a new year.

"Since November, I mean, they're 8-0. They're the same record and they're one more than us because they played an extra game," said New England's Pro Bowl-bound offensive lineman Dan Koppen. "So, they're probably the best team in football right now."

The Giants, who have won nine straight road games, would probably disagree.

Dealing with a rash of injuries of their own throughout the season, the team nobody thought could, or would, advance this far has done exactly that. New York's fervent momentum and improbable postseason run clearly stems from their 38-35 regular-season ending loss to the Patriots.

While the Giants (12-6) could have rested their banged-up starters that night, coach Tom Coughlin did the opposite.

And it looks like he made the correct choice.

Playing the most sound football they have all season, especially Manning, New York last week knocked off top-seeded Dallas, who had beaten the Giants twice already this season.

Turns out the third time was a charm.

Now they're hoping it's the second time this go-round.

It won't be easy, though.

Doubted all season due to their aging quarterback and burgeoning receivers, the Packers' run to the championship game has been nothing short of spectacular.

Just ask running back Ryan Grant, who, appropriately enough, was acquired from the Giants for a sixth-round draft pick in the preseason. All he did was stabilize Green Bay's offense with 929 yards rushing and eight touchdowns after being named the starter in Week 8.

Only Tomlinson rushed for more yards (947) in that stretch.

Didn't see that one coming, did you?

While LT is hobbled and nursing his bum knee, Grant is only now beginning to hit his stride.

Held personally accountable for Green Bay's early 14-0 deficit to Seattle last week after twice fumbling the pigskin, the former castoff fought back and set a team postseason record, rumbling for 201 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Packers to a dominating 42-20 victory.

That had to cause concern in New York, which surrenders just under 100 yards a game on the ground and is a seven-point underdog at Lambeau Field.

"I am upset Ryan Grant is not with us," said Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. "He is a bull. He runs like a bull. We have our work cut out for us.

"We gave up too many yards (against Dallas) rushing. He is probably licking his chops with the opportunity to play against his former team," he added. "That's one of those guys you look at and you think, we let him go and we let one get away."

Having already done that once this season, the Chargers and Giants are praying that history doesn't repeat itself.

Destiny, however, has other ideas.

PATRIOTS, 41-20

PACKERS, 35-24

PLAYOFFS: 4-4 (spread); 6-2 (straight up)

SEASON: 139-111-12 (spread); 165-99 (straight up)

Comments and criticisms may be sent to sports reporter Matthew Carroll at matthew.carroll@peninsulaclarion.com.



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