NFL Conference Championship Previews

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Around NFL offices, one can almost hear Hank Williams, Jr., hollering, "Are you ready for some football execs rooting hard for the Giants and the Raiders?"

Well, we might have to get Hank back in the studio for that one, but there's no doubt that of the four possible Super Bowl matchups, the New York Giants versus the Oakland Raiders is the one the league wants.

The Giants represent the league's top market. And while much of the country would rather see Chevy Chase return to late-night television than another New York team in a major sports championship, no league commissioner ever roots against New York success.

The alternative in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings, is not a bad option for the NFL, however. Randy Moss jerseys perennially are among the hottest sellers nationally, and championship rings for Cris Carter and Robert Smith two of the league's most highly respected players off the field would be a late Christmas present for any NFL publicist.

In the AFC, the Super Bowl rep could be the storied Raiders, with a fan base up and down the California coast and a coach who exemplifies the spirit of the game. Or it could be the Baltimore Ravens, a trash-talking, transplanted team with little national appeal and a defense talented enough to turn the Super Bowl into a scoreless snoozer.

Dollars aside, Vikings versus Raiders could be the most entertaining, while a Giants-Ravens matchup could set at least set one Super Bowl record: most punts. Vikings-Ravens? Pretty good, too.

Finally, let's play a game of "Who You Calling a Stiff?" To play you must think back two years and recall where you thought quarterbacks Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon and Daunte Culpepper would be now. If you said leading their respective teams to conference championship games and owning a combined 7-2 playoff record (7-2! These guys?), then Dionne Warwick has nothing on you.

Enjoy the games, everyone. And hey, don't forget the individual game previews below.

Games of Sunday, Jan. 14


Lowdown: After playing a rare game in which the Giants came in with the better offense (and still scored only six points against the Eagles' defense), Big Blue goes back to a more familiar role: We'd better stop these guys or else.

But if the Giants' defense plays like it did against Philly getting in quarterback Donovan McNabb's face quicker than it took Van Halen to kick David Lee Roth out a second time it might not matter that they're facing the NFC's second-highest-scoring offense.

We know it does matter, though. No one can discount the Vikes' offense, which features more starters going to the Pro Bowl (six) than are staying home (five). The grass field might slow the Purple Yardage Eaters, but anything short of four-foot blades isn't going to hinder Randy Moss.

Moss proved last week why he is the most dangerous receiver in the game, scoring two touchdowns on only two receptions. But a couple of dropped balls reminded us that he doesn't have the surest hands in the league. No matter. Teammate Cris Carter has the surest hands in the league.

New York is 11-1 when holding opponents to less than 20 points, but can the boys in blue hold Minnesota to less than three touchdowns? If they can, they've got a shot. If not, the Vikings will likely go for their first Super Bowl title in five tries. Team Pages: Vikings | Giants

Spread: Vikings by 2


Cris Carter , WR, Vikings
John Elway and Reggie White got their first Super Bowl rings late in their careers. Dan Marino and Barry Sanders never won any. The latter two's careers weren't diminished... much. We like to say it doesn't matter whether a future Hall of Famer retires without winning a league title, but think of how we'd regard Jim Kelly if the Bills had won four Super Bowls instead of losing them.

0 Number of losses this season (against nine wins) suffered by the Giants when they led after the first quarter
4 Playoff quarterbacks who were younger than Daunte Culpepper was last week (Shaun King, Bernie Kosar, Dan Marino, Pat Haden)
5 Number of consecutive playoff games in which Randy Moss has scored a touchdown


Lowdown: Who would've thought that one day the Raiders would be playing against the bad boys of the NFL?

The Ravens talk smack with the best of 'em. And after their defense sent Super Bowl favorite Tennessee home unexpectedly early, it's clear they lay the smackdown with the best of 'em, too.

Baltimore's defensive unit gets more impressive each week. It allowed a 16-game-season record low of 165 points and has yielded just 12 touchdowns in the last 15 games. So if a team scores one measly touchdown in a game against Baltimore, it's doing better than average.

With that unit, the Ravens have a shot to win any game on any planet. They may feel like they're on another planet in Oakland, where Raiders fans haven't seen an AFC Championship game since 1976. And no, they haven't exactly used that time to learn manners from Emily Post.

Raiders players haven't been too nice to other teams either. Oakland blasted its last two opponents, the Panthers and Dolphins, by a combined scored of 79-9. And it's the Raiders' defense who posted a shutout last week 27-0 against Miami. (Then again, when the Dolphins lose in the playoffs, they lose better than anyone.)

The Raiders looked better than of any of the four playoff teams last week, so if they get knocked out, credit Baltimore with eliminating yet another Super Bowl favorite. Team Pages: Ravens | Raiders

Spread: Raiders by 5 1/2


Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
The AP's Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis is in the middle, literally, of the most anticipated matchups of this game. The Raiders sport the NFL's top-rated rushing offense, while the Ravens are the league's best run-stoppers. Lewis plays every game like it's his last which was almost the case last year. He avoided a possible murder conviction by pleading guilty last June to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and agreeing to testify against his two codefendants.

4 Number of times in the last eight AFC Championship games that the visiting team has won
9 Number of consecutive playoff games Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe's team has won

Number of playoff victories in Raiders history, most among AFC teams