If Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy and Chicago coach Lovie Smith were as cautious as the star network analysts, they might not be going to the Super Bowl.
Last Sunday's playoff games were further evidence that, while NFL coaching philosophy has changed, it hasn't filtered down to analysts living in the risk-free past.
Dungy's decision to take a calculated risk on a two-point conversion probably was the difference in the Colts' 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots.
With the Colts trailing, 21-19, late in the third quarter, CBS analyst Phil Simms disagreed with Dungy's decision to go for two points. Simms said if it failed and the Pats scored another touchdown, Indy would be down two scores, 28-19.
Dungy and Indy quarterback Peyton Manning weren't thinking about failure. It appeared that the Colts were going to need a two-point conversion at some point. And the last thing any team wants to do is lose by a point without trying to get a two-point conversion.
The Buffalo Bills were in a similar situation in December when they scored a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans to take a 25-20 lead about six minutes into the third quarter. Coach Dick Jauron decided to kick an extra point rather than go for two and a 27-20 lead. The Titans eventually won, 30-29, leaving Bills players and fans to wish they had risked going for two points earlier.
The Colts converted Sunday to earn a 21-21 tie. The conversion affected game strategy from then on. It meant the Colts had a 38-34 lead rather than a 37-34 lead when they scored a late touchdown. And that meant Pats quarterback Tom Brady had to lead a touchdown drive in the final minute and not a field goal drive that would have sent the game into overtime.
Sure, the Colts would have had to succeed on another two-point conversion to have a 37-34 lead if the first one failed. Dungy apparently felt it was an acceptable risk.
Pats coach Bill Belichick took some risks, too, getting big plays on two fourth downs against conventional wisdom.
Smith also went against conventional wisdom and Fox analyst Troy Aikman during the Bears' 39-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints when he went on a short fourth down early in the game rather than kick a field goal. The Bears made it but eventually settled for a field goal on the drive. But what if they hadn't made it?
The Saints would have been backed up deep in their own territory, near the same location where quarterback Drew Brees later was pressured into a grounding penalty that resulted in a safety. In other words, Smith's decision to go for the first down wasn't as big a risk as Aikman might have thought.
Based on local ratings for the conference finals Sunday, WIVB-TV should be ready for some huge ratings for the Indianapolis-Chicago Super Bowl. The Saints-Bears game had a 28.7 rating on WUTV, much higher than Fox's national average of 25.1. It was the highest-rated NFC Championship Game nationally in 10 years. The Colts "instant classic" victory over the Pats had a 32.5 on WIVB-TV and hit a Super Bowl-like 42.7 for the game's final 15 minutes. Nationally, the game was the highest-rated AFC title game in the big cities in 10 years, too, with an average of 28.1.
From anecdotal evidence, the Colts' victory was extremely popular among those fans who have had enough of the Patriots' dominance. I was on a JetBlue flight from Burbank, Calif., that landed in New York City's JFK Airport just as Brady was trying to direct the Pats to a winning touchdown. When he was intercepted, all but a few of the about 100 people huddled around a restaurant TV celebrated as if it was New Year's.
Many fans were rooting for Manning, the Colts' quarterback who had been maligned for not making it to the Super Bowl. CBS analyst Boomer Esiason even unfairly suggested before the game that Manning would be considered as big a postseason choker as the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez if the Colts lost. If Brady had led a winning Pats touchdown drive, Manning would have been a loser even though he had an incredible second half and the finish was totally out of his control.