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Here we are setting the table for the Super Bowl showdown in Dallas. George has led the charge from the Sports Pub and we’re happy to have him as a regular. Enjoy the games and his picks. As always, Him and Her will be posted a little later.

Written by: George Damon

After going 3-1 for the second consecutive week to run my record to 6-2 with three games to go during this abbreviated run as guest prognosticator for the Sports Pub, I have done what the Seattle Seahawks were unable to do in this year’s playoffs:  clinch a winning record.

However, this is not the time for me to rest on my laurels, because the goal has changed and the ante has been upped.  When Ross first asked me to contribute to the Pub’s NFL playoff coverage, my mantra was “don’t make a fool of yourself”.  Mission accomplished—at least as far as my predictions are concerned.

Now my mantra is “don’t blow it”.  Having started so well, carefully navigating the dangerous waters of close matchups and making some correct calls in the clutch (Packers over Eagles and Falcons, Jets over Colts, Steelers over Ravens), I’d sure hate to hit the skids and limp home with a 6-5 mark.

As with most of last week’s games, this week’s conference championships feature tossup matches between teams with razor-thin margins of difference distinguishing one from the other.   Each matchup features teams that squared off at least once during the regular season in down-to-the-wire games where the largest margin of victory was 5 (Jets over Steelers on December 19th, a game that wasn’t decided until time ran out on the Steelers at the Jets’ 10-yard line).  Each game features teams with hard-hitting, turnover-forcing defenses and game breakers on both sides of the ball.

It’s impossible to look at either game this week and not believe that the best four teams are left standing.  Each team earned its way to this point with solid—often spectacular—play throughout the regular season, and then topped it off with superb effort during the playoffs.  There are no fluke teams in these championships, and the real winners will be the fans who get to see what should be outstanding contests.

OK, enough hype.  I don’t get a paycheck from the NFL, so I’m not going to shill the games.  Let’s analyze them, instead.

Green Bay at Chicago: Incredibly, for a rivalry that began in 1921 and has seen 181 games between two teams that have always been in the same league, conference, and/or division, this will only be the second time (you read that right) that the Packers and Bears will play in the postseason.  Although these teams are intimately familiar with each other, their fierce rivalry has been almost entirely a regular season affair.

I can’t imagine that the Bears and their fans aren’t insulted by the fact that the Packers are a 3½-point favorite to win in Chicago, and how even more insulting it would be for them to watch the Packers get handed the George S. Halas Trophy, the NFC Championship trophy named for the legendary Bears’ founder and most successful head coach.  But if any team can go into Soldier Field and come out with a win over the home team, it’s the Packers.

Where the Bears could rely on the home field advantage that the weather would bring against some teams (19° F at game time, with a wind chill of 10° F and possible light snow from winds coming off Lake Michigan), the weather will not be an impediment to a team that plays even further to the north.  The boys from Green Bay are well-acquainted with winter weather in the Midwest and will not be intimidated by the cold.

Instead, this game will go to the more complete team.  The Bears have a top-notch defense, a reliable running game, and outstanding special teams.  The Packers have an outstanding defense and a huge advantage at QB.  Meanwhile, their running game has shown real zest in the playoffs, meaning that the Packers’ offense is no longer a one-dimensional attack.  That will be the key to giving Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers some respite from the relentless Bears pass rush.  If he can drop back into a clean pocket, Rodgers can pick the Bears apart.

The Packers should not and will not discount the Bears’ special teams in this game.  Bears’ WR/return specialist Devin Hester almost single-handedly killed the Packers in their 20-17 loss to Chicago in September, with punt returns of 28 and 62 yards, the latter going for a TD.  In a game where they outgained the Bears by over 100 yards and held the ball 11½ minutes longer, Hester’s two game-changing punt returns were chief among the reasons (turnovers were another) that the Packers went home with an “L” on their record.  I expect them to kick around Hester as much as possible.

The Bears’ defense was superb against the Packers this season, holding them to an average of just 12 points per game, well below the Packers’ season average of 25 ppg.  But the Packers returned the favor, holding the Bears to 11 ppg, against a season average of 22.

All signs—defenses, weather, previous games—point to another low-scoring game.  I don’t expect either the Packers or Bears to maintain much offensive rhythm.  In their Week 17 nail-biter each team’s defense came up huge in the red zone, denying or limiting the other team’s scoring, and key defensive stops all over the field kept the final score at 10-3, Green Bay.

Given the weather and the defenses, turnovers could play a crucial role in this game.  The Packers were careless with the ball in their September loss, while the Bears were equally careless in December.  Turnovers should be expected on Sunday, as both defenses were extremely proficient in forcing fumbles and snagging interceptions, and whichever team comes out on top in that category will have the edge.

Where I see the Packers with the upper hand is at QB.  Bears’ QB Jay Cutler had a clutch game against the Seattle Seahawks last week, but Rodgers had a performance for the ages in his nearly-flawless dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons’ defense (31-of-36 for 366 yards and 3 TDs for a QB rating of 137 out of 158.3).  I’ve made no bones of the fact that I’m no fan of Cutler’s, while on the other hand I think Aaron Rodgers is emerging as one of the top 3 or 4 QBs in the game today.  I think he will continue that emergence this week—not with another mind-blowing performance, but with a steady and statesmanlike managing of a close game.

Looking at the key factors then, where are we?  Here’s the list:

  1. Weather: Even.  Both teams are used to Midwest winter weather, and nobody has the edge.
  2. Defense: Slight edge to Green Bay.  They rated higher all season, forced more turnovers, and allowed fewer points.  Still, the Bears are a most formidable unit that can’t be overlooked.
  3. Offense: Clear edge to Green Bay.  The Bears have the better running game, but the Packers have the much better QB and offensive line.  Since I think the QB will be a more important factor in the game than the RBs, I give the Packers a decided nod here.  The wind is expected to be about 5 to 15 mph, which I don’t think will be enough to impact the passing game.  The rain or snow that could fall could be a bigger factor.  If so, the Packers’ edge disappears and this factor becomes even.
  4. Special Teams: Big edge to Chicago.  You’ve got to love Devin Hester as a game-changing factor, and if the Packers allow him to get loose, the Bears will be going to the Super Bowl.
  5. Turnovers: Even.  Both teams have big-time defenses that can change field position in a heartbeat.  What may be even more critical here could be “unforced errors” such as an open field fumble or an interception on a bad read by the QB.  Normally I’d give a slight or clear edge to the Packers here, based on my general distrust of Jay Cutler, but Cutler’s performance last week encourages me to hold my fire this time.
  6. Coaching: Clear edge to Green Bay.  Mike McCarthy has been rock steady in his Packers’ career, and he always gets the most out of his team.  Lovie Smith’s Bears have been an up-and-down bunch during his tenure, and sometimes you can’t even tell week to week which team will show up.  McCarthy and the Packers have suffered playoff heartbreak over the years, but this time he’ll outcoach Smith by enough to take his team over the top.
  7. Intangibles: Even.  I like the Bears’ home-field advantage (though they were only a so-so 5-3 in the regular season at Soldier Field, they did beat the Packers at home).  But I also like the Packers’ emotional sharpness that comes from having had to win the last 4 games just to get to this point.

I’ve looked at this game from every angle that seems relevant, and I keep coming back to Aaron Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler.  Rodgers is a big-time QB that still seems to be peaking—both in his career and in the 2010 season.  I think Cutler is going to be pressured by the Packers’ defense, and in being pressured he’s going to make the critical mistake that loses the game.  Rodgers will stand tough in the pocket and tall on the field, and he’s going to take his team to Dallas.  Packers 16, Bears 10.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh: OK, folks, let’s give it up for the Jets, who in consecutive weeks have vanquished the two best QBs of the 2000s and future first-ballot Hall of Famers in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  I don’t like him, but Rex Ryan has done a fantastic job preparing his team for the playoffs, and the Jets are doing what they have to do to win.

What they did so well last week is what they’re going to have to do even better this week—namely, get pressure on the QB.  Last week in this space I said that, to beat New England, the Jets’ defensive line would have to get to Brady, who becomes (and, in that game, became) very ordinary when he can’t trust his protection.  Sure enough, not only did the Jets get to Brady, they did it so well in the first half that he began to flinch even when there wasn’t any pressure at all, forcing throws and running himself into trouble while trying to run away from phantom pursuers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team get into Brady’s head so completely and so devastatingly.  Brady literally played his team right out of the playoffs.

But it wasn’t pressure alone that did in Brady and the Patriots.  The Jets’ linebackers and secondary absolutely stifled the Patriots’ receivers, covering them so well that Brady had nowhere—absolutely nowhere—to throw while the game was still competitive.  It seems odd to say, considering that Brady finished the game 29-for-45 with 299 yards and 2 TDs (89 passer rating), but it was one of the best performances by a pass defense that I’ve ever seen.  It never felt like Brady was going to pass the Patriots to victory.

Can the Jets repeat their performance against the AFC’s last standing superstar QB?  Absolutely.  Last week the Baltimore Ravens proved that they could get to Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger and, in getting to him, force him into mistakes.  That part went according to plan.  What the Ravens failed to do, however, was to keep him down once they got him on the mat.

It is Roethlisberger’s special gift as a QB that he can turn chicken…um, droppings…into chicken salad.  Much like Steelers’ great Terry Bradshaw a generation before him, Roethlisberger can flail about like a headless chicken, get decked, turn the ball over, and generally look terrible for three quarters AND STILL BRING HIS TEAM BACK TO WIN THE GAME.

So, the special challenge for the Jets will be to get on Roethlisberger early and stay on him to make sure he doesn’t have a chance to work his peculiar comeback magic.

Jets’ QB Mark Sanchez had himself a terrific game against the Patriots, going 16-for-25 for 199 yards and 3 TDs (127 passer rating).  This week, however, he is going against the #2 defense in the NFL that was #1 in the league in fewest points allowed.  The Steelers held the Ravens to just 126 total yards for the game last week, an incredible performance against a quality opponent.  Sanchez faces a mighty challenge, and he’s going to have to be good—very good—to lead his team to victory.

Now don’t forget that he’s already beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field this year, bringing the Jets from behind and leading them to 10 of their 12 unanswered points to close out the game.   He didn’t throw a TD, but he did run for one and went a more-than-respectable 19-for-29 for 170 yards (81 passer rating).  Of course, Steelers fans rightly remember that their team was without star S Troy Polamalu and equally important TE Heath Miller, both of whom will be available for Sunday’s game, and that should make a difference.

Again, I don’t see the weather as being much of a factor, since both teams are from the North.  It will be 14° F and falling at game time (5° F wind chill), but while the game will end with temperatures in the single digits, neither team should be bothered by the cold until the loser has to walk back to the locker room at the end of the game.

I think that team will be the Jets.  They’ve played extremely well, even heroically, in these playoffs, but I think they are going up against a team that has too much going for it.  The Jets will certainly have their chances and can certainly pull off the upset, but it feels like it’s going to be Pittsburgh’s day when all is said and done.  Here’s why:

  1. Weather: Even.
  2. Defense: Big edge to Pittsburgh.  The #2 defense in the NFL in 2010 and the #1 ranking in points allowed.  They say defense wins championships, and if that’s true you’ve got to go with the Steelers here.
  3. Offense: Slight edge to Pittsburgh.  Ben Roethlisberger is at the top of his game, even when he’s not playing well, and his team has absolute faith in him even when the chips are down.  Mark Sanchez is on the rise, but I think his time is still to come.
  4. Special Teams: Clear edge to New York.  The Jets ranked much higher than the Steelers in both kick returns and punt returns, though I don’t think that this game will turn on special teams.
  5. Coaching: Even.  Last year I would’ve given Mike Tomlin the clear edge, but Rex Ryan has proven to be an innovative playoff coach who can amplify his team’s strengths and direct them against his opponents’ weaknesses.  Still, Tomlin is a savvy and fearless leader with a ton of big game experience, and he won’t be outcoached in this one.
  6. Turnovers: Even.  The Jets got a key interception early in the game that, disappointingly, ended up in no points for them in the red zone, but it did stop an impressive New England drive and set the tone for Tom Brady’s frustrating day.  The Steelers got 3 turnovers on consecutive drives in their win over the Ravens, but two of those turnovers were gifts (those “unforced errors” I referenced above).   They also committed 2 turnovers that the Ravens cashed in for points, but I don’t see that happening again this week.  I have no real feel for who would be more likely to commit a turnover in this game, so I’m leaving this factor as even.
  7. Intangibles: Big edge to Pittsburgh.  The Steelers have the big game experience, the home field advantage, a 7-1 all-time home record against the Jets, and Ben Roethlisberger’s game-saving knack.  The Jets have their bravado, proven playoff success on the road against two great franchises, and a victory over the Steelers just a month ago.   I don’t think bravado and mouthing off is going to have an effect on the Steelers, especially when their fans get their Terrible Towels whipping in the frigid January air.

The Steelers look like they’re headed to Dallas, which is very fitting since what would be their eighth Super Bowl appearance will tie them with the Dallas Cowboys for most appearances in the big game.  The Jets can certainly change those travel plans, but I don’t think they will.  Steelers 28, Jets 23.

Thanks for staying tuned.  Keep warm, and have fun on what should be a great day of football.

And I’ll see you back here in two weeks because I won’t, under any circumstances, handicap—or watch—the Pro Bowl.