NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: No. 6 Green Bay Packers at No. 2 Chicago Bears
You were expecting an air show? Doubt it. In September at Soldier Field, Chicago beat Green Bay 20-17. Three weeks ago at Lambeau, Green Bay won, 10-3. Two games, four offensive touchdowns. (Devin Hester scored on a punt return in the first game.)
The biggest factor here could well be pressure on the quarterback. Can Green Bay tackles Chad Clifton and rookie Bryan Bulaga be stout enough (and quick enough to shut down the edge) against Chicago ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije to give Aaron Rodgers time to make plays? Can the eternally shaky Bear front hold out Clay Matthews outside and B.J. Raji and Desmond Bishop inside so Jay Cutler can prosper? Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice knows he has to tighten things up this week after his group allowed six Pack sacks on Jan. 2, and I expect offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call many more quick timing routes for Jay Cutler. That will put pressure on the Packers linebackers to clog the short and intermediate lanes, which I think they're well-equipped to do.
I think the Bears will try to run more than the 18 and 20 carries they had in the previous two meetings with Green Bay, in part because they know they can be efficient at it, and in part because the weather might require it. But that's where James Starks comes in. He has to give Green Bay the breathing room it needs to not be over-reliant on Aaron Rodgers. Remember, the Bears know how to play Rodgers. They held him to two touchdown throws in eight quarters, and I don't expect it to be much different Sunday afternoon. Starks has as much a chance to be the Green Bay hero in this one as Rodgers, and if it's Rodgers, I think it'll be by throwing to the tight ends and short possession stuff to Donald Driver. I say it comes down to a two-minute-warning game in a championship game for the ages.
6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: No. 6 New York Jets at No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers
Odd game when the Jets won 22-17 in December. Pittsburgh was missing Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller (though if Polamalu is as invisible in this game as he was last week against the Ravens, his presence won't matter); the biggest play of the day was a safety by Jason Taylor that made the Steelers have to score a touchdown rather than a field goal when they stalled as time ran out at the New York 10-yard line. The Jets had the best rushing day against Pittsburgh of any team in football this season -- 27 carries, 106 yards -- which tells how incredibly well the Steelers played the run all year. Imagine the best game any team had running the ball against Pittsburgh ... and the Jets averaged 3.9 yards per carry doing it. You can be sure Dick LeBeau has harped on not letting the Jets be able to run it to extend offensive drives in this game. The Steelers would be happy to put this game solely on Mark Sanchez's shoulders, and that's what they'll try to do.
I'll tell you who the rematch sets up perfectly for: Ben Roethlisberger. Though he's never said it, I've always thought Roethlisberger has felt dissed by those who: a.) didn't vote him MVP of the Super Bowl two years ago; and b.) don't include him in the Brady-Manning-Brees discussion of the best quarterbacks currently playing, despite his two Super Bowl wins at such a young age. I think this game comes down to Ben Roethlisberger making enough plays to his young triumverate of speed receivers -- Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. It says here Sanders is who everyone will be talking about come late Sunday night. The Jets will take away one or two of the wideouts (throwing Hines Ward into the mix) but not all of them, and I think Sanders, more and more becoming one of Big Ben's faves, will break away late to be the difference.
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