A little better last week at 2-2. Saying that Ray Rice and Joe Flacco gave the game to the Steelers might be a little much, but at a minimum they served it up to them real nice. Despite having a 14 point lead at halftime, the Ravens couldn’t hold on for the win. The Jets truly shocked the world, beating the Patriots at home, proving that I have no idea what I’m talking about when I say things like “Tom Brady does not lose at home.” In the NFC, my favorite QB led the Packers to a bludgeoning of the #1 seed Falcons, sending them to Chicago where they’ll face a Bears team that emphatically put an end to Seattle’s playoff march. This week’s contests are, like last week’s, seasonal rematches with both the two and six seeds in each conference making it to the final four.
#6 Packers (10-6, 2-0) @ #2 Bears (11-5, 1-0)
Rivalry renewed. The Packers and Bears have played each other about 8,000,000 times, but this will be the first time the winner of this brawl advances to the Super Bowl. Some will say that the Packers week 17 win against the Bears was unimpressive considering the Packers had everything on the line, and the Bears had already been locked into their playoff spot. Truth is – the Bears played their starters the whole game because they didn’t want this Packers team in the playoffs. These two played 120 minutes of the most competitive football we saw this season, and with the winner of this one advancing to the Super Bowl, I would expect the intensity to be at an all time high. That could mean that the QB who is able to keep a level head and not let the game overcome them will be the one still playing in a couple of weeks. Jay Cutler threw for 389 yards, 1 TD, and 3 INTs in his two meetings with the Packers. On the other side, Aaron Rodgers passed for a total of 545 yards, but his 2-2 TD-INT ratio in those contests, when compared to his 28-11 season totals, shows how much trouble this Bears defense can give a QB.
Both teams impressed last week, but I think Green Bay’s beat down of the #1 Falcons said more than Chicago’s dominance over a clearly inferior Seahawks team that dropped far too many passes and did nothing to help itself advance. Rodgers did whatever he wanted against the Falcons, completing an insane 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and accounting for 4 of Green Bay’s 6 TDs. The NFC’s best regular season team was unable to get anything going offensively, rushing for a season low 45 yards and doubling their regular season single game high with 4 turnovers. The Packers pummeled a team that had been dominant at home, winning 7 of 8 in the Georgia Dome this season. Chicago’s 35-24 win over the Seahawks wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. Sloppy closeout defense by the Bears allowed Seattle to get two late TDs in a minute’s time, taking a bit of the oomph out of the victory. Seattle looked nothing like the team that beat the Bears in Soldier Field back in October. This time, Cutler was given a lot more time to complete passes, and his play certainly showed it. The Bears also ran for 115 more yards as a team in last week’s matchup than they did in the first.
I think weather will be the deciding factor in this one. It’s obviously going to be cold, but what will matter is how much it snows during the week and during the game and how windy it is at game time. Chicago wants nothing more than to have nasty, wintery conditions for their matchup against a QB who loves to throw the ball all over the field. That will also assist the Bears’ run game as I think they have a far better chance beating the Packers on the ground in a low scoring affair than through the air where they would, unadvisedly, be trying to win a game of horse against the hottest passer in the game. And do the Bears really want Cutler to try and match Rodgers pass for pass?
As I type, things on the weather front look good for Green Bay. Thursday appears to be the only day this week where Chicago will see significant snow. Friday and Saturday are calling for light snowfall, if at all, which should have things clear for the game on Sunday. Wind is also expected to be very minimal, so near normal conditions should exist when these two teams hook up. I read an interesting note by Jason Cole regarding Rodgers’ play in cold weather. Popular thought may be that since Rodgers throws it a lot, he’ll be in for a long game in the cold of Chicago. Not so. Per Cole, “…here’s how Rodgers has played in 10 outdoor games played in December or January since taking over as Green Bay’s starter in 2008, all of which were in cold-weather spots: Rodgers has completed 209 of 330 passes for 2,857 yards, 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions. That’s a quarterback rating of 106.8 and the Packers are 8-2 in those games. Again, that does NOT include his game Saturday night at Atlanta or his playoff game at Arizona last year.”
I can’t wait for this game. I’m still not convinced that Chicago is one of the four best teams in the NFL, but all that matters is that they’re still playing. And they’ll still be playing next week if they are able to do what Atlanta couldn’t – establish a run game and control the clock, keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines, and bring enough pressure to turn him over when he throws. Chicago needs to do a better job of protecting Cutler because you know Dom Capers is going to blitz frequently. The unit played better as a whole down the stretch, but they allowed 9 sacks of Cutler to the Packers in their two games, including 6 in the matchup a few weeks ago. Green Bay had the league’s 5th best pass defense, giving up the 4th fewest TDs, and finished 2nd in the league in interceptions. Their 16-24 TD-INT ratio was the best pass defense ratio in the league, and they finished 2nd to the Steelers in sacks with 47. All reasons to put less on Cutler’s shoulders.
That means Matt Forte will need to be the primary producer on offense for the Bears. After gaining a meager 29 yards on 11 carries in the first contest, Forte rushed for 91 yards and added another 60 on 8 receptions in the second. In addition to Forte pounding it on the ground, look for him, similar to Ray Rice with the Ravens against the Steelers, to get a lot of short passes this week as the Bears look to take advantage of an aggressive Packers defense. Another player to keep an eye on is Greg Olsen. Not only was he huge last week for 113 yards and a score, but the former Cane caught 10 passes for 93 yards and a TD in his two games against Green Bay this year. The Packers can’t win first and second down only to allow Olsen to beat them down the seam for big gainers. Still, I believe that objective #1 for the Packers is to shut down Forte and the running game, forcing Cutler to gamble more often than desired through the air.
Despite the emergence of rookie runner James Starks, the Packers most certainly aren’t counting on the running game getting them to Dallas. Chicago ranked 2nd at 90.1 yards per game allowed on the ground and forced more fumbles (15) than any other defense in the league. That works out well for the Packers because, while Chicago would prefer to not have their QB’s play decide the outcome of the game, the Packers want nothing more than for Rodgers to have the football in his hands as often as possible. In addition to last week’s video game like numbers, Rodgers completed 34/45 for 346 yards in his first encounter with the Bears, spreading the wealth to 7 different receivers. The second time the two teams met, Rodgers completed passes to 9 different targets. He’ll need to continue scattering his passes to keep Chicago’s physical secondary off balance and unable to focus on one particular receiver. I don’t see that being a problem. Most importantly he’ll have to turn more drives against this defense into points.
There shouldn’t be much of a surprise which way I’m leaning here. Forte does his damage, but Cutler is unable to beat a secondary led by Tramon “3 playoff INTs” Williams and veteran Charles Woodson. Aaron Rodgers is on fire right now, and as long as he takes care of the football the way he did in Atlanta and doesn’t force what isn’t there, the Packers will head to Dallas. To steal the old saying, Chicago can’t stop him. They can only hope to contain him. This Sunday they won’t be able to do either.
Packers 23 – Bears 13
#6 Jets (11-5, 2-0) @ #2 Steelers (12-4, 1-0)
Talk about an upset. The Jets blew into Gillette Stadium last week and dismantled the odds on Super Bowl favorites 28-21 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Patriots had the Jets within reach on the scoreboard throughout, but as the game progressed, the feeling set in that the Jets were not only ahead, they were going to leave winners as well. The Steelers weren’t nearly as emphatic in their divisional round win, needing three third quarter Baltimore turnovers to overcome a 14 point halftime deficit and beat the Ravens. Third quarter notwithstanding, somehow Baltimore allowed Antonio Brown to get loose for a long gainer on a 3rd and 19 just before the two minute warning that led to the game winning score. The Jets and Steelers took different paths to get here, but they’re the last teams standing in the AFC and will bang heads for a second time this year at Heinz Field for the right to head to the big one.
In that first matchup, the Jets beat a lethargic Steelers team 22-17 thanks to a big special teams play and controlled execution by Mark Sanchez. Brad Smith took the opening kickoff of that contest 97 yards for a TD, and with that return, the Jets took control of a game they led nearly throughout. Another key play was a great play action fake by Sanchez where he kept the ball and ran it in from 7 yards out to tie the game in the third quarter, erasing the only lead (4 minutes of game action) Pittsburgh had during the day. That game was the first time the Jets had beaten the Steelers on the road in 8 tries. Even with the Jets having momentum throughout, the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger had a chance to win it at the end as time was expiring, but the game ended on two incomplete passes from the Jets 10 yard line. New York ran for 106 yards on the day against the Steelers defense that was allowing an average of 60 yards per game at that point. Although Lawrence Timmons had an active day compiling a game high 13 tackles, the Steelers only sacked Sanchez once, and it became the first time in 9 games where the Jets QB did not throw an interception. On the bright side for the Steelers, they outgained the Jets 378-276 in total yards with Roethlisberger topping Sanchez’s output by nearly 100 yards and getting 99 on the ground from Rashard Mendenhall. Mike Wallace burned a beatable Jets secondary for 102 yards on 7 receptions, and since his longest catch of the day was for “only” 23 yards, it’s not as if it was just one big play where Wallace made his mark. One player likely to have a big impact in the Conference Championship contest is rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders. In the first meeting with the Jets, Sanders set a season high in receptions (7) and yards (78). He was second on the Steelers in receptions last week against the Ravens and seems to be creeping up the progression list as Roethlisberger’s new #2 target behind Wallace.
The much maligned Sanchez showed great control against the Patriots last week. He was 16-25 for 194 yards and 3 huge scores. The Jets were able to shut down BenJarvus Green-Ellis, holding him to just 43 yards on 9 carries, and the Patriots were only able to produce one play greater than 28 yards. Tom Brady was harassed incessantly, getting sacked five times and throwing his first interception after 11 straight pickless games. Take all that, substitute Mendenhall for BJGE and Roethlisberger for Brady, and that’s what the Jets will need to do to win their third straight road playoff game.
As dominant as the Jets were last week, it’s going to be a lot tougher for them to win that third game. In addition to the 1-7 @ Pittsburgh stat, they’re a team that gets by on a lot of emotion. There’s a constant a chip on their shoulder and feeling that they always have something to prove. Well, in this matchup, if it’s going to be personal for anyone, it’s the Steelers since the Jets handled them at home a month ago. Another difference in this game will be the availability of defensive stud Troy Polamalu, the All Pro safety who did not play in the December loss. Ask Joe Flacco if that guy makes a difference.
This should be a great defensive battle. The Jets ranked 3rd in rush defense, and the Steelers sat 1st. Maintaining that dominance will be key as both teams, the Jets more so than the Steelers, look to get something going on the ground. Every time LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, and Rashard Mendenhall get their hands on the football, they’re going to be attacked by a group of defenders looking to strip the ball. The Jets have the edge in this category as they forced 12 fumbles on the year (12th best) while the Steelers managed to force only 5 (24th in football). When it comes to covering the pass, here’s where I think Roethlisberger and the Steelers are going to have a bit of success. If you can stay off Revis Island, there are spots to attack this Jets secondary, evidenced by their 24 passing TDs allowed (19th best) and meager 12 interceptions as a team (25th best). Both teams get after the passer well. The Jets were 8th in the league in sacks with 40, and the Steelers led everyone with 49. I’ll raise a red flag here as Pittsburgh allowed 6 sacks to the Ravens last week. That said, a lot of that harassment came when starting tackles, Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams, were on the sidelines. Fortunately for the Steelers, both starters look ready to go this week.
If anyone can carry over adrenaline from a Wild Card game to a Divisional Round contest to the Conference Championship it’s the Jets. But will it be enough? Can Sanchez stay clean a second week in a row and for a second time this season against the Steelers, this time with an active Polamalu? The plan for the Steelers on defense shouldn’t be a secret. Shut down the run as they have done all year long and force the passer to beat you. Ike Taylor’s coverage skills are underrated, and both Polamalu and Ryan Clark love to punish people on the back end of plays. Sanchez should see plenty of LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Lawrence Timmons. Defensive end Ziggy Hood has sacks in three straight games, and making it a fourth would bode well for Pittsburgh’s chances.
Can Mendenhall have another big game on the ground? His ability to churn out runs of 5 yards or more will be key to Pittsburgh success. They’ll need the run game to keep the Jets honest and assist a penetrable offensive line in keeping New York off of Big Ben. Will the Jets stick with dropping more defenders into coverage and backing off the blitz, a game plan that worked great against the Colts and Patriots? Roethlisberger is stronger in the pocket than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, so the Jets won’t be able to move the QB as easily this week. Can the Jets coverage unit outlast Pittsburgh’s protection? Will Roethlisberger make the plays, or will he hold onto the ball too long and put his offense in unmanageable situations?
This should be a nail biter, and I fully expect it to come down to a last minute drive where Roethlisberger has the ball in his hands with the chance to take his team to a third Super Bowl under his leadership. Unlike their regular season matchup, this one ends with the Steelers celebrating. Mendenhall tightens up the Jets defense, allowing Roethlisberger to make plays downfield with Wallace and Sanders. The Steelers sneak one out and head to Dallas to face the Packers for all the marbles.
Steelers 20 – Jets 13