Ladies and gentlemen, I hate to be too cliché, but it is well speculated that the conference championship games are the best two games you will watch of football all season, including the Super Bowl. This year, at least on paper, it looks as if the games will back up that notion. The story lines of these teams this season, and the match ups that lie before us, are in the words of Marty McFly - pretty heavy. Let’s look at some of the storylines surrounding these games, and I’ll then give you my prediction to who we’ll see in Super Bowl XLV (45 for anyone who doesn’t speak roman).
Packers vs. Bears
The Bears seem to be the team that flew under everyone’s radar this season. With little preseason coverage as a good football team, they are definitely the sleeper still remaining. Their defense is no joke, and it looks like their linebacker core of Urlacher & Briggs are still as good, if not better, than they were when they beat the Saints in the NFC championship game a couple years ago. The addition of the amazingly talented Julius Peppers really solidified them in passing downs as a sack threat as well as a run stopping machine. Being at home at rugged Soldier Field will give their defense plenty of noise to back them up. Stopping the Packers passing and newly found ground games will prove to be a challenge, but the defense definitely has the talent to do it. They are probably the fastest unit out there of these 4 outstanding defenses. Just hope Jay Cutler doesn’t have one of those Rex Grossman impersonating games and they can be on the road to Dallas.
The Packers are a good football team all around. Okay, they’re pretty great. Aaron Rodgers is clearly the best quarterback left in the playoffs. He has the mobility to avoid the rush, the accuracy to pick apart a secondary, and the swagger to think he can win a ball game by any means necessary. They have the defensive player of the year from last season in Charles Woodson, and he may not even be the best cornerback on the team any more. Tramon Williams has made some huge picks this postseason. The defensive player of the year favorite for this season A.J. Hawk… um I mean Clay Matthews III, is a sack machine (don’t they look alike in their matching uniforms and long blonde hair?). With a QB who was knocked out against the Giants pass rush in the regular season (granted before offensive mad scientist Mike Martz revamped the protection schemes for Cutler) and is infamous for holding the ball too long at times, the Green Bay sack friendly defense may be ready to feast. Throwing under pressure for Cutler against that secondary may prove to be what decides this game.
This will also be a great game because of the pure hatred between the teams (more the fans) going back to Ditka’s playing days. No other story line necessary – two NFC North rivals, playing for a chance to go to Super Bowl XLV. The teams are familiar with each other of course, splitting the season series 1-1, winning at home. Both being cold weather teams (perhaps the coldest two in the league), this game has my expectations high for the best game I’ve seen all season. I love the Packers to win it, and as I said preseason to a select few who will back me up on this, win the Super Bowl.
Jets vs. Steelers
The Jets, easily the most hyped team in the NFL this season (due a lot to self promotion from players and T-Rex), have their shot to make the game Rex Ryan has predicted they’d win this year. I didn’t watch a second of Hard Knocks this season (different reasons than Tom Brady), but it definitely contributed to the national audience. Everyone now knows how much cockiness this team has. Now, after dynamite wins over the Colts and Pats on the road, and having beat the Steelers once already this season, you have to feel as if the Jets believe more than anyone that they are the best team left in the running. This goes a long, long way in football when talent can be so even here in the playoffs. Being that this is the team I’ve seen play the most of the four, I simply can’t get 100% behind them. Their offensive play calling is sometimes outright garbage (Wildcat run on third and 6 - kidding me?). They lack a consistent vertical arm like the other 3 QBs possess, even though they may have the most weapons. Does anyone think that Sanchez can make a throw on third and long like Ben NoMeansYesBerger did against the Ravens last weekend? If so, do you think Shotty lets him try? Sanchez definitely wins the great guy award, but it isn’t helping his long game. Then again, if the Jets can somehow run again on this Steelers defense, it can be a different breed of ball game than I expect. Their defense is one of the best in the league all around as well, and may have equal or better corners than Green Bay.
The Steelers were not without their own press, granted it is minimal in comparison. As I mentioned “Big Ben-doverthebathroomsink” had some offseason controversy to say the least. The Steelers were a favorite to win it all among seemingly the majority of sportscasters coming into the season. It is the same type of team under Mike Tomlin than it was under Bill Cowher: defensively minded and gritty. Troy Polamalu may be the best player left on the field. It really does seem that he is everywhere the ball goes. Whether he’s stopping the run, blitzing the QB, or making plays against the pass - the fact he wasn’t around to face the Jets the first time around is a bigger deal than you would think. Ben doesn’t make mistakes that hurt his team in key situations (unless the Jets sign a non-consenting drunk girl to play linebacker). He can throw all kinds of passes and even when hit is tough to put on the ground. The defense will not let the Jets run again. These teams seem built to play each other to a stand off.
Unfortunately, I do have to pick against the hometown Jets here, and say the Steelers will win this game. I am about half as sure of this prediction as my Packers one. I said the Jets would beat the Colts (but doubted myself severely and needed to pick an upset), said they’d lose to the Pats, and now still say they’re playing better than they are supposed to on offense. If you're superstitious, you want me to doubt them. If anyone watched as much of them as I did the last few weeks of the regular season, you have to be a little shocked they’re this far as well.
Well thats it today. I hope everyone enjoys their football this Sunday. I will be watching and expecting the best football played all year. I just hope each team brings it like I know they can and we see some great games.