Games of the week
The line: Packers by 3½
The story: Brian Urlacher is right. This game is "a big deal." The Bears and Packers have a 181-game history against each other, but only one contest (1941) was in the playoffs -- the longest postseason gap between NFC teams. Maybe that's why people can't wait to see these guys play. They've waited so long already. In fact, the last time I remember a ticket this hot in Chicago was when everyone wanted to "be like Mike" -- and I don't mean Ditka.
Anyway, it's a marquee matchup, only it's the Packers -- not the Bears -- that are favored here, and it's easy to see why. They have the white-hot quarterback. They have a defense that creates turnovers and allows few scores. And they have the all-important momentum, winning their past four games -- including the 10-3 season finale vs. Chicago.
Nevertheless, they must beware of trap doors. First of all, there's the Soldier Field turf. It's a mess and could have an impact on Green Bay's speed. Second, there's Soldier Field itself. The Packers have lost three of their past four here, including one this season. Third, there's the running game, where Green Bay finishes second to its opponent. Last, there's that Chicago front four, which brought so much pressure vs. the Packers the last time they met Green Bay couldn't produce a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
While much of the pregame talk has been about Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay's defense warrants almost as much attention. The Packers have playmakers galore, and only one team this season -- Pittsburgh -- allowed fewer points and produced more sacks. But Chicago has playmakers on that side of the ball too, with Julius Peppers, Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs and Urlacher making it difficult for the Packers to make the plays they did indoors last weekend.
I know, Green Bay won outside against Michael Vick and the Eagles, too, but that Philadelphia defense was crippled and porous, and once the season was over the Eagles fired their defensive coordinator. Connect the dots. I just think playing in Chicago ... on a slow track ... in sub-freezing weather ... might slow down the runaway Green Bay offense.
Once I thought Green Bay's ability to run the ball was critical to its success, but I'm not sure it matters here. If Rodgers has the time he did a week ago, it's over. Hey, Green Bay beat the Bears without a running game once before, but Rodgers was harried. If he's not, the Packers have the more dangerous receivers, with Greg Jennings a vertical threat who can stretch the field to gash Chicago with big plays.
But if Rodgers finds it as difficult to find receivers as he did in Green Bay when these two met, we have ourselves a game, folks. And then ... yep, it's up to Jay Cutler. He was magnificent a week ago vs. Seattle, but the Seahawks had holes the size of Lake Michigan in their secondary. There will be no such holes in a Green Bay defense that sacked Cutler six times earlier this month. In fact, in four games vs. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Cutler has four touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a 1-3 record. The Bears insist they can trust Cutler, and good. They should. They have no choice.
Something to consider: The Packers converted 46.8 percent of their third downs over the second half of the season but were held to a 28.6 (6 for 21) rate in two games vs. the Bears.
The line: Steelers by 3½
The story: One week the Jets go to Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning. The next, they go to New England and beat Tom Brady. So what's the big deal about tooling into Pittsburgh to take on Ben Roethlisberger? The Jets did it a month ago and won. So why can't they do it now?
|Santonio Holmes gets another chance to burn the Steelers after his offseason trade. (Getty Images)|
But I would be careful not to read too much into the return of Polamalu. He's not healthy, and if you watched last weekend's defeat of Baltimore you couldn't help but notice. The Steelers sometimes lined up Ryan Clark at strong safety because Polamalu's leg injury is an issue -- and his missed tackle of Ray Rice near the goal line can serve as Exhibit A.
Still, having him in there is positive for the Steelers because he provides stability and leadership for the league's stingiest defense. The Steelers are a different team with him, and my guess is it won't take the Jets long to find out. They might also discover that the plays they missed in December they better make this time around, basically because they can't count on another Brad Smith kickoff return to open the game. In fact, they may not be able to count on Smith, period, because of a groin injury that sidelined him last week, although the Jets expect him to play.
That's one consideration. Another is the Jets' running game. It produced 106 yards against Pittsburgh, the most allowed by the Steelers this season, but I don't see that happening now. Pittsburgh allowed an average of 62.8 yards per game this season, with the only two teams to break 100 (New England and Pittsburgh) two that beat them. But remember: Polamalu missed the Jets game.
If the ground game stalls, Generation Rex will turn to Mark Sanchez, and a week ago that was good. He responded with three touchdown passes. The week before, however, it wasn't ... not until he connected with Braylon Edwards on the game-winning drive. Sanchez is young and can be inconsistent. But he's also 4-1 on the road in the playoffs, which tells you he's talented, poised and doesn't unravel easily. He also has receivers who can get open vs. the Steelers' secondary, and if he has time to see the field or can buy time with his legs, the Steelers' cornerbacks are in trouble.
Of course, that's where defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau comes in. He knows his unit isn't all that strong at cornerback. But he also knows you don't have to have Pro Bowl cornerbacks to pressure a quarterback into mistakes. So expect him to launch a variety of blitz packages at Sanchez, hoping to hurry him, frazzle him and make him commit the turnovers he did not against New England. If he can, you can book flights for Dallas, Steelers fans. If he can't, get ready for more of Fireman Ed on TV.
But this game isn't on Sanchez alone. There should be concern for a New York defense that was shredded by Cutler in Week 16, too. If the Jets are to succeed they must keep Roethlisberger from extending plays and finding open receivers, then shut off tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace is the deep threat the Patriots didn't have a week ago, and I would look for Darrelle Revis to cover him. Miller is Roethlisberger's safety blanket, a favorite target on short and intermediate routes.
Shut those two down and you're halfway home.
Heck, sack Roethlisberger and you're there. The Jets got to Tom Brady five times a week ago, and his offensive line is superior to Pittsburgh's. But Brady doesn't have the mobility Roethlisberger does, nor is he as difficult to take down. In fact, nobody is as difficult to take down. I don't expect a lot of points here, but I do expect a tight game -- and I'm not exactly stepping out on a ledge here.
"This is a triple-chinstrap game," Rex Ryan said. "A straight-ahead, no fair dodging game. It's going to be one heckuva game to watch. All I want to do is to find a way to win."
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Something to consider: Roethlisberger is 38-12 at home during the regular season and 4-2 during the playoffs.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Pittsburgh LB LaMarr Woodley: He has nine sacks in five playoff games, and at least one in each. If he has another Sunday he becomes the first player in league history to hit double digits in six playoff starts.
2. N.Y. Jets WR Santonio Holmes: He has five straight playoff wins, four TDs in six playoff games and one Super Bowl MVP trophy.
3. Pittsburgh TE Heath Miller: He has 24 catches for 280 yards and three TDs in his past five playoff games.
4. Green Bay CB Tramon Williams: He has three interceptions in his past two playoff games. Including the regular season, he has nine interceptions this year.
5. Green Bay LB Clay Matthews: He has four sacks in three playoff games.
Five best mano-a-manos
1. N.Y. Jets WR Santonio Holmes vs. Pittsburgh CB Ike Taylor: Holmes is the Jets' most dangerous threat; Taylor is Pittsburgh's best cornerback. Holmes has something to prove against his ex-teammates, though he insists there's nothing "personal" about this game. Yeah, sure. Anyway, it's up to Taylor to make sure it stays that way. The two are offseason workout partners, but their friendship goes on hold Sunday -- with Taylor saying he hopes to "lay out" Holmes. "I'm going to try to be as disrespectful as possible once we get between those white lines," he said.
2. Chicago PR Devin Hester vs. Green Bay P Tim Masthay: Masthay would be crazy to kick to the guy. He burned the Pack for a touchdown the first time they played this season, and he has an NFL-record 14 TDs on kickoff or punt returns in his career. In short, he's a difference maker. "I'm much more confident than the first time we played in Chicago," said Masthay. "I'm not as worried, I guess." Well, he should be.
3. N.Y. Jets K Nick Folk vs. Pittsburgh K Shaun Suisham: Frankly, I don't trust either of these guys. Folk is erratic, missing a 30-yarder last weekend, and Suisham missed two field goals in a playoff loss last season. So what do they hold in common? Yep, neither was good enough to stick with Dallas.
4. Green Bay LB Clay Matthews vs. Chicago RT J'Marcus Webb: Matthews is a slam dunk as this season's defensive MVP. Webb is a rookie seventh-round pick who serves as his speed bump, and good luck. Webb held his own vs. Matthews the last time out, but the ante has been raised. "Every week there's some new ghost who shows up and scares the hell outta him," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "That's just the way it is for young players."
5. N.Y. Jets CB Darrelle Revis vs. Pittsburgh WR Mike Wallace: I don't think Revis stays on Wallace all evening, but I do think he covers him most of the time. The reason: Wallace is a game-breaker, with seven 100-yard games this season -- including one vs. the Jets. Just a hunch, but Revis tries to get physical with him at the line of scrimmage.
Five things that might only interest me
1. This is the fifth straight time and the 15th time since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990 that the teams in the AFC Championship Game met at least once during the regular season. Good news, Jets fans: In 10 of the 14 previous games the team that won during the regular season also won the championship game.
2. If the Jets win this weekend they become only the second sixth seed in the AFC playoffs to reach the Super Bowl since 1990. The other was Pittsburgh in 2005.
3. This is the sixth time the NFC Championship Game has been between division rivals, but the first since the 1989 playoffs when San Francisco beat the Los Angeles Rams.
4. The Packers never trailed by more than seven points in any game during the season, the first team to do that since the 1969 Minnesota Vikings. Plus, their average margin of defeat of 3.3 points was the lowest in franchise history.
5. If Green Bay wins, it becomes the fourth team to reach the Super Bowl with three straight road victories and the first sixth seed in the NFC to get there.
Numbers to crunch
4: Straight playoff victories for Mike Tomlin
5: Sacks made by the Jets last weekend
5: Sacks made by the Packers last weekend
28: Playoff home games for Pittsburgh, most in the NFL
64: Percent of successful Green Bay third-down conversions in the playoffs
140: Yards on three Brad Smith kickoff returns in Jets' last game vs. Pittsburgh
4-0: Jets' playoff record under Rex Ryan when they run for 100 yards or more
7-6: Bears' playoff record at Soldier Field
7-1: Steelers' record vs. Jets in Pittsburgh
• Chicago: Snow showers, high of 21
• Pittsburgh: Partly cloudy, high of 18
Where we will be
• Pete Prisco and Mike Freeman will be in Chicago to freeze.
• Gregg Doyel and I will be in Pittsburgh to freeze some more.