Beware forbidding fields in AFC, NFC title games

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Cold, wind and frozen turf. They make Pittsburgh's Heinz Field and Chicago's Soldier Field such forbidding places.

Just ask the guys who play there.

"Some people say it's a sorry field," Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said, adding that others prefer to describe his home turf with an expletive. "They say what they want, but at the end of the day, you've got to play. That's what we do. We accept it. We just play."

Both natural grass fields will be front and center Sunday when the New York Jets play the Steelers in the AFC championship game, and the Green Bay Packers take on the Bears in the NFC championship game, with Super Bowl spots on the line. And it could all come down to how the kickers deal with the less-than-ideal conditions.

"I think that's what's going to happen," Jets coach Rex Ryan said of his team's big game. "I think that this is going to be one of those games. I don't see a team blowing the other team out. I think this is going to be hard-fought all the way to the end and will probably be a three-point game."

That's why Nick Folk is bringing several pairs of cleats with him to Pittsburgh and taking extra kicks before the game. Sunday's weather forecast calls for morning snow showers and bone-chilling temperatures of about 13 degrees at kickoff.

"Everything about kicking at Heinz Field makes it tough," Folk said. "The fans, the weather can turn nasty at any time, the field can be pretty bad, too."

Pittsburgh has been an unpredictable and frustrating place for kickers since Heinz Field opened in 2001, and not just because of those Terrible Towels. But there might be some good news for Folk and the Steelers' Shaun Suisham, according to meteorologist Brad Rehak of the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh.

"It may not be as tricky for field goals at Heinz Field as it normally is," said Rehak, a Steelers season-ticket holder. "It might not be as tough as usual for the kickers."

Rehak said the winds usually come down the Ohio River and into the stadium, but the current weather pattern doesn't indicate that flow.

"When you're playing football this late in the year, outdoors, it is what you'd think it would be," said Suisham, who replaced Jeff Reed midway through the season. "I think that's part of what's fun of being part of this organization. I love playing on this kind of field. It's part of playing football this time of year and in this part of the country."

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward wasn't so kind after Pittsburgh beat Miami 3-0 in a Monday night game in 2007, calling the conditions at Heinz Field "horrendous." That was because the grounds crew needed to roll out new sod over the field after several University of Pittsburgh and high school football games tore up the turf. A day of rain didn't help, either, as water pooled.

The same crew had to re-sod the turf after the NHL held its Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals there, and from all accounts, it held up nicely in Pittsburgh's playoff victory over Baltimore last Saturday.

"It's never spectacular because they have so much traffic on it," Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said. "They put a lot of mileage on that field, but we expect it to be fine."

The Jets also have some playoff demons to exorcise there. Until Week 15, New York was 0-7 in Pittsburgh, including a disappointing overtime defeat in the 2004 postseason, when Doug Brien missed two field goals in the closing minutes of regulation. Westhoff said Brien hit the first kick - a 47-yarder - "pretty good," but ended up clanking it off the crossbar. Brien smashed the second one, a 43-yarder as regulation expired, but he hooked it.

"Neither one was the easiest kick to make in the first place," Westhoff said. "The field was very poor at that time. It was as tough as it gets."

Soldier Field, sitting next to Lake Michigan, has a similar reputation.

After being re-sodded before the regular-season finale in 2006, the Bears slipped and slid to a 39-14 victory in the NFC championship over New Orleans, which fumbled four times and lost three.

Earlier this week, Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings was critical of Soldier Field after watching Seattle players slip in the snow in the Seahawks' playoff loss last weekend.

"It's rough," he said. "It's probably one of the worst - probably the worst - in the league."

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Brian Urlacher have made similar comments.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature is expected to be in the upper teens at kickoff in Chicago, with wind chills in the upper-single digits.

"You know it's going to be cold," Bears kicker Robbie Gould said. "You know it's going to be windy. You know the conditions on the field aren't going to potentially be great."

Gould joined the Bears in 2005 - coincidentally replacing an injured Brien, who was cut by the Jets a few months after his bad day in Pittsburgh - and tries not to even think about the conditions when he lines up.

"I've done this a million times," he said. "I'm going to continue doing it, so I'm confident to go there and do my job on Sunday. I've got a lot of great guys around me that aid in that process."

Mason Crosby has been kicking in Green Bay for four years, so cold and windy conditions are the norm for him. Plus, he has been to Soldier Field once a season since coming into the league, so he tries to maintain his usual routine - no matter how bad the field may be.

"It's like any other game, go out and hit some balls, see if the wind's blowing in any way," he said. "Then, trust it once game time comes and know you're going to hit the ball and it's going to go where you need it to."

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AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., Andrew Seligman in Lake Forest, Ill., Ben Walker in New York, and AP Freelance Writer Chris Adamski in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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