Conference Championship Previews

So after 17 weeks and two weeks of playoffs, we’ve reached the final four of the NFL.  In the NFC corner we can find the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.  In the AFC corner are the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  There’s a lot to like about these teams, the story lines heading into the games, and the potential of each Super Bowl match up.  With all of that in mind let’s take a look at tomorrow’s games and allow me to provide my predictions.

NFC: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

This one has all the makings of an epic playoff battle.  The Bears and Packers are two of the oldest franchises in the NFL and their rivalry dates back to before the modern era.  These teams and fan bases hate one another.  This is like Browns-Steelers or Cowboys-Redskins.  What’s surprising is that this is only the second time these two teams have ever met in the playoffs and the previous time was 70 some years ago.  That in and of itself is remarkable, but it’s probably due more to the fact that when one team is good the other usually sucks.

The Packers are the odds on favorite to win this game.  They have the hottest player in football right now with Aaron Rodgers and appear to be peaking at the right time.  They have an explosive offense that has done nothing but put up points all season long…except against the Bears defense.  Interesting… very interesting.

A lot of people feel like this game will be lopsided in favor of the Packers.  I don’t see that.  The Bears have shown twice this year that they are able to handle the Packers vaunted offensive attack.  The real question is whether or not Jay Cutler and the Bears offense can avoid the big mistake and contain Clay Matthews rushing from the outside.  Over the second half of the season the Bears offense has shown an ability to put up big numbers and avoid mistakes thanks to a new found focus on Matt Forte and the running game.  To the benefit of everyone involved, offensive coordinator Mike Martz has realized that this isn’t the greatest show on turf and that a more conservative offensive approach is the way to go.

The X factor as always will be the return skills of Devin Hester.  Green Bay needs to find a way to prevent him from having any big returns.  Hester has the ability to put points on the board, alter the field position battle, and in one play can complete swing momentum.  On a big stage like this I wouldn’t be surprised is he takes one to the house.  It’s what he does.  Expect the Packers to kick away from him.

So where does that leave us?  We have everyone’s darling in the Packers versus a team no one trusts in the Bears.  I think the elements and the crappy state of the field will play more into the hands of the Bears.  I also think their ability to stop Green Bay plays into their hands.  They know they can do it, so why not a third time?  The clincher though is I don’t expect them to let their most hated rival walk into Soldier Field and win the George Hallas Trophy as the NFC champ.  The Bears have too much pride for that to happen.  My prediction: a defensive slugfest with the Bears outlasting the Packers 17-10.

AFC: New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Ugh with a side of ugh.  That’s what this game is.  In one corner we have the blowhard Rex Ryan and stone hands Braylon Edwards.  In the other we have the Pittsburgh Steelers.  There is no clear cut choice here in who to root for.  When you get down to it, I will be rooting against whoever wins this game.

The Jets are coming off of the second biggest win in franchise history against the Patriots.  Mark Sanchez is playing extremely well and the Jets, much like the Packers, look like they are peaking at just the right time.  They are clicking on both sides of the ball in every way imaginable and finally look like they are backing up all the trash talking they were doing back in August.  They are a very scary team right now.

The Steelers survived another war with the Ravens last week.  Unlike the Jets there are deeper issues to be found with the Steelers.  To say they are banged up right now would be an understatement.  There offensive line has been decimated by injuries and their leader on defense, Troy Polumalu, is nursing an injury to his Achilles heal.  That’s not good.  If Pittsburgh wants a chance to beat the Jets, they’re going to need to sure up their offensive line and Polumalu needs to be on the field for every play making Mark Sanchez as uncomfortable as possible.

Other than that the Steelers come in just as you would expect.  Led by Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers should be in the game until the very end.  Despite all of his transgressions off the field, you can’t deny the impact he has on it.  He makes big plays in big games and if you’re asking me to pick between him and Sanchez, well I’m taking Big Ben.  He has a resume that is comparable with some of the greats and he keeps getting better as he enters his prime.  As much as I hate him and the rest of the Steelers, I respect them and the things they continue to accomplish.

So what can we expect?  This game should be a slugfest much like last weeks game between the Steelers and Ravens.  Can Pittsburgh survive another beating like that? Oddly enough I think they can.  Despite the fact that the Jets are playing so well, I think they played almost too well last week.  Can they duplicate that performance again?  I don’t think so.  Did they lay too much importance in beating the Patriots?  I think yes.  We all saw the celebration and the heard the interviews.  That was their Super Bowl.  Pittsburgh on the other hand has their eyes focused on the prize at the end.  I expect the Jets to come out flat and the Steelers defense to make Sanchez look human, Tomlinson look old, and Edwards to drop passes like he’s a Brown again.  I’m taking the Steelers 27-13

And there we go.  My Super Bowl prediction is the Chicago Bears versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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