We’re down to the last four standing in the NFL, as the wildly entertaining and exciting playoff season draws closer to its conclusion. That also means it’s time for my penultimate picks of the football year; after going 3-1 (2-2 against the spread) last week and going 5-3 (4-4) overall, I’m looking to emulate my perfect end from last season to finish strong — but will i have to pick against my favorite team to do it? There’s only one way to find out — let’s get on with the show!
Pittsburgh (-3.5) over N.Y. Jets
This game will be a rematch of their Week 15 match-up (also played at Heinz Field) that the Jets won 22-17. The Jets were reeling at the time, having lost two games in a row and their playoff chances suddenly slipping into jeopardy. But New York won the game with a great defensive effort and a solid, mistake-free performance by their second-year quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Sound familiar?
It should — it’s the formula that’s gotten the Jets on the cusp of their first Super Bowl appearance since the days of Joe Willie Namath — and it’s a formula that head coach Rex Ryan’s team will have to follow again on Sunday if they want to beat the Steelers on the road. If they able to do that, it will be the latest in a stunning series of playoff accomplishments for the Jets. They’ve already vanquished two of the all-time greatest quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — with their four Super Bowl rings between them — in hostile environments, and this Sunday they’ll face another Super Bowl winner, two-time champion Ben Roethlisberger. It’s a feat reminiscent of the Saints march through the playoffs last season (when they beat Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Manning en route to their title).
Meanwhile, the Steelers continue to do what they do best — quietly win while the spotlight has shines brighter on other teams. In the AFC this season, the focus has been more on the Patriots and the Jets all season, while Pittsburgh remained somehow under the radar — an astonishing feat for a team that now finds itself arguably the Super Bowl favorite. It’s even more of a stunner considering how much the Steelers and their quarterback were in the news all off-season for all of the wrong reasons.
But Roethislberger has stayed out of the spotlight since his return from suspension, and the Steelers have continue to follow their own winning plan for success. Their defense was statistically better than the Jets’ much-hyped unit this season — in fact, it was the top-rated defense, and it was by far-and-away the stingiest defense when it came to shutting down the running game. For comparison, the Jets were ranked 4th in the NFL in giving up 3.6 yards a carry. The Steelers, however, gave up a paltry 3.0 yards a carry, a full half-a-yard better than any other team in the NFL. And that’s where the Jets are going to be faced with their biggest problem on Sunday.
Sanchez doesn’t have to carry the Jets on his shoulders if the team can run the ball successfully and take pressure off of him. But as talented as the Jets running back tandem on Shonn Green and LaDainian Tomlinson are, they’re going to have trouble moving the ball against the Steelers on the ground (they tallied 106 yards the first time around) — and if they can’t do that, then it’s going to be up to Sanchez to put points on the board. That’s a challenge that the young signal-caller has answered so far in the playoffs — but can he do it again?
I think this week, at least, the answer will be no. This match-up is similar to the Steelers game against the Ravens last week — two teams with great defenses and two teams that will have trouble running the ball against the other. And as it was against the Ravens, the difference for Pittsburgh will be in the quarterbacks and their play. Roethlisberger is better at this point in his career, and if one quarterback makes a crippling mistake to his team’s chances, I don’t think it’s going to be him. Sanchez has made great strides this season, and he might win a Super Bowl with the Jets at some point. It’s just not going to be this year.
Green Bay (-3.5) over Chicago
And now, the hard part.
I asked my friend Steven yesterday if, as a die-hard Bears fan for thirty-five years of my life, as a Bears fan who lived through the agony of a thousand awful quarterbacks (from Bob Avellini to Chad Hutchinson), as a Bears fan who still carries the great memories of Walter Payton, of the glory days of Mike Ditka, and the immortal 1985 Super Bowl team, if I could go against all of that and pick against my beloved Bears on Sunday.
Sadly, the answer to that is yes.
I have to go on record (yet again) that, on the subject of the 2010 Chicago Bears, I couldn’t have been more off on my predictions if I had tried to be. I (and many others) thought this season was going to be a debacle of epic proportions, while the Bears have instead come together as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. I thought that Jay Cutler would be a disaster this season under center, while instead he put up one of the finest performances of his young career last weekend at Soldier Field against the Seahawks. I thought that the coaching staff — which features no less than three former head coaches under head man Lovie Smith (Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli, and Mike Tice) — was going to be hopelessly outclassed this season, while instead the Bears coaching has gotten a great effort across the board, particularly from the much-maligned Martz.
I will maintain, however, that the Bears improvement this season was due to avoiding the problems that I had harped on previously — most importantly, avoiding costly turnovers — and to a fundamental change to the way Martz ran his offense. As I pointed out last week, the Bears prior to the bye this year were a pass-happy team that made way too many mistakes and were headed for another disappointing season. The Bears after the bye morphed into a team with an offense that ran the ball effectively, controlled the clock, and added a great defense to boot. That was a change that led to Chicago reaching the NFC Championship Game across from from their bitter rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay is playing their best football of the season at just the right time. Their running game has shown a sign of life, but it’s really Aaron Rodgers’ amazing performance at quarterback that’s led the Pack to this point. Rodgers’ talents and numbers have already made him one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (even if the general public hadn’t realized it yet), but his playoff run is setting himself up to be talked about in the same conversation those elite who wear a Super Bowl ring — think of Drew Brees at this point the same time last year as a relative example. What’s worth noting is that, as great a career as he had, Brett Favre won a lone Super Bowl in his time with Green Bay (and in the NFL) — Rodgers can equal that total in just a few short weeks.
Much like the game in the AFC, the NFC Championship clash features two teams with a lot of the same characteristics. There will be some great defense played from these two teams, and much like their game in Green Bay at season’s end, I don’t think there will be a lot of points scored at Solider Field on Sunday. As is usually the case in games like these, the winner and the loser will likely be separated by turnovers and mistakes — the winner will avoid them. That’s where the quarterbacks come in, and like in the AFC, that’s where I think the game will be decided.
Cutler was magnificent in his first playoff start last week — but these aren’t the Seahawks he’s facing this week. Only four teams gave up fewer yards and three teams fewer touchdown passes than did the Packers, and only one team had more interceptions than Green Bay’s defense did. As good as Cutler has been most of the time this season, he’s still had ugly moments — and while Martz has had his worst tendencies kept in check, he still is capable of producing some true head-scratchers (like his call for an option throw by Matt Forte that we saw last week with the Bears winning 28-3 — a bone-headed might have led to a comeback if a better team had been on the field against them).
As a Bears fan, what I’m deathly afraid of is exactly those moments rearing their ugly head up on Sunday — and while the optimist in me wants to believe in the Bears winning, the realist in me is sees at least one play where Cutler makes a terrible decision or Martz makes a terrible call. As evenly as these two teams may be matched, that one play is likely all the Packers are going to need in order to meet the Steelers in the Super Bowl — as much as it pains me to say that. On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I’m perfectly okay with that.