The NFL playoffs thus far have been nothing short of dramatic. We’ve had upsets (Seahawks over the Saints), rivalry games (Jets-Pats, Ravens-Steelers), and incredible quarterbacking (Aaron Rodgers). Hopefully, the Championship games this weekend will not disappoint. And they shouldn’t.
The NFC match-up pits 2 historic NFC North rivals against one another, in the Packers and the Bears. Sports fans and commentators alike are wondering if Aaron Rodgers will keep up his phenomenal quarterback play. Will Rodgers finally emerge from the shadow of Brett Favre? And will James Starks give the Packers the needed run support to put a balanced offense on the field? For the Bears, folks are wondering if we’ll see the Cutler of new or the Cutler of old? Will Clay Mathews & Co. shut down the Forte/Taylor running duo, and force J-Cut into making bad decisions and turning the ball over?
The AFC Championship pits the veteran Steelers against the battle-tested New York Jets. Does Mark Sanchez have what it takes to win his 3rd consecutive playoff game on the road? Or will he falter in the face of Dick LeBeau’s Steel Curtain defense? And for the Steelers, will Big Ben provide us with another clutch performance and show why he should be considered one of THE elite quarterbacks in the league?
We’ll have to wait till Sunday to see how these questions are answered, but in the mean time, here’s how our experts see the games panning out.
Bears v. Packers
I’m pulling for the Packers in this one, and I think that they will ultimately prevail. Cal-product Aaron Rodgers has hands-down been the hottest player in the playoffs this year, throwing for 3 TDs against both the Eagles and the Falcons. Moreover, expect Clay Matthews & Co. to frustrate Jay Cutler the way they did Matt Ryan last week. You’ll see the Cutler of old this week, throwing picks and making bad decisions under pressure. It’s been a good run for Lovie Smith’s group, but despite support from the Head of State, it’ll be the Cheese-Heads, not the Bears, who will be in Dallas on February 6th. 28-17, Packers.
2010: Drew Brees over Brett Favre and Peyton Manning over Mark Sanchez
2009: Kurt Warner over Donovan Mcnabb and Ben Roethlisberger over Joe Flacco
2008: Eli Manning over Brett Favre and Tom Brady over Phillip Rivers
2007: Rex Grossman over Drew Brees and Peyton Manning over Tom Brady
2006: Matt Hasselbeck over Jake Delhomme and Ben Roethlisberger over Jake Plummer
Look at the last five years. Other than 2007, when Drees was obviously the better quarterback and Manning and Brady were about equal, the better QB has won the conference championship game. At this point, the talent level of both teams is more equal and both teams believe they can win the Superbowl. When teams are this equal, the winner is dependent on which QB is better and give me Aaron Rodgers over Jay Cutler. Rodgers is everything Cutler isn’t: likeable, careful with the football, and deadly accurate. Everything else is a wash to me. Give me the QB who made Cal relevant in college football, the one who learned under Brett Favre for three years, the one who almost came back from a 4 touchdown deficit in last year’s playoffs, over the QB who’s won one playoff game since high school.
Last week I said that the Packers run-game is not for real. I maintain that Starks isn’t the greatest running back in the NFC (2.2 yards/carry, with an additional 13 yard run against the Falcons), but he did surprise me. Give me his workhorse nature. He had 25 rushing attempts, which can help pace the Packers offense, especially on the tundra that is Soldier Field. I also am sold on Aaron Rodgers, who is a burgeoning superstar in the NFL. I respect everything the Chicago defense does and stands for, but worry about Chicago’s offense, especially Cutler’s ability to stay consistent. I think this game is too much Rodgers, too much Green Bay running, and too little Chicago offense. Packers cover the spread.
Steelers v. Jets
I like Big Ben and the Black and Gold in this one. Rex Ryan and Co. surprised me and the rest of the sports world last weekend with their convincing win over the Pats, but I’ve got to believe that the Jets won’t come out on top for the third week in a row. The Steelers have a far superior wide-receiving core than the Patriots in Ward and Wallace, and Big Ben has proven over the years that he has a knack for winning the big ones in January. Rex Ryan’s defense will come to play, and this one will be a low scoring affair, but at the end of the day, I think all the “hard knock” pressure will eventually catch up with Beach Boy Mark Sanchez. Don’t count on the Jets to win back-to-back-to-back games against Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger on the road. 17-10, Steelers.
An amendment to the above rule of always picking the better QB in championship games: make sure that QB has an offensive line. Last week, the Steelers ended up using every single one of their offensive lineman. The announcer even said, “They’re out of offensive lineman.” I’ve never seen an offensive line as ravaged as the Steelers this year, and they’re facing a great defense that can blitz better than any team in the league. I don’t trust Mark Sanchez yet, but I think he’ll get it done this week.
I’ve been soft on Sanchez and the Jets offense for a while, and I’ve been proved wrong time again. After chatting with SheilaKiJiwani, he put me on to something: think about the amount of talent the Jets have on both sides of the ball – it’s staggering. Do they have more talent than the Steelers? I think it’s close. In games this close, where the talent is about equal, I take the best quarterback, especially where one is incapable of being rattled (Roethlisberger) and one can be rattled (Sanchez). I know that most things are evenly matched here, but I think the Steelers win but by no more than a field goal. Watch Rex Ryan prove me wrong again.