Packers @ Bears
There’s no secret between these two divisional foes. The Packers and Bears know each other inside and out. I think this will be a relatively low scoring affair as a sloppy Soldier Field, hasty weather conditions, and two aggressive defenses will make their mark on this game. The Packers are hot, plain and simple. But at the same time, the Bears were the ones that won their division; the ones that earned a playoff bye and home field advantage, and yet are being somewhat disrespected in the eyes of the media. I think this game will come down to two matchups. The first being the offensive line of the Packers versus the defensive front of the Bears which includes the likes of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Julius Peppers just to name a few. The second matchup being between the quarterbacks, Rodgers versus Cutler. Who will get the most protection? Who will make the clutch throws? Who will protect the football? In my opinion, the quarterback that answers these questions will go onto the Super Bowl and I think Aaron Rodgers will be that guy.
Packers win 21 – 17
Jets @ Steelers
The Jets have changed their tone in the week leading up to the AFC Championship Game, swapping their hate for Brady and the Patriots with love for Big Ben and the Steelers. But don’t let their lack of trash talk fool you, the Jets still have a tremendous amount of confidence going into hostile Pittsburgh as they have already defeated the Steelers in Heinz Field during the regular season, albeit without arguably the most valuable player to their specific team in Troy Polamalu. Sanchez and the Jets have become road warriors throughout their last two playoff appearances, but I just have a feeling that it’s all going to catch up with them in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is 4-1 against Rex Ryan coached defenses in his career and all signs point to a healthy Troy Polamalu playing in this week’s game. The Jets rushed for 89 yards against the Steelers in their regular season matchup, but the Steelers only allow 63 yards per game to opposing running backs. The Jets HAVE TO run the ball effectively in order to win games and I don’t see them having success against the best run stoppers in the game, especially without Damien Woody. I think Big Ben will out play Sanchez and the Steelers will be making yet another Super Bowl appearance.
Steelers win 23 – 16
Coming into the season the Patriots and Steelers were seen as hands down legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but after week 13 they are both in a battle just to get into the playoffs. Have the Steelers’ and Patriots’ dynasties ended? Can we no longer call them “elite?”
At 7-5 overall and 1-5 on the road this season, the Patriots do not look to have their usual swagger and aura surrounding them as in years past. Tom Brady and the offense look to have things looking pretty much normal, but the defense is what has let them down time and time again this season. The once bend but don’t break, get the stops when you need them defense of old has lost some key veterans like Teddy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and others that had a nack for key plays in big moments. The Patriots defense is ranked 11th in total yards per game allowing 322 yards. They also rank 14th in pass defense allowing 214 yards per game and 15th in rush defense allowing 108 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. The most surprising stat is that the usually opportunistic Patriot defense is only towards the middle of the pack in the NFL in terms of takeaways with 22. If the Patriots can’t find a way to develop their young defense and have them playing in true form on a consistent basis then we might be witnessing the end of Bill Belichick’s and the Patriots’ dynasty and thus their “elite” stature.
The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers have dropped 4 straight, the latest loss coming courtesy of the now 4-8 Raiders and a touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski to Louis Murphy with 9 seconds remaining in the game. The Steelers seemed to have lost their killer instinct and have had a huge amount of trouble putting teams away and holding onto the lead, especially in the 4th quarter. The 6-6 Steelers are in danger of missing the playoffs after winning 2 Super Bowls in the last 4 seasons. The Steelers have struggled within their own division, compiling a 1-4 record against division foes with their only win coming against the horrendous Browns. The Steelers offense hasn’t been the problem as they rank in the top half in every major offensive statistical category, rather it has been the struggles in the defensive secondary. The Steelers pass defense ranks 17th in the NFL allowing 220 passing yards per game. They have also allowed 15 passing touchdowns already this season and have only 8 interceptions. This comes in contrary to last years Super Bowl winning team that was ranked 1st in passing defense, gave up only 12 touchdowns through the air the entire season, and had 20 interceptions. The Steelers have to win their last 4 games in order to potentially put themselves in the playoff picture, but the first thing they have to attend to is finding a way to get that nasty, confident attitude back. If they can find their swagger then they have a chance, but for now they look to be just another average team, and their “intimidation factor” is rapidly dwindling week after week.
Finally, a team who talked a lot of smack before a game and backed up the talk with a hard fought victory. Too many times teams of all sports talk smack in the days leading up to a big game and then eventually get absolutely destroyed and embarassed at the hands of the usually better opponent (most recent case of this was the Tennessee vs. Florida game, although Tennessee surprisingly held their own). The revamped and passionate Jets defense under Rex Ryan played like one of Rex’s former defenses, the 2005 Ravens. The Jets defense baffled Brady and the Patriots offense with their unorthodox formations and unpredictable blitz packages, making the 3 time Super Bowl Champ and 2 time Super Bowl MVP look like a rookie quarterback playing in his first NFL game. Rex Ryan has done a remarkable job so far, turning a middle of the pack at best Jets defense last year into a formidable top 3 defense in the league this year. Oh, and lets not forget Mark Sanchez’s big time touchdown pass to Dustin Keller two minutes into the 3rd quarter which gave the Jets the lead for good. Sanchez reminded me a lot of last year’s Joe Flacco, managing the game and letting his above average running game and top notch defense do most of the work. All in all, I think it was a great win for the Jets and a big stepping stone for the future. As always, your thoughts and comments are encouraged and welcome.