Friday, January 21, 2011

The NFL Blog: 2010 Conference Championship Betting Lines

Last Week: Vs. Spread (1-3); Straight Up: (2-2)

Season: Vs. Spread (129-129-6); Straight Up: (162-102)

Divisional Round Review: A bad week for me picking games, an awful week for me as a fan.

Championship Round Preview: I can’t remember dreading Championship Sunday this much before in my life. In terms of rooting interest, it’s all about fan bases and media hype for me. Bears fans are annoying, primarily because almost none of them live or have ever lived in Chicago. And does anyone really want to have to live through two weeks of Jets Super Bowl hype? And what if they win the Super Bowl? What about that my little freaks?

It looks like my quest to finish at or above .500 ATS is going to come down to the wire. Actually, barring a push in the Super Bowl (assuming it’s possible) I’m either going to finish above .500 or below .500. If I go 1-1 ATS this week it will all come down to the Super Bowl. If I go 0-2 this weekend my quest will come to an end, as I’ll be 2 games under with only 1 game to go. If I go 2-0 this weekend I will clinch a winning record ATS.

NFC Championship Game

Green Bay (-3.5) @ Chicago

Packers cover

Comment: This isn’t the matchup I wanted obviously (I wanted Falcons vs. anyone), but it could be worse. At least there’s not an NFC West team involved. And I’m glad the Eagles and Saints also failed to get to the Championship Game. Plus, it’s nice to have an old school matchup, and Green Bay vs. Chicago is fairly traditional. This is a matchup of ancient rivals from the early days of the NFL. Two franchises with great histories and great fan bases.

Records and Trends

Green Bay: The Packers are now 12-6 overall (11-7 ATS) and 5-5 on the road (6-4 ATS). They have a tremendous +10.0 average scoring differential. They have won 4 straight overall and they are 4-1 ATS in their last 5. They’ve won 2 straight on the road and 3 straight ATS on the road.

Chicago: The Bears are now 12-5 overall (10-6-1 ATS) and 6-3 at home (5-4 ATS). They have a +3.5 average scoring differential. The Bears have won 3 of their last 4 overall and 4 straight ATS. They have won 2 straight at home and 2 straight ATS at home.

Green Bay’s Divisional Round Game

This is going to be hard. The Falcons were the #1 seed in the NFC, they were 7-1 at home, and they had already beaten the Packers earlier this season. But they were still looking to prove themselves, as they entered the game just slight favorites. They did not prove themselves. In fact, they were so thoroughly outplayed, that the result was to call into question just about everything they had accomplished over the previous 3 years. As a lifelong Falcons and Atlanta sports fan, I can honestly say that it was one of the most disappointing night’s of my life.

But this isn’t the Falcons Blog, and I suppose the main emphasis here needs to be on Green Bay. The Packers put on a performance impressive enough to make them road favorites against the Bears this week. Some uncharacteristic mistakes by the Falcons offense helped turn the game into a rout, but even those mistakes hadn’t occurred, it would be tough to argue that Atlanta would have won, simply because they never showed the ability to stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. In fact, the Falcons got two huge plays early in the game that resulted in 14 points, and it still wasn’t enough to keep them competitive, much less allow them to win.

As one-sided as the final numbers are, they are still a little skewed due to the fact that the Packers backed off defensively and took the foot off the gas on offense. The Packers had a 28-15 edge in 1st downs and outgained the Falcons 442-194. They out-passed Atlanta 346-149 and out-rushed them 96-45. Green Bay committed 6 penalties for 65 yards, while the Falcons had 7 for 32 yards. Green Bay was 8 for 12 on 3rd down and 0 for 0 on 4th, while the Falcons were just 3 for 10 on 3rd down and 1 for 2 on 4th. Green Bay was 4 for 6 scoring TD’s in the red zone, while the Falcons were 2 for 3. The Packers won the turnover battle 4-1 and the time of possession battle 38:19-21:41. Green Bay won the sack battle 5-2. They were 2 for 3 on FG’s, while Atlanta did not attempt a FG.

There were several keys to the game, but Aaron Rodgers was the most important factor. As loud as the crowd was, especially during the first half, Rodgers was able to call plays and run the offense with no trouble. The game plan was brilliant and Rodgers executed it flawlessly, firing quickly to open receivers when the defense called for it, and finding the one open receiver each team when the rest were covered. Most importantly, on the half dozen or more instances where the Falcons got to him, he eluded the sack each and every time, and then was able to either run for a gain or find an open man and throw a perfect strike. He was essentially perfect.

The Falcons led 7-0 after the 1st quarter, but the Packers outscored Atlanta 28-7 in the 2nd to take a 28-14 lead to halftime. They outscored the Falcons 14-0 in the 3rd to make it 42-14 going to the 4th quarter. The Falcons outscored the Packers 7-6 in the 4th but the final score was 48-21 Packers. Of the many impressive stats from this game, two stand out above all the rest: Green Bay went on a 35-0 run from the 6:06 mark in the 2nd quarter to the 14:21 mark in the 4th quarter. And despite the fact that the Packers had only 1 turnover and never went for it on 4th down they did not punt even once during the entire game.

The Falcons had the ball first and they converted a pair of 3rd downs on completions to Roddy White. But on 3rd and 10 from the Packers 48, Matt Ryan threw short to Jason Snelling for 4 yards to the 44 and the Falcons punted. The drive lasted 4:59 and the punt pinned the Packers at the 11. On the first Green Bay play, James Starks was blown up for a loss of 3 to the 8. Then Rodgers threw incomplete on a screen (little did we know how rare a sight that would be). On 3rd and 13 from the 8, the Falcons blitzed again, but this time Rodgers threw a bullet over the middle complete to Greg Jennings who made the catch and was off to the races. He easily picked up the 1st down and then cut back to the right to stay on his feet, but this allowed Stephen Nichols to come up from behind and knock the ball free at the 38. It bounced right to Brent Grimes and the Falcons took over at the Packers 48.

Atlanta drove inside the red zone, and on 4th and 1 from the 13, Ovie Mughelli took a quick handoff and went ahead for a yard to pick up the 1st down at the 12. On the next play, Michael Turner went over the right side, cut up the middle, busted tackles to the goal line and then got a push from his offensive mates into the end zone for the touchdown, 7-0 Falcons. The drive had taken 3:55.

On Green Bay’s 2nd possession, the Packers quickly moved into Atlanta territory, and on 3rd and 7 from the Falcons 41, Rodgers found Jennings open again over the middle for 18 yards to the 23. Clearly, Jennings was just fine physically, and he was going to be a factor this week after catching only 1 pass a week earlier. The 1st quarter ended with the Falcons on top but Rodgers on fire and the Packers moving. On 3rd and 3 from the 16, Rodgers hit Jordie Nelson for the first of seemingly 1,000 times. The play picked up 8 yards to the 8. On 2nd and goal from the 6, Rodgers hit Nelson to he left for a TD to tie the score at 7-7. The Packers had gone 81 yards in just 10 plays, going 2 for 2 on 3rd down, and holding the ball for 7:56.

I’m not sure what it was like for those at the game. I was watching on television, and I can tell you that at this point I was quite concerned. Not only had the first TD been a bit fluky, the first stop of the Packers had been fluky, and they had just held the ball for almost 8 minutes. My thought at the time was that at the very least the Falcons offense had to control the ball for a few minutes on their next possession. This is why—though it may seem I’m looking back in hindsight—I had mixed emotions when Eric Weems took the ensuing kickoff back 102 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-7. Don’t get me wrong, I was fired up and almost passed out from a head rush. But my comment immediately afterwards, was that I hoped there was a TV timeout planned for right after the next kickoff.

The ensuing Packers drive actually started well for the Falcons, as James Starks tried to receive the ball near the sideline and fumbled it out of bounds at the 8. But on 2nd and 4 from the 14, Rodgers hit a wide open Donald Driver over the middle for 24 yards to the 38. On 2nd and 10 from the 50, Rodgers hit James Jones down the right sideline and he stayed in bounds for 16 yards to the 34. At this point the Packers were consistently going to 4 and 5 receiver sets. It was obvious that they felt they could always find an advantageous matchup if they spread the Falcons out. Compounding the problem for the Falcons was the injury to DB Brian Williams, who was ruled out for the game late in the week. I wasn’t sure how big of an injury this would be, but it did cause me a bit of unease when it kept popping up in analysis by respected insiders. The importance of the injury would soon become all too obvious.

On 3rd and 3 from the 9, the Falcons defensive line finally forced the pocket to collapse and sandwiched Rodgers at the 16. It was a huge play, as the Falcons had not yet stopped Green Bay, and this would force a field goal try. However, there was a flag. Reserve DB Chris Owens was called for illegal contact and the Packers had a 1st and goal at the 4. The replay showed that Owens made no attempt to play legal pass defense, and just wrapped Jennings up and hugged him. It was a total give away. Because the sack was so quick, I don’t believe the penalty caused Rodgers to be sacked instead of throwing it to Jennings or anyone else. On 2nd and goal from the 3, Rodgers fired incomplete to bring up 3rd down, but Owens was again called for illegal contact. Once again, Owens had simply wrapped Jennings up and held on for dear life. The Falcons coached exploded in frustration. Watching on TV I was horrified. Here was this guy having to play extended time because of an injury, and his lack of confidence that he could do his job was so great that he literally tackled his man twice over the course of 3 plays. On 2nd and goal from the 1, John Kuhn went over for the TD to tie the game at 14-14. This time the Packers had gone 91 yards in just 10 plays, converting a pair of 3rd downs, and holding the ball for 5:44. It was tied, but I was very nervous.

Again, my thought was that it was absolutely crucial that the Falcons hold the ball for a while on their next possession and give the defense a break. In fact, I was relieved when Green Bay kicked short, eliminating another kickoff return. The Falcons started with good field position at the 35 and they were soon at midfield. Ryan fired incomplete on 1st down but Cullen Jenkins was called for roughing the passer and the Falcons had a 1st down at the 35. Atlanta moved into the red zone, but an uncharacteristic false start penalty made it 2nd and 14 at the 19. On the next play, Charles Woodson came on a corner blitz but Ryan did not hit the uncovered man. He held the ball instead and Woodson sacked him for a loss of 7 at the 26.

Still in field position, the Falcons lined up on 3rd and 21 from the 26 and Ryan fired deep down the right side for Michael Jenkins. Immediately I could see that the ball was underthrown. Whether or not the play could have been completed for a touchdown if Ryan had led Jenkins more I don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to be sure to keep it in the field of play and give Jenkins a jump ball. However, when Jenkins had stop his momentum deep in the end zone in reaction to the throw, his feet went out from under him, and thus he was unable to keep Tramon Williams from going up and intercepting the pass for a touchback. Had Jenkins kept his feet, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have been able to at least break up the play and make it a 4th down field goal try for the lead. Instead, the Falcons had gotten nothing out of a red zone try, and the Packers had the ball with 2:20 left in the half. Perhaps worst of all, the Falcons held only held the ball for 3:46.

The Falcons desperately needed their defense to offer some resistance now, but Rodgers continued to cut right through them. On 2nd and 9 from the 32, he found Jennings wide open again down the middle for 20 yards to the Falcons 48. On 3rd and 2 from the 40, Rodgers hit Driver again for 20 to the Atlanta 20 yard line. On the next play, Rodgers fired down the right side into the end zone for James Jones. At first glance, it looked like a rash play, as the Packers were cutting through the Falcons like a hot knife through butter, and this was essentially a jump ball on 1st down, with Grimes—the Falcons most opportunistic DB—in coverage. However, as soon as the play ended it was obvious that it was yet another perfect decision by Rodgers. He threw up a jump ball (placed perfectly by the way) for his tallest receiver against Atlanta’s most undersized DB. Grimes played it as well as he possibly could, but Jones was able to get 2 hands on it against Grimes’ one hand, and he made an incredible catch for the touchdown to make it 21-14 Green Bay. They had gone 80 yards in 7 plays, converting another 3rd down, and doing it over just 1:38.

That Green Bay was able to move so quickly through the Atlanta defense was absolutely soul crushing. However, it did mean that there was some time left on the clock for the Falcons to try and get some points before halftime. And this was huge, as the Packers would be getting the ball first in the 2nd half, and no one could be confident at this point that they wouldn’t be able to go right down and score again. The Falcons could not afford to fall two TD’s down, because that would cause them to move away from running the football. Another short kickoff gave the Falcons the ball at the 35 with 42 seconds left. On 3rd and 6 from the 39, Ryan threw deep down the left side for Jenkins incomplete, but DB Sam Shields never turned around to play the ball and was called for pass interference. All of the sudden the Falcons had a 1st down at the 38. Ryan then went deep for White down the right side, but Williams wisely held White for another pass interference penalty. That gave the Falcons a 1st down at the 26, but it took away a chance for a TD and they had only 1 timeout left.

At this point—and again, I promise you these were my thoughts at the time, not later—I was thinking “okay, calm down, you have time, just take a few shots at the end zone and if you don’t get it, kick the field goal.” But on the next play, Clay Matthews forced his way up the middle and crushed Ryan back at the 35 for a loss of 9. The Falcons had to take their last timeout with 10 seconds left. On the play, Ryan was sandwiched and took the crown of Matthews’ helmet right under the chin. After seeing the replay, I was worried that he might be knocked out. He got up and went to the sidelines for the timeout.

When they came back out for 2nd and 19 from the 35, I was really hoping that they would just go for the touchdown and not try to improve the position for a FG try. For one, I was worried that they might go short and get tackled in bounds and the clock would run out. I was also thinking that a touchdown here would be enormous, and I completely trusted Matt Bryant to hit a 52-yard FG if that was what he was called on to do. On the 2nd play of the drive, Ryan had thrown short left to the sideline for Harry Douglas, and it was a very risky throw for a gain of just 2 yards. Now with just 10 seconds left, Ryan took the snap and was immediately pressured, he moved to his left and tried to fire a short pass to the left for Roddy White, hoping to get a few yards at the sideline to make it a shorter kick. However, Williams read the play and intercepted the pass at the 30, running full steam down the left sideline. As soon as he threw it Ryan knew it might be picked and he had a shot to bring Williams down, but he couldn’t do it and Williams took it all the way to the house, 70 yards for a touchdown, making the score 28-14 at the half. Not only were the Falcons now down 14 with Green Bay getting it first in the 2nd half, the play shocked and stunned the crowd.

One final note about all of this before we move on to the 2nd half. I did not do very many Falcons game previews this season due to my day job, the time I spent doing weekly NFL and college football entries, and other factors. By coincidence, one game that I did do a preview for was the Green Bay game (see “The Falcons blog: Week 12 Preview” entry dated November 24th, 2010). I was very worried about the matchup. One of the things giving me concern, was the strength of the Green Bay corners. I was worried that they would be able to contain the Atlanta receivers on their own, freeing other defenders up to focus on the Atlanta run game and rushing the passer. The other concern was the intelligence and experience of the Green Bay corners and the possibility that they would be able to trick Matt Ryan into making mistakes. I don’t know if Ryan’s 2 costly picks were a result of Tramon Williams outsmarting him, but that certainly seemed to have something to do with it.

I also think that Ryan—as much as he tried to express confidence on the sidelines—was influenced by the success of the Green Bay offense and moved into shootout mode. I don’t have any proof of this, but I also have to wonder if it’s merely a coincidence that his two picks occurred immediately after he was decked. Ryan’s body language during high pressure moments does not correspond to his nickname of “Matty Ice.” That handle was placed upon him during his college career when he garnered a reputation for comebacks and clutch plays. That has carried over into his pro career. That being said, I do think there are times when he gets a little caught up in the action and lets the game get away from him a bit. I believe that happened here to some extent.

As the Falcons prepared to kickoff to Green Bay at the start of the 2nd half, they had two goals. They absolutely had to hold the Packers without points on their opening drive. And they had to do something to get the crowd back in the game. Things started out well for Atlanta, as the first Green Bay possession of the 2nd half began in a way similar to their 1st possession of the game. On 1st and 10 from the 20, big John Abraham came around and finally caught Rodgers for a sack back at the 10. On 3rd and 13, Rodgers dropped back and the Falcons brought heat. Safety William Moore had him dead in his sights and looked to bring him down deep in Green Bay territory. But the same thing which caused problems in the New Orleans game appeared here and would continue to show up the rest of the way. Moore allowed Rodgers to elude him like a matador fooling a bull, and Rodgers then rolled back to his left and fired a perfect dart to the sideline for Jones at the 32. It was good for 15 yards and a backbreaking first down.

The Packers expertly mixed their play scheme as they moved down the field again. The Falcons couldn’t afford to give up any points and Green Bay was in field goal range as they lined up on 3rd and 7 from the 32. The Packers then gave the Falcons a chance to stay in the game, as Rodgers dropped back and Big John Abraham closed in on him. Abraham had him but Rodgers got away and completed a perfect pass to Nelson for 14 yards and a 1st down at the 18. The frustration for the defense and the Falcons fans everywhere was almost too much to bear. On 1st and goal from the 7, Rodgers rolled out and then turned up field and went into the end zone for a TD to make it 35-14. They had gone 80 yards on 12 plays, converting 2 more 3rd downs, and taking 6:32 off the clock. That essentially put the game away. It would now take a miracle for Atlanta to comeback.

The Falcons now faced an absolute must score on their first possession of the 2nd half. On 3rd and 8 from the 29 they faced an absolute must convert right away. Ryan fired deep down the left side for Jenkins and he made the catch and took a step before getting knocked out of bounds. The Green Bay sideline exploded, saying that it was an incomplete pass. The Packers challenged. It was close but it was overturned and the Falcons couldn’t afford for that to happen. I was actually hoping that they would go for a do-or-die fake punt. Instead, they punted and died. Michael Koenen’s wounded duck off the side of his foot went out at the 50 yard line and basically put the exclamation point on the Atlanta tailspin from up 14-7 at home in the 2nd quarter to being finished at home in the 3rd quarter with still a long way to go.

Now the Atlanta defense was back on the field after only 59 seconds, with the Packers at midfield. On 3rd and 6 from the Atlanta 46, Rodgers eluded pressure again and found Nelson for 8 yards and a 1st down at the 38. On 3rd and 5 from the 33, Abraham again pressured Rodgers, but he evaded the rush and found Driver for 22 yards and a 1st down at the 11. On 2nd and 6 from the 7, Kuhn ran it in to put the game away for certain, making the score a humiliating 42-14. They had gone 51 yards in 8 plays, converting 2 more 3rd downs, and taking 4:48 off the clock.

The rest of the game was just superfluous torture for the Falcons and their fans. On the ensuing Atlanta possession, Ryan hit Jenkins for 14 yards on 1st and 10 from the 27, but Jenkins was called for offensive pass interference. On 3rd and 3 from the 34, Ryan hit Jenkins for 22 yards to the Green Bay 44. That play stood up but the 3rd quarter had come to a close and the Falcons were down 28 points. The Falcons moved the ball into the red zone, and on 2nd and 3 from the 6, Ryan hit Roddy White for a touchdown to make it 42-21. Now they would have to kick onsides and hope for the best. But the Falcons were called for illegal touching and the Packers took over at the Atlanta 39.

With the Packers now playing conservatively, the Atlanta defense held, and on 4th and 3 from the 32, Mason Crosby attempted a 50 yard FG. It hit off the left upright, no-good. Green Bay had only taken 1:26 off the clock. The Falcons took over at their own 40 with 12:55 remaining. While extremely unlikely, it was not impossible at this point. But on the very first play, BJ Raji busted through and sacked ran back at the 31 for a loss of 9. On and 19 from the 31, Ryan went to Snelling for 11 yards to the 42. Desmond Bishop was called for holding and the Falcons had a 1st down at the 36. On 3rd and 1 from the 45, the Falcons called for a sneak, but Ryan lost the ball and Clay Matthews recovered at the 44. That was the nail-in-the-coffin.

On 3rd and 7 from the Atlanta 22, the Packers converted yet another 3rd down, with Nelson catching another pass for 9 yards and a 1st down at the 18. On 4th and 17 from the 25, Crosby hit a 43 yarder to make it 45-21. Just as importantly, the Packers had taken 5:10 off the clock. On the ensuing Atlanta possession, Ryan completed a pass to Jenkins on 4th and 1 from the 30 and it looked to be good for a 1st down, but Jenkins fumbled at the 33 and Bishop recovered. On 4th and 8 form the 14, Crosby kicked a 32 yarder to make it 48-21. The Falcons punted after a 3-and-out on their final possession and the Packers kneeled it to run out the clock, mercifully ending a nightmarish game for the Falcons. The 48-21 score, as hideous as it was, did not begin to describe how one-sided this gamed turned out to be.

Rodgers wound up 31 of 36 for 366 yards, 3 TD, and 0 INT, posting a 136.8 rating. He also ran for a score. James Starks carried 25 times for 66 yards, averaging 2.5 per carry. Kuhn ran twice for 5 yards and a TD. He also caught 2 passes for 14 yards and a TD. It was not the running game that won it for Green Bay, although the mixing in of running plays off of the passing attack was brilliant. Jennings caught 8 passes for 101 yards. Nelson caught 8 passes (seemingly all of them for 1st downs) for 79 yards and a TD. Driver made 6 catches for 76 yards. Jones had 4 catches for 75 yards and a TD.

Defensively, Williams had 2 picks, 1 returned 70 yards for a score. Matthews had 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Woodson, Raji, and CJ Wilson had a sack each. Crosby was 2 for 3 on FG’s.
Ryan completed 20 of 29 passes for just 186 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INT. He posted a 69.0 rating and lost a fumble. Michael Turner had just 10 carries for 39 yards and a TD. Jenkins caught 6 passes for 67 yards but lost a fumble. White had 6 catches for 57 yards and a TD. Weems returned 6 kicks for 195 yards, averaging 32.5, including a 102 yard TD. Sadly, Tony Gonzalez was targeted only once, caught 1 pass for 7 yards, and was injured on the play.

Chicago’s Divisional Round Game

Despite shocking the world by beating the defending champs in the WC round, the Seahawks were still considered to be the Seahawks, and they were again big time dogs last week. This time they would have to play on the road and the Bears would not be caught off guard. All 4 of last week’s final scores were misleading, none more so than this one, as the Bears jumped Seattle early and put the game away before Seattle even got on the board.

Again, the numbers are skewed, as Seattle amassed most of their offensive against a Bears team that was on cruise control. Chicago had a 21-18 edge in 1st downs and a 437-276 edge in total yards. The Bears out-passed the Seahawks 261-242 and had a commanding 176-34 edge on the ground. The Bears committed 8 penalties for 71 yards, while Seattle was hit with 3 penalties for 20 yards. Chicago converted 10 of 18 3rd downs and went 1 for 2 on 4th down, while Seattle was just 3 for 14 on 3rd down and did not attempt a 4th down conversion. The Bears were 3 for 3 scoring TD’s in the red zone; Seattle went 3 for 4. Seattle actually had a 1-0 edge in the turnover department, but the Bears had a dominant 37:10-22:50 edge in time of possession. Chicago had 2 sacks but still allowed Seattle to notch 3. The Bears didn’t try a field goal, while Seattle hit their only attempt.

The Bears got on the board first and led 14-0 after 1. Seattle had been down early the week before, but this time they could not get their offense going, and the Bears added another score in the 2nd to take a 21-0 lead to halftime. Chicago won the 3rd quarter, 7-3, and led 28-3 going to the 4th. Seattle made a run in the 4th, outscoring the Bears 21-7, but it was too little too late, as Chicago closed out a 35-24 win.

The Seahawks started the game with the ball and immediately went with a bit of wrinkle, running Leon Washington around left end for 9 yards, but on 2nd and 1 from the 33, Marshawn Lynch was stopped and pushed back for a loss of 2. Matt Hasselbeck threw incomplete on 3rd and 3 from the 31 and Seattle punted after a 3-and-out. The Bears faced 3rd and 2 from their 42 on the 3rd play of the game, when Jay Cutler threw deep down the middle for a wide open Greg Olsen and he somehow ended up going all the way for a 58 yard TD to make it 7-0. The Bears would never look back.

On the 1st play of Seattle’s 2nd drive, Hasselbeck hit John Carlson—one of the heroes of the WC win over the Saints—near the sideline for 14 yards to the 38, but he was upended. Carlson was taken away on the cart and never returned. This was actually a huge development, and not only because Carlson had proven to be a trusted and capable pass catcher. When the Seahawks had success offensively this season it often came out of a 2-TE set. However, they only had 2 TE’s available for this game, so they were unable to run a 2-TE set the rest of the way after the injury to Carlson. On the next play from the 38, Hasselbeck threw a backwards pass to Golden Tate and he charged ahead for 13 yards and a 1st down at the Chicago 49. The Bears stiffened, but on 3rd and 11 from the 50, Hasselbeck threw over the middle to Cameron Morrah who was stopped just short of the 1st down at the 40 after a pickup of 10. But on 4th and 1 from the 40, Pete Carroll called for the punting unit, and Jon Ryan’s punt went out of bounds at the 9.

On their 2nd possession, the Bears had a 3rd and 4 from their 33, and Cutler was sacked by Lofa Tatupu for a loss of 3 to the 30. They punted to the Seattle 37. On 3rd and 3 from the 44 for Seattle, Hasselbeck fired incomplete and the Seahawks went 3-and-out. This time Devin Hester got a shot at the punt return and he took it 26 yards from the 24 to the 50. On 2nd and 5 from the Seattle 45, Cutler hit Olsen to the right for 33 yards, all the way down to the 12. On the next play, Earl Bennett lined up in the backfield and took a direct snap and went ahead for 9 to the 3. Cutler threw incomplete on the next play and on 3rd and 1 from the 3 Matt Forte was stuffed. The Bears called a timeout and then lined up to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 3. Cutler took the snap and went ahead for 2 yards to the 1. On 2nd and goal from the 1, Chester Taylor went across for the TD to make it 14-0.

The 2nd quarter began with the Seahawks facing 3rd and 5 from their 33. Hasselbeck hit Brandon Stokley for 10 yards and a 1st down at the 43, but Russell Okung was called for holding, the 2nd penalty on the possession for Seattle. On 3rd and 15 from the 23, Hasselbeck threw incomplete, and the Seahawks were 3-and-out. After the punt, the Bears took over at their 37, and on the first play after the change of possession Cutler found Olsen again, this time to the left for 22 yards to the Seattle 41. On 3rd and 4 from the 24, Cutler fired to the right to Bennett for 13 yards and a 1st down at the 11. On 3rd and 5 from the 6, Cutler took the shotgun snap and then ran right and up and into the end zone for the TD to make it 21-0 Chicago with 10 minutes left in the half.

On Seattle’s 5th possession the Seahawks had a 3rd and 1 from the 29 and Hasselbeck threw incomplete. It looked like another 3-and-out but Chris Tillman was called for pass interference and Seattle got a 1st down at the 36. But Hasselbeck fired 3 consecutive incompletions and they punted to the Chicago 26. On 1st and 15 from the 21 (following a false start) Cutler dropped a pass off to Forte and he rambled 26 yards to the 47. The Bears moved across midfield, and on 2nd and 10 from the 42, Taylor ran for 12 to the 30, but a crack back block on Hester made it 2nd and 21 from the Chicago 47. Johnny Knox caught a pass for 9 yards and then fumbled but the ball went out of bounds. On 3rd and 12 from the Seattle 44, Raheem Brock sacked Cutler and forced a fumble, but J’Marcus Webb fell on it for Chicago at the Seattle 48. The Bears had fumbled on consecutive plays but had kept possession. They became even bigger when Brad Maynard’s punt was downed at the 1.

On 3rd and 9 from the 2, Hasselbeck got Seattle some breathing room with a 12 yard completion to Ben Obomanu for a 1st down at the 14. But on 3rd and 3 from the 21, Hasselbeck threw deep down the right side for Golden Tate, incomplete, and the Seahawks had to punt. Jon Ryan’s boot was gadawful, going just 23 yards to the Seattle 44. The Seahawks were on the verge of being blown all the way back to Washington but the defense bowed up here. On the first play of Chicago’s drive Cutler threw short left to Hester and he was cut down for a loss of 2. On 3rd and 12 from the 46 Cutler threw incomplete for a 3-and-out. Maynard’s punt was downed at the 9, but a holding penalty caused a re-kick. The 2nd punt was downed at the 19.

There was just 1:25 left in the half, but Seattle had all 3 timeouts and they were down 21, so they couldn’t play it conservative. They picked up a 1st down but on 3rd and 8 from the 34 Tommie Harris rocked Hasselbeck back at the 26 for a loss of 8. Seattle punted and the Bears took over at their own 32 with 43 seconds left. The Bears came out in the shotgun but Cutler was sacked by Chris Clemons at the 26 and Chicago allowed the clock to run out. They headed to the locker room up 21-0.

The Bears were incomplete control heading to the 3rd and they would get the ball 1st in the 2nd half. Incredibly, when Seattle kicked short to Rashied Davis at the 18, he actually latteralled the ball to Devin Hester. Hester picked up 6 to the 24. It didn’t seem worth the risk, but no harm no foul. Cutler threw incomplete on 3rd and 5 from the 29 and the Bears were 3-and-out. The Seattle defense had settled in and now it was time for the offense to do something as they took over after the punt at their own 35. But Lynch was stopped for no gain, Forsett was stopped for no gain, and Hasselbeck threw incomplete for a 3-and-out. They punted it away again.

On the ensuing Chicago possession, Cutler took the snap under center on 3rd and 2 from the 38 and dropped back to pass before scrambling for 8 yards to the 46 for a 1st down. On 3rd and 5 from the Seattle 39, Cutler went short left to Knox for 15 yards to the 24. Then on 3rd and 1 from the 15 Forte busted ahead for 2 yards and a 1st down at the 13. The Bears were going to put it away. On 2nd and 9 from the 12, Forte took the direct snap and handed to Taylor who picked up 3 to the 9. On 3rd and 6 from the 9, Cutler took the shotgun snap and then went up and around the right for the TD, his 2nd rushing score of the game, to make it 28-0 with just 4:12 remaining in the 3rd.

Needing a miracle, Seattle got a decent start, as Leon Washington took the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to the Chicago 30. On 3rd and 8 from the 18, Hasselbeck went deep for Stokley down the left side incomplete, but Tillman was called for pass interference again. On 2nd and 7 at the 10, Hasselbeck fumbled the snap but Obomanu fell on it at the 12. Hasselbeck threw incomplete on 3rd and 9 to bring up 4th down from the 12. Carroll again played it safe, settling for a 30 yard FG by Olindo Mare that got the Seahawks on the board, but did little to increase their odds of winning the game, as that made the score 28-3 with just 1:52 left in the 3rd.

The Seahawks elected to kick it deep and Chicago had to start their next drive at their own 9. The Seahawks nearly came up with a 3-and-out, but on 3rd and 1 from the 18, Taylor picked up 2 for a 1st down at the 20 as the clock ran out in the 3rd quarter. Early in the 4th, Cutler took the shotgun snap on 3rd and 8 from the 22 and scrambled for 21 yards to the 43. Yet another big play by Cutler with his legs. But on the very next play, the Bears again seemed to be unnecessarily risky, as Forte took the direct snap and then threw left for Hester. The pass was picked off by Aaron Curry at the Seahawks 44 and returned 23 yards to the Chicago 33. The Seahawks took over there, down 25, with 13:22 to play. Look, the game was out of reach, but the last thing you want to do is allow a pick-six that would take almost no time off the clock and allow Seattle to try and onsides kick. Let’s say they recover the kick and then throw a bomb for a TD. It’s an 11-point game with over 10 minutes to go. Unlikely that all of that would happen, but it doesn’t even get started if you don’t have your running back taking the snap and throwing the ball down the field.

Seattle immediately bogged down, with Hasselbeck throwing incomplete on 3rd and 1 from the 24. Finally, Carroll rolled the dice (although he had nothing to lose at this point) and went for it on 4th down. Tim Jennings picked Hasselbeck off at the 18 but he was called for interference, giving Seattle a 1st down at the 19. On 3rd and 4 from the 13, Stokley caught a pass for 11 to the 2. On 3rd and goal from the 2, Hasselbeck got it to Mike Williams for the first Seattle TD, making the score 28-10 with 11:21 to go. Seattle then decided to kick it deep and play defense. The Bears picked up two 1st downs, moving inside the Seattle 40. On 3rd and 9 from the 36, Cutler threw incomplete and the Bears punted. Maynard’s punt was downed at the 5 and the Seahawks took over with 7:28 to play.

The Seahawks picked up 1 first down but on 3rd and 10 from the 21, Tommie Harris sacked Hasselbeck again, this time for 8 yards back at the 13. Now came Carroll’s most overly cautious move of all, as he had the Seahawks punt it away, down 18, with 6 and a half minutes to play. Were the Seahawks going to win this game? Their chances were ridiculously low. But the game was not over. There was still a chance, however slim. Punting does not help your chances in any way, in fact, it will almost certainly end them completely. If you go for it on 4th and 18 and don’t get it, who the fuck cares??? I just don’t get it. Chicago took over at the Seattle 48 anyway after the punt. On 3rd and 1 from the 39, the Bears took no mercy on the college coach and his playoff frauds, as Cutler went deep down the left side for a TD to Kellen Davis. That made it 35-10 with 4:40 to go.

With the game now mathematically out of reach, the Seahawks flew down the field. On 1st and goal from the 3, Hasselbeck hit Williams in the end zone for the 2nd time in the game, capping off a 74 yard drive, and making it 35-17 with 2:16 to play. For reasons that boggle the mind, Carroll now elected to have the Seahawks kick onsides. The Bears recovered at the Seattle 37. Carroll then called Seattle’s final 2 timeouts to stop the clock following Chicago running plays. Again, the guy punts, down 18 with less than 7 minutes remaining, and now he’s kicking onsides and calling timeouts down 18 with less than 2 minutes to play. The Bears went for it on 4th and 3 from the 30 and Cutler threw incomplete. A roughness penalty on the Bears gave Seattle the ball at their 45. On the first play after the change of possession, Hasselbeck connected with Obomanu for 46 yards to the 9. On the next play, Hasselbeck hit Stokley for the TD to make it 35-24 with 1:24 remaining. Seattle went for the onsides but Chicago recovered, took 3 knees, and killed the clock to finish off the win. Once again, the 35-24 final score was not at all representative of what took place in this game.

Cutler finished 15 of 28 for 274 yards, 2 TD’s, and 0 INT, posting a 111.3 rating. He also ran 8 times for 43 yards and 2 TD. Forte ran 25 times for 80 yards (3.2 average) and caught 3 balls for 54 yards (he was also 0 for 1 with an INT as a passer). Taylor rushed 11 times for 44 yards and a TD. Olsen caught only 3 passes but amassed 113 yards receiving and a TD. Kellen Davis caught 2 passes for 44 yards and a score. Harris had 2 sacks. Maynard put 3 of 5 punts inside the 20 with no touchbacks.

Hasselbeck’s yards are so skewed to the point that they are almost not worth posting. He was 24 of 46 for 258 yards and 3 TD against no picks, posting a 94.3 rating, but almost all of that damage was done after the game was out of reach. No Seattle player had more than 13 yards on the ground. Stokley made 8 catches for 85 yards and a TD. Obomanu had 4 catches for 68 yards. Williams caught 4 passes for 15 yards and 2 TD. Curry had the game’s only INT. Tatupu, Clemens, and Brock had 1 sack each. Washington returned 5 kickoffs for 143 yards (28.6 average). Mare was 1 for 1 on FG tries. Ryan had a dreadful day punting, averaging just 35 yards on 9 punts, and placing only 1 inside the 20.

Injury News

Green Bay: The Packers have dealt with injuries all season and they have a number of players who will be limited in practice this week as they try to get ready for this Sunday. Most are expected to play. Backup fullback and special teams player Korey Hall has missed the last 3 games but he should be ready to go this week. Safety Atari Bigby has missed almost the entire season with various injuries, including the last 3 games, but he has been practicing and should be able to play on Sunday. The news on LB Frank Zombo is not as encouraging for Packers fans. He’s been out the last 5 games and has not practiced this week. It doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to return on Sunday.

Chicago: The Bears appear quite healthy going into this Sunday’s game. LB Pisa Tinoisamoa hurt his knee in last week’s game and has not practiced this week. He is questionable but it seems like he will be active. DB Chris Harris suffered a hip injury during the 3rd quarter last Sunday and he hasn’t practiced this week. He’s listed as probable and says he’ll be ready to go.

Regular Season Meeting: As always, these two ancient rivals met twice during the regular season. The first matchup was on Monday Night Football in week 3, with the 2-0 Packers visiting the 2-0 Bears. Green Bay came in as a 3 point road favorite and they would take the early lead, but the Bears came back and hung on for a somewhat surprising 20-17 win. The Packers led 7-0 after 1, and they led 10-0 in the 2nd, but the Bears cut it to 10-7 at the half. After a scoreless 3rd, the Bears took their first lead, 14-10 in the 4th. The Packers went back ahead 17-14, but the Bears tied it at 17 and then won it 20-17, outscoring the Packers 13-7 in the 4th.

The Packers had a 379-276 edge in total yards and a 21-18 edge in 1st downs. Green Bay was 2 for 3 in the red zone, while the Bears were just 1 for 4. The Packers held a 35:49-24:11 edge in time of possession. Jay Cutler was sacked 3 times for -22 yards, but the Bears held a 2-1 edge in the turnover department. Without a doubt, the most important stat from this game was penalties and penalty yards. Green Bay was hit with an astonishing 18 penalties for 152 yards. Time after time big plays were wiped away by Green Bay penalties.

Robbie Gould missed a 49 yard FG try on Chicago’s opening drive and the Packers took the 7-0 lead on a TD pass to Greg Jennings. Cutler was then intercepted in the end zone, and the score stayed 7-0 into the 2nd. Mason Crosby’s 38 yard FG increased Green Bay’s lead to 10-0. But Chicago got on the board with Greg Olsen catching a TD pass to cut it to 10-7 with 26 seconds left in the half. On the last play of the 1st half, Aaron Rodgers threw a Hail Mary that was intercepted at the 4. In the 3rd quarter, a Green Bay TD was nullified by a penalty and they had to settle for a FG try, but Crosby’s 37 yarder was blocked by Julius Peppers. The Bears marched deep inside Green Bay territory, but on 4th and goal from the 1 Cutler threw incomplete to turn it over on downs. The score stayed 10-7 Green Bay into the 4th, but on the 2nd play of the 4th quarter, Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a TD to give the Bears their first lead, 14-10.

The Packers responded, with Rodgers rushing for a 3 yard TD to put Green Bay back on top 17-14 with 6:52 remaining. Cutler was then picked off at the Chicago 36 but a roughing the passer penalty took the play off the boards. Gould hit a 25 yarder to tie the game at 17-17 with 3:59 to play. Brian Urlacher then made a big play, knocking the ball loose from James Jones at midfield and the Bears recovered at the Green Bay 46 with 2:18 remaining. Cutler was picked off again at the 10, but the Packers were called for pass interference and the Bears got a 1st and goal at the 9. Gould hit a chip shot 19 yard field goal to put the Bears up by 3 with 4 seconds left. The Packers tried to run a Stanford Band play on the ensuing kickoff but it eventually failed, giving the Bears the 20-17 win.

Rodgers ended up 34 of 45 for 316 yards, a TD, and an INT. He also ran twice for 20 yards and a TD. One thing to note is that Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley (out for the season) had a huge game, making 9 catches for 115 yards. The Packers had a FG blocked and Chicago had a punt return for a TD. Cutler was 16 of 27 for 221 yards, a TD, and an INT. He also ran 3 times for 37 yards. Johnny Knox made 4 catches for 94 yards.

The teams would not meet again until the final Sunday of the regular season. The problem with this game was that by the time it got underway, the Bears were locked into the #2 seed, while the Packers would be in the playoffs with a win and out of the playoffs with a loss. Chicago’s only incentive to play their starters all game, go all out, and not use a vanilla game plan was to keep their rivals out of the playoffs. This led to the Packers being 11 point favorites. As it turned out, the Bears did go about their business as if they had something to play for, and the Packers struggled for a 10-3 win. It was scoreless after 1 and 3-0 Chicago at the half. It was 3-3 heading to the 4th. The Packers outscored Chicago 7-0 in the 4th to win it 10-3.

The Packers had a 284-227 edge in total yards and a 14-13 edge in 1st downs. The turnover battle was even at 2-2. The Packers were 1 for 2 in the red zone, while the Bears were 0 for 2. The time of possession was virtually even. Cutler was sacked 6 times for -51 yards. This time the Packers solved their penalty problem but they were just 2 for 11 on 3rd down.

The Packers missed an early scoring chance when Donald Driver lost a fumble at the Chicago 35. The 1st quarter was scoreless and the game remained scoreless until Gould hit a 30 yard FG to put the Bears up 3-0 with 4:31 left in the half. Chicago took that 3-0 lead to halftime. Early in the 3rd, the Bears went for it on 4th and 2 from the Green Bay 40 and Cutler fired incomplete to turn it over on downs. On the very next play, Rodgers was picked off by Charles Tillman at the Bears 43 and he returned it to the Green Bay 15. But then Cutler was picked off in the end zone.

The Packers finally got on the board on a 23 yard FG by Crosby to tie it 3-3 with 2:39 left in the 3rd. The score stayed tied at 3-3 into the 4th. Finally, the Packers made a big play, as Rodgers hit Jennings for a 46 yard completion to the Chicago 1. On the next play, Rodgers hit Donald Lee for a TD to give the Packers a 10-3 lead with 12:42 left. The defensive struggle resumed and continued over the remainder of the game. With 20 seconds to play, the Bears had a 2nd and 10 at the Packers 32, but Cutler was intercepted by Nick Collins at the 11. Rodgers took a knee to seal the 10-3 win and the final playoff spot in the NFC.

Cutler was just 21 of 39 for 168 yards, no TD’s, and 2 picks. Matt Forte had a very solid game, rushing 15 times for 91 yards and making 8 catches for 60 yards. Rodgers went 19 for 28 for 229 yards, a TD, and an INT. Jennings had 4 catches for 97 yards. Backup LB Eric Walden recorded 3 sacks for Green Bay.

Series History: No two teams in NFL history have faced each other as many times as the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. They will meet on Sunday for the 182nd time. The first meeting took place on November 27th, 1921, with the Bears (called the Chicago Staleys at that time) beating the Packers at home, 20-0. It is not the league’s “oldest rivalry,” as the Cardinals vs. Bears series predates it by 1 year. But it is the league’s longest continual rivalry, as the two teams have faced each other at least once every season going back to 1923.

The Bears have a 92-83-6 edge in the all-time series (including a 1-0 edge in the playoffs). The Bears won the first 3 meetings (shutting Green Bay out in all 3 games) and went 7-1-3 against the Pack in the first 11 meetings from 1921 to 1928. The Packers then gained the upper hand in the series from 1928 to 1932, winning 7 straight and going 10-2-1 against the Bears over a 13-game period. At the end of that stretch, the Packers held an 11-9-4 edge in the all-time series.
But then from 1932 to 1934 the Bears won 6 straight. That gave Chicago a 15-11-4 edge in the all-time series and they have held the edge in the all-time series ever since. The Packers won 6 of 9 from 1935 to 1939 to cut Chicago’s lead to 18-17-4, but the Bears would then put together the longest stretch of dominance either team has had over the other in the history of the series. From 1939 to 1960, the Bears went 32-9-2 against Green Bay, and by the end of that period they had nearly doubled up the Pack in the all-time series, holding a 50-26-6 edge.

However, it was at about this time that Vince Lombardi’s legend in Green Bay began, and the Packers would dominate the rivalry with the Bears from 1960 to 1972, winning 20 of 25 games (including 5 in a row at the start of the run). Even after that stretch, the Bears still held a 55-46-6 edge in the series. From 1973 to 1975, the teams split 6 games, making the all-time series 58-49-6 Chicago. From 1976 to 1979, the Bears won 7 of 8 to increase their edge in the series to 65-50-6. Green Bay won 4 of 5 from 1980 to 1983, closing the gap slightly to 66-54-6 in favor of the Bears.

But then the 80’s Bears emerged and they would win 15 of 18 against Green Bay from 1983 to 1992. At the end of that period the Bears held an 81-57-6 edge in the series. Next, Brett Favre’s era began, and the Packers would take control of the rivalry. From 1992 to 2003, the Packers won 20 of 23 against Chicago, closing the gap to 84-77-6 in favor of the Bears. From 2004 to 2007, Chicago won 6 of 8, widening their edge to 90-79-6. From 2008 to present, the Packers have won 4 of 6, bringing the Bears edge in the all-time series to 92-83-6.

While the Packers have won 4 of 6 overall (including the last matchup), the Bears have won 4 of 6 in Chicago. As you can see, for the most part this has been a rivalry of extreme swings and streaks. It’s basically accurate to say that they have rarely been good at the same time, and this helps explain why the two teams have met just once in the playoffs. It happened all the way back in 1941 in the divisional round. The Bears whipped Green Bay at home, 33-14.

Team Playoff Histories

Green Bay: For the Packers, this is the 26th trip to the playoffs in franchise history (2nd straight and 3rd in the last 4 years). They have a 27-16 all-time record in the playoffs and a 9-12 record on the road. The Packers are 4-2 in conference championship games, and 2-1 on the road in conference championship games. This is the 3rd trip to the playoffs for the Packers in 5 yards under Mike McCarthy. They are now 3-2 in the playoffs during this era (2-1 on the road) and they are 0-1 in conference championship games under McCarthy. This is a 2nd straight trip to the playoffs for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers are 2-1 in the playoffs with Rodgers at QB (2-1 on the road) and this will be his first conference championship game. This will be Green Bay’s first conference championship game since they lost at home to the Giants in overtime in 2007. Their last trip to the Super Bowl came in 1997.

Chicago: This is the 25th trip to the playoffs for the Bears (3rd in 6 years) and their first since 2006. They have an 18-18 all-time record in the playoffs and a 12-7 record at home. The Bears are 2-2 in conference championship games (2-1 at home). This is the 3rd trip to the playoffs for the Bears in 7 years under Lovie Smith. Under Smith, the Bears are 3-2 in the playoffs (3-1 at home) and 1-0 in conference championship games (1-0 at home). Jay Cutler got a win in his first ever playoff game last Sunday and he will be in his first ever conference championship game this Sunday. This is Chicago’s first conference championship game since they beat the Saints at home in 2006 (that was also their last trip to the Super Bowl of course). The Bears have won 3 of their last 4 playoff games and 3 straight playoff games at home.


Coaching Matchup

Edge: Push.

Comments: I don’t have a high regard for Lovie Smith or Mike McCarthy as in-game strategists and managers. In general, I feel like when they do have an obvious impact on the game it’s often negative. I will say this for Smith: he seems to have the trust and support of his players, as we saw with Brian Urlacher this week. McCarthy has done a commendable job the last few years keeping his team going despite terrible injury luck. But I don’t think either one gives his team, “a strategic advantage” and they have been known to make questionable challenge/clock management/and play selection decisions.

Rod Marinelli failed as Detroit’s head coach (not the first to be saddled with that charge) but he has a great reputation as a defensive mind and in his first year as Bears DC he has overseen the return of the Chicago defense. Consider that Ron Rivera was the coordinator from 2004-2006, when the Bears won back to back division titles, led by a defense that finished in the top 5 in scoring defense and total defense in 2005 and 2006. Rivera exited after the 2006 season and over the next 3 years the Bears were never better than 16th in scoring defense and never better than 17th in total defense in any season. Marinelli was handed the coordinator job this year and the Bears finished 4th in scoring defense and 9th in total defense.

Offensive guru Mike Martz has not been able to produce that sort of improvement in his first year as OC. Statistically, the Bears actually declined this season. With less capable and fewer weapons, Martz has never been able to match the success he had with the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams of the late 90’s/early 2000’s. He has a great “offensive mind” to be sure, but Martz can be his own worst enemy at times (see last week’s halfback pass up 28-3 early in the 4th). At times it seems to be an ego issue for Martz. He has been known to ignore the run and throw, throw, throw, and this can be a dangerous game plan when you’re dealing with Jay Cutler and the Chicago offensive line.

I don’t know too much about Green Bay OC Joe Philbin, but the offensive game plan for the Packers in their two playoff games has been tremendous. A lot of the credit must go to Aaron Rodgers’ flawless performance and execution, but last week’s offensive game plan against Atlanta was one of the best I have ever seen. Dom Capers is another guy who had little success as a head coach but who is without question a topnotch coordinator. Over the 11 years prior to his arrival as DC of the Packers, Green Bay finished in the top 10 in total defense twice and in the top 10 in scoring defense twice. They have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense in each of his 2 seasons on the job.

Quarterback Matchup

Edge: Packers.

Comments: We all know what Jay Cutler’s strengths are. He has a rocket arm. He can make all the throws. He is capable of doing things with his legs. He is “SAT smart.” He’s got a highly competitive nature. These are things which helped him become a 1st round pick and helped him complete impressive statistical seasons in Denver. However, Cutler has several weaknesses as well, and these are also fairly well known. At times he is downright awful as a decision maker. He’s a gunslinger even when he has a top notch defense. He thinks he can make every throw and takes unnecessary risks. His natural ability was more than enough in high school and college for him to be great. In Cutler’s case, the downside of this is that he’s not necessarily the most dedicated preparer and his mechanics can slip at times. Cutler really hasn’t done much to prove that he is a great leader or a great performer in crisis. I certainly wouldn’t want Cutler to be the guy I’m building my team around. This is just one game, but for me, Cutler is not the guy I want leading my team in a big game. I’m sure he’ll make some plays in this game, but I could easily see him making costly mistakes as well.

Rodgers on the hand, has gotten to this point the hard way (relatively speaking). He has played well since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008, and over the last few years people have been talking about him eventually becoming an elite quarterback. I believe Rodgers has indeed taken that step. In my opinion, he is now in the group with Phillip Rivers and Drew Brees, just below Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (I honestly don’t know where to place Big Ben Roethlisberger; he’s really between those two groups and with parenthesis). Rodgers has learned not to make mistakes and how to be a game manager as well as a great passer. He has arm strength and accuracy. He is very smart. He has mobility and he is an underrated threat as a runner. No QB is playing better than Rodgers at this point.

Green Bay Offense vs. Chicago Defense

Edge: Push.

Comments: The Chicago defense is back to being among the best in the league. Green Bay, however, has one of the league’s best offensive attacks. I seriously doubt the Packers will be able to run the ball on Chicago, but I don’t think this will be an issue. For one thing, short passes and runs by Rodgers will help make up for the lack of a ground game. In addition, Chicago isn’t that tough against the pass, and the Packers have one of the best passing attacks in the game. Green Bay has struggled at times with pass protection but the Bears aren’t a big sack defense. The Bears force turnovers but the Packers don’t give it away much. I’m tempted to give Green Bay the edge based on Rodgers alone. However, this game will be outdoors in winter weather, it’s at Chicago, and it’s the playoffs, so the Bears defense should be tough.

Chicago Offense vs. Green Bay Defense


Comments: In my opinion, this is where the Packers have their biggest advantage. The Bears were ranked 20th or worse this season in the following offensive categories: scoring offense; total offense; 3rd down conversion percentage; time of possession; passing yards; passing TD’s; INT thrown; sacks allowed; passer rating; completion percentage; rushing yards; rushing yards per carry; rushing TD’s; giveaways; and offensive red zone scoring. Chicago has improved offensively as the year has progressed but they still have few strengths and several weaknesses.

They’ve struggled mightily in pass protection and in taking care of the ball. They are short on speed and weapons. You think of them as having a strong running game behind Matt Forte, but they really didn’t run the ball well either this season. The Bears struggle to control the ball, convert 3rd downs, and capitalize on scoring chances. They are not an explosive offense. They can make plays and they are capable of having success but it’s certainly the major weak point of this team. The Green Bay defense is one of the best in the NFL. They are stingy and opportunistic. They have play makers all over the field. The Packers were 2nd in the NFL in picks, tied 6th in takeaways, and tied 2nd in sacks. They aren’t dominant against the run but they should be able to do okay against Chicago’s ground game. The Packers also have the capable, smart, opportunistic defensive backs that may be able to induce mistakes from Cutler.

Special Teams Matchup


Comments: This is a clear edge for the Bears. They have a solid kicking game and perhaps the best return game in the league. The Packers are just not that good on special teams. They don’t get much out of the return game and their kicking game is questionable. If the game is close, the Bears will clearly have the better kicker to turn to in Robbie Gould, who has never missed in the playoffs. One key to this game will be how the Packers attempt to handle Devin Hester and how successful they are in executing that plan. Chicago gets a lot out of their return game, and obviously Hester is the main weapon. He had a key return against Green Bay earlier this season.
Other Tangible Factors Matchup


Comments: The Bears will be at home, but I’m not sure how much home field advantage really matters in a game like this. The Packers will be trying to win a 3rd consecutive road game in the playoffs, but we’ve seen teams have impressive road runs in the playoffs several times now. The Packers are very familiar with playing at Soldier Field and they won’t be affected by the weather. Experience is basically a push. The Bears have been to a Super Bowl under Lovie Smith and the defense is full of veterans, but the Packers have key vets on both sides of the ball as well. Both Cutler and Rodgers are fairly new to the playoff experience, although this will be just the 2nd playoff game of Cutler’s career, while Rodgers will be playing in his 4th postseason game. The one area where the Bears could end up having a significant edge is in health. The Packers have had to deal with a lot of injuries this season and it could catch up to them in this game.

Intangibles Matchup


Comments: Since the mid-90’s, the NFL playoffs have been full of surprises. I’m not saying that there weren’t any upsets before then. But conventional wisdom has proven incorrect in just about every postseason over the last 15 years. A theory often stated in recent years says that whenever everyone says one team can’t lose and everyone says another team can’t win, that’s when you should expect just the opposite to be proven true. Obviously it doesn’t always turn out this way. I’m sure we all just remember the times that it does happen more. But it’s hard not to start getting a bit suspicious any time there seems to be near universal agreement on what is going to happen. In this case, the Packers are coming off virtually a flawless game against the Falcons and they are the “hot” team right now. The Bears have been doubted by many (including myself) all year long. Clearly some people (like me) still don’t totally believe in the Bears, as they are underdogs at home in this game. And they aren’t slight dogs. If the home team is favored by 3, you can basically say that Vegas considers the two teams to be close to equal in strength. But the Packers are favored by more than a field goal in this one on the road. Of course the Bears may be able to use all of this as motivation. But it’s not like Green Bay will come in overconfident. They’ll be confident for sure, but I think that will be a positive.

Overall Matchup


Comments: I do think the Packers have the better team and I think they will win. There’s no reason to expect it will be easy, as certainly the two regular season games with the Bears were close down to the wire. But even though the Bears won the first game and Green Bay only won 10-3 in week 17, if you look at it, the Packers were able to move the ball and they were able to get to Cutler. If they can avoid turnovers and penalties, and keep the Bears from getting a big play on defense/special teams, they should win.

AFC Championship Game

New York Jets (+3.5) @ Pittsburgh

Steelers cover

Comment: Again, it’s obviously not the matchup I wanted (I wanted any team vs. any team that isn’t the Jets) but it could be worse. At least we got an interesting matchup that should be entertaining. It’s the media darling Jets (picked by many to go to the Super Bowl) vs. the rebellious Steelers (ignored by many going into the season after Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first 4 games). This is a matchup involving two passionate fan bases. This game features perhaps the greatest franchise in NFL history. This game also features a franchise known for perhaps the greatest moment in NFL history (although at the time, Joe Willie’s guaranteed win over the Colts in Super Bowl III was undoubtedly the worst moment in NFL history) and not much else. Either way, the media will have an annoying story to dissect and repeat ad nauseum before the Super Bowl. It’ll either be Rex Ryan being a fat freak or Big Ben going back to the Super Bowl after being accused of rape during the previous offseason.

Records and Trends

New York Jets: The Jets are now 13-5 overall (11-7 ATS) and an impressive 8-2 on the road (7-3 ATS). They have a +4.0 average scoring differential. The Jets have won 3 straight overall and 3 straight ATS. They have won 2 straight and 3 of 4 on the road. They have won 2 straight and 3 of 4 ATS on the road.

Pittsburgh: The Steelers are now 13-4 overall (11-6 ATS) and 6-3 at home (6-3 ATS). They have an impressive +8.8 average scoring differential. The Steelers have won 3 straight and 7 of their last 8 overall. They have won 3 straight and 5 of 6 ATS. They have won 2 straight and 4 of 5 at home. They’ve won 2 straight and 4 of 5 ATS at home.

New York Jets’ Divisional Round Game

Again, this is painful, as the Jets literally sicken me. As I pointed out in last week’s entry, it had been proven several times over that the Patriots were not unbeatable or invincible. They were not even in that great of a team this season in comparison with previous years. But over the course of this season, the Patriots had seemingly proven to be the top team in the league in a season without any truly great teams. If a team stayed close with the Pats, they could win. But there was certainly no reason to think that the Jets would flat out whip New England, on the road, with two key players on the shelf. Of course, totally unexpected and irrational things have been known to happen in the NFL. And make no mistake: that old adage about any given Sunday extends from opening day through the Super Bowl.

The Jets did not pay for their trash talk and bravado. They backed it all up. Tommy Brady couldn’t make enough plays, Bill Belichick couldn’t find the right matchups, and Mark Sanchez somehow came out of this weekend looking better than Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Like all of the games during the divisional round, the final score was not indicative of the way this thing played out. However, in the case of this game, it goes both ways. On the one hand, the 28-21 final score is misleading, in that the Pats were down 2 scores for almost the entire 4th quarter and the final scores by both teams were essentially meaningless. But in a weird way, the score actually is more indicative of the action than a 28-14 final score would have been, because contrary to what others might say, this wasn’t a game that the Jets controlled from start to finish and had all the way like the Bears over the Seahawks. They made a handful of plays, and the Patriots made a handful of bad plays, and sometimes that’s enough for one team—even the road underdog—to get into a commanding position.

Of course, I must reverse field once again and state that the stats are a bit skewed due to the strategy used by both teams in the final moments (the Jets playing conservatively on defense and the Patriots kicking onsides). The Patriots had a 26-14 edge in 1st downs and ended up with a 372-314 edge in total yards. New England also ended up out-passing the Jets 259-194. New York ended up out-rushing the Pats just 120-113. The Jets were hit with 3 penalties for 35 yards, while the Pats were charged with 6 penalties for 44 yards. New York was 6 for 13 on 3rd down and did not attempt a 4th down conversion; the Pats were 5 for 14 on 3rd down and 0 for 2 on 4th down. Crucially, New York went 4 for 5 scoring TD’s on red zone chances, while the Pats were just 2 for 4. The Jets won the turnover battle 1-0. New England held a 34:56-25:04 edge in time of possession. The Jets were 0 for 1 on FG tries, while the Pats were 2 for 2.

Another huge factor in this game was New York’s 5-0 edge in the sack department. I had made the comment in last week’s entry that the most prolific New England offense of this era (the 2007 team) had been contained limited more than anyone could have imagined possible by the Giants in the Super Bowl, but that they were able to do that because of their tremendous pass rushing ends. I had said that I did not think this New York team had the pieces to get to Brady over and over like the Giants had, and I didn’t think they’d be able to pressure him without making the defense vulnerable. I was wrong.

The Patriots scored first and led 3-0 after a hectic 1st quarter. But in the 2nd quarter the Jets made a push that transformed the way the rest of the game would be played, outscoring the Pats 14-0 to take a 14-3 lead at the half. New England won the 3rd quarter, 8-0, making it a 14-11 game heading to the 4th. But the Jets would outscore New England 14-10 in a frantic 4th quarter, holding on for a 28-21 win.

The Jets took the opening kickoff and quickly moved down the field. On 2nd and 6 from the New York 36, Sanchez hit Jerricho Cotchery for 16 yards and a 1st down at the New England 48. Cotchery--the career Jet, drafted in the 4th round of the 2004 draft, who had spent 2 years as a kick returner before breaking into the lineup as a receiver and had gone on to lead the Jets in receptions for 3 straight seasons (2007-2009)—had been overshadowed this season by the new, flasher receivers, the new running back, the defense, and the fat head coach. He was 5th on the team in receptions this season. Fittingly, in one of the biggest games in franchise history, the veteran would be the team’s go-to guy once again. On 3rd and 5 from the 43, Sanchez had Cotchery deep down the right side but he overthrew him. On 4th and 5, the Jets punted, and Steve Weatherford forced a fair catch at the 16.

Wes Welker had fielded the punt as usual but he then disappeared until New England’s 2nd possession. In what has to rank as one of the weirdest coaching decisions of the Belichick era, Welker was apparently held out of the first series of the game as punishment for his tongue in check press conference early in the week during which he continuously made references to feet and toes, a performance that was interpreted as a dig at Rex Ryan. In any event, the Pats took over at the 16, and on their very first play, Brady threw short to Danny Woodhead and he took it to the 35 for a gain of 19. On 3rd and 3 from the New York 47, Brady hit Ron Gronkowski for 9 yards and a 1st down at the 38. The Pats were moving it right down the field. But on 1st and 10 from the 28, Brady made an uncharacteristic mistake, throwing short right for Benjarvus Green-Ellis and getting picked off by David Harris at the 30. Harris took it back across midfield and all the way down to the New England 12 for a return of 58 yards.

The Jets now had a chance to put the Patriots in an early hole, but on the 1st play after the turnover Shonn Greene was dropped back at the 15 for a loss of 3. On 2nd down, Sanchez threw short to LT and he was cut down immediately at the 20 for a loss of 5 yards. On 3rd and 18, the Jets looked to get into better field goal range, handing it off to LT, and he picked up 8 yards to the 12 to bring up 4th and 10. It was a big stand by the New England defense, as they did not allow the Jets to turn the huge play into a touchdown. But it would get even bigger when Nick Folk—who had hit the game winning FG in Indy a week earlier--came out and missed the 30 yard FG try wide left. The Pats took over at the 21 with the game still scoreless.

Although the turnover did not end up translating into points and the missed field goal resulted in a turn in momentum, the interception was none the less a crucial play in this game. For one thing, it kept the Patriots from scoring and putting the Jets in an early hole right off the bat. It gave confidence to New York and put the seeds of doubt in the Patriots. Tom Brady had made only a handful of mistakes all season and now he had been picked off inside the opponent’s 30 on the opening drive of the biggest game of the year to this point. Furthermore, the Patriots offense had thrived on being outrageously efficient this season, and the interception had aborted a solid drive and wasted a scoring opportunity. There was no guarantee that New England would have all that many chances against the New York defense. Finally, in the Monday Night game late in the season, it was really just a handful of plays made by the Patriots and a handful of plays not made by the Jets that turned the game into a blowout. Now it was the Jets who had made a big play and the Patriots who had failed to make one, or rather, had made a mistake.

Whatever overall momentum the Jets lost on the missed FG/empty red zone possession, the defensive momentum they gained on the interception carried right over into the next New England drive. On the very first place of the Patriots 2nd possession, Shaun Ellis got to Brady for a sack at the 14 and a loss of 7. On 2nd and 17, Green-Ellis picked up 7 back to the original line of scrimmage, but Harris was flagged for a face mask, giving the Pats a big 1st down at the 36. Again, New England moved across midfield. On 1st and 10 from the Jets 40, Brady went over the middle to Alge Crumpler for 28 to the 12. Again, just when it looked like business as usual for the Pats, the Jets defense made a play. On 3rd and 5 from the New York 7, Ellis dropped Brady for a huge sack all the way back at the 16 for a loss of 9. Shane Graham converted the 34 yard FG to give the Pats a 3-0 lead, but for the 2nd straight drive the Pats had failed to turn a scoring chance into a touchdown. This was not a good sign.

Antonio Cromartie returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to the 40. On 3rd and 5 from the 45, Sanchez threw complete to Cotchery for 6 yards and a big 1st down at the New England 49 on the final play of the 1st quarter. On 3rd and 6 from the Patriots 45, Sanchez went deep for Dustin Keller down the left side but missed long, bringing up 4th down. Again, the Jets went for field position and punted, but Weatherford put it in the end zone for a touchback. This was the point where you expected the Patriots to put together a drive and go up by 2 scores. Instead, it was the Jets defense that stepped up. On 3rd and 5 from the 25, the Jets brought DB Drew Coleman on a blitz and he downed Brady at the 16 for a loss of 9 yards. It was 3-and-out for New England, and now Zoltan Mesko would be punting from in front of his own end zone. His kick traveled to the NYJ 46, and Cotchery moved it 5 yards to the Pats 49. That’s where the Jets would begin their 4th possession.

New England’s defense is not the sort of elite unit that can continuously turn away offenses, and this was now the 4th straight possession that the Jets had threatened. The Pats nearly held again, but on 3rd and 6 from the Patriots 45, Sanchez scrambled and then found Braylon Edwards deep down the left sideline at the 8 for a 37 yard completion. On 2nd and goal from the 7, Sanchez dropped a pass off to LT and he took it into the end zone to get the Jets on the board with the first touchdown of the game and give them their first lead, 7-3. It was a lead they would not relinquish.

The Jets had shown that this would not be a repeat of the Monday night disaster. They had made it interesting to say the least. With every stop by the Jets defense, the pressure would mount. On the Patriots next possession, Brady fired incomplete on 3rd and 3 from the 34, and the Jets had forced their 2nd straight 3-and-out. Mesko’s punt was downed at the Jets 21, but illegal touching forced a re-kick, and the end result was that the Jets started at the 25. On the first play after the punt, the Jets nearly hurt themselves with what would have been a big unforced error. The Jets snapped the ball directly to LT on 1st down and he fumbled it. LT fell on it at the 24 for a loss of a yard, but the Jets had avoided disaster. On 3rd and 4 from the 31, Sanchez was incomplete, but James Sanders was called for pass interference, giving the Jets a 1st down at the 40. On 3rd and 5 from the 45, Sanchez got a pass to Holmes at the 50 for 5 yards and a big 1st down. The Patriots challenged that it was incomplete but the play was upheld. On 3rd and 5 from the Pats 45, Sanchez hit Dustin Keller on a short pass for 4 yards to the 41, just a yard shy of the 1st down marker. Again, Ryan played for field position, but Weatherford failed again, sending the punt into the end zone for a touchback.

With less than 4 minutes to play in the half, the Patriots really needed to get something going on offense just to have some momentum heading to the 2nd half. On 3rd and 1 from the 29, Brady pushed forward for 3 yards to the 31 for a big 1st down after back to back 3-and-outs. But on 3rd and 4 from the 38, Brady threw incomplete to bring up 4th down. The score was 7-3 Jets with 1:14 to go in the half. It was 4th and 4 at the Ne w England 38 for the Pats. They would get the ball first in the 2nd half. With all of this in mind, we have to assume that Belichick felt he had the absolutely perfect, 100% chance of success, turning point in the game fake punt. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense to call for the fake punt in this situation. Maybe it was that good of a play for the particular setup the Jets came out with, and maybe it would have been a huge play if Patrick Chung hadn’t fumbled the direct snap, but he did, and the play went dead right where he fell on it at the 37. Chung had been a special teams ace during the regular season, but in this playoff game he made the mistake that changed everything and doomed the Patriots.

The Jets took over at the 37 with 1:06 on the clock and on the first play LT went up the middle for 16 yards to the 21. On the next play he went around the right end for 6 yards to the 15. An incompletion on 2nd down setup perhaps the biggest play of the game. On 3rd and 4 from the 15, the Pats had a chance to hold the Jets to 3 and keep it a 1-score game, but Sanchez found Edwards in the end zone for a TD to make it a stunning 14-3 lead for New York with 33 seconds left in the half.

In a strange way, Belichick’s panicky move—which we have to assume was not made out of panic, simply because there was no reason to panic—had brought on a situation where it seemed totally rational to panic. Sure it was only 14-3 and the Pats would have it first in the 2nd half, but now that sense of urgency that you might have thought was expressed in Belichick’s fake punt gamble—but which we again have to assume was more about a specific formation and play that they thought was 99% foolproof than a sign of any urgency—was a reality.

The Jets would be kicking off with only 33 seconds left in the half and the Pats had only 1 timeout left, but if they were thinking about just heading into the lockers and regrouping, Brandon Tate’s 33 yard KR from the 12 to the 45 probably changed that. With 27 seconds left, Brady dropped back to pass on 1st down and went deep down the left side for Deion Branch but the play was broken up. On 2nd down with only 18 seconds left, Brady threw short to Woodhead and the play gained only 3 yards to the 48. The Pats might still have tried to get into FG range, but at the end of the play, Logan Mankins was called for unnecessary roughness, backing the Pats up to their 33 with only 9 seconds left. With that, Brady took a knee and the teams headed to the lockers. The score was 14-3 and the Pats were in serious trouble.

The Patriots would start on offense in the 3rd quarter and they really needed points, preferably 7. They got a 1st down and moved towards midfield, but on 3rd and 1 from their 46, Green-Ellis took a handoff to the left and was stopped for a 1 yard loss. On 4th and 2 from the 45, New England punted, but Mesko put it in the end zone for a touchback. Not a good start.

The Jets got a 1st down on their first possession of the 2nd half, but on 3rd and 5 from their 39, LT was stopped after a gain of 1. On 4th and 4 from the 40, they punted it back to the Pats, who took over at their own 20. Again the Pats picked up a quick 1st down, but on 2nd and 10 from the 33, Calvin Pace got to Brady, hitting him at the 21 and knocking the ball loose. Green-Ellis fell on it at the 21 for the Pats, but the sack resulted in a loss of 12 and totally derailed the drive. On 3rd and from the 21 Brady just dropped a pass off to Aaron Hernandez for 4 yards, nowhere near the first down. Mesko punted and the Jets took over at their own 25, still up 11, now midway through the 3rd.

The Jets took over and faced a 3rd and 1 at their own 34. Greene went up the middle for 4 yards and a 1st down at the 38. On the next play, Green went left for 20 yards to the Patriots 42. Now the pressure was mounting and you could feel things starting to reach the breaking point. But on 3rd and 6 from the 38, Sanchez went deep down the left side for Cotchery incomplete, and on 4th and 6, the Jets punted. Try as he might, Weatherford just couldn’t avoid the 20. He kicked it out of bounds at the 20 for just an 18 yard punt.

With 4:04 left in the 3rd, the Patriots began their 3rd possession of the 2nd half. On the first play of the drive, the Pats finally got untracked, as Brady hit Gronkowski for 37 yards and a 1st down at the NYJ 43. The Pats then faced a critical 3rd and 9 from the 42, and Brady went to the left to Branch for a 12 yard hookup and a 1st down at the 30. On the next play, Brady found Branch again for 16 yards to the 14. New England moved inside the 5. On 1st and goal from the 2, Brady found Crumpler in the end zone for their first touchdown of the game with just 13 seconds left in the 3rd. The Pats then went for 2. They came out in shotgun but the direct snap went to Sammy Morris and he went up the middle for the 2-pointer to cut the deficit to 3 points.
As the 4th quarter began, the fans in Foxboro had come alive and they hoped that the tide was about to turn. It was, but not in the way that they wanted and not in the way that many probably still expected. The Jets lined up on 2nd and 6 from their own 29 on the first play of the 4th and Sanchez completed a short pass over the middle to Cotchery that turned into a monster. Cotchery took it all the way to the New England 13 for a 58 yard reception. Now the pressure was on the New England defense to hold for a FG. If they did, the Pats would be in position to win the game by a point with a touchdown. If the Pats defense allowed New York to score a TD here, New England’s season would probably end tonight. Again, they almost did it. But on 3rd and 4 from the 7, Sanchez fired left to Holmes for a touchdown to make it 21-11 with 13:00 to play.

It wasn’t over. 13 minutes was a long time. But it would take a TD against this NYJ defense, a stop by this NE defense, and then another score. Not much margin for error. The Pats almost killed their chances immediately with a major error. On their next possession, Woodhead got the ball on 2nd and 6 from the 22 and fumbled at the 24. Mankins recovered at the 27 to save the game. Then on 3rd and 1 from the 27, Brady hit Welker for 8 yards to the 35. On 3rd and 6 from the 39, Brady hit Branch for 8 yards and a 1st down at the 47. The Pats moved into NYJ territory, but on 2nd and 10 from the 31, Sione Pouha got to Brady for yet another sack back at the 34, a loss of 3, bringing up 3rd and 13. Brady fired incomplete on 3rd down. Rather than try a 51 yard field goal, Belichick went for it on 4th and 13 from the 34, and Brady fired incomplete for Branch, giving the Jets the ball still up 10 with just 5:15 remaining.

As you would expect, the Jets now came out and ran the ball 3 straight times. On 3rd and 4 from the 40, LT was stopped for no gain to bring up 4th and 4 and the Patriots called their first timeout with 3:42 to go. Among the few things that could save the Pats right now would be a big return. Weatherford gave them a chance. Justin Edelman received the kick at the 16 and took it back 41 yards to the Jets 43. Brady and the Pats offense took over with 3:29 on the clock. They had to hurry. They moved inside the red zone, but the drive stalled when Brady’s pass to Welker on 3rd and 10 from the 18 went for a gain of just 1 yard to the 17. On 4th and 9, Graham came out and kicked a 35 yarder to make it 21-14 and keep the Pats alive with 1:57 remaining.

In all likelihood, the game was over anyway, but this situation was not handled all that well. After an incompletion on 2nd and 10 from the 10, the clock was stopped with 2:21 to play. On 3rd and 10, the Pats should have gone deep on a play that would either be a TD with 2:12 or so left or an incomplete pass with 2:12 or so left. If it was incomplete, kick the FG with 2:09 or so left. Then kick it deep and hope the kick return play is stopped before the 2 minute mark. If you do that, then you have 2 timeouts and the 2-min and you can get the ball back with time to score. But the 1 yard completion to Welker on 3rd and 10 took the clock all the way down to the 2 minute warning. With only 2 timeouts and 1:57 remaining the Patriots decided to go for the onsides kick, essentially putting everything on a play with very little chance of succeeding.

The onsides kick was fielded by Cromartie and returned 23 yards to the Pats 25 yard line. A penalty moved the ball to the 20. On 1st and 10, Greene went for 4 to the 16 and the Pats used their 2nd timeout with 1:46. On the next play, Greene ran 16 yards for the TD to make it 28-14 with 1:41 remaining. The game had now been basically over for almost a half hour. Tate returned the ensuing kick to the 41, and the Pats marched down the field. On 2nd and 10 from the 13, Brady hit Branch for a TD to make it 28-21 with 24 seconds to play. It was time for another onsides kick. This one was recovered Eric Smith at the 43. Sanchez took a knee and the ball game came to an end. The Jets had done it again on the road in the playoffs. For a 3rd straight playoff game, Tom Brady and the Pats exited the field with others celebrating wildly around them.

Mark Sanchez was hyped again early but he settled down and completed 16 of 25 passes for 194 yards, 3 TD, and 0 INT, posting a 127.3 rating. Greene ran 17 times for 76 yards (4.5 average) and a TD. LT carried 10 times for 43 yards and caught 2 passes for 2 yards and a TD. Cotchery made 5 catches for 96 yards. Edwards grabbed 2 passes for 52 yards and a TD. Holmes had 3 catches for 20 yards and a score. Harris had a pick, Ellis had 2 sacks, and Coleman, Pace, and Pouha had a sack a piece. Cromartie returned 4 kickoffs for 103 yards, averaging 25.8 a return. Folk was 0 for 1 on FG tries and Weatherford was awful.

The Pats stats are greatly skewed by the final 2 drives, particularly the final drive. Brady finished 29 of 45 for 299 yards, 2 TD, and a pick, posting an 89.0 rating. Woodhead ran 14 times for 46 yards (3.3 average) and made 6 catches for 52 yards. Green-Ellis carried 9 times for 43 yards. Gronkowski made 4 catches for 65 yards and Branch caught 5 passes for 59 yards and a score. Welker caught 7 passes for 57 yards. Crumpler had 3 catches for 39 yards and a TD. Edelman had a 41 yard punt return and Tate returned 5 kicks for 108 yards. Graham was 2 for 2 on FG tries.

Pittsburgh’s Divisional Round Game

The first game of the divisional round was easily the best game of the divisional round and that was as expected. It went down to the wire. It was dominated by defense. It was full of emotion, passion, hatred, and pain. All of this was as expected. But there was a surprise. 55 total points. In yet another game in which the final score was totally misleading, this was a total defensive battle, but it was more high scoring than anyone imagined.

This was a game of dramatic swings. It was a tale of two halves. These two teams are about as evenly matched as any in football. It came down to a few plays made by the Steelers and a few plays not made by the Ravens. A tough city, a tough crowd, a tough coach, a tough defense, a tough wide receiver, and an incredibly tough QB made the deference for the Steelers, as they hung on for a 31-24 win.

The numbers from this game are a bit bizarre. The Steelers had a 21-12 edge in 1st downs and outgained the Ravens 263-126. Pittsburgh had a 192-91 edge in passing and a 71-35 edge on the ground. The Steelers were hit with 9 penalties for 93 yards, while the Ravens were called for 6 penalties for 74 yards. The Steelers were 7 for 14 on 3rd down and 1 for 1 on 4th down. The Ravens were 5 for 12 on 3rd down conversions and 0 for 1 on 4th down. Pittsburgh scored TD’s on 4 of 5 red zone opportunities, while Baltimore went 2 for 3 scoring TD’s in the red zone. Pittsburgh had a 34:28-25:32 edge in time of possession. Baltimore won the sack battle 6-5, but the Steelers won the turnover battle 3-2. Pittsburgh was 1 for 2 on FG tries, while the Ravens went 1 for 1.

The Steelers scored first, but by the end of the 1st quarter the Ravens held a 14-7 lead. The Ravens won the 2nd quarter 7-0, taking a 21-7 lead to the half. The Steelers stormed back, outscoring the Ravens 14-0 in the 3rd to send it to the 4th all tied at 21-21. The Steelers won the 4th quarter 10-3 to win it 31-24. Both teams made dramatic runs. After Pittsburgh took a 7-0 lead early in the game, the Ravens scored 21 unanswered points from the 1:20 mark in the 1st quarter to the 5:43 mark in the 2nd to take a 21-7 lead. But the Steelers came back with a 17-0 run to take a 24-21 lead with 12:15 to play. The Ravens tied it with 3:54 left, but the Steelers scored a TD with 1:33 remaining to take the lead for good.

The game was hectic and pressure filled right from the start. Ladarius Webb took the opening kickoff 52 yards to the 49. Pittsburgh challenged and the officials ruled that Webb had been down at the 35, changing it to a 38 yard return. On 3rd and 5 from the 40, Joe Flacco hit Todd Heap over the middle for 18 yards to the Steelers 42. On 3rd and 7 from the 39, Flacco threw incomplete to bring up 4th and 7. Baltimore decided to play for field position but Sam Koch’s punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Pittsburgh’s first play was a 2 yard gain by Rashard Mendenhall, but Hines Ward was called for a highly questionable personal foul penalty, making it 2nd and 19 at the 11. Aaron Brown caught a pass for 7 yards on 2nd down to bring up 3rd and 12 from the 18. Then Big Ben went deep down the right side for Mike Wallace and he made the catch for a 20 yard gain and a 1st down at the 38. Roethlisberger went deep down the left side for Wallace on the next play incomplete, but Josh Wilson was called for pass interference, giving the Steelers a 1st down at the 25. On 3rd and 1 from the 16, Ike Redman ran for 4 yards and a 1st down at the 12. On 2nd and goal from the 1, Mendenhall forced his way over the goal line for a TD to make it 7-0 Steelers.

Baltimore’s 2nd drive began with Flacco hitting Derrick Mason for an 11 yard gain on 1st and 10 from the 32, but Mason was called for offensive pass interference, making it 1st and 20 at the 22. But on 2nd and 15 from the 27, Flacco threw incomplete, and Ike Taylor was called for defensive holding, giving the Ravens a 1st down at the 32. On 3rd and 3 from the 39, TJ Houshmandzadeh caught a pass for 9 yards to the 48. The Ravens moved across midfield, but on 1st and 10 from the 42, LaMarr Woodley sacked Flacco at the 47 for a loss of 5. On 3rd and 15 from the 47, Flacco threw incomplete deep down the right side for Mason, but Anthony Madison was called for pass interference. The Ravens had a 1st down at the 14. On 2nd and 10, Ray Rice went over right tackle for a 14 yard TD to tie the game at 7-7.

A holding penalty on the kick return forced the Steelers to start their 2nd possession at the 10. On 2nd and 10, Terrell Suggs came around the right side and blasted Big Ben back at the 3, jarring the ball loose. Ordinarily, even when everyone in the world knows that it’s an incomplete pass, the defensive players react as if it’s a fumble, just in case the refs miss it. For some reason, everyone assumed that the play was dead when the ball hit the ground. Cory Redding started to go towards the ball then hesitated, looked at the refs, picked up the ball and ran it 13 yards into the end zone unopposed. It was ruled a TD. The Steelers challenged but to no avail, 14-7 Ravens with 53 seconds left in the 1st quarter.

On the first play of the 2nd quarter, Big Ben dropped back on 2nd and 7 from the 32 and was pulled down by Ngata and Landry at the 28 for a loss of 4. On 3rd and 11, Big Ben threw incomplete for Wallace and the Steelers had to punt after a 3-and-out. Baltimore took over at their 18. They picked up one 1st down, but on 3rd and 11 from the 33, a short pass to Rice went for just 2 yards and the Ravens had to punt. Another special teams penalty forced the Steelers to start this drive from their 4. On 3rd and 7 from the 7, Big Ben threw incomplete but the Ravens were flagged for 2 penalties, giving Pittsburgh a 1st down. On 2nd and 10 from the 12, Mendenhall ran over right guard and Dannelle Ellerbe hit him from behind and jarred the ball loose. Ed Reed recovered at the 16. The Ravens were back in business and the crowd was getting restless. On 3rd and 7 from the 13, Flacco hit Rice for 8 yards and a 1st and goal at the 5. On 3rd and goal from the 4, Flacco fired to the right to Heap for the TD to give the Ravens a stunning 21-7 lead with 5:43 to go in the half.

The Ravens had scored 21 unanswered points and momentum continued to swing their way. Pittsburgh’s next drive began at their own 26. On 1st down, Suggs got Big Ben again, this time dropping him at the 17 for a 9 yard loss. On 2nd and 19, Big Ben went to Heath Miller for 13 to the 30, but a delay of game penalty made it 3rd and 11 from the 25. On 3rd down, Emanuel Sanders made a grab for 14 yards and a huge 1st down at the 39. Pittsburgh drove into Baltimore territory, looking to score before the half, but on 3rd and 10 from the 28, a short pass to Wallace gained only 3 yards to the 25. With 26 seconds remaining and 4th and 7 coming up, the Steelers sent Shaun Suisham out to attempt a 43 yard FG. There is no easy kick at Hines Field, and Suisham missed wide left. A huge let down. The Ravens took a knee and went to the half with a 21-7 lead.

Pittsburgh got the ball to start the 3rd. They picked up a first down, but on 3rd and 12 from the 35, Nakamura sacked Big Ben at the 32 to force a punting situation. The Ravens were still in control as they took over at the 22 after the punt. Baltimore’s defense had taken over the game. Now Pittsburgh’s defense would have to take it back. On 1st down from the 22, James Harrison hammered Flacco at the 17 for a loss of 5. Then on 3rd and 14 from the 18, Flacco dropped a pass off to Rice and Ryan Clark came up from behind and forced the ball loose at the 23. Woodley recovered at the 23. The crowd immediately took the atmosphere to another level. On the first play after the turnover, Mendenhall carried for 14 yards to the 9. On the next play, Big Ben went to Miller in the end zone for the TD to cut the deficit to 21-14.

The Ravens next possession began at their 27 and the Steelers defense got back at it. Harrison sacked Flacco again on the first play of the drive, bringing him down at the 20 for a loss of 7. On 3rd and 15 from the 22 Flacco threw incomplete for a 3-and-out. Brown returned the punt 12 yard to the Pittsburgh 33. On the first play after the change of possession, Big Ben went to Sanders for 17 yards and 1st down at midfield. The Steelers moved into Baltimore territory, but on 2nd and 10 from the 37 the Steelers went to a gadget play and stunted their momentum, as Wallace’s run around left end resulted in a loss of 6 yards (another big play by Ellerbe). Big Ben threw incomplete on 3rd and 21 and the Steelers had to punt. The tide had been momentarily stemmed.

Pittsburgh’s punt was downed at the 2, but both teams were called for penalties forcing a re-kick. This time Jeremy Kapinos’ punt went into the end zone for a touchback, but the Ravens were called for holding, and they had to start their next drive at the 10. There are times when it seems like Harbaugh and Flacco get a bit caught up in the passing attack. Here, the Ravens were trying to protect a 7 point lead and they were backed up to their own 10. But on the first play of the possession, Flacco fired deep down the right seam for Heap. The ball sailed and Clark intercepted at the 42. He returned it 17 yards to the 25. The crowd was now hysterical. On the first play after the turnover, Mendenhall carried for 13 to the 12. On 3rd and 6 from the 8, Big Ben fired over the middle to the end zone for Ward. A smiling Ward got up holding the ball aloft with the game all tied up at 21-21 with 1:21 left in the 3rd.

The defense and the Steeler crowd were now deep inside Flacco’s head. The Ravens began their next drive at their own 23. On 2nd and 10, Flacco fumbled the snap and the Steelers won the war at the bottom of the pile. Brett Keisel came up with it at the 23. The place was bonkers. But Baltimore’s defense was still alive. On the final play of the 3rd quarter, Mendenhall was swarmed for a 5 yard loss on 2nd and 6 from the 19. That set up a 3rd and 11 from the 24 as the 4th quarter began. Big Ben completed a pass to Brown for 10 yards to the 14, a yard shy of the 1st down. The Steelers offense stayed on the field. Were they going to pass up a 31 yard FG attempt to take the lead and try and go for it on 4th and 1 against the Ravens defense? It didn’t look like it, as a few hard counts failed to draw Baltimore offsides. But it was only part one of a brilliant play by Big Ben and the Steelers. Big Ben pulled out of center and looked towards the sidelines, as if looking for instruction. He went back under center and then did the same thing. Finally he went back under with the play clock ticking down to 1 and then the Steelers hiked the ball and Roethlisberger pushed forward for 2 yards and a 1st down at the 12. However, on 3rd and 6 from the 8, Suggs made another play, sacking Big Ben back at the 17 for a loss of 9. In the end, the Steelers wound up with a 35 yard field goal try. This time Suisham hit it to put the Steelers up 24-21 with 12:15 remaining. They had now scored 17 unanswered.

Now, could Baltimore do anything against the Pittsburgh defense? They started their next drive at their own 19. On 3rd and 1 from the 28, Rice got the handoff and picked up 2 yards for a 1st down at the 30. On 2nd and 8 from the 32, Flacco hit TJ Housh for 13 yards and a 1st down at the 45. But on 3rd and 10, Harrison got loose again and chased Flacco out of bounds all the way back at the 36 for a sack and a 9 yard loss. They would have to punt. Koch punted to the 6 and Antwaan Randle El moved it out 6 yards to the 12. That’s where the Steelers took over with 7:34 to go. Baltimore’s defense would now step up. On 3rd and 7 from the 15, Big Ben threw incomplete for a 3-and-out and the Steelers punted. Kapinos punt was very returnable. Webb fielded it at his 45 and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown, apparently giving the Ravens the lead. However, Marcus Smith was called for holding and the ball was brought back out to the 29.

The Ravens took over with 5:55 remaining. Baltimore was not stunned by the penalty. On the first play of the possession, Flacco hit Heap for 21 yards to the 8. But now it was the Steelers defense that bowed up, forcing a 3rd and goal from the 6. Flacco dropped back and fired a bullet, low and away where only Anquan Boldin could catch it. Boldin went down to make the catch a foot in the end zone and it banged off his chest incomplete. Cundiff came out and hit a 24 yard FG to tie the score at 24-24 with 3:54 to play. The Ravens had broken the 17-0 run by the Steelers. But they had missed 2 very good chances to take the lead.

The Steelers got the ball back at their 35 with 3:48 to go. Right away they faced a huge 3rd and 10. As you might expect, Big Ben went to Ward over the middle for 12 yards and a 1st down at the 47. But on the next play, Big Ben was sandwiched by 2 Ravens defenders back at the 38 for a loss of 9. The Steelers called their 2nd timeout with 2:07 to play, facing a 3rd and 19 from their own 38. They came back out and Big Ben took the shotgun snap. He zinged a deep ball down the right sideline. Brown had gotten past the defenders and he grabbed the ball and then held it between his hand and his helmet as he went out of bounds at the 4. It was a 58 yard strike on 3rd and 19. On 2nd and goal from the 4, Mendenhall was stopped at the 3, but Terrance Cody was called for defensive holding. The Baltimore defense remained strong as they used their first two timeouts. On 3rd and goal from the 2, Mendenhall went up the middle and crossed the goal line for the TD, putting Pittsburgh up 31-24 with 1:33 remaining.

However, Baltimore was not dead. Their chances received a huge boost, when Chris Kemoeatu dove into the pile after the play was over on the touchdown and was called for a personal foul. That meant the Steelers would have to kickoff from their 15. Suisham’s kick only reached the Baltimore 40 and LaRon McClain returned it 12 yards to the Steelers 48. Baltimore was going to start inside Pittsburgh territory with 1:33 on the clock and 1 timeout. However, in a scene very reminiscent of the end of the 2nd regular season game, the Ravens would be stopped cold right at the threshold. Back to back incompletions brought up 3rd and 10. Flacco took the shotgun snap and was mauled by Hood at the Baltimore 44 for a loss of 8. The Ravens had to call their final timeout with 1:09 left.

The Ravens were facing a 4th and 18 at their own 44. Flacco took the shotgun snap, dropped back and fired down the right side for TJ Housh, who had come back hard towards the Flacco and had left William Gay several yards behind. The ball floated a bit but it was there in time and Housh was a few yards across the first down marker. Gay tried to close but he could not get there in time. However, Houshmandzadeh let the ball get in on him and he dropped it. Housh quickly walked off the field, sat on the bench, and put his head in his hands. He remained that way for a considerable amount of time. The Steelers and their fans celebrated. Big Ben took 2 knees and the clock ran out. The Steelers had hung on and one this edition of the great rivalry, 31-24.

Big Ben finished 19 of 32 for 226 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, and a 101.8 passer rating. He did lose 1 fumble. Mendenhall also lost a fumble and gained just 46 yards on 20 carries but he scored a pair of TD’s. Brown caught 3 passes for 75 yards and ran back 4 kicks for 85 yards. Sanders caught 4 passes for 54 yards. Miller hauled in 5 balls for 39 yards and a TD. Hines Ward had 3 huge catches for 25 yards and a TD. Wallace had 3 catches for 20 yards. Ryan Clark had a huge day, including a forced fumble and an INT. Harrison had an enormous day, including 3 sacks. Hood and Woodley each had a sack. Suisham was 1 for 2 on FG tries.

Flacco finished 16 of 30 for 125 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 FL, and a 61.1 rating. Rice rushed 12 times for 32 yards and a TD, caught 7 passes for 32 yards, and lost a fumble. Heap caught 3 passes for 43 yards and a TD. Housh had 3 catches for 48 yards. Derek Mason did not make a catch and Boldin had 1 catch for -2 yards. Suggs had a huge game, making 3 sacks. Nakamura had a sack. Webb returned 2 kicks for 59 yards and returned 2 punts for 36 yards. Cundiff was 1 for 1 on FG tries. Koch had 2 punts in the 20 and 1 touchback.

Injury News

New York Jets: The Jets lost a couple of key players over the last month and half of the season but they are fairly healthy going into Sunday’s game. DE Jason Taylor is coming off of a concussion but he is probable. WR/KR Brad Smith has been dealing with a groin injury but he will play on Sunday.

Pittsburgh: There are some concerns for the Steelers in terms of health, especially after last week’s violent game against Baltimore. DE Aaron Smith is still having problems coming back from a triceps injury and has been ruled out for Sunday. Reserve DT Steve McLendon has missed the last 6 games and backup LB Jason Worilds has missed 2 straight. Both were inactive last week and are questionable for Sunday. The Steelers suffered numerous season ending injuries at tackle this season and are very thin at that spot. This is why there was a real concern last week when Flozell Adams came down with some sort of illness and Jonathan Scott had to leave the game with a head injury. Both players were able to return and they are listed as questionable this week. Safety Will Allen (knee), CB Bryant McFadden (hip), and LB James Harrison (shoulder) all suffered injuries last week. Harrison will play for sure. McFadden also says that he will play and he is listed as probable. Allen is questionable.

Regular Season Meeting: These two squared off in Pittsburgh in week 15 during crunch time of the NFL season, with both teams in the thick of the playoff race. The Steelers were favored by 3.5, but the Jets came up with a surprising 22-17 win. New York led 7-0 after 1. The Steelers tied it in the 2nd, the Jets went back ahead 10-7, and the Steelers tied it again at 10-10 going to the half. Pittsburgh finally took the lead, 17-10, in the 3rd, but the Jets tied it at 17-17 going to the 4th. The Jets outscored Pittsburgh 5-0 in the 4th to win 22-17. They finished the game on a 12-0 run.

Pittsburgh had a 378-276 edge in total yards and a 25-17 edge in 1st downs. The Steelers were 11 for 17 on 3rd down. They had a 31:18-28:42 edge in time of possession. Big Ben was sacked 3 times for -32 yards. The Steelers were 2 for 3 in the red zone, while the Jets were just 1 for 3. Neither team committed a turnover, but the Jets got a safety and a kick return for a touchdown.
Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets a 7-0 lead. The score remained 7-0 New York through the 1st quarter. With 7:29 left in the half, Matt Spaeth caught a 7 yard TD to tie the game at 7-7. Nick Folk hit a 25 yard FG to put the Jets back on top 10-7 with 2:48 left in the half. Shaun Suisham drilled a 42 yarder to tie it at 10-10 with 33 seconds to go in the half. At the half it was 10-10. The Steelers marched down the field on their opening possession of the 2nd half, with Rashard Mendenhall scoring on a 2 yard run to put the Steelers up for the first time in the game, 17-10. The Jets answered on their first possession of the 2nd half, marching deep into Steelers territory. On 4th and 1 from the 7, Sanchez scrambled for a TD to tie the score at 17-17. The score stayed tied going to the 4th. Folk hit a 34 yarder to put the Jets ahead again, 20-17, with 10:07 remaining. The New York defense held the Steelers and the Jets worked on the clock and then pinned the Steelers near their goal line.

On 1st and 10 from their own 3 yard line with 2:45 to play, the Steelers gave the ball to Mewelde Moore and he was corralled in the end zone for a safety, making it 22-17 New York with only 2:38 on the clock. That also meant that the Steelers had to kick it to the Jets. The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out and the Jets helped by throwing incomplete on 3rd down, allowing the Steelers to save their final timeout and keeping the 2-minute warning in play. Pittsburgh took over at their own 8 with 2:08 remaining. They marched right down the field but the drive stalled deep in Jets territory. On 2nd and 10 from the 10 with 9 seconds left, Roethlisberger threw incomplete. On 3rd and 10 from the 10 with 2 seconds left, Big Ben fired into the end zone and the Jets defense broke it up to save the 22-17 win.

Sanchez was 19 of 29 for 170 yards, no TD’s and no picks. He ran 3 times for 15 yards and a TD. Braylon Edwards made 8 catches for 100 yards. Big Ben was just 23 of 44 for 264 yards, a TD, and no INT. Mendenhall rushed 17 times for 99 yards and a TD. Mike Wallace caught 7 passes for 102 yards.

Series History: Compared with the rich history of the Bears vs. the Packers—a battle of two of the oldest NFL franchises—there’s not much history between the Steelers and Jets. The Steelers joined the NFL in 1933, but the Jets did not come into being until 1960, and they were an AFL team until the merger in 1970. That was the year of the first ever meeting between this two. It has been a one-sided affair, with the Steelers holding a 16-4 edge in the all-time series (including 1-0 in the playoffs). Pittsburgh won the first 9 meetings and 14 of the first 15. However, the Jets have won 3 of the last 5. The Steelers are 7-1 against the Jets at home, but it was little over a month ago that New York finally won in Pittsburgh for the first time. The only meeting between these two in the playoffs came in the 2004 divisional round, when the Jets pushed the #1 seed Steelers to the brink on the road. The Steelers eked out a 20-17 win in overtime. By the way, the two teams had met in Pittsburgh in week 14 of that season, with the Steelers winning 17-6.

Team Playoff Histories

New York Jets: This is the 14th trip to the playoffs in Jets history (2nd straight, 3rd in the last 5 years, and the 6th in the last 10 years). They are now 12-12 all-time in the playoffs and 7-9 on the road. They are just 1-3 in conference championship games and 0-3 on the road in conference championship games. They have lost their last 3 conference championship games. However, they have won 4 of their last 5 playoffs games overall, all of them on the road. They are 2 for 2 making the playoffs in the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez era. During that era the Jets are 4-1 in the playoffs (4-1 on the road) and 0-1 in conference championship games (0-1 on the road). This is their 2nd straight conference championship game appearance. Their last trip to the Super Bowl was way back in 1968 when Joe Willie and the Jets pulled off the greatest upset in NFL history.

Pittsburgh: This is the 26th trip to the playoffs for the Steelers (25th since 1972 and 7th in the last 10 years). They have a 32-19 all-time record in the playoffs and a 19-9 record at home. They are 7-7 in conference championship games and 5-5 at home in conference championship games. The Steelers have won 4 straight playoff games and 8 of their last 9. They have won 3 straight at home in the playoffs. This is the 3rd playoff appearance in 4 years under Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are 4-1 in the playoffs under Tomlin (3-1 at home) and 1-0 in conference championship games (1-0 at home). This is the 5th postseason trip for Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is now 9-2 in the playoffs and 4-2 at home. He is 2-1 in conference championship games (1-1 at home). The Steelers have won their last 2 conference championship games. Their last conference championship game appearance was in 2008 when they beat the Ravens at home. That was also their last trip to the Super Bowl of course.


Coaching Matchup


Comments: Probably some of my anti-Jets bias showing up here. I get that Rex Ryan has a great defensive mind. I understand that he’s a guy players love having as their coach. And he’s done well during these playoffs as an in-game coach. But I still think there are a number of reasons why his star has risen to high that don’t have anything to do with his abilities. Most obvious is the fact that he’s from the Ryan family. He’s the son of Buddy Ryan—the creator of the 46 defense, coordinator for perhaps the greatest defense in history (’85 Bears)—who was a colorful and controversial coach in his own right. Rex is just as outspoken, colorful, controversial, and confident as his father, if not more so. He’s a sports media member’s dream. And he’s fat. These are all factors which have added to his fame that don’t have much to do with his coaching performance. Sure, being in a family of football lifers is relevant, but basically ever NFL coach is a football lifer. Ryan’s Baltimore defenses were always very good, but so were the Baltimore defenses under coordinators before and after him. The Jets have been a very good defensive team in Ryan’s 2 seasons as head coach. But I just don’t think that highly of him as an in-game manager.

I can tell you one thing for sure: I have no idea what kind of an impact Mike Pettine has on the game. He’s the DC, but Ryan seems to run the defense, and that is certainly how it’s portrayed. OC Brian Schottenheimer is another guy with a famous father. In Brian’s case, it’s basically all in the name. In my opinion, Schottenheimer would be no more well known than the average coordinator if he was not the son of one of the more well respected coaches of the last quarter century.

I’ve become a pretty big believer in Mike Tomlin as a leader. He has done a tremendous job running the Steelers since taking over for Bill Cowher. This doesn’t really come into play here, because we’re only talking about one game, but if I was starting a franchise he would be high on my list of candidates for head coach. And there’s no question that Tomlin has improved as an in-game coach and decision maker. One thing that people often seem to forget is that a coach can improve in the areas of clock management, handling replays, and making big in-game decisions over time. Tomlin is certainly much more solid in these areas than he was in his first year as head coach. I don’t know if Tomlin adds a whole lot on game day but he is rarely going to hurt his team. The same cannot be said for many of the coaches in the NFL.

Dick LeBeau is the reason I give the coaching edge to Pittsburgh. He is an expert at confusing and confounding opposing QB’s and offenses, and I expect he will do the same against young Mr. Sanchez on Sunday. LeBeau knows exactly how to use each one of his players and he puts them in position to make big plays.

Quarterback Matchup


Comments: This one is obviously not close. Sanchez is still very inexperienced and he is still not a guy who can handle everything as a game manager. He’s not accurate. If the ball is in Sanchez’s hands a lot of the time he will make mistakes. He can move but you really don’t want him running that much. I will give Sanchez this: he has made some big plays this season late in games. But he’s still the biggest weak spot for the Jets.

On the other hand, Big Ben Roethlisberger continues to be one of the top big game QB’s in the game. He has experience, guts, confidence, and smarts. He’s also the toughest QB currently playing. Roethlisberger has gotten better at many of the things which used to be weaknesses for him. He has cut way back on mistakes. In 2007 and 2008 Roethlisberger fumbled 23 times in 31 games. Over the last 2 years he has fumbled 13 times in 27 games (regular season). His interception percentage this season was 1.3, by far his best ever. 3 years ago when the Steelers won the Super Bowl, Big Ben threw 17 TD’s and 15 INT’s in the regular season. This year he had a 17-5 TD-INT ratio. But it’s hard to explain Roethlisberger’s greatness through numbers. His size, strength, and speed make him very difficult to bring down. He extends plays long enough to find a guy open. And his ability to keep plays alive turns potentially big plays for the defense into big plays for the Pittsburgh’s offense. He can throw on the run and he can throw the deep ball. And he can make plays as a runner. And one last number: he is 9-2 in the playoffs.

New York Jets Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense


Comments: This is obviously not close. The Jets can look awful at times on offense but in general they are good rushing team. The Steelers defense is the best against the run in the NFL (1st in rush yards allowed, 1st in rush yards allowed per carry, tied 1st in rushing TD’s allowed). The Steelers also led the league in sacks and were the 2nd best red zone defense this year. They will stop the ground game and put it on Sanchez. That won’t work out well for New York.

Pittsburgh Offense vs. New York Jets Defense


Comments: The Steelers are solid offensively but the strength of the Jets is their defense. They are strong against the run and they have a very good secondary. This is not a mismatch, as it won’t be easy to keep Big Ben and the Pittsburgh offense from making some plays.

Special Teams Matchup


Comments: The Jets are a good return team and they are strong on kick and punt coverage. The Steelers are solid in special teams as well, but they don’t get as much out of the return game as the Jets. Brad Smith opened the game with a kickoff return for a TD in the meeting between these teams during the regular season. Place kicking is a question mark for both teams, but I’d give the edge to the Steelers, as Shaun Suisham has been solid since taking over for Jeff Reed. The Jets, however, clearly have the edge in the punter comparison. New York is very good at pinning opponents deep in their own territory. The Steelers are on their 2nd punter of the season.

Other Tangible Factors Matchup


Comments: The Jets have some experienced players like LT, Jason Taylor, and former Steeler Santonio Holmes, but clearly Pittsburgh has the edge in that department. They’ve played in a ton of big games. A number of them have won 2 Super Bowls. And this coaching staff won a Super Bowl just 3 years ago. The game is in Pittsburgh, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure how much of an impact home field advantage has in a game like this. Granted, it was their first ever win in Pittsburgh, but the Jets just beat the Steelers on the road in week 15. And New York seems very comfortable playing on the road. Like the Packers, they’ll be trying for a 3rd straight road playoff win, but again, we’ve seen those things done in recent years. The Jets are 4-1 on the road in the playoffs the last 2 years. The Steelers have always been a tough team to beat in Pittsburgh, but they went through an odd stretch where they went 1-4 at home in conference championship games over a 12 year period. Still, being at home should help them at some point.

It was interesting to watch the Heinz Field crowd during last week’s game. They were loud from the start as expected, but then things went badly for a long time. But I can’t say that it ever really quieted the crowd. There were murmurs and boos but it was still loud murmuring and booing. Then they just got angry. As things snowballed on the Jets in the 2nd half, the crowd was simply on fire. Heinz Field does not have one of the largest capacity levels in the NFL and it isn’t built in a way that increases the noise level. It’s just the fans. There were certain instances where the noise level reached a point that I thought to myself, “no matter what happened, it simply would never be this loud at a Falcons game.” And I wasn’t just picking on my own team and fan base. It would never get that loud at a Chargers, Panthers, Jags, or Dolphins game either. Despite Baltimore’s familiarity with playing in Pittsburgh and their tremendous record in road playoff games, I do think the crowd was a factor last week.

There is one other issue that should be discussed. Pittsburgh-Baltimore games are notoriously hard hitting, physical, all-out for 60 minutes games. Last week’s installment was no exception. The Steelers were all ready dealing with some injuries and they could be effected by the toll of playing what figures to be their 2nd straight extremely physical game.

Intangibles Matchup


Comments: What scares me—as someone who does not want to see the Jets in the Super Bowl—is that the Jets have that surprise Super Bowl team feel to them. I hate the term “team of destiny,” (not sure why, I just hate it), but I can’t come up with a good way to describe teams like the 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Colts, the 2007 Giants, etc. who aren’t at the top of anyone’s list going into the postseason but who then go on impressive runs in the playoffs. The best I can come up with is “out-of-leftfield” team (not that I’m inventing that here of course). Anyway, they have the feel of such a team right now. However, as we saw again last week, there is nothing easy about beating the Steelers in the playoffs. They know they can come back no matter what sort of hole they fall in. They will fight till the end.

Overall Matchup


Comments: I said last week that while we all know that the Patriots are not invincible—that lesson was learned for good in Super Bowl XLIII—I just could not see the Jets winning that game. It’s different this week. I can definitely see them winning this game. Part of it has to do with the out-of-leftfield thing. It’s also because I thought the Steelers were not as solid a team as New England. If you look at last week’s game, there were times where it was more about what the Ravens didn’t do than what the Steelers did do. The Ravens returned a punt for a TD that would have put them ahead in the 4th quarter but it was taken off the board due to a holding penalty. Anquan Boldin dropped a touchdown pass that would have put them ahead moments later. And on Baltimore’s final play, Houshmandzadeh simply dropped the pass that would have been good enough for a 1st down.

My point is that while I think the Steelers are better than the Jets, they aren’t so much better that the Jets can’t win even if they play a brilliant game. Pittsburgh is a team that just knows how to win and they usually make enough plays to get the job done. But in week 15, they didn’t make enough plays to beat the Jets. That might happen again. But my head says that the Steelers will prevail. I expect them to shut the Jets down offensively. I think Big Ben and the offense will make enough plays to get it done.