NFC Championship Preview

Chicago Bears hosting the Green Bay Packers for the right to go to the Super Bowl.  If images of Vince Lombardi and George Halas aren’t coming to mind we may need to introduce you to table tennis as a favorite sport.  This is the essence of pro football with the backdrop of history, weather, most hated rival playing for the conference crown; how can this get any better?  It can’t, plain and simple.  One of the beautiful points to this championship for affecionados like me is to remind younger fans of the super rich heritage of the NFL.  No the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, nor San Francisco 49ers have the most championships in NFL history, that distinction belongs to these two teams.  The fact that fans have gone their entire lifetimes without seeing these two play with stakes this high makes this game special.  I know, I know…Jef get to the game at hand..

When we take a look at Aaron Rodgers what do you see?  Easily football’s finest young quarterback who is ascending to a place that was once reserved for only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in most circles. Last weeks 31 of 36 for 366 yards and 3TDs in a 48-21 win over Atlanta was his calling card to greatness. He didn’t stand in the pocket and give a Joe Montana performance, he was flushed from the pocket on numerous occasions and completed passes while being chased from the pocket that realistically the defense should have been able to make a few stops.  There were throws that defied logic and its time to talk about Rodgers on the move as one of the best in the business.  His feet are always ready to deliver the football which is key to his game.  So in two playoff games Rodgers has led the Packers to 48 and 45 (last year’s loss to the Cardinals) point totals. Yikes, what will he look like in a year or two?

Over this season has there been a team that has evolved on offense more than the Chicago Bears?  Coming into the season I thought the marriage of Cutler and Mike Martz’s system would be able to get the most of Jay’s long ball arm.  They just had to rope the penchant for Martz to pass too often trying to show off his genius that nearly got Kurt Warner killed when he coached the Rams.  Evidenced by the dismal 9 sacks in the first half performance against the Giants and Cutler didn’t make it back for the second half.  Yet Lovie Smith and Martz have roped in the offense and over the second half of the season ran the ball more than they passed it.  Last week’s playoff game against Seattle, the running attack was supplemented with a variety of screens to further slow the pass rush.  Mike Martz can be a brilliant play caller.

Aaron Rodgers surveying the Bears defense

Jay Cutler has been the beneficiary of this more balanced play calling and has matured amidst detractors who refuse to notice. He’s never played a playoff game how will he perform? Hmm…play action down the middle for a 58 yard touchdown to Greg Olsen on his first pass attempt.  The last time the NFL saw that happen in a playoff game take a guess who was calling the plays?  Mike Martz when Kurt Warner hit Isaac Bruce for a 77 yarder td on the Rams first play in the ’99 divisonal tilt against Minnesota.  That withstanding, Cutler played under control threw for 2TDs in the game and ran for 2 more becoming the first QB since Otto Graham in 1955.  However a closer look and we saw a confident more determined quarterback, one who put his head down and smashed into the endzone on one run, and forcefully ran for a 4th and 1 near the goalline to set up the Bears 2nd TD.  This was not the same Cutler we saw on that fateful Monday Night against the Giants ducking for cover and unsure of himself.  He’s grown in stature as a pro quarterback over the second half of this season.    Advantage Packers in quarterbacking in this game…

The team that establishes the run best will take control of this football game.  The Packers have found a new workhorse in these playoffs with rookie James Starks.  However this is somewhat overblown.  He rushed 25 times for 66 yards for a paltry  2.6 yds avg.  against Atlanta in which the Packers put up 48 points. This is the issue when dealing with a rookie.  Do I believe in his performance against Philadelphia in the wildcard or this latest outting?  Enter Matt Forte for Chicago, he only rushed 25 times for 80 yards, a slightly better 3.2 yds avg. v. Seattle, yet he supplemented this with 3 receptions for 54 yards more.  Seeing that we have two highly ranked defenses in this game one of these offenses has to give.  Advantage Bears slightly…Martz needs to slip Forte on screens at the right time to slow down a certain Mr. Matthews to aid his passing attack.

Alright its cold out and we have football’s #5 and #9 ranked defenses in the Packers and Bears respectively.  Both stout against the run. Each with defensive stalwarts rushing the passer, the aforementioned Clay Matthews and a one Mr. Julius Peppers. The Packers have the better secondary in Charles Woodson and Tremond Williams, who just played his way onto the Pro Bowl roster with his performance last week.  Third cornerback, rookie Sam Shields from Miami, is coming on.  The Packers must get in front and make the Bears pass into their secondary.  The Bears have the better front seven and perhaps the best in football.  Julius Peppers tilts the field and this matchup in the Bears favor.  In their prior meeting at Soldier Field, the Packers had four penalties attributed to trying to slow down the athletic Peppers.  His presence takes attention away from a lethal Urlacher and Lance Briggs.  Add to that an awakening Tommie Harris and Idonijie #71 will be single blocked on the side away from Peppers.  Look for Idonijie and Peppers to corral Rodgers where Atlanta could not.  Advantage Chicago based on crowd noise and front seven strength across the board.

Which leads to special teams.  Sigh, do I really have to tell you about history’s finest ever kick returner Devin Hester from Miami? Of course its easy to say that he did return a punt for a touchdown in the Soldier Field meeting between these two teams, but its deeper, systemic if you will.  Thanks to Peppers and company, the Bears are the fifth best team in not allowing their opponent to convert on 3rd down at 35%. When opponents are stopped inside their own 40 yard line, teams can’t ask their punter to punt out of bounds in fear of a shanked kick, giving the Bears even better field position.  They are forced to kick it to Hester in that instance and here in late January amidst swirling winds he will get several shots in this game.  Advantage Bears.

For the Packers to win Aaron Rodgers and that superb receiving corps have to have a game like they did in Atlanta and Arizona last year to win.  The problem is those were heremetic, antiseptic dome games, not windy Soldier Field in late January.  The Bears want to put bruises on the body and the psyche of Rodgers.  The Bears should play to the strength of their defense and special teams while taking calculated shots with Cutler’s arm when they get near 50 yard line.

Prediction 2010 NFC Champion Chicago Bears  23-16

Jets Are Slick Like A Fox

Is it me or are the New York Jets changing the face of the NFL?  What I mean is take a look at the brashness that they are exhibiting as they advance through the playoffs.  A coach in Rex Ryan who almost stoops to the level of his players in saying what is on his mind.  Players that celebrated on the field like school kids after winning a playoff game where no one, including yours truly, didn’t think they’d win.  Yet they persisted and are on their way to the unfriendly confines of Heinz Field where they will play a Steelers team they beat late in the season.

This team really talked a big game and ate it for the late season loss to the Patriots, a 45-3 debacle on Monday night football.  Yet they stayed true to who they were and talked brashly about getting back into the thick of things, through late season wins over Pittsburgh. From Coach Ryan’s pregame declaration that it was personal between he and Belichick, to Antonio Cromartie’s expletive pre-game comments about Tom Brady, this team has been  bellacose, verbose, inflammatory.   LOL Damn have they made these playoffs fun

Then you have the Patriots.  They were above the smack talk, or so we thought, then Wes Welker gets roped into making a reference regarding feet which was an obvious smack toward the much publicized fetish of Rex Ryan.  He subsequently gets benched for the beginning of the game which resulted in the Patriots never getting in sync the rest of the game.  To hear Deion Branch call them classless is like the pot calling the kettle black.  How soon we forget!!  You remember the 2006 AFC Divisional playoff when the Patriots came from behind to beat the San Diego Chargers don’t you?

The Patriots started a near fist fight on the Charger logo when the game was over doing Shawne Merrimans’ “Lights Out” dance??  How about the 2004 AFC Championship when Deion Branch, who on the decisive touchdown, ran a reverse into the endzone waving goodbye to the nearest Steeler defender.  Take your medecine and be quiet….and this is before we start talking about a team that ran scores up on teams in 2007 in the most distasteful fashion.

Lost in all of this is the fact Mark Sanchez is growing up right before our very eyes.  He’s beaten two straight Hall of Famers in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady yet no one has acknowledged that.  The fact that the defense has throttled two offenses and befuddled those same two quarterbacks and nearly knocked Brady into next season.  The Jets coverage was so great on one play ESPN showed Brady had over 8.5 seconds on one play and still couldn’t find a receiver.

That the league’s #2 defense has grown into a fire breathing monster and headed for Pittsburgh. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson are averaging over 120 yards a game in the playoffs.  Yet now the Jets don’t want to talk.  This could be the worst thing they could do since the focus has been on their antics and not on their X’s and O’s.  I hope they lapse into who they really are.  A trip to the Super Bowl may depend on it.

Thanks for reading