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NFL Picks – Conference Championships

On Sunday afternoon the Packers and Aaron Rodgers take on the Bears as favorites, but is Green Bay really the better team? Later, the Steelers hope to fend off New York with something the Jets haven’t faced this postseason; an unflappable quarterback.

Before we get into it, take a moment and appreciate what‘s ahead on Sunday. Four great defenses will be on display. There will be no domes. Temperatures will be below freezing. Everything that makes playoff football great will be in place. Hopefully, the games won’t disappoint.

Last Week:  2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:      4 – 4 – 0

Sunday, January 23 (3:00PM ET)

(6) Packers at (2) Bears
I’m probably setting myself up to look like a fool come Sunday evening, but determining the winner of the NFC Championship boils down to two simple questions: Who has the better quarterback? Which team has the better defense? The answer to both questions; the Green Bay Packers.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past 12 months, Aaron Rodgers is a superior quarterback to Jay Cutler. It’s not even that close. Rodgers is unflappable. He handles the bright lights as gracefully and coolly as he handles pressure from opposing defenses. He doesn’t kill his team with costly turnovers or stupid mistakes. Cutler, on the other hand, despite his best year as a pro, still carelessly turns the ball over and isn’t nearly as stable or reliable as Rodgers. Even in last week’s victory over Seattle, Cutler avoided a red zone interception when the Seattle defender dropped a ball thrown directly at his chest. Cutler is good for at least one of those miscues per game, and unlike the Seahawks, the Packers take advantage of those opportunities. Just ask Michael Vick and Matt Ryan.

Furthermore, Cutler was among the league leaders in taking sacks. Green Bay gets after the quarterback and has one of the most athletic defenses in the NFL. Considering the Bears ground game is average at best, it will be up to Cutler to take Chicago back to the Superbowl. The Packers rushing attack isn’t any better and maybe worse, so Rodgers will be in the same boat as Cutler. If I’m choosing a quarterback to carry my team to an NFC title, I’m taking Rodgers over Cutler.

I know Chicago’s defense has been outstanding this season. They’ve garnered a great deal of attention and deservedly so. Julius Peppers resurrected his career in Chicago and is once again a terror to opposing quarterbacks. Brian Urlacher is still a playmaker and the Chicago secondary is solid at every position. Regardless, I like the Packer defense slightly more.

The Packer defense is one of the few in the NFL that match quickness and athleticism with toughness. The secondary is full of playmakers. The corners are fast enough to run with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox and will force Cutler to be perfect on every throw, an area he rarely succeeds. Then there’s Charles Woodson who wreaks havoc and has the freedom to roam the entire field. Again, it will take a near perfect day for Cutler to carve up the Packer secondary.

In their two meetings this season, the Packer defense limited the Chicago offense to just over 500 total yards. In those games, Cutler was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions. And don’t tell me the Bears weren’t trying on the final weekend of the regular season. I watched that game. The Bears were going for it and the Packers beat them.

I know the Bears are at home. They’re underdogs. They have the “us against the world” mentality. All of those factors are in the Bears’ favor. Regardless, I don’t see how the Bears are supposed to win when the Packers have a superior quarterback and a better defense. If Chicago had an exceptional running game or Rodgers had a propensity for turning the ball over, then I could see the Bears winning. But they don’t and Rodgers doesn’t, so I can’t imagine anyone but the Packers advancing to the Superbowl. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers -3.5

Sunday, January 23 (6:30PM ET)

(6) Jets at (2) Steelers
So the Jets all of a sudden decide to end the trash talk and “study.”

Huh?

Didn’t New York just demolish the NFL’s best team after verbally assaulting them for a week, and now I’m supposed to believe they’ve opted to quietly focus on their next opponent…without all the hoopla? No way, I’m not buying.

Here’s what I think: The Jets didn’t fear the Patriots. However, they have a respectful, healthy fear of the Steelers.

What Patriot player was going to make the Jets pay for opening their mouths? New England has some great players, but none are overwhelmingly intimidating. The days of Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Richard Seymour are gone. Most people can’t even name two players on the Patriot defense now. Similar to a 6th grader talking smack to a kindergartener, the Jets were fearless in their (successful) attempts to intimidate the Patriots.

Enter the Steelers. If there are two teams you absolutely, positively do not trash talk, it’s the Ravens and Steelers. There are simply too many Steelers willing to knock your head off for running your month. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Casey Hampton, the list goes on and on. Pittsburgh is also the only team with a wide receiver that makes opposing safeties play with their head on a swivel. Heck, even Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is intimidating. Trash talk Tomlin’s team and he may clean your clock himself.

The Steelers are rugged. Trash talking Pittsburgh doesn’t work. No competitive advantage is gained. In fact, it accomplishes quite the opposite. Insulting the Steelers is equivalent to sticking a smelling salt under their nose or throwing blood in shark infested waters. The Jets were clever enough to know they could intimidate the Patriots. They’re also smart enough to know the Steelers are best left alone.

As for the game, there are plenty of juicy storylines. Imagine the Jets going through Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger -only the three winningest quarterbacks of this generation- en route to the franchise’s first title since Broadway Joe brought home the crown 42 years ago, on the road nonetheless. Or, Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to the Superbowl for the third time in seven seasons and possibly matching Tom Brady’s Vince Lombardi Trophy collection.

I’m not a Steeler fan, but it’s hard to ignore the case Roethlisberger is making to be included among the NFL’s elite. In fact, he may surpass both Manning and Brady with another title. Obviously, Manning and Brady are superior quarterbacks, but Manning has always struggled in the postseason and Brady is riding a three game losing streak in the playoffs despite being favored in all three losses.

Roethlisberger, on the other hand, thrives in the postseason. I’ve never seen him rattled by taking hits and constant pressure. Manning and Brady both lose their rhythm and focus when flustered. Roethlisberger’s size and style are perfect for the playoffs, too. As we’ve seen hundreds of times before, Roethlisberger can shrug off a defensive end and elude a blitzing safety. He scrambles to make plays, takes hits other quarterbacks can’t, and plays through broken noses and sprained ankles to lead his team to victory. It’s not always pretty, but Roethlisberger makes it happen. He grinds it out where Brady and Manning are too battered to fight. Scheming to beat Manning and Brady is thought to be the toughest task a defense will face in the NFL, but actually beating Roethlisberger is even tougher.

With that said, Pittsburgh already lost to the Jets at home last month. The Steeler offensive line is beyond injured. It’s possible they run out of lineman before the playoffs conclude. To make matters worse, the Jets are playing better than they have all season. New York’s defense just suffocated the NFL’s best offense and the league MVP. Mark Sanchez isn’t making mistakes and the Jets ground game has been effective in both playoff wins.

However, the Jets haven’t faced a defense as gritty as Pittsburgh’s, nor have they lined up opposite a quarterback that does his best work amongst chaos. Defenses have long executed their game plan to perfection and still lost to Ben Roethlisberger. The Jets join that list. STEELERS If I were Charles Barkley; Steelers -3.5

*****

Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:     3 – 5 – 0

One Comment

  1. Ryan – I can’t believe the season flew by so fast. But I agree with both your picks. I too think Green Bay has a much better quarterback in Aaron Rogers and I think Jay Cutler will turn the ball over against the Packer’s defense.

    The Steelers and Jets is going to be a fun game, but I give the edge to the steelers because I think their defense is better overall and I think Ben’s experience in these types of games will help him be better prepared.

    Meanwhile I think Mark Sanchez will make some rookie mistakes that will cost the Jets their season. I can’t wait for the games, and I guess we’ll just have to see if we’re right.

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