Saturday, January 22, 2011

NFL Conference Championship (Plus Podcast)

I’ve been on a month long column hiatus, and for a good reason. I was enjoying every second of my winter break and even though I don’t consider this work (It’s fun, I don’t get paid for it, and it’s easy for me) I still decided to hold off on writing a column. With that being said, I have one question: How the hell did we get here? We’ve reached the NFL’s final four, and the last time I wrote anything for my blog, there were legitimate cases why I wouldn’t be talking about any of the teams left.

Let’s start with my Chicago Bears who for the last four months I have been very critical of, and for good reason. Here is a short list of things that I don’t like about the Bears.
-Jay Cutler is Brett Favre Jr. Translation: He could make plays that win your team a game, but he could also mistake his arm for a cannon and throw into triple coverage when your team is protecting a three point lead. On top of this, the offensive line “protecting” Cutler nearly got him killed week four when they allowed nine sacks in the first half.
-Lovie Smith is only one level of excitement higher than Jim Caldwell. If you aren’t aware, Lovie Smith is peeling an orange level exciting and Jim Caldwell is watching paint dry exciting. It bugs me. I can’t imagine how Colts fans feel. Also, has there ever been a worse coaching decision than Caldwell’s inexplicable time out versus the Jets? I’ve played Madden with some people who know nothing about football, and they wouldn’t dare calling a time out in that situation. It defied common sense.
-They’ve been exceedingly lucky this year. I’m a believer in the theory that it is better to be lucky than good, but the Bears seem to make a habit of this. Week 1 versus Detroit Calvin Johnson’s game winning touchdown somehow gets overturned and ruled an incomplete pass. Week 3 versus Green Bay the Packers committed what seemed to be like 100 penalties and the Bears won by three. In Week 11 at Miami the Bears defense had to deal with the grueling task of playing against backup quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who is actually worse than Chad Henne. Then they get dealt the 8-9 Seattle Seahawks in their first playoff game. This is after the Seahawks put everything into a home win versus New Orleans two weeks ago. Their luck has to run out eventually, right?

On the other side of the ball Sunday at Soldier Field will be the Green Bay Packers. Really you couldn’t ask for a better NFC Championship matchup (unless you were a Saints, Falcons, Eagles or Seahawks fan). It’s the oldest rivalry in the NFL. The two teams split their two regular season meetings. Both teams are playing their best football of the season. It’s going to be a war. And if it weren’t for a Packers win over Chicago in week 17 this matchup wouldn’t be possible. Once upon a time Green Bay was 8-6 and slipping out of the playoff picture. Now they are the Vegas favorites to win the Super Bowl. Again, how the hell did we get here?

In the AFC we have the New York Jets visiting Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. How about this for a fun fact: This season Mark Sanchez has already defeated the last three AFC quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl (Tom Brady- two times, Peyton Manning- one time, Ben Roethlisberger- one time, and potentially a second time) and there is a chance he could do it three consecutive weeks in a row. Maybe it’s time we stop doubting this guy, huh?

Both of these teams had their issues coming into the playoffs though. The Jets lost three of their last five games coming into the playoffs including the well documented 42 point beat down in Foxborough. The Steelers remained consistent and even ended the regular season by winning six of their last seven games. The only problem is their team is as beat up as Ronnie and Sammi’s relationship is. Ben Roethlisberger’s body is close to being totally broken, and his nose is completely on the right side of his face. Accountable for this problem is the Steelers offensive line which is now made up of any 300 plus pound men who live in Pittsburgh.

NFC Championship
Halas, Lombardi, Butkus, Nitschke, Payton, Favre. It’s the most storied rivalry in football, and somehow these teams have only played in one playoff game ever and it was in 1941. I didn’t watch that game, so I have no idea how much that game was built up, how much trash talk was dished out prior to the game or how the game was played. I do know that as a football fan this meeting is something to be excited about. The NFC Championship should be decided at cold and snowy Soldier Field. It just makes sense. The Bears have yet to play a flawless game and look unbeatable. I don’t know if that means it’s bound to come or like I mentioned above, they are lucky. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers in particular are clicking in a scary way… well scary if you are a Bears fan like I am. Last week in Atlanta, where the Falcons had lost only twice in the last three seasons, the Packers put on an offensive clinic for the ages on their way to a 48-21 blowout win. Aaron Rodgers- 31-36, 366 yards, 4 total touchdowns. Um, that’s really really good! The Bears looked impressive as well in a 35-24 win over Seattle. That 11 point win was at one point a 28-0 lead before Mike Martz inexplicably dialed up a Halfback Pass. Hey Mike, it’s no time to be cute when you are up 28-3. How about we run the ball? That’s a good idea. The bottom line is both of these teams are getting hot at the right time. Rodgers has been lights out, and Cutler is coming off his smoothest game of the year. It’s a toss-up, and especially because the poor weather conditions could help contain the high octane Packers offense, but ultimately I trust Rodgers more than I trust Cutler. Damn it!
Prediction: Packers 27 Bears 21

AFC Championship
This game becomes a lot more difficult to predict due to the fashion in which the Jets won last week over New England. I mean the Jets really walked all over the Patriots. The Jets defense put their foot down and stopped the explosive New England offense. It’s a good thing the Jets won too. They were doing a lot of trash talking and would’ve need to put their foot in their mouth if they lost… Okay, I had to get at least three Rex Ryan foot jokes in. The Jets defeated Pittsburgh on December 19th in a very close game that could’ve been won on the final play by Pittsburgh. I think the key in this game each teams ability to protect their quarterback. For Pittsburgh, it’s going to be difficult enough for an offensive line which is decimated, plus the Jets can unleash all types of blitzes on Pittsburgh. What really stood out in the last round though was the Jets coverage downfield. They were getting pressure on Brady with only three rushers mainly due to the fact that their defensive backs were suffocating the Patriots receivers. If they can cover as well as they did against New England, and get pressure on AND bring down Roethlisberger with only three rushers like they did with Brady, the Jets will be going to the Super Bowl. Much like the NFC Championship game, I won’t be surprised by any result in this one. I just think the Jets make more plays on both sides of the ball, and Rex Ryan moves another step toward reaching the top of the football world. Step toward… That’s kind of a foot joke.
Prediction: Jets 20 Steelers 17

Paul Clark and I discuss Jersey Shore and the Conference Championship games.