Conference Championship Predictions

We’re down to the NFL’s Final Four. At stake for each team is a conference championship and a plane ticket to Dallas in February. But first they must prove their worth against the best their conference has to offer. The top seeds of each conference were eliminated after just one game, and the two-seeds will host their six-seed opponents on Sunday. The four remaining teams did not play the best regular-season football, but they’re playing the best football now.  So who will win?

At this point in the playoffs, the name of the game is “momentum.” The team coming into each game with the most momentum will have a distinct advantage over its opponent. Momentum will be evident on the very first play of the game. If the kicking team has the momentum, expect a small return ended with an emphatic tackle. But if the return team is the more aggressive, expect a return past the 40-yard line. Momentum should then carry over into the first offensive drive. If the kicking team has the momentum, expect heavy pressure and a likely three-and-out. But if the offense comes out firing, expect opening-possession points, and the team that kicked off will be playing from behind early and quite-possibly often.

This is not to say these games will be decided in the first quarter. All four of these teams play excellent defense, meaning either game could go into halftime with one team up just one possession. And if the losing team gets the second-half kickoff, momentum could be seized by a game-tying or lead-changing score. But if one team comes out playing far more aggressively, it’s just as conceivable that they go into halftime up by two or more scores, and then they can start controlling the clock with run-heavy offenses and “prevent” (also called “deep cover-2”) defenses. So there is tremendous pressure on each of these teams for a fast start before the game gets out of hand. But who will start the fastest? And once they start, can they finish? We won’t know until Sunday. Until then, here are my predictions (which are usually wrong):

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (Sunday at 3:00): The Packers have run a far tougher playoff gauntlet in reaching the NFC Championship than the Bears have. The Packers have had to win twice on the road. They began the playoffs by beating Michael Vick, who will likely finish second in the MVP race, and the Philadelphia Eagles. They followed it up by demolishing Matt Ryan, who had a reputation as unbeatable at home, and the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers were undaunted in the face of that challenge, beating them so thoroughly that by the two-minute warning, the Georgia Dome was nearly empty (and most of the fans left were Packers fans). It has been a trial-by-fire for the Packers, but they came through it playing absolutely fantastic football. The Bears, meanwhile, have not been tested nearly as much. They’ve played one playoff game… at home… against the Seattle Seahawks… who finished the season 7-9. The Bears are not as aware of where their deficiencies lie, and that makes them easier to exploit.

The game itself will be about whether Jay Cutler can repeat his performance against the Seahawks when faced with the far faster, smarter and stronger Packers defense. He is going to have pressure coming at him from all angles, and his wide receivers are going to have to fight through one of the two best cornerback teams in the NFL. Cutler can be goaded into making mistakes, and that’s what the Packers will try to do. The Packers offense, meanwhile, should be fine. Aaron Rodgers looks perfectly in sync with his wide receivers, which is good because the Bears don’t give up a lot of rushing yards. Rodgers has plenty of experience with the Bears, he knows how that defense operates, and he isn’t afraid to face them again. The Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field because the Packers made too many mental errors and committed too many dumb penalties. This Green Bay team is nothing like that team that lost back in September. This team is firing on all cylinders, and they should prove it Sunday. Pick: Packers.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday at 6:30): Just as the Packers benefited from the strong competition they faced during their wild card and divisional games, so have the Jets. To beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in consecutive weeks is a rare feat (or perhaps “feet”) indeed. This Jets team, much as we hate to admit it, is for real. They do the two things essential to winning in the playoffs: run and play defense. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene are very good running backs, able to burst through the line, beat defenders to the sideline and turn up-field, and catch check-down passes. They keep Mark Sanchez’s touches to a minimum, which is a good strategy when you have  a physically gifted but inexperienced quarterback. And Rex Ryan, for all of his bluster, is clearly a smart coach who can analyze opponents, realize weaknesses and game-plan around them. The defense can stop the run up front, pressure the quarterback and contest passes. Their secondary may be even better than Green Bay’s. The Steelers meanwhile, needed a second-half collapse by Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco last Sunday to win that game. That game was marked by penalties (15 for a combined 167 yards) and fights. The Steelers played ugly, sloppy football. They are lucky to have made it this far.

The problem the Jets have is that they are, simply, a bunch of jerks. Americans have a misguided notion that professional athletes are the best of humanity, men whose souls match their physical gifts. The quarterback has replaced the cowboy (as in “Brett Favre is a gunslinger”). We don’t mind physical violence (and we often encourage it) as long as the players play the game how “it should be played.” And the Jets don’t play that way. From the head coach down, this is a team that approaches football the way a bully approaches the schoolyard. They know they’re good, and they love putting their opponents down and humiliating them as much as they love beating them. There’s no glory in the Jets, just violence. They don’t respect any other team, the game itself, or really even themselves. But we’d forgive all that if they lost. What infuriates us the most about the Jets is that it works for them. We don’t want our (possible) Super Bowl champions to be just a bunch of douche-bags, but that’s exactly what they are. They’ve successfully bullied their way to two straight victories. After Sunday, it will be three. Pick: Jets.

Our Super Bowl will be between two six-seed teams that both play classic playoff football. Check back Friday, February 4, for a position-by-position comparison of both Super Bowl teams. Go, Pack, go!

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