Five Thoughts From Conference Championship Weekend

As virtually every member of my immediate and extended family rejoices at the realization that the Green Bay Packers will be returning to the Super Bowl, I’m left to ponder how it is they and the Pittsburgh Steelers got there. Did the Packers and Steelers follow through on the winning playoff strategies I proposed two weeks ago? Here’s five thoughts:

5) It’s still hard to pick winners: 1-3 in Wild Card Weekend. 1-3 in the divisional round. 1-1 in the conference championships. 1-4 in the AFC, whose games I watch, but 2-3 in the NFC, whose teams I’m less familiar with. Had I gone 2-0 on Sunday, I would’ve been 4-6 and, thanks to the rules I just invented, could have gone .500 for the NFL playoffs. But such things are not meant to be. So for now I’ll just take this as a developmental stage in my sports writing career. When I predict the NBA playoffs (I’m not going anywhere near the National Association of Hockey Teams… or whatever it’s called), we’ll see how much I’ve improved.

4) Running backs matter: Both of Sunday’s winning teams won the ground battle. The Packers out-rushed the Chicago Bears 120-83, and the Steelers out-rushed the New York Jets 166-70, more than doubling them up. Each winning team also rushed for two touchdowns. Successful running allowed both the Packers and Steelers to generate long drives and control the clock, with each team winning time-of-possession by about nine minutes. And it’s a good thing, too, because neither winning quarterback had strong throwing nights. Aaron Rodgers went 17/30 for 244 yards, zero passing touchdowns (one rushing) and two interceptions, finishing with a 55.4 passer rating. Ben Roethlisberger went 10/19 for 133 yards, zero passing touchdowns (also, one rushing) and two interceptions, for an even worse 35.5 passer rating. Meanwhile, the Jets (who I predicted would fold if the game was in Mark Sanchez’s hands) had their running game completely shut down, and Sanchez could not quite get it done on his own. He came very close, but a Steelers’ strip of Sanchez provided what would turn out to be the winning touchdown. Against a quality defense like the Steelers’, Sanchez still struggles.

3) Turnovers- still not that big a deal, especially with veteran quarterbacks: Both the Steelers and the Packers turned the ball over twice. For the Steelers, that was more than the Jets. For the Packers, this killed a likely scoring drive (they were on third-and-goal from the Chicago 6-yard line). But neither team seemed particularly daunted by these turnovers. The Packers forced a three-and-out on defense and got the ball right back, while the Steelers forced a three-and-out after both of their interceptions. If you have confidence in your defense the way Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy do, you can continue to dial up plays that run a higher risk of turnover. Both winning quarterbacks had more playoff experience than their losing counterparts. Veteran quarterbacks shake off errors better than newcomers, and that is a crucial difference when it comes to the playoffs. A single mistake always has the potential to cost your team the game, but even if you’re defense gets a stop, if the mistake rattles the quarterback, his team is screwed. Even quarterbacks as veteran as Tom Brady can still be rattled by a single interception (as was the case in the divisional round). But the more experienced a team’s quarterback, the more likely he is to take the error in stride and come back just as strong.

2) The Packers and Steelers are really, really similar: The Packers and the Steelers play almost the exact same style of football, so their wins closely mirrored each other. Both teams went up by multiple possessions going into the half, then failed to score on offense in the second half (Green Bay scored on an interception that was returned for a touchdown). They can score in spurts, then go cold in the face of increased pressure. Both teams’ quarterbacks showed surprising mobility (Rodgers rushed for 39 yards, Roethlisberger 21), but their offensive lines showed some porousness, each allowing at least one sack and three tackles-for-loss (and in the Steelers’ case, seven TFLs). Their defenses, meanwhile, both used frequent blitzes to break up passing plays. Both the Packers and the Steelers recorded two sacks and four TFLs. The Packers defensed three passes, and the Steelers defensed four. Both defenses scored one touchdown on a turnover-return inside their opponents’ 20-yard lines. The Steelers had a better kicking day, nailing a field goal and three extra points while holding the Jets to just 10.2 yards per return, but the Packers had the better punting day, pinning the Bears five times inside their 20. To win the Super Bowl, each of these teams will have to figure out essentially how to beat themselves, then execute it better than their opponent.

1) Jets show their true nature in defeat: The Steelers showed Sunday that the way to beat a bully is to punch him in the face, and keep doing it until he backs down. You don’t ignore a bully, like the Patriots and Colts did, because bullies perceive a lack of attention as a lack of respect, so they re-double their efforts. The Steelers blitzed, pressured and hammered the Jets until they couldn’t take any more. But in losing, the Jets confirmed everything we suspected about their character. As the Steelers knelt to end the game, several players went up to Jets players to shake hands and show good sportsmanship. This is a practice that dates back to childhood, when teams line up, slap five and say “good game.” But the Jets- who celebrated their divisional-round victory in Foxborough by doing back-flips- would have none of it. When the Steelers went up to wish the Jets well, the Jets responded with pushing and shoving (they also rather over-aggressively jumped elbows-first over the line of scrimmage on the kneel-downs, seemingly to injure someone). The Steelers raised their hands in consternation, expecting better from grown men. But when a bully gets taken down a peg, he doesn’t take it like a man; he whines and cries. And that’s exactly what the Jets did, from their headset-chucking, profanity-screaming head-coach to their technical-problem-blaming quarterback: bitch and moan like the little children they are. Good-riddance to mean-spirited rubbish.

T-minus 13 days until the Super Bowl. Can’t wait.

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