January 20, 2011

All Roads Lead to Rome … Or At Least Championship Sunday

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You want to talk about playoffs?

This weekend’s championship games will feature four very impressive teams — none of which finished the regular season with the best records in their respective leagues. Come Sunday, No. 1 seeded New England and Atlanta will find themselves watching from home as two No. 6 seeds — the Jets and Packers — try to continue their postseason success on the road. The divisional round of the playoffs saw two hard-fought games between bitter rivals come down to the final minutes in the AFC, and two NFC matchups that quickly turned into unwatchable network television comedies. Since Off the Wall is not in the business of making bold predictions, we’ll take the remainder of this column to preview the four teams vying for a spot in the Super Bowl and take a look back at each squad’s road to championship Sunday.

New York Jets

In the interest of providing full disclosure I’ll admit that I am a diehard Jet fan, but I’ll do my best to remain objective. The Jets travel to Pittsburgh after winning what Rex Ryan dubbed the second most important game in franchise history behind the team’s miraculous victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. This year’s Jets are probably not as talented as Joe Namath’s squad, but they do possess an impressive defense and a strong running game perhaps only rivaled by this week’s opponent — the Steelers. Ryan’s defense has shown its versatility over the first two weeks of the postseason by taking out two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, highlighted by the unit’s five sacks of Tom Brady in the divisional round. For New York, the biggest surprise has been the success of quarterback Mark Sanchez in pressure situations. The sophomore led the team to a game-winning field goal two weeks ago in Indianapolis, and again surprised many by throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions against New England. Sanchez, now 4-1 in postseason play, has looked quite a bit like another young quarterback who helped lead a strong defensive team to two Super Bowl wins in the last five seasons — Ben Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The AFC North champs outplayed the rival Ravens in every facet of the game during the second half of last week’s 31-24 divisional round victory, after allowing 21 unanswered points before entering the locker room at halftime. The question is which team will show up at Heinz field to play the Jets this Sunday? The banged up offensive line that let pressure fly in Roethlisberger’s face throughout most of last week’s matchup will undoubtedly play a key role in the championship game. The intimidating Steelers defense, which held Ray Rice to 32 yards on the ground, will likely be tested by the two-headed attack of LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The two Jets combined to rush for 89 yards when the teams met in week 15; however, the absence of Pittsburgh’s all-pro safety Troy Polamalu likely played a large role in the defense’s failure to stop the run. Polamalu will also play an important role in defending the passing game, an area where Jets receiver Braylon Edwards accounted for 100 yards of offense in the Dec. 19 matchup.

Green Bay Packers

For all those placing bets on Sunday’s NFC Championship game, it’s nice to know that the Packers have the backing of the world’s most trusted decision maker — and most hated massage recipient — Brett Favre. For everybody else who’s rightfully uninterested in what Mr. SportsCenter has to say, look to the current Packers quarterback for a reason to take Green Bay in Sunday’s matchup with the rival Bears. Aaron Rodgers enters the weekend as the hottest quarterback of the four remaining in the playoffs. Rodgers completed an absurd 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three scores against a difficult Atlanta defense just one week after he dismantled the Eagles’ defensive unit with another three-touchdown performance. Much like when Favre was at the helm in Green Bay, the Packers are once again led by an impressive group of linebackers and defensive backs. Linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk have been able to apply pressure to the quarterback and stop the running game, while star corners Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams have held the passing game in check on the outside. Perhaps the only team that can equal the Packers on defense and at quarterback is the rival Chicago Bears, led by the resurgent Jay Cutler.

Chicago Bears

When the Bears acquired Jay Cutler from the Broncos, most assumed that it would be a smooth transition for the Pro Bowl quarterback. That transition may have been completed last weekend when Cutler earned his first playoff win, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more against the overmatched Seahawks. The greatest strength of the Bears, as has been the case throughout most of the franchise’s history, is its defense. The unit held Seattle to a miniscule 22 yards on the ground last week after the Seahawks ran all over the defending champion Saints in the opening round of the playoffs. Led by linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs the Chicago defense picked up two sacks last week, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the two men get to Rodgers at some point during Sunday’s championship game. While many will focus on the Bears defense, it may well be the team’s offense that serves as a difference maker against Green Bay. Cutler’s favorite target, Matt Forte, will need to play a big role in both the passing game and the ground attack if the Bears are going to have any success putting up points against the Packers. In a game featuring two evenly-matched teams, Forte could be the difference between making the Super Bowl and heading down to Hawaii to watch the Pro Bowl.

Original Author: Evan Rich