— I wrote two weeks ago that this year’s NFL tournament was even more wide open than usual. Since then, we’ve seen a team with a losing record beat the defending Super Bowl champs, and watched both No. 1 seeds get knocked out.
Now that the shock of the Jets’ impressive win in Foxborough has worn off, it’s time to look ahead to this week’s biggest storylines. At this point, seeing two No. 6 seeds face off in the Super Bowl wouldn’t really surprise anyone.
Is the 2009 Jets defense back?
The Jets' defense was good, not great in the regular season. The rest of the league appeared to have figured out the Jets’ blitz schemes and the Jets couldn’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback or make big plays.
Rex Ryan has changed all that by backing off during the playoffs. They held Peyton Manning to 16 points, and confused Tom Brady for four quarters. They Jets have got back to what they did best in 2009: play lockdown pass coverage. They’ve done it by mixing up coverages and dropping defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Rex Ryan is the anti Billy Beane right now. His stuff works better in the playoffs.
The young Steelers receivers come of age
Unheralded young Steelers receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown outplayed Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason in the divisional round. Throw in Mike Wallace, who may be the league's best receiver under 25 years, and the Steelers can present a lot of problems for the Jets.
New York locked down the Patriots, but New England doesn’t have the speed Pittsburgh possesses. Darrelle Revis will be tested by Wallace, while Sanders and Brown can work on New York’s secondary depth. These kids could make the Pittsburgh faithful forget all about Santonio Holmes.
Sanchez faces toughest test yet
The Jets’ second-year quarterback was erratic against the Colts, but a strong second half was enough to win. Sanchez misfired early against the Patriots, but he made enough big plays with the help of his talented wide receivers to win in New England.
Pittsburgh’s defense won’t be as forgiving. The receivers won’t get as much separation, and the pass rush pressure will be more consistent. The Jets are a good reminder that football is a team game; it’s not all about the quarterbacks. Still, something tells me Sanchez will need to play even better for the Jets to reach Dallas.
The Steelers offensive line tries to hold on
By the end of Saturday’s game against the Ravens, the Steelers had no offensive linemen left to turn to. Guards were at tackle, backups were at guard, and the Steelers still held it together long enough for a game-winning touchdown drive.
Pittsburgh could get back some of their injured players against the Jets, but that’s no guarantee. The 2008 Steelers proved that you don’t need a great line to win a Super Bowl. But you do need five players healthy enough to suit up and know their assignments.
Mike McCarthy is on a roll
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been a punching bag for overwrought Packers fans for years because of his play-calling and game-management skills. He’s still prone to a shaky decision — not going for points at the end of the first half against Philly comes to mind — but McCarthy is on fire as a play-caller.
McCarthy’s hot streak really started in a loss. He dialed up the plays for backup quarterback Matt Flynn in a near-upset in Foxborough. Defenses have been guessing ever since and they rarely guess right.
Bears offensive line coming together
Chicago’s offensive line looked downright competent toward the end of the season and especially in their divisional-round win over the Seahawks. The Bears have pass protected well and have shown they can open up holes in the running game. This is a different group than the first half of the season.
Chicago will want to shorten the game Sunday with a lot of runs by Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. If the Packers have a weakness, they could be a little soft up the middle against the run. Expect the Bears to find more success on the ground than Atlanta did.
Familiarity may help Bears defense
It’s hard to find many causes for concern for the Packers with the way Aaron Rodgers is playing, but I’ll try: The Bears' defense clearly gives him problems.
The Packers only scored 24 points in two games against Chicago. They averaged only 62 yards on the groun in those games. It’s going to be tough sledding for James Starks in Chicago and it’s hard to imagine the Packers truly having “balance” on offense. Green Bay’s running backs only averaged three yards-per-carry against Atlanta. The Bears defense know how to limit big passing plays.
Sure, you can say familiarity goes both ways. But the Bears' defense isn’t about disguise; they’ve been doing the same thing for five years. They are as equipped as any team to slow Rodgers down.
Will Bad Jay show up?
Jay Cutler is going to throw a handful of “loose” passes every game. The Seahawks dropped Cutler’s brain farts in the divisional round, but Cutler can’t expect to be so lucky against the Packers.
Green Bay’s secondary is full of cornerbacks who know how to make plays on the ball. More importantly, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ crew is capable of confusing Cutler.
Cutler’s mistakes aren’t usually physical. He’s one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks, but doesn’t always see the field before he throws. The Packers will try to show him different looks in hopes of making Bad Jay come out early and often.