— Green Bay Packers at the Chicago Bears
This could be the most important game played in the history of the NFL's two oldest rivals. Much has been said about the fact that these teams haven't played each other in the playoffs since 1941, and that brings added pressure to every player and coach participating in Sunday's game. It should end up being the most memorable in the history of the rivalry and could establish true bragging rights for decades to come.
Green Bay is on a roll and no player has been more dominant in the playoffs than quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He performed brilliantly in the Packers' 48-21 divisional playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score.
He played in the comfortable environment of the Georgia Dome, but let’s not forget he beat Michael Vick and the Eagles on the road the week before in one of the most hostile environments in the NFL. Green Bay won only three road games in the regular season, so the past two weeks have helped them believe they can win anywhere.
The Packers suffered several injuries to core players — running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Nick Barnett — earlier in the season. I didn't think they'd have the ability to bounce back and advance this deep into the playoffs with backups at those positions.
After losing back-to-back games to Detroit (7-3) and New England (31-27) in December, it looked like Green Bay was about to throw in the towel on the 2010 season. But, they got help from other teams losing in the final two weeks and began their march to the playoffs by crushing the Giants 45-17 on Dec. 26.
The week leading up to that game at Lambeau Field, many fans wondered if Chicago would play all of their starters and do everything possible to beat Green Bay considering they already had qualified for the postseason. That game turned out to be a brutal battle in the trenches as the Packers pulled out a 10-3 win and advanced as the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs. I was very impressed by the passion the Bears showed in that final regular-season game, as they clearly intended to eliminate their rival, but their offense couldn’t get into the end zone.
This Sunday both teams will empty their playbooks and nothing back. The Bears come in with a defense that hasn't been tested in the playoffs. They went through the motions in a 35-24 win over the inferior Seahawks. Expect the leaders of the Bears defense to step up and force Rodgers out of the pocket into throws under heavy pressure.
The Bears have the second-best rushing defense in the league, allowing 90.1 yards a game. They will look to punish Packers running back James Starks each time he busts through the line of scrimmage. Starks has rushed for 189 yards in the playoffs, but he has never played in a game with this much pressure on the road.
Look for Bears running back Matt Forte to have a big game against the 3-4 defense of Green Bay. He rushed for 91 yards and had eight receptions in the season finale at Green Bay, and I expect offensive coordinator Mike Martz to make him the No. 1 option for the Bears on Sunday. Forte is a solid receiver out of the backfield, but I expect him to rush for over 100 yards and score at least two touchdowns.
Quarterback Jay Cutler will have to be careful protecting the football as defensive back Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Mathews will blitz throughout the game.
I'm still not sold on the Bears' offensive line, but they have improved over the past two months. Look for tight end Greg Olsen to have a huge game blocking for Forte and pass protecting for Cutler. I can't wait to see if Packers coach Mike McCarthy instructs punter Tim Masthay to kick the ball away from Devin Hester or challenge his special teams unit to go right at him?
Green Bay is the favorite on the road and is the more explosive team, but Chicago has too many stars on defense — led by Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher — who will play like they are possessed in front of the home fans at Soldier Field. This game should be a classic!
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
If the Jets beat the Steelers they instantly become the most accomplished team in the history of the AFC playoffs since the AFL/NFL merger. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have combined for six Super Bowl titles and all of those players are still in their prime. The inner New Yorker in me senses that the Jets are a team of destiny and nothing can stop them, but I also realize the Steelers have a true advantage by playing at home. I enjoyed covering and watching the trash-talking Jets since the beginning of training camp and their traveling circus becomes more interesting each week as they continue to advance deep into the playoffs.
Last Sunday’s win at New England was the classic example of a team backing up the bravado of their coach while punishing their archrival in front of their hometown fans. Coach Rex Ryan was convinced he had the personnel to slow down Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks, so he let his players sound off and let off steam as they tirelessly prepared for each opponent. It's now easy to see that the demeanor of the Jets has changed leading up to the AFC championship game. Ryan and his roster obviously have respect for the only franchise in NFL history that has won six Super Bowls and they don't want to give the Steelers any bulletin board material.
Mark Sanchez is now 4-1 on the road in his playoff career and enters this game with confidence and an offensive line that can protect him. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has done a masterful job at bringing along his young quarterback with some simple throws that help him get in a passing groove early in games. Expect running back LaDainian Tomlinson to be Sanchez's top target this Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers rushing defense is ranked No. 1 in the league and only gives up an average 62 yards per game, so the Jets will not be able to run the ball with the success that they had in New England last week. Screen passes to Tomlinson and short passes to tight end Dustin Keller are essential if New York plans on picking up first downs and sustaining long drives.
Much has been said about the Week 15 matchup between these two teams, a game in which the Jets won 22-17. New York came into that game struggling on offense and desperately needing a huge win on the road and found a way to shut out the Steelers in the final quarter to secure the victory. Pittsburgh played that game without star safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Aaron Smith and most notably tight end Heath Miller.
Matt Spaeth replaced Miller and dropped several passes from Roethlisberger that killed a few crucial drives. On Sunday, Roethlisberger has his full compliment of receivers to throw to which include Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Antwaan Randle El. The Jets' entire defense understands what it takes to slow down Roethlisberger and must rely on cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to play the game of their careers in the hopes of giving the rest of their teammates a chance to win. Miller is the X-factor in this game as he finds space in the middle of the field and catches at least eight passes and scores a touchdown.
Both teams have the ability to cause turnovers and score quickly, but I feel the Steelers are tough enough to withstand the Jets' blitzing pass rush on offense while also dominating the defensive line with All-Pro linebacker James Harrison. Ryan will take several chances, knowing the Jets can’t play conservative on the road with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. I can’t stop thinking about how loud the fans were in Pittsburgh last Sunday as their team trailed Baltimore by 14 points. Yet, while up in New England you could hear a pin drop as the Jets were kicking the Patriots to the curb.
Look for Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers on a come-from-behind, game-winning drive with under a minute to go and find a way to beat the Jets.