Prior to the Snap: Championship Sunday

After achieving what I perceived to be metaphysical perfection with my Week 9 Unabated to the Quarterback post on the Oakland Raiders, I decided to take the rest of the season off. But now that we’re down to the NFL’s Final Four, I’m back. And back. And back.

Come on, I write 2,000 words weekly about Pretty Little Liars. The conference championships clearly merit double that. Enjoy.

#6 GREEN BAY PACKERS AT #2 CHICAGO BEARS

Where ya been? Kidnapped.

By? Other interests.

Lame. Where you been? Hiding out on me?

Trying to remain a novelty instead of an authorial crutch, to be honest. Good idea.

So, these playoffs…thoughts? It doesn’t surprise me that the Packers are in the title game at all, even though I picked the Eagles to beat them in the Wild Card round. I did expect this game, in fact, to be played in New Orleans.

A 5-6 conference championship? Wow. Seems like we’re closing in on that eventuality, right? What’s happened to the NFL playoffs over the last several seasons, with bye teams now winning only 50% of the time, is very interesting, and I don’t have a legitimate explanation for it. The impulse is to connect the recent trend in the playoffs to the divisional realignment of 2002, with the addition of a fourth division and the elimination of one Wild Card. In one sense, yes, teams that would have been seeded fourth or fifth are now fifth or sixth, but that doesn’t explain why those teams are so much more successful in the playoffs’ second weekend. NFC top seeds hadn’t lost after a bye from 1990 to 2006; they’re 1-3 since.

What gives? I told you: I don’t have a legitimate explanation for it.

Do you like it? To be honest, not really—although I have to admit a large dose of hypocrisy here. I mean, I loved it when the Giants, fresh off a mediocre 10-6 regular season, beat two 13-3 teams and a 16-0 squad en route to a Super Bowl title. But when the Steelers did it in 2005? The Cardinals making it to the Super Bowl in 2008? Less than ideal, I think. I think the NFL can get away with this since its regular season is so comparatively short—compared to baseball, namely. While in the short-term, this is an interesting trend, if it extends for, say the next decade, how weighty will late-season games to determine division winners and home-field advantage really feel?

What about this game? Oh, Packers all the way.

Packers all the way? Well, as you know, I picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl at the end of last season. I expected them to run away with the NFC this year. The fact that they didn’t was more surprising than the fact that they’re here in the NFC Championship as the sixth seed. Aaron Rodgers has been really good for three seasons; it didn’t start last week.

But the Bears did hold him down in Week 17 with nothing on the line in Green Bay. I attribute everything about that game to some higher power giving Giants’ fans hope.

You’re not even naming your higher powers anymore? Who are you? Concerns about American football are beneath my God.

Seriously, you’re not buying the Bears at all? It’s really hard to when the game you’ve watched the closest is when they lost 17-3 to the Giants and looked nothing short of dreadful. This is a team that lost at home to the Redskins and Seahawks this season and barely slipped by the Bills in Toronto. I don’t care that they’re the second seed; they’d be an even less impressive NFC representative than the 2007 Giants.

You’re wrong. You’re right. The Bears do own victories over multiple playoff teams (GB, PHI, NYJ), which the ’07 Giants did not have prior to the postseason.

Has Jay Cutler turned the corner? No. We’ve seen mediocre quarterbacks have very good seasons and/or get their teams far into the playoffs by playing well for a few weeks or limiting their mistakes for an extended period of time. I’m thinking here of Mark Sanchez last season, Rex Grossman in ’06, Jake Plummer in ’05, Jake Delhomme in ’03, and even Eli Manning in ’07. These QBs had good runs—people forget how good Grossman was at the start of that 2006 season and in those two playoff games—and then reverted back to being who they were.* The Bears ranked 28th in pass offense this season; that’s not good.

*Sanchez and Manning are different because of the youth factor. Neither has really “reverted” in so much as they haven’t parlayed that playoff run into stretches of continued excellence. My guess is Cutler will be the same.

You’re a Bears fan. What worries you the most on Sunday? Green Bay’s excellent secondary against my average wide receivers. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams are playmaking ballhawks; Johnny Knox just had the quietest 1,000-yard receiving season since Rod Gardner did it for the Redskins eight or nine years ago. The biggest weapons for Chicago will be Matt Forte catching balls out of the backfield and especially Greg Olson running the seam route against the Packers’ safeties.

You’re a Packers fan. What worries you the most on Sunday? The Bears’ ability to turn my offense into a one-dimensional passing attack, and then capitalize on their pass rush. James Starks has had a nice postseason for Green Bay, but the Packers’ running game remains below-average—something, in fact, that can be said about both these teams (and hinted at about the Steelers, who are average at best on the ground). If Chicago can stuff Starks and John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson early and force Aaron Rodgers to beat it solo, the Bears have a better chance. But Aaron Rodgers can beat this defense solo.

He was good last week. The idea that Aaron Rodgers had to prove himself in the playoffs this season was ludicrous. He was 0-1 in the playoffs and had scored 45 points in that game. Dude was fine.

Who would win: this year’s Packers or the 2007 Packers that lost the championship game at Lambeau to the Giants? That’s a very interesting question. I’d go with this year’s team, and here’s why: Rodgers right now is better than Favre was then (even though he had a good year, Favre wasn’t one of the league’s three or four best that season), and he has a deeper core of wideouts. Donald Driver isn’t as good now as he was then, but Greg Jennings and James Jones are both much better players. Furthermore, Tramon Williams is an upgrade over Al Harris in the secondary—remember Harris getting torched by Plaxico?–and Clay Matthews, Jr. is another stud defender the ’07 Pack lacked. I’ll take this year’s team, 27-17.

Who would win: this year’s Bears or the 2006 Bears that lost the Super Bowl to the Colts? The ’06 Bears offense is pretty underrated. It scored the second-most points in the NFL that season (tied with Indy at 427, or close to 27 a game) and finished third in the league in total yards. Thomas Jones was a better running back than Matt Forte, and Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad gave Chicago an average wideout core. Pair that with a very strong defense, and you’ve got a team that is like this year’s Monsters of the Midway, but a little better across the board. ’06 Bears would win, 23-13.

Who would win: the 1962 Packers or the 1985 Bears? I am only qualified to say that these are two of like the five best teams in NFL history, and that’d be one hell of a game.

Are you excited for a Bears-Packers NFC Championship? It’s intriguing to see which rivalries excite you when your team isn’t a part of it. I’m slightly more excited for this game than I would be otherwise because of the traditional rivalry between them, but to me, historical rivalries don’t carry much weight outside of their respective fan bases. The Bears and Packers haven’t been good at the same time in 40 some odd years, so it doesn’t interest me the same way Patriots-Colts did last decade.

Let’s explore that history. Let’s. The Bears and Packers have met more than any two teams in history, with the Chitowners owning a 91-83-5 edge. Chicago won the lone playoff meeting in 1941, 33-14.

The Bears are 18-18 all-time in the playoffs, with a 2-2 mark in the NFC Championship (both losses to Joe Montana) and 12-7 record at home.

Green Bay is 27-16 in the playoffs, including 4-2 in the NFC Championship and 8-12 on the road (they had lost eight of nine road playoff games before this postseason).

Who heads to the Super Bowl? I shall cede my prediction to a simulation of the game played out by the computer on Tecmo Super Bowl, featuring each team’s 1990 roster. It came remarkably close to what I was actually going to say:

  • Don Majkowski (Aaron Rodgers) will go 2-for-12 for 44 yards, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions
  • Neal Anderson (Matt Forte) will run for 229 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries
  • The Packers as a team will turn the ball over seven times
  • The Bears will give it away three times themselves
  • The turnover battle will be epitomized in a sequence late in the first half, when Jim Harbaugh (Jay Cutler) is intercepted by a Green Bay safety, who promptly fumbles the ball, which is picked up by a Chicago wideout, who runs the ball down to the 2-yard line with 22 seconds to go in the half. The Bears will then senselessly kick a field goal on first down.
  • The highlight of the game for Green Bay will come in the second quarter, when its punter (Nick Masthay) will boom a 69-yard punt. Even more remarkable, Masthay will make the tackle 64 yards downfield.
  • The Packers will senselessly attempt a 67-yard field goal, which Chris Jacke (Mason Crosby) will miss wide right. The distance will be there.
  • The Bears will win 34-7.

Can we be serious? I expect it to be fairly low-scoring, with the cold conditions* and with two of the top five defenses in all of football. That said, the Packers do possess far and away the better and more explosive offense—one far more capable of a quick score than Chicago’s, and that will be key in an otherwise tight game. Green Bay won’t be able to run the ball too successfully, but it will put together enough drives here and there to come away with a 24-13 victory.

*I say this even though, deep down, I’m about 90% sure temperature has nothing to do with how high-scoring a football game is. It seems more mythologically linked to hard, smashmouth, low-scoring football than anything else, and for this I blame NFL Films.

#6 NEW YORK JETS AT #2 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

From Josh and all the other Jets fans out there: Suck on it! Hey! I said this team would go 10-6 and make the playoffs! I wasn’t that negative this year!

Did you pick them to win last week? Of course not. I’m rational.

Were you the one dissing the Jets’ defense, always talking about how good the Patriots’ D was? Wasn’t it interesting how Bart Scott said that? As if people actually did say the New England defense was better than Gang Green’s? It was a nice point by Nate Jackson on Deadspin:

“I pay close attention to sports media, and no one was bashing the Jets’ defense or making unfavorable comparisons to the Patriots’ defense. But Bart Scott believed otherwise. This tells you exactly what Rex was telling his team. No one respects us. They think this entire league is about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Well, fuck them! It’s about the guys in this room. I believe in all of you. Fuck everyone else. Bart Scott may have been talking, but those were his coach’s words — literally. This is how Rex Ryan described the Jets’ third-quarter defense in their loss to the Bears in December: ‘We couldn’t stop a nosebleed.'”

What are your opinions of the Jets this season? I’m not even going to wait until the end of this little section to settle the “Who would win?” argument between this year’s team and last year’s. I think this year’s team wins going away (20-6, or something like that). Sanchez is still inconsistent, but a full year with Braylon Edwards and the addition of Santonio Holmes gives him some big-time weapons.

It’s an interesting byproduct of what’s happened to the NFL postseason that, had the Jets lost last weekend as most of us suspected, this would have been considered a disappointment—a step back from 2009—when this team is, to me, clearly better.

Is it really clearly better? Or are you still drastically underestimating a team that came within a half of the Super Bowl last season? I guess it depends on when we’re judging each team. Maybe the Jets of January 2010 aren’t two touchdowns worse than the Jets of January 2011. But I do hold that the 2009 Jets are 14 points worse than the 2010 Jets.

Thankfully, that’s a totally unfalsifiable claim.

How big of an accomplishment would it be to beat Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger in succession on the road in the postseason? I know what Joe Biden would call it, and I think Rex Ryan would approve of such terminology. I can’t be all nice about this, though. Let’s be honest: There are years where this achievement would have been far more staggering. Like from 2004-2009.*

*Excepting 2008, I suppose, because of Brady’s injury.

Some scribes have compared this Jets’ run to your oh-so-precious Giants in 2007. You onboard? Emphatically not, and excuse me if I come off a little defensive here. Did you see that Patriots team on Sunday? You know what would have made them a little better? How about the second-greatest wide receiver ever having his best season? How about third and fourth wide receivers who weren’t poor man’s versions of your starting wideouts? How about a great defense instead of a bad one?

The only similarity between the 2007 Patriots and the 2010 Patriots is that Tom Brady will have won the MVP each season. The ’07 Pats would beat this year’s Pats fairly easily.

You’re really diving into unfalsifiability here, aren’t you? Isn’t this fun?

But let’s get to the core here. If the Jets were to beat the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers on the road, that’d be the three teams responsible for the last seven AFC Championships and eight of nine! Those are the three Franchises of the Decade in the NFL! That doesn’t compete with knocking off Jeff Garcia’s Bucs, Tony Romo’s Cowboys, and washed-up Brett Favre’s Packers (who couldn’t even beat this year’s sixth-seeded Packers by your own, albeit unfalsifiable, admission)? Really? First of all, don’t use “Jeff Garcia’s Bucs” as if the possessive is derogatory. Jeff Garcia was good.

Second, I don’t mean to take anything away from the Jets’ postseason so far (as much as it seems that way). Beating those three AFC titans would be more impressive than the Giants’ run to the Super Bowl—although I would probably argue that the teams the Giants beat, particularly that Dallas team, were better than most people remember. But about 95% of what was impressive about the Giants’ run was beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And regardless of who the Jets play in the Super Bowl, it won’t be anything close to the 18-0 Patriots.

Third, these Jets are a lot better than those Giants. Their run isn’t as unforeseen as the Giants’ one was. Just look at what the two had done against the top two seeds in their conference: The Jets were 2-1, the Giants 0-3 (losing by a combined 43 points). The Giants were bigger underdogs in their games.*

*Let’s go by point spreads: In 2007, NYG was a 3.5-point dog to TB, 7.5 to DAL, and 7.5 to GB before being 12-point dogs in the Super Bowl. This season, NYJ has been 2.5-point dogs to IND, 8.5 to NE, and 3.5 to PIT. They will not be 12-point underdogs to anyone in the Super Bowl.

How about the Steelers? If you want to criticize my preseason AFC predictions, look no further than Pittsburgh, which I said wouldn’t make the playoffs. They whethered the storm* without Roethlisberger for four games, and they got that huge win in Baltimore to basically secure the division and a bye. The Pittsburgh defense is every bit as good as usual, and their young wide receivers—particularly Mike Wallace—come through with big plays when needed.

*This is not a typo. It’s an homage to LeBron.

Where’s Wallace? The Jets better be askin’ “Where’s Wallace?” on Sunday. Is it just me, or does Mike Wallace run exclusively go routes? Has he made a cut this season? I feel like he’s in the huddle wide-eyed asking Ben “What should I do? What should I do?” and Ben’s all “Just go long, Mike. I’ll hit you.” And then it works!

Will it work on Sunday? Antonio Cromartie is susceptible to the deep ball (see: Pierre Garçon). I’m interested to see if the Jets stick Darrelle Revis on Hines Ward or if they put him on Wallace, who doesn’t catch as many balls as Ward but strikes for the big play much more often.

What would you do? I’d mix up my coverages. Unlike against Indianapolis, you don’t pin Revis on any one wideout here and erase him from the game. Base it on situation. I wouldn’t have him on Ward, for instance, on 3rd-and-19.

What’s a good O/U on total rushing yards in this game? Like 80? For both teams, that is. No, I think both squads will be able to run it at least a little bit. That said, the quarterbacks are going to have to make plays to win, and they’re going to have to do it in the face of blitzes.

Do I even have to ask which QB you expect to do better? Both struggle when blitzed, and Sanchez has shown a nice tendency to make his best throws in the biggest spots. But a few things here: First, I don’t think he can get away with those high throws early in this one; the Pittsburgh secondary—I’m looking at you, Troy Polamalu—will be there to snare those overthrows. Second, much like last week, I can see one big play turning this game. And I trust Roethlisberger to make that one play, probably by making someone miss in the backfield and by finding Wallace downfield.

It sounds like you’re going to take Pittsburgh, so let’s extrapolate. If the Steelers were to win the Super Bowl, is this a dynasty? Three in six years. It’s quiet, but you’ve got to think that’s a dynasty, right? The Patriots haven’t won one since the Steelers started this run. The Colts missed their chance at two last season.

Not a very impressive dynasty, though. Well, they will have won three Super Bowls without being the top seed in their conference, and only having to beat the top seed in their conference once (Indianapolis in 2005). Furthermore, the teams they’ve beaten in the Super Bowl so far (Seattle and Arizona) are historically irrelevant, and whoever they would potentially face this year is, again, not exactly a historically significant team.*

*I said “team,” not “franchise.” The Bears and Packers are both historically significant franchises.

Let’s play this out one more step: If Ben Roethlisberger wins the Super Bowl this year, finally nabbing an SB MVP trophy in the process, how much longer before we have to consider this guy one of the best quarterbacks of all-time? That’d be three in seven years for him! Only Montana and Bradshaw would have more. You’re extending this hypothetical pretty far, but I’ll play along. The thing about Roethlisberger—and the fact that he hasn’t won a SB MVP trophy so far speaks to it—is that he’s not the central component to his team’s success. The defense clearly is. He played pretty terribly in Super Bowl XL,* and his team won three of four without him just this season. Look, he’s a really good quarterback, and who knows, maybe he gets a fourth title after this with that defense. It’s not implausible to imagine a world where Ben Roethlisberger goes down as a historically good quarterback. But I doubt he will ever surpass Brady and/or Manning in the minds of those who have seen them all play.

*Who threw the game’s most important pass? Antwaan Randle-El.

Can’t you make the “not the central component to his team’s success” argument about Brady? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s as strong a case as you can for Roethlisberger—you’d have a hard time finding anyone who thinks Ben Roethlisberger is more integral to Pittsburgh’s success than its defense—but it can be made. All you need to look at is 2008.*

*To digress even more, how much does it help Tom Brady’s reputation that, despite going 11-5, the Patriots missed the playoffs in 2008 without him? If they had won the AFC East without him—and they were a tiebreaker away from doing so—would we still think he’s this good? Food for thought.

I think we’ve digressed enough… Already?

How does this Steelers team compare to the champions in 2005 and 2008? In the middle, I think, with the ’08 team better and the ’05 team worse. The core of the defense was the same in ’08, and Willie Parker and Santonio Holmes were better, more consistent contributors than Mendenhall and Wallace.

Who would win: this year’s Jets or the 1998 Jets who almost took down the Broncos in Denver? I think it’d be a really good game. That Jets team was kind of like this year’s Falcons: did a lot of things well but nothing great, with few weaknesses. Honestly, that matchup would come down to how Sanchez played, which is to say it’s basically like every game the 2010 Jets play. I’ll go with Parcells, though, ‘cuz I like him, 16-13.

History class is in session! Much was made earlier this season, when the Jets won in Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history. The Steelers lead the all-time series 15-4, including a victory in their lone playoff rendezvous—a 20-17 overtime thriller in 2004.*

*Poor Doug Brien.

The Steelers are 32-19 in the playoffs, including 7-7 in AFC Championships and 19-9 at home. Pittsburgh had that nasty habit of losing conference championships at home under Bill Cowher (1-4), but Mike Tomlin is 1-0.

The Jets are 12 up and 12 down all-time in the postseason, spurred to .500 by Rex Ryan’s 4-1 mark (all on the road). Mark Sanchez, in fact, is a win away from becoming the postseason’s all-time leader in road wins, supplanting Len Dawson, Roger Staubach, Jake Delhomme, and Joe Flacco. Boy, that list had a distinct caesura, didn’t it? Gang Green is 1-3 in AFC Championships, with all three losses coming on the road. New York is 7-9 all-time in road playoff games.

Who meets the Packers in the Super Bowl? Take it away, Tecmo!

  • The Jets will jump in front 7-0 when Ken O’Brien (Mark Sanchez) is picked off, only for the ball to be fumbled and picked up on the run by Mark Boyer (Dustin Keller), who scampers 40 yards untouched for the TD.
  • In the first half, the Steelers will fumble on offense, defense, and special teams.
  • The Jets will grab a 10-0 lead on the road in the AFC Championship game…only to commit six turnovers and blow it! Kidding. That was mean.
  • The Jets will extend that 10-0 halftime lead to 17 when Al Toon (there is no current analogue for Al Toon) catches a deep TD pass.
  • Down 17 in the fourth, Pittsburgh will go for it on 4th-and-19. The handoff up the middle to Merril Hoge (Rashard Mendenhall) doesn’t work.
  • Bubby Brister (Ben Roethlisberger) will throw two interceptions.
  • The Jets will win 20-0.

And for real? I pretty much spilled the beans earlier. Some things to consider: Does either team lose that chip on its shoulder after beating a hated rival? (Why aren’t they talking trash?) Does the Jets’ special teams come back to haunt it here? Will Nick Folk hit his field goals in a notoriously difficult stadium for placekickers, and can Steve Weatherford down a punt inside the 20 if his life depended on it in this postseason? In a taut game I expect to be played within a possession for the duration, special teams mistakes and a game-changing play by Roethlisberger (as hinted above) will be the difference. I’m less confident about this pick than about Green Bay, but I think the Steelers defend their home turf and win it, 20-16.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Nathan on January 21, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    You’re pretty off on almost everything you say about the 2007 Packers. But I might be the only one who cares.

    Favre was definitely one of the three best quarterbacks in the league in 2007. If you recall, the staged MVP debates on ESPN that year were all between Tom Brady and Brett Favre. Eventually, that discussion got a little ridiculous and the final vote showed that (49-1). Clearly, though, Favre was at the top of his game. He also won Sportsman of the Year for whatever that’s worth.

    I think a better comparison of ’10 Rodgers and ’07 Favre has to focus on both the increasing complexity of the game and the importance of film study. Rodgers can win more ways than Favre could. He can adjust mid-game more readily. His preparation is remarkable that’s precisely why the 2010 Packers have survived this four game gauntlet (with 2 to go) in a way I’m not sure the 2007 Packers could have.

    As far as the receivers, I actually liked the ’07 set better because the 2010 team just can’t run 5 WR sets. Brett Swain is half the receiver Ruvell Martin is. I also think you’re underestimating Driver’s decline and Jones’ improvement. Rookie James Jones might have been better than this year’s James Jones–he certainly made less memorable mistakes. Nelson has the edge on Koren Robinson and Jennings is certainly better, though. I think it’s much harder to say than you make it sound (dare I say it’s a Bill Simmons move on your part?).

    Also, Al Harris’ 2007 season was remarkably similar to Tramon Williams’ 2010 season. Both were nothing short of dominant. Harris locked every receiver down that year other than Terrell Owens (Week 10, I think) and Plaxico Burress. The Harris humiliation was completely shocking to anyone who followed the Packers that year. If Johnny Knox does that this week to Tramon, it will be equally shocking. Won’t happen, of course.

    The key difference between the Packers in 2007 and 2010, and the reason the 2010 team wins that game, is Dom Capers. The 3-4 has transformed an average defense into a dominant one–the second best scoring defense in the NFL. The scheme itself has allowed Charles Woodson to flourish and Clay Matthews is the truly elite pass rusher the 2007 team never had (as you noted).

    I like your confidence in the Packers. I’ve been getting annoyed this week with the fact that no one is hammering the point that Green Bay has WAY better players at almost every position other than RB or MLB. And a much deeper roster to boot.

    The key to this game, though, is the sod: http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/114057339.html

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on January 22, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    “Three in six years. It’s quiet, but you’ve got to think that’s a dynasty, right?”

    No, it’s not. “Dynasty” doesn’t just refer to a high percentage of championships over a given time-it implies a sense of dominion over the league, and the Steelers, for the reasons you point out and more, simply have not had that since ’05. They haven’t even had that kind of dominion over their DIVISION in that time. They’ve missed the playoffs twice in the 6-year span, never won more than 12 games in a season, and never been the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite going into the playoffs. That resume simply does not compare to the Patriots of the early Aughts, or the Steelers’ own run in the ’70s. The Steelers have been good for a long time, and they’ve gotten hot at the right moments a few times, but they haven’t dominated the league the way a dynasty does. They haven’t even really come close.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Weylin Ruetten on January 22, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    oooooh trouble in paradise?

    Reply

  4. […] a win, is this a Steelers’ dynasty? I said so last time, but John made a good point in the comments: Even though it would have three titles in six years, […]

    Reply

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