Slapdash Championship Previews

Just to clarify at the outset – this is not a preview for the World Slapdash Championships, although that would make for an entertaining event, were it non-fictional.

No, instead, I’ll be covering the obvious.

I’m used to writing football previews, but never “bloggy” ones.

In order to get into the spirit of things, I decided I’ll preview today’s games in slapdash, unresearched, impromptu fashion and see how I do.  I’m not even going to tune in to any of the various pregame chuckle-fests.  Here goes:

NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (FOX)

Fox pointed out last week that this will be only the second time these two teams have met in postseason play.  That astonished me.  Then I thought about it.  For years and years, the NFL playoffs consisted only of one game: The NFL Championship.  Prior to that, there were no playoffs at all.

The Championship pitted the winners of the East and West.  Green Bay and Chicago were both in the West.  Therefore, the only way they could play would be if they had to have a tie-breaker for the divisional title.

That format changed as the merger approached.  Then the Bears and Packers slipped into mediocrity.  Chicago bounced back for some 80’s glory, while Green Bay finally returned to prominence during the Favre / Holmgren era.  The point is that it’s really not all that surprising that the two have only played once before, given (1) the NFL’s playoff format for 50 years, and (2) the fact that the two teams were never very good at the same time.

Anyway, this game: Everyone talks about Aaron Rodgers, and with good reason.  But the Packers’ defense is just as big a story.  Heading into the Falcons game, I was convinced the Atlanta offense couldn’t score more than two touchdowns the way Green Bay was playing.  I feel similarly about the Bears.

Jay Cutler still makes the same read and recognition mistakes he’s been making his entire career.  The difference now is that the Mike Martz offense makes the most of his strengths as well.  So, if he throws behind a guy and into coverage, people quickly forget that if he hits Forte for a 40-yard touchdown on a sublimely-designed screen play, or if he goes up top for a 50-yard bomb to Greg Olsen.

Green Bay won’t give up those kinds of plays.  They rush the passer better than Seattle.  They have a lock-down corner.  They erase tight ends from offensive gameplans because their zone schemes are so good (Greg Olsen will be a non-factor in this game, except around the goal line – unlike last week, when he was huge).

If Chicago is going to win this game, it will need a stellar defensive effort.  That’s not out of the question, as I’ve been very impressed with the Bears’ defense this year.  I have to admit that Julius Peppers had even more of an impact than I thought he would in Chicago.  The trouble is that Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league has this entire year, and perhaps beyond.  I hate to say this, but the Bears’ best hope of winning the game may be to knock Rodgers out of it.  He has two concussions already this season, so that’s a realistic risk for the Packers.

This is a divisional rivalry game, so I expect it to be close.  The teams know each other too well.  A healthy Rodgers spells doom for the Bears, unless Chicago can get a red zone turnover and/or a special teams touchdown (Hopefully, the Packers will be intelligent enough not to kick the ball to Devin Hester, something other teams have unbelievably failed to do at key moments this year).

BOTTOM LINE: Green Bay 21, Chicago 17

AFC Championship: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (CBS)

Every year in the NFL playoffs, there’s a bandwagon / media darling / degenerate gambler deus ex machina team that suddenly seems like a favorite.  A couple of years ago, it was Jacksonville.  Last year, it was the Jets.  Again, this season, the overexposed and slightly overrated New York team have been anointed as a possible favorite to win the Super Bowl.  I know Rex Ryan is a very good coach.  No doubts there.  Here’s what else I know about the Jets:

1. Their defense (sans Kris Jenkins and Jim Leonhard) isn’t as good as it was last year.

2. Mark Sanchez is a below-average NFL starting quarterback at this point in his career, and easily the worst of the playoff quarterbacks this year.

3. The Jets’ offense is nonetheless superior to last season, with upgrades at wide receiver and the addition of a resurgent LaDanian Tomlinson.  The running game is obviously the strength of this team.

4. The Jets beat Pittsburgh 22-17 in Week 15.

Here’s what I know about Pittsburgh:

1. The strength of the defense is stopping the run.

2. The defense is, however, susceptible to a quarterback who can make quick, accurate decisions and diagnoses on what kind of coverage he’s facing.  Here, I’m thinking of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, etc.  Not Mark Sanchez.

3. Pittsburgh’s offense has four straight games with over 20 first downs, including their loss against the Jets and last week’s playoff win over Baltimore.

4. Pittsburgh has the #1 scoring defense in the NFL.

Finally, here’s what I know about that Jets’ win over Pittsburgh in December:

1. Troy Polamalu was out with an Achilles injury.

2. Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown for the Jets.

3. Pittsburgh nearly won the game, but the Jets held off a final drive by breaking up a pass to the end zone on the game’s final play.

4. It’s the only loss the Steelers have in their last eight games.

To recap, the Jets needed (1) a special teams touchdown, (2) a great defensive stand at the end of the game, and (3) no turnovers to beat a Steelers team without its best player.
As I said at the top, I know that people want to get behind this charismatic (or at least divisive) Jets team, because they make for good headlines and good television.  But Pittsburgh is very good.  This is probably as good a team as either of their recent Super Bowl champions, if not better.

I think Polamalu will be licking his chops at the prospect of getting a shot at Sanchez in a huge game.  For the Jets to win, they need another turnover-free ballgame, plus a defensive touchdown or goal-to-goal situation set up by the defense.

This will be an intense, hard-hitting game for sure, but I think the Steelers are a more complete team that “checks more boxes.”  They throw the ball better than the Jets, they run the ball about as well, and they have a better defense even than the formidable unit from New York.

It’s the NFL, so you never know.  And, if Pittsburgh plays like they did in the first half against Baltimore, the Jets will rout them.  But I doubt they’ll lay two stink bombs in a row.  I think this one will disappoint people expecting a classic.

BOTTOM LINE: Pittsburgh 24, Jets 13

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