NFL Nation: Final Word 2010 Conference Championships

Final Word: NFC Championship

January, 21, 2011
1/21/11
4:27
PM ET
Conference Championship Final Word: Jets-Steelers | Bears-Packers

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Packers-Bears NFC Championship Game:

The stakes: It's been quite a week for NFC North fans, or at least 50 percent of them. The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are set for only the second playoff game in their 89-year history of matchups, and you can read back through it all with this handy "Epicenter of Humanity" filter. Here's the bottom line: We're going to have an NFC North/Central team in the Super Bowl for only the fifth time in the past 34 seasons. The Packers, so hot that they are favored by 31/2 points, are hoping to be the second No. 6 seed ever to advance to the game. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers were the other. It's a rare opportunity for the Bears as well. A victory would give them only their third opportunity to play for a championship in the past 47 years.

[+] EnlargeSam Shields
AP Photo/Rob CarrThe Packers' Sam Shields will likely be on the field a lot as an extra defensive back against QB Jay Cutler and the Bears on Sunday.
Scheming with DBs: Although they call themselves a 3-4 defense, the Packers have played with at least five defensive backs on the field an NFL-high 75.1 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That makes rookie nickelback Sam Shields essentially a starter and puts Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in a curious position. Cutler threw 16 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions during the regular season when opponents used at least one extra defensive back. To me, that's an illustration of Cutler's always-aggressive approach. The question Sunday will be whether he is rewarded for the risks he usually takes against coverage.

Hang time: On Thursday, we discussed the disparity between the special teams during most of the regular season. In the teams' Week 3 meeting at Soldier Field, the Bears got one of their two touchdowns on Devin Hester's 62-yard punt return. Hester capitalized on a 57-yard punt from Tim Masthay that advanced too far for the Packers' coverage. But according to ESPN Stats & Information, Masthay was fairly effective against Hester when he slotted his hang time between 3.5 and 4.5 seconds. In nine such punts against the Bears this season, Hester managed a total of 38 return yards. I realize we're getting into some inner football here, but it makes sense. Hester's day largely will be affected by whether Masthay gives him any opportunities.

Scrambled: Earlier this season, we noted that Cutler and Aaron Rodgers were among the top running quarterbacks in the NFL. That trend continued into the playoffs. Cutler had two rushing touchdowns last week against the Seattle Seahawks, and Rodgers had one against the Atlanta Falcons. ESPN Stats & Information separated called runs from scrambles and found that Rodgers and Cutler have had comparable success on scrambles. Rodgers has averaged 8.4 yards on 46 scrambles, including playoff games, while Cutler is at 8.7 yards on 33 scrambles. Long story short: Both defenses must be prepared for the opposing quarterback to take off.

Whither Peppers? Defensive end Julius Peppers had a quiet statistical year by his standards, finishing with 8 sacks, but I think we all can agree he made a substantial impact regardless. The Bears were able to send four or fewer pass rushers nearly 75 percent of the time, opening up opportunities for linebackers and defensive backs to make plays and cause turnovers. But the playoffs are a time when elite players need to take their team along for the ride. Peppers has two sacks in nine career playoff games. The Bears have won 12 games this year without big sack numbers from Peppers, but they probably need more Sunday given how hot the Packers offense has been.

Final Word: AFC Championship

January, 21, 2011
1/21/11
4:00
PM ET
Conference Championship Final Word: Jets-Steelers | Bears-Packers

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets-Steelers AFC Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson
Michael Hickey/US PresswireJets running back LaDainian Tomlinson is on the verge of his first Super Bowl appearance in his 10-year career.
For LaDainian Tomlinson to reach the Super Bowl, he'll need to do more than most. Despite a surefire Hall of Fame career, Tomlinson never has reached the Super Bowl. The onus will be on the Jets' run game. As always, the Jets' ground attack with Tomlinson and Shonn Greene will be crucial to moving the offense and making the game as manageable as possible for quarterback Mark Sanchez in a difficult environment. The Steelers led the NFL in run defense during the regular season, allowing a paltry 63 yards a game. But in a Week 15 victory at Heinz Field, the Jets rushed for 106 yards. In the postseason, however, Tomlinson averages 3.7 yards a carry and has six touchdowns in nine career games, but only four in his seven with the San Diego Chargers.

The Jets can win the game on special teams. The Steelers' special teams are mediocre. Brad Smith set a tone for the Jets by returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in Week 15. In last week's divisional playoff game at Heinz Field, Baltimore Ravens punt returner Lardarius Webb had a 55-yard touchdown wiped out by a holding penalty. Webb also had a 38-yard kickoff return, and the Steelers' special teams were flagged three times. The Jets' venerable special-teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, is as opportunistic as they come.

After two games of holding back, expect the Jets' pass rush to get aggressive. The Jets focused more on keeping defenders in coverage than sending extra pass-rushers after Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Steelers, however, are vulnerable on the offensive line. Even when healthy, the Steelers' pass protection makes the game an adventure for Ben Roethlisberger, and tackles Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott are hurt. The Steelers surrendered 43 sacks in the regular season. Only seven teams allowed more. The Ravens sacked Roethlisberger six times last week. Jets outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Jason Taylor and defensive end Shaun Ellis must be excited about the possibilities.

In addition to the return of Troy Polamalu, don't underestimate the presence of Heath Miller. Much attention has been dedicated to how the Steelers' defense will be different with Polamalu at safety. He didn't face the Jets in Week 15. Neither did Miller, a dangerous weapon in the Steelers' passing game. He caught 42 passes for 512 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie can handle the Steelers' receivers, but Miller can pose a matchup problem. Here's a noteworthy stat: The Steelers are 8-1 in the postseason with Miller on the field.

The Jets have the best receiving corps left in the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers have the best quarterback. The Steelers have the most bling. But the Jets boast the best crew of receivers of the final four. That will be important if the Jets need to mount a late comeback and especially if the Steelers play prevent defense. The Steelers have a stellar duo with Mike Wallace and Hines Ward running routes. But Santonio Holmes is a former Super Bowl MVP and (mostly) has been a clutch receiver all season. Braylon Edwards has distanced himself from that butterfingers reputation. When Jerricho Cotchery is your third receiver, you know you're in good shape. Then there's tight end Dustin Keller, and Tomlinson makes catches out of the backfield. The Jets would prefer to have success on the ground, but with receiving options like those, they still have a shot to win through the air.

Final Word: AFC Championship

January, 21, 2011
1/21/11
4:00
PM ET
Conference Championship Final Word: Jets-Steelers | Bears-Packers

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets-Steelers AFC Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
AP Photo/Don WrightHeath Miller's ability to exploit matchups with linebackers could be key in Sunday's game.
Heath returns: A big missing component on offense for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Week 15 loss to the New York Jets was starting tight end Heath Miller. He was out with a concussion and is one of Pittsburgh's most underrated players. Miller made the Pro Bowl last year and is very good in the running game and passing game. New York's strength is its two cornerbacks, so Miller must win the battle against Jets linebackers and safeties. He led the Steelers with five receptions in last week's divisional-round victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Rookie contributions: Pittsburgh is getting a tremendous boost from its rookie class, particularly in the second half of the season. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey made his first Pro Bowl as a rookie, and first-year receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown continue to make big plays in the passing game. Sanders, a third-round pick, caught four passes for 54 yards in his playoff debut. Brown, a sixth-round pick, caught three passes for 75 yards, which included a 58-yard reception late in the fourth quarter to set up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown against Baltimore. "To expect rookies to contribute and do the things that they do is a tall order," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said this week. "But I think the extra time and effort they've put in speaks volumes of why they've been able to do it."

Stuffing the run: Pittsburgh's run defense was by far No. 1 in the league during the regular season, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. But the Jets were able to rush for 106 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 15. Expect that to be a major focal point for the Steelers in this rematch. Pittsburgh wants to make New York one-dimensional and force the Jets to throw the ball more than they want with second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Ravens averaged just 1.9 yards per carry in the divisional round, which helped lead to quarterback Joe Flacco getting sacked five times. The Steelers want to get similar pressure on Sanchez.

Is Suisham ready? Lost in Pittsburgh's postseason run is the fact that kicker Shaun Suisham has struggled lately. Suisham joined the Steelers in Week 11 and made his first 10 field goals. But he has missed kicks in two of his past three games, including a 43-yard attempt at the end of the first half against Baltimore that could've been costly. Suisham must be ready to make the big kick if needed Sunday at Heinz Field, which is a very tough place to kick in January.

Heinz Field advantage: Speaking of Heinz Field, the Steelers caught a break last week with New York's upset over the top-seeded New England Patriots. That forced the road to the Super Bowl to travel through Pittsburgh. The Steelers haven't been their usual selves at Heinz Field, losing three times after going 6-2, 6-2 and 7-1 there the previous three seasons. Heinz Field was rocking last week and players credited the wild atmosphere for their second-half dominance against Baltimore.

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