Tuesday, January 18, 2011 Updated: January 19, 9:10 AM ET
Don't overlook these title game plots
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Rex Ryan, Bart Scott, Antonio Cromartie and the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers should keep the conference championship games well above the radar.
But there are plenty of stories operating below the radar.
1. Field conditions: Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings launched the criticisms of the slick surface at Soldier Field on Monday with this comment: "It's rough. It's probably one of the worst, probably the worst, in the league." Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has its own problems. Kickers consider it one of the toughest places in the league. Certain parts of the field there make it difficult for kickers to plant and make consistent kicks. If the AFC Championship Game comes down to field goals, it's Nick Folk, who has struggled for the New York Jets, going against Shaun Suisham, who replaced Jeff Reed for the Pittsburgh Steelers at midseason. Ownership for both teams believes in having grass fields, but maintaining those fields through January has been difficult.
Soldier Field is next to Lake Michigan. Heinz Field is along the Ohio River. Each November, Heinz Field needs to be resodded after the grass is ripped apart by the Steelers, the Pittsburgh Panthers and high school teams in championship games. Still, the Steelers have home-field advantage because of their fans, the quality of the team and a roster that is used to the conditions. The Bears lose a little of the home-field edge because their Cover 2 defense is built for speed, and the slick field takes away some of that speed. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher ripped the playing surface. The Chicago Park District, which runs the stadium, had to call a press conference after quarterback Jay Cutler was critical of the field.
2. The backfield shuffle: In the NFC title game, Cutler and Aaron Rodgers will be above the radar, but the running back who establishes himself first could determine which team advances to the Super Bowl. Matt Forte of the Bears is the classic under-the-radar running back. He's not as powerful as Adrian Peterson or as explosive as Chris Johnson as a pass-catcher, but Forte is good at everything. Since midseason, his running has been a big key for the Bears, who have surprisingly run more than they have passed in the second half of the season. Forte had 1,069 yards rushing, a 4.5-yard average in the regular season, and caught 51 passes for 547 yards.
James Starks of the Packers -- a rookie -- has sparked a previously nonexistent running game. He had 123 yards in the Packers' first-round playoff win, getting 61 of them out of an inverted wishbone formation. Against the Atlanta Falcons last week, he had 66 yards on 25 carries.
3. Centers of attention: Jets center Nick Mangold has gone to three consecutive Pro Bowls and has been considered the best center in football for the past couple of years, but those days may be numbered. Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2010, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and already has some people saying he might be the best in the league. Because both teams are physical at the line of scrimmage in their 3-4 schemes, center is a vital position. The center has to line up against bigger nose tackles. The successful 3-4 defenses are the ones in which the nose tackle draws double-team blocks, but if the center is big and tough enough to handle the nose tackle one-on-one, he frees up a guard to take on a linebacker and open up running lanes. Mangold has the tougher challenge of the two because he has to handle nose tackle Casey Hampton.
With a flair for the big play, the Packers' Tramon Williams is a budding star.
4. Two under-the-radar cornerbacks: Cornerback Charles Woodson is the star of the Packers' secondary, but Tramon Williams is emerging from his shadow. Williams was the defensive star of the Packers' victory over Atlanta with two interceptions, including one for a touchdown. He had six interceptions in the regular season and earned a four-year, $41 million extension.
Charles Tillman has been starting in the Bears' secondary for the past eight seasons, but this might have quietly been one of his best years. He tied a career high with five interceptions and had one of his best years for tackles with 82. He's also one of the best corners in football when it comes to stripping the football from a ball carrier. He had three forced fumbles this year and has 25 for his career.
5. Lost in the 3-4 shuffle: Two of the best defenders in the NFL -- inside linebacker David Harris of the Jets and Lawrence Timmons of the Steelers -- have been under the radar all season. Timmons had 135 tackles for the Steelers but could do no better than being a fourth alternate to the Pro Bowl. Timmons took time to adjust to the 3-4 defense, but he has perhaps the best range of any inside linebacker in the league. Coming out of college, Timmons was considered the perfect weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. The Steelers drafted him for their 3-4, so Timmons had to learn how to run around the congestion in the middle of the field to make tackles.
Harris hasn't made the Pro Bowl yet, but he's been one of the top alternates for the past couple of years. He's also watched some of his Jets teammates get big contracts. His payday is coming, though. Harris is a free agent after the season. He made only $550,000 this season.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.