Gregorâ€™s Packer Analysis
Championship Weekend Preview
In this issue:
The Jets travel to Pittsburgh
The Packers go south of the border (into Illinois)
The New York Jets will be playing their 3rd straight road playoff game when they meet the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Jets were able to beat Indianapolis in the Wild Card Round, then take out the Patriots last week. The Steelers had a bye, then knocked off the Ravens.
The game comes after division rival games last week for both teams. Last week, the trash talking came early and often for the yets. This week, the mutual admiration society held press conferences in both Pittsburgh and New York. Listening to Rex Ryan, they are working on Ben Roethlesbergerâ€™s Hall of Fame statue already. Mike Tomlin countered with steady praise for Ryan and the Jets. Ike Taylor finally said something about actually hitting an opponent on Thursday. Apparently it will be tackle football after all.
The New York defense looked solid at the beginning of the season, but gave up 38 to Chicago and 45 to New England late in the year. They have improved in the playoffs, holding Indy to 16 and the Patriots to 21. The Steelers played a physical game against the Ravens, struggled in the first half and forced 3 turnovers in the second half to get the win.
While Ben Roethlesberger and Rashard Mendenhall get the attention the Steelers difference maker is Troy Polamalu. The Steelers have a chance any time Polamalu plays, and he will play even though his Achilles is still sore. But one thing the Steelers have to worry about is the offensive line, especially the tackles. Due to injury, they are using backups who havenâ€™t had a lot of time playing with the other guys on the line. The playoffs isnâ€™t the best time to jell. The Jets look pretty good, and while they have played 2 of the best QBs in the game they havenâ€™t seen a defense in Pittsburghâ€™s class
After the Jets beat New England, New York linebacker Bart Scott had a lot to talk about, then ended the conversation regarding going to Pittsburgh this week in his best Drill Sargeant voice â€œcanâ€™t waitâ€. The wait is over Sunday Night, and the Steelers are a 3 point favorite. The Jets are a surprise team in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers were expected to make it. Unless one team is plus 3 or more in turnovers, it is likely the game will be decided by 7 points or less. The team to win by 7 is the Steelers.
The Packers are also playing their 3rd straight road playoff game, but the trip isnâ€™t very far Sunday when they head to Chicago to play the Bears. While this is the 182nd meeting between the two teams, it is only the second playoff meeting. The other playoff game (in 1941) was won by the Bears. The teams split this season with the Bears winning in Week 3, and the Packers winning in Week 17.
Chicagoâ€™s special teams are one of their strengths. Devin Hester has returned 14 punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in his career (an NFL record), including 3 this season. Robbie Gould is a very good kicker, especially considering he plays half of his regular season games and both playoff games at Soldier Field. The Packers donâ€™t have the big returns that Hester gives the Bears, but Tim Masthay has been a weapon as a punter, and Mason Crosby has one of the better legs in the NFL. It comes down to how well the Packers can contain Hester.
The Bears running game was somewhat erratic most of the season, but improved when the offensive line seemed to do better in both run and pass blocking. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor were expected to be similar to the 1-2 punch the Vikings had in 2009 with Adrian Peterson and Taylor. They werenâ€™t that effective, but Forte has been playing well.
The Green Bay running game took a hit when Ryan Grant was lost for the season. Most of the year the Packers gave up on running, passing 60-70% (or more) of the offensive plays, and Aaron Rodgers led the team, or was close to the team lead in rushing yards each game for much of the season. Near the end of the season, Mike McCarthy decided running the ball was a good idea. Brandon Jackson had limited success but it was clear he isnâ€™t an elite back. It was finally determined John Kuhn is a short yardage back and blocker (seemed pretty obvious much earlier). James Starks had a good game against San Francisco but didnâ€™t get many opportunities after that until playing against Philly, when he set a Green Bay rookie record with 123 yards rushing. Tougher going last week against Atlanta, especially in the 4th quarter when it was clear the Packers were running out the clock. Heâ€™s not Ryan Grant, but heâ€™s the best option the Packers have. How well he runs will have an impact on the Green Bay passing game as well.
In the first game, the Packers were flagged for 18 carries to just 5 for Chicago. The Referee from that game, Terry McAulay, will be wearing the white hat in Chicago on Sunday, but will have an all-star crew, not the other officials from the first meeting. With all the discussion about the discrepancy in penalties, this could actually work in the Packers favor. It would be hard to believe the calls will be that one-sided again, especially since the Packers ended the season as the 3rd least penalized team in the NFL.
Field and weather conditions suggest a low scoring game. As has been stated previously in GPA, the Packers offense is built for warm weather and domes. Looking at the game against Arizona last year (45 points) and Atlanta in the Divisional Round last week (48 points, although 7 were scored on a pick 6), that belief is well founded. On the other hand, in Week 17, the Packers managed just 10 points against Chicago in a game at Lambeau. It will be cold, and the field is rated as the worst in the NFL, so not only will the cold ball be hard to hold onto, the footing will be the worst itâ€™s been all season. Add to it the fact that both teams have good defenses, and neither team will score like they did last week (48 for the Pack, 35 for the Bears).
Rodgers vs Cutler. Another key to the outcome, the pressure is on Jay Cutler. He can play well, but he can also give away the ball. If he turns the ball over a few times, the Packers win since itâ€™s unlikely Rodgers will throw a pick. The Bears excelled in rush defense, but did give up some big passing games, especially to New England. However, the Bears are excellent at stripping the ball, resulting in fumbles and incompletions. Rodgers had to carry the Packers for much of the season offensively and unless Starks can run the ball will need to again.
Close games have not gone the Packersâ€™ way this season. The six losses break down to four 3 point losses and two by 4 points. Because the teams know each other, the weather and field conditions, itâ€™s unlikely either team will win by more than 7 unless they are at least +2 in turnovers. The line is Green Bay by 3 and a half. Based on the Packers having a little bit of a running game, a quarterback on a roll, Dom Capers and a defense that can shut down a mediocre offense, and the SI Jinx (the Bears are on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week), I like the Packers by 6.