I haven’t been this excited for a set of conference championship games in years. This is largely due to the Packers’ appearance in the NFC championship, only their second appearance since 1998.
The Packers’ last NFC Championship appearance was in 2008, when they lost in overtime to the Giants. The AFC game that year was the undefeated Patriots against the Chargers. It seemed like a mere formality that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl at the time, so it was hard to be excited about that game. This time around, the Jets and Steelers are virtually dead even and should have a great game. Of course, if the Packers lose on Sunday, I’ll probably pass out angrily and miss the whole thing, but I’ll read the recap later.
The great thing about this year is that you could put forth a pretty good argument for any of the four teams. If you have to put your life on the line for one team to win this weekend, who do you even feel most comfortable with? Each year, it seems that there’s one obvious favorite – last year it was Indy over the Jets; the year before it was the Steelers over the Ravens; and so on. This year, it’s unclear.
So I suppose this year we’re not going to get a true underdog story. But at least we should get two highly competitive games.
AFC Championship Game: Jets (13-5) at Steelers (13-4, -3.5)
This is a rematch of a game that took place a month ago under almost exactly the same situations. The Steelers were also 3.5 point favorites in that game, but the Jets prevailed 22-17.
Pittsburgh dominated large stretches of that game; in fact, the difference was now-injured Brad Smith’s return touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Jets couldn’t really move the ball – the Steelers out-gained them 377 to 276. And that’s without Troy Polamalu in the lineup; he’s back for this game.
There seems to be little doubt that the Steelers will be able to move the ball more efficiently than the Jets. The Jets will try to win this game ugly. That’s what they are good at and that’s how they pulled off the first victory versus the Steelers. So the only question is whether they will be able to do it again.
I don’t think they can, for a few reasons.
#1. I’m sticking with Roethlisberger. In my prediction column last week, I said that you always go with the better quarterback when two teams are otherwise equal. Roethlisberger is now 9-2 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl victories. The guy just makes big plays.
At some point, Mark Sanchez is going to make a believer out of me. He’s now 5-1 in the playoffs and all five of those victories have come on the road. I know this, and I give him credit for it.
And then I actually watch him play. His stats really aren’t that bad, but unlike the rest of the quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, I find myself abnormally impressed whenever he makes a routine 10-yard completion. I am well aware I shouldn’t feel that way based on his track record, but I can’t shake the feeling. I’m also well aware that Sanchez just beat Manning and Brady in consecutive weeks. Call me foolish.
#2. The Jets are due for a letdown. Emotionally, I don’t know how the Jets keep this up. In consecutive weeks, they avenged their loss against the Colts in a game they spent an entire year preparing for. Then they backed up a week of trash talk by upsetting their arch rival Patriots. At some point, the streak has to end.
#3. Pittsburgh has one of the biggest home field advantages in sports in the mud bowl known as Heinz Field. Do you really expect them to lose twice to the same opponent at home in the same season? I sure don’t.
Those are my three theories and I’m sticking with them. As always, I really have no idea what’s going on in this game.
However, before you go put all your money on the Jets, I’ve been on quite the hot streak on games that I guess at; it’s only when I have a good idea about who’s going to win that I lose. The Steelers win this one 24-17. Take that to the bank.
NFC Championship Game: Packers (12-6, -4) at Bears (12-5)
Oh come on, you didn’t think I would break my streak of not thinking about Packers games, did you? If this keeps on working, I might just tune out all pre-game Packer news for the rest of my life. Packers win 24-14.