Defense Will Be The Difference In NFL Conference Championship Games
Some came out of the gate swinging (Steelers), and others have climbed up foot by, ahem, foot (Rex Ryan’s Jets), b ut all have proven capable of steamrolling the league’s best offenses.
It's that ability that will remain the key to unlocking a spot in the Super Bowl.
Let's take a look at Sunday's matchups.
Packers at Bears, Sunday 12:00 pm P.T.:
The ghosts of ’85 still haunt Soldier Field, but this year’s squad isn’t just hovering in the shadow of that legendary defense.
Six starters from the 2007 Super Bowl squad remain and the Bears have added one of the best defensive end duos around: Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije -- the two combined for 16 sacks in the regular season. Bolstered by an outstanding defensive line, Peppers and Idonije looked eerily comfortable beating up on the Seahawks in Round 2.
Few things, however, can instill fear in the hearts of offensive players than looking into the eyes of Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. The second-year linebacker has emerged this year as one of the most terrifying figures in the league, racking up 16 sacks (including three in the postseason) and 60 solo tackles.
Then there’s veteran Charles Woodson, who is equally dominant against the run and pass and successfully shut down Jay Cutler when these two teams met in Week 17.
And cornerback Tramon Williams has quietly been creating turnovers out of thin air.
Cutler, though, is playing some of the best football of his career.
Despite being sacked three times last week, he threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Where the Cutler of seasons gone by was pick prone and easily rattled, this year’s version led his team to wins in seven of its last eight regular season games and has been as cool as a cucumber under defensive pressure.
As for Packers play caller Aaron Rodgers, he’s been on fire. With a postseason quarterback rating of 134.5, the six-year vet has suddenly found himself in the same conversation as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Yet, like Brady and Manning, Rodgers likely won’t prove invincible. Three straight road playoff games are tough on even the most resilient player and Chicago has the edge in man-to-man coverage.
Prediction: Bears 24, Packers 17
Jets at Steelers, Sunday 3:30 pm P.T.:
It’s easy to write off the Jets. Football fans and experts alike have done it all season, predicting blowouts and meltdowns for this scrappy, camera-loving club.
Somehow, Gang Green has managed to prove all the naysayers wrong. Never doubting themselves, the Jets have systematically taken down top teams throughout the season. Last week, they exploited the Patriots' inexperienced secondary. They even succeeded in making Tom Brady look confused and scared — two adjectives that New England’s golden boy has never been associated with.
Part of what has made the Jets' defense so successful is that everyone makes plays. Corners Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are the acknowledged stars, and each is close to indomitable in man-to-man coverage. But unsung players like nose tackle Sione Pouha and defensive end Shaun Ellis have consistently stopped offensive traffic, and it was relative unknown David Harris who intercepted Brady on the Pats' opening drive last week, effectively undoing the quarterback.
They’ll need all hands on deck for a comparable performance against the Steelers. Expect to see a lot of blitzing against Ben Roethlisberger and double coverage on receiver Mike Wallace.
Even then, it may not be enough.
After all, Pittsburgh has the best strong safety in the league in Troy Polamalu. Polamalu produces a show-stopping tackle in nearly every game. He comes up with picks that, quite frankly, shouldn’t have been possible.
Moreover, he’s had the support of players like James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, who have looked like they’re running their own personal tackle factory this season (Timmons alone has 96 solo tackles — 96!).
Of the two very talented quarterbacks, Roethlisberger is the most reliable. He has the benefit of experience on his side and a receiving crew that’s almost unnecessarily good in light of the team’s stellar defense.
The Jets’ Mark Sanchez certainly has the goods, but he still lacks consistency — and he’s overdue for a meltdown.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Jets 21