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NFL Conference Championships
by Al McMordie - 01/21/2011
We are down to the Final Four in the NFL: The Steelers and Jets are back again, joined by the Bears and Packers out of the Black and Blue Division. Now you understand why the Packers dumped aging Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers? Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against the Falcons in Atlanta, a 48-21 blowout win as an underdog. That makes Green Bay 2-0 SU/ATS in the playoffs despite being a dog twice. The defense held Atlanta to 194 total yards and forced 4 turnovers, so this team is clicking everywhere. The defense has allowed 11.8 points per game the last 11 games. Green Bay is just 5-5 SU, 6-4 ATS on the road, but who wants to play them now?
The Bears and Packers split two meetings and both sailed way under the total: Chicago won in Week 3, 20-17 on this field, while the Packers won at home in Week 17, 10-3, in a game the Bears shouldn't have cared that much about (but did). That Week 3 meeting was an odd game, as Rodgers threw for 316 yards and the Green Bay offense had the edge in yards 379-276. Cutler completed 16 of 27 passes with a touchdown and an interception and neither team could run the football. The Packers lost because of an astounding 18 penalties for 152 yards and 2 turnovers! They won’t be that sloppy again, so the Bears need to be better. Chicago has mustered 276 and 227 yards in two games against the Pack.
In the AFC the Steelers have a shot at another Super Bowl title and have home field against the loud-mouthed Jets. It has been the year of the underdog in the NFL and after the Jets upset the Pats Sunday, that makes the dog 5-3 SU/ATS in the postseason.
The Steelers (13-4 SU/11-6 ATS) started 3-1 without their starting QB, but Ben Roethlisberger (19 TDs, 5 INTs) is 10-3 SU/8-5 ATS in his 13 starts. The value of a talented, experienced quarterback was on display Saturday as Big Ben calmly led the Steelers from a 21-7 halftime deficit at home in a wild 31-24 comeback victory over rival Baltimore.
It was interesting to find out late that Coach Mike Tomlin did not pull a Knute Rockne at halftime, no fiery speech or uplifting words. Little occurred out of the ordinary as the Steelers left the field trailing by two touchdowns against Baltimore at Heinz Field. The instructions from a few veterans came quickly and decisively after an error-filled first half. "Get your heads up," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "There's a lot of football left to play."
That’s the way to approach a winner-take-all playoff game: calmly, focused on execution each play, rather than looking at the scoreboard. And the Baltimore Ravens seemed to do the opposite, panicking as their lead wilted away. QB Joe Flacco was awful in the second half, particularly on the final drive. They had more than their share of chances to pull it out or force overtime but collapsed at crunch time.
The Ravens, who hadn't allowed a touchdown in the third quarter all season, gave up two at Pittsburgh because of turnovers. "It's unbelievable," a distraught T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "I can't believe that happened. I can't recall ever dropping the ball when the team needed the play." Flacco added, "When you look at those turnovers and then you could look at it and say we beat ourselves."
Rest assured the better team won: Pittsburgh held the edge in yards 263-126. With so few yards it’s amazing there was that much scoring. The only concern is that Roethlisberger was sacked six times, as injuries forced more juggling on the line. When these teams met a month ago Big Ben was sacked 3 times by the Jets.
The way to attack the Jets is with a balanced offense and the Steelers have it, with a decent ground game (120 yds pg) ranked 11th in the NFL behind RB Rashard Mendenhall (1,273 yards, 3.9 ypc) and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers have run on nearly half their plays (49 percent). That compares to 42.2 percent last season. And Big Ben can throw the football to a slew of talented targets, as we saw Saturday, with speedy WR Mike Wallace (1,257 yards, 10 TDs, averaging 21 yards per reception), veteran Hines Ward, TE Heath Miller and rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. They will be playing to reach the Super Bowl for third time in six seasons.
The Steelers rallied despite losing both starting tackles, Flozell Adams (illness) and Jonathan Scott (leg), forcing even more patching of an offensive line that lost its projected two tackle starters to injuries months ago. Roethlisberger continues to take a pounding behind an offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked 24 times in the past 7 games (5 to the Bills, 3 to Ravens, 4 to the Bengals, 3 to Jets, 3 to Carolina, 6 more on Saturday against the Ravens).
The return of DE Brett Keisel has solidified the league's No. 1 rush defense, holding the Ravens to 126 total yards on Saturday. The dominant Black and Gold defense is 2nd in the NFL in yards, tops in points allowed (just 14.5 ppg), and has Troy Polamalu back. Pitt's 48 quarterback sacks were just one more than last season and they sacked Joe Flacco 5 times the last game. Pittsburgh is 7-1 SU/5-3 ATS on the road.
On December 19th these teams met on this field, a 22-17 New York upset. Young QB Mark Sanchez stood up to the pressure created by the Steelers' defense and his team's two-game losing streak. Sanchez was sacked only once, and didn't throw an interception for the first time in nine games. The Jets ran for 106 yards against a defense that came in allowing 60 yards rushing per game.
Pittsburgh had a big edge in yards, 377-276, including 146 yards rushing and didn’t turn the ball over, but the amazing Jets prevailed. The Steelers didn’t have then-injured safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles tendon) or Heath Miller (concussion) for that game. NY is on a 12-4 run over the total and 8-2 SU/ATS on the road. Maybe BOTH teams will talk trash this week! Good luck, as always....Al McMordie.