Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NFL 2010: Championship Round Playoff Preview

NFC Championship Game: A Black and Blue Classic
(6) Green Bay Packers [-3.5] at (2) Chicago Bears

This is the oldest rivalry in the history of the game. And for them to face each other (the 182nd time) for a chance to play in the Superbowl? Does not get bigger than this, does it?

I cannot overstate how healthy the Bears have been all year. The only starter for them to miss games this year was Pisa Tinoisamoa. Apart from being extremely fortunate in games all year long (the Calvin Johnson game winning non-catch, playing a few teams with backup QBs etc), the Bears defense has carried their team through some gritty wins this season, earning them a first round playoff bye. And then a semi-bye, playing a Seattle Seahawks team in the Divisional Round that was just happy to be there. So they definitely have the edge here in terms of the chance to be most prepared for this game in terms of health and rest. They also have the reputation of playing the Packers hard the last few years. They are not scared of the Packers as the '90s Bears did.

The Packers have taken an unconventional path to the Championship game; their run featuring loads of injuries and setbacks sprinkled with moments of rallying and rebounding from all that adversity. In short, to reach the super bowl, they will have to have won five consecutive elimination games; including the last three playoff games on the road. And the No.6 seed has reached the super bowl only once in the history of the super bowl era. That's what the Packers are facing.

Packer Game Plan

The Packer offense goes against a highly ranked Tampa-2 Bears defense. Starks did not have a great game last week against Atlanta, but evidently that kid CAN run. But this week, the Bears will stop the run for sure, making the Packers throw a lot. This is where the Packers have to be careful. They cannot afford to be tempted to go deep early and often. The Bears safeties will keep plays in front of them all day long and the deep plays have a chance to be successful only if there is a defensive lapse. The Packers should rely on their short/intermediate passes trusting the 'yards after catch' ability of their WRs. The Tampa-2 Bears defense will allow you to have these passes most of the time. This was the key also in the Atlanta game lame last week. If the Packers get greedy and get sucked into constantly throwing deep, it will only shorten drives with a lot of 3-and-outs.

Also, the Packers receivers should hold on to the balls thrown at them. The Atlanta game is an indication of how a game without drops by receivers can keep drives alive, and at the same time, suck the wind out of opposing defenses. They have been having the problem of dropped balls a lot, especially, of late. I cannot state strongly enough about how important this is.

On defense, the operating word for the Packers will be "pressure". Pressuring Jay Cutler using blitzes and confusing schemes will force the Bears offense into mistakes. If Bears never turn the ball over this Sunday, in all likelihood, the Packers will come out with a loss. It is also imperative to stop the Bears run game early. Letting the Bears have a strong running game, will ease the pressure off Cutler, drastically reducing the chances of turnovers. Watch out for Walden and Woodson on "spy" on Cutler, making it hard for him to make plays with his feet.

Bears Game Plan:

The Bears offense will try to get their running game going. It will be hard given the track record of this Packers defense. Cutler should also be prepared to see some exotic looks from the defense; its not going to be as vanilla as last week against the Seahawks. On defense, the Bears will have to mix up their Tampa-2 with some pressure defenses that will take out the short/intermediate routes for the Packers at times. If they can keep predicting the right plays to do this, they can stall the Packer offense and keep it a low scoring game.

The X-Factor: Devin Hester (and the Bears Special Teams). The Packers will have to make sure they don't get beat by the Bears return game. Will they have a game-plan for it, or just keep punting it out of bounds?

My Pick:
Outright Win: Packers
v/s the Spread: Bears [+3.5]

AFC Championship Game: The "Adoration" Bowl

(6) New York Jets [-3] at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers

How uncharacteristic is it, especially for the Jets, that they are doing just the opposite of thrash-talking ahead of this AFC Championship game? Very. In fact, only an extremely naive person would buy in that all the adoration from both sides are genuine. Of course, there's a great deal of gamesmanship going on there. Fascinating! In their only meeting this year, the Jets played at Pittsburgh, and pulled off an impressive win, although the Steelers were without Palamalu, and that catapulted their strong run into the playoffs.

Steelers Game Plan:

The Steelers' best chance on offense to dominate this game is if they can run the ball down the throat of the Jets. Does not look likely with their offensive line. And so they may have to get back into Big Ben making plays, while running for his life. That, in a way, plays into the weakness of the Jets defense. If Big Ben can get points on a few quick down field strikes to Mike Wallace or the other young receivers, that will put the Steelers in the driver's seat.

On defense, the Steelers should remember this when defending Mark Sanchez. He can make just two passes consistently: the slant and the fade. If your defense can make those throws difficult for him, you are bound to see Sanchez throw a bunch of balls sailing over everyone's heads. Plus Dick Dick Lebeau will be dialing up some innovative blitzes that will make the young Sanchez look like he's a JV QB. The most important part is stopping the Jets run game though. If they can't do that, the Jets may not even need Sanchez to throw that often.

Jets Game Plan:

It's simple. Stop the run on early downs and on passing downs, make sure you contain Big Ben, not allowing him to slide out of the pocket and make plays. The aim will be to make Big Ben a pocket passer. Easier said than done. They will have to make use of the battered Steelers offensive line. If they do not dominate the line of scrimmage when they are on defense, it will be a humiliating performance for Rex Ryan's crew.

On offense, the Jets are in for a tough night if they cannot run. Because, then, they will have to put the ball in the hands of Sanchez. And Sanchez against a Dick Lebeau defense? Good luck with that!

The X-Factor: Palamalu. He had a bad game last week. This week, a healthier Palamalu? Watch out.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Steelers
v/s the Spread: Steelers [-3]

Last Week:
Outright Win Record: 2-2
v/s the Spread Record: 1-3

Playoff Record:
Outright Win Record: 5-3
v/s the Spread Record: 5-3
Regular Season Record:
Outright Win Record: 161-95
v/s the Spread Record: 123-118-8

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