Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NFL Conference Championship Picks: I Ain't Mad At (Any Of) Cha

OK, before we get into things, here's my moment of unfortunate white guy who likes gangsta rap. It fits into the theme, but if you don't enjoy the naughty words, it's best to skip. And if not, well, good. There's a reason why people still remember this guy, and if you can't appreciate the best of a genre, there's a reasonable chance that the problem isn't the genre.

With the elimination of the Patriot Menace -- yes, I will accept your thanks for my second Masstermind job, though the sad part about that franchise is that I'm sure that I will have to accept the One True Belichick again in 12 months, lockout willing -- we've got four teams left in the NFL tournament that are more or less non-hateable. Sure, there are any number of individuals who I don't particularly want to see with a ring right now (short list: Ben Roethlisraper, Jay Cutlerface, Braylon Edwards and AJ Hawk), but no one that's going to make me annoyed for more than a minute. I'm not even offended by Bear, Packer, Jet or Steeler Fan from being happy, because to be honest, most of you are easily ignored. No one who roots for the Packers has been online yet, Bear Fan is too likely to give himself a coronary to have a long-standing Web site, Jets Fan is too drunk to go online, and Steeler Fan wins so often that they don't actually even notice when they win. Plus, they live in Pittsburgh, and no one pays attention to anything that happens there. It's one of the reasons why they've won so many Super Bowls, really!

And now that I've made friends and influenced people... on to the picks!

PACKERS (+3) at Bears

For two weeks, I've outsmarted myself from picking Aaron Rodgers. Against the Eagles, it was from the belief that the Pack would have trouble without a ground game; instead, they unleashed RB James Starks. In Atlanta, I thought the bye week and CB Brent Grimes would be a bigger factor. Rodgers foiled that line of thinking by being the best QB on the planet, and the Packer defense took advantage of some gut-busting mistakes to put things out of reach early. I'm not getting on the wrong side of this man again.

Can Chicago win? Of course. They are home, they handle Rodgers better than anyone else in the league, and their offense has been soilid for two months now, ever since offensive coordinator Mike Martz put away the genius card and used his two best weapons, RB Matt Forte and TE Greg Olsen. Both of those men, along with QB Jay Cutler's surprisingly quick feet, turned Seattle's defense inside-out in their walkover win, and while there really is no comparison between the Seattle and Green Bay defense, the same basic strengths will be in evidence. The Bears can win this at the line, make some plays in special teams, and make Rodgers look ordinary. There's also the chance that the Pack won't cash in on the 2-3 balls a game that Cutler throws into coverage -- the howler at the goal line against Seattle last week could have easily been a game-changing TAInt -- and that the home field advantage is going to matter.

But there is a reason why the Packers are favored, despite being the #6 seed and the road team. And that's this: if both teams play their best game, Green Bay wins. With Starks running well, they have an actual threat to close short yardage, so that the Bears can't just play maximum DBs. With secondary WRs like Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones making plays all over the place, Rodgers doesn't have to force throws to Greg Jennings, or pine for the missing Jermichael Finley. And on defense, the Packers are just ballhwaking, with CBs Tramon Williams and Rod Woodson doing the work outside, and LB Clay Mathews and DT BJ Raji doing the work inside.

Chicago has had a great year. They nearly eliminated the Packers in a game that meant nothing to them. Their fans are a real advantage, and will keep Packer Fan truly quiet this week, in a way that they have not been in Philadelphia and Atlanta. If you played this game 100 times, they'd win a sizable percentage of those games -- probably 4 out of every 9. And I really, really hate having the half point going the other way on me in this one.

But well, I'm getting really tired of outsmarting myself and being on the other side of Rodgers.

Packers 28, Bears 24

Jets at STEELERS (-3.5)

When you look at the Jets game from earlier this year, it's striking how many plays the Jets made. From QB Matt Sanchez's perfect execution of coach Rex Ryan's ballsy fourth and one naked bootleg to WR Braylon Edwards making a perfect adjustment and catch on a ball in the air, the road team just played a great game... and it came at a time where they hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in forever, and were seemingly watching their season go down in flames. It was a hard-fought even game, with both teams giving as good as they got, and it could have gone either way.

So why lay the points with the home favorite, especially when they had the far less impressive win against the far less impressive opponent?

Well, let's look back at exactly how the Jets won in New England. Ryan devised a trememendous game plan. The Patriots made a crucial early mistake on the screen pass pick to LB David Harris. The trash talk worked spectacularly, since his team played with tremendous emotion and confidence for a club that lost by six scores the last time they faced each other, and it even got WR Wes Welker off the field. Sanchez made some great throws, and his receivers made some great plays. The Holmes score got all of the headlights, but the flat ball to LaDanian Tomlinson was a perfectly timed and executed play that I was frankly surprised that the RB could still make.

I just think they won their Super Bowl already, and that beating a good Steelers team twice in their yard in two months isn't going to happen. RB Rashard Mendenhall has the patience and power to make plays against this defense. Roethlisberger can extend plays and draw in coverage, opening up space for WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. TE Heath Miller is a winning matchup in this game. The comparatively weak Steeler line isn't deadly against the Jets pass rush, at least not unless DE Shaun Ellis has another contract year game. And the Steelers defense, especially with S Troy Polamalu on the field... makes more plays than the Patriots did.

(Oh, and the last and final fun fact of this game? Polamalu wasn't on the field last time. Kind of a difference.)

Last week, I took the Steelers to win but not cover, thinking that theyh'd take a field goal at the close of things for the win. Instead, they scored a touchdown. And this week, I'm going to take them to win by a touchdown. They'll probably win by a field goal. Gambling is punishment for our sins. Especially if you root for the Jets.

Steelers 24, Jets 17

Last week: 2-2

Year to date: 123-128-15

Career: 404-405-15

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