Athlon's editors offer their picks for Championship Sunday in the NFL.
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush, Rob Doster, Patrick Snow and Braden Gall discuss the matchups for Championship Sunday in the NFL:
Green Bay @ Chicago (3:00 PM EST)
Steven Lassan: Although the Packers and Bears have played twice this season, this should be another must-see matchup. Can the Chicago defense cool off Aaron Rodgers? Rodgers has thrown 11 touchdowns in his last four games, including three in each of the playoff matchups. The Bears rank 20th in the NFL in pass defense, but held Rodgers to only two touchdown tosses in their regular season meetings. Although both teams have few concerns about the quarterbacks, whichever team can establish the run will have the advantage in this game. Matt Forte was held under 100 yards in both regular season matchups, while the Packers have found a running game under rookie James Starks. One x-factor for Chicago will be receiver/kick returner Devin Hester. With a tight game expected, a big punt or kickoff return could swing the game in the Bears' direction. Winning in Chicago won't be easy, but I like the Packers to earn the victory and advance to their first Super Bowl since 1997.
Rob Doster: These two ancient rivals are doing something new — facing off in a championship game. Stunningly, the Bears and Packers have made the playoffs in the same season only four times, and only once — way back in 1941, long before any of the current participants were born — have the two met in the postseason. Look to the respective quarterbacks to write the newest chapter in this storied rivalry. Both are remarkably talented, but Aaron Rodgers wins the poise face-off with Jay Cutler, who always seems to be on the verge of a critical turnover, just like in the Week 17 encounter, when a late Cutler interception denied the Bears the chance to eliminate their rivals from the postseason. Cutler and the Bears will regret that mistake even more this Sunday. Packers by 3.
Nathan Rush: If recent history is any indication, the rubber match in this NFC North Division rivalry will be a one-score game. The home team has taken both contests this year, with the Bears defending Soldier Field, 20–17, in Week 3 and the Packers leaping into the playoffs following a do-or-die 10–3 victory at Lambeau Field in the Week 17 finale. The stakes this week, however, are at an all-time high. Chicago and Green Bay have not met in the playoffs since George Halas’ Bears defeated Curly Lambeau’s Packers in 1941. The second postseason showdown between the two storied franchises will have a different result. The Packers will KO the Bears in a black-and-blue NFC Championship Game.
Braden Gall: This game will be much more like the second meeting - a 10-3 Green Bay win in Week 17 - than the first meeting - a 20-17 Chicago win in Week 3. I expect this game to be a well-played, defensive struggle with fewer mistakes and a lower score. There were 23 penalties in the first meeting and 10 in the second. There was 655 yards of offense in the first meeting and 511 in the second. These two were 7-19 on third down in the first meeting and 7-27 in the second. Special teams could be the difference, after the Packers allowed the longest scoring play in postseason history (a 102-yard KO return by Eric Weems). I know it's cliche, but if Chicago can protect the football, limit the big play and establish a running game, the Bears will be Super Bowl bound.
Patrick Snow: This battle of division rivals should come down to one big play, as points will be at a premium. Chicago won the first meeting at home in week three on a last-second field goal. However, Green Bay gave up a Devin Hester punt-return touchdown, committed a team-record 18 penalties, and had a key fumble late in the game by James Jones in the Monday night loss. The Packers won an ugly 10-3 game when these two met in Week 17. For me, this pick comes down to which quarterback I trust more. I see Aaron Rodgers as more likely than Jay Cutler to convert a key third down, to make a red zone play that nets a touchdown instead of field goal, and to not throw a critical interception. A defensive or special teams' score will make the difference in this tight game, but I’ll take the red-hot Packers to make their first Super Bowl in over a decade. Green Bay by 3.
New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers (6:30 PM EST)
Steven: These two teams met in Week 15, with the Jets pulling out a close 22-17 victory in Pittsburgh. Although the Jets won, a closer look at the first matchup shows the Steelers should feel pretty good going into the AFC Championship. The Jets were outgained 378 to 276 and scored only one offensive touchdown, with one score coming on a kickoff return by Brad Smith to open the game. The Jets also scored on a safety with less than three minutes left, forcing the Steelers to score a touchdown in the final minute, instead of driving for a game-winning field goal. The Pittsburgh defense suffered from not having safety Troy Polamalu in the lineup the last time these two met, and although he's not 100 percent, just having Polamalu's presence on the field is a boost to the Steelers.
Protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the key for Pittsburgh. With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need to pickup on the Jets' rush and give Roethlisberger time to attack downfield. The Steelers also had a lot of success rushing the ball on the Jets in the first meeting - something that has to happen if Pittsburgh wants to advance to the Super Bowl. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez could be the most important player in this game. The second-year quarterback hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards in a playoff game this season, but has only one interception and has made plays at key times in the game. If Sanchez plays well and limits his mistakes, the Jets will have an opportunity to win this game. Although New York is on a roll by beating Indianapolis and New England - two games that were "personal" to them - the Steelers will get revenge for their Week 15 defeat and make their eighth appearance in the Super Bowl.
Rob: Rex Ryan and the Jets have taken a different approach this week. Whereas last week was full of mind games and verbal jabs, now it’s a mutual admiration society between the last two AFC teams standing. Ryan’s mad scientist approach has gotten him this far, so don’t be surprised if the Jets pull the road stunner. But Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has played largely mistake-free football thus far in the playoffs, is simply ill-prepared for what he’ll face on Sunday from Dick LeBeau’s Steel Curtain defense. The Steelers owe the Jets a thank-you note for eliminating the Patriots and giving Pittsburgh another home game. Mike Tomlin’s crew will show their appreciation by abusing the Gang Green to set up America’s Game: Steelers-Packers, in Cowboys Stadium. Steelers by 7.
Nathan: This is a rematch of a Week 15 thriller. One month ago, Gang Green pulled off a 22–17 upset at Blitz-burgh. After failing to score a TD in consecutive losses at New England (45–3) and Miami (10–6), Mark Sanchez ended the 12-quarter TD-less drought while snapping a two-game losing streak and earning the Jets’ first win ever at Pittsburgh. But it didn’t come easy, as Big Ben Roethlisberger put together a brilliant two-minute drill, going from the Steelers’ 8-yard-line to the Jets’ 10 before the clock hit zero and his last pass fell incomplete. The Steelers are in the AFC title game for the fifth time in 10 years, while the Jets are back for the second straight season. Pittsburgh’s O-line must hold up against the Rex-ecutioner defense and Sanchez must protect the ball against the Steel Curtain. Start waving the Terrible Towels, Pittsburgh is going to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history.
Braden: What Rex Ryan and the Jets defense did last weekend against Tom Brady and the Pats offense might have been the best coaching job in NFL postseason history. I, for one, have never seen Brady holding the football for eight seconds and not have a place to go with the football. You cannot allow Big Ben, who lives to extend the play to a fault almost, that much time to through. The difference this week? Mark Sanchez was masterful on the most important drive of the game last week immeditately following the Pats third quarter touchdown (and 2-pt). The lawfirm of Polamalu, Woodley, Harrison, Timmons, Hampton and Taylor will win the day. The amount of energy it took to upend such a hated rival will be difficult to match two weeks in a row.
Patrick: The Jets won a surprising 22-17 decision in Pittsburgh a little over a month ago. New York was coming off two losses in which they did not score a touchdown but found a way to win at Heinz Field. However, that was a game where the Steelers did not have their defensive quarterback, Troy Polamalu. Another key to that December victory was an opening kick return touchdown by Brad Smith, who is now hobbled by an injury from the wild card win. I don’t see Pittsburgh giving up that big play again, and they should be able to move the ball more consistently than the Jets. Rashard Mendenhall ran for 99 yards and a score against the tough Jets’ defense, and Ben Roethlisberger is better bet to make a big play throw than Mark Sanchez. I’ll take the Steelers in an AFC heavyweight slugfest. Steelers by 4.