This year’s NFL Playoffs may symbolize a changing of the quarterback guard league-wide. Gone are familiar names like Brady, Manning and Brees, while quarterbacks like Rodgers, Cutler and Sanchez are coming into their own. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger holds the ultimate experience advantage over the remaining playoff quarterbacks, having already won two Super Bowl rings. Can the 28-year old Roethlisberger get the job done for the ‘old men’ this Sunday? Regular season rematches are on schedule for this weekend’s NFL Conference Championships.
New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
When the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the New York Jets in Week 15 of the NFL season, we all felt that the game served as a possible AFC Championship preview. Now, we can only hope their actual championship collision is as good as the first game. A Jason Taylor sack for a safety proved to be the difference in the in the initial meeting, which was won by the Jets 22-17. After huge wins in Indianapolis and Foxborough, the Jets are riding high and have no fear marching into Pittsburgh with a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line.
We’ve often questioned Mark Sanchez’s credentials as a Super Bowl caliber quarterback, but after besting Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back games in their stadiums, there’s no reason to think he can’t top Ben Roethlisberger for the second time this season. Sanchez hasn’t been off-the-charts statistically, but he’s limiting his mistakes and playing with a lot of poise when the game is on the line. He was asked to make big plays late in the games against the Colts and Patriots and found a way to deliver.
One of the most talked about items in the first meeting between the Jets and Steelers was the absence of safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the game with a sore Achilles tendon. While no excuses are to be made, Polamalu is one of the biggest game-changers in the entire NFL. Troy’s intangibles change the entire dynamic of an already good Steelers defense. While Sanchez played extremely well in Week 15, Pittsburgh will have the benefit of throwing out some looks he hasn’t seen.
Another thing to take into account about the first game was the fact the Steelers offense arguably outplayed the Jets offense, but was burned by special teams letdowns. Particularly on the game’s opening kickoff when Brad Smith returned a Shaun Suisham kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. After missing last week’s game with an injury, Smith is confirmed to be back on kickoff return duty for the AFC Championship. You have to believe Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin will have something to say about that.
The AFC Championship will be decided this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
In a twist of irony, it was the Packers’ Week 17 victory over the Chicago Bears that clinched a playoff berth for the team. Fast-forward three weeks later and the two teams will meet again for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This game features two young up-and-coming quarterbacks arguably playing the best football of their respective careers and two aggressive defenses that are surging at the right time.
Containing Aaron Rodgers is no easy task, but the Bears’ defense has had plenty of preparation. Not only did they hold Rodgers to 1 touchdown pass in a must-win situation back in Week 17, but they found a way to put the pressure on Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and sack him 4 times in their Week 12 game. Rodgers is probably the most dangerous quarterback on the run behind Vick, and if Green Bay’s run attack continues to be questionable, keeping Rodgers in the pocket could severely limit the Packers’ offense.
Saying that, stopping Rodgers is a lot easier said than done. After not having previously won a playoff game in his professional career, Rodgers has led the Packers into hostile environments in Philadelphia and Atlanta and posted 3-touchdown performances in both outings. Though the Chicago defense has played well, their pass coverage has been fairly average all year, and Rodgers could exploit those openings if he has time to do so.
Taking snaps on the other side is Jay Cutler, who came up big in his first playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. After being on the receiving end of harsh criticism for much of his young career, Cutler has played extremely well since the second half of the season and was virtually mistake free in his playoff debut. He’ll need some help from running back Matt Forte to spread the Green Bay defense. After a year full of ups and downs, the Packers have done an outstanding job limiting the run in the playoffs against two pretty good teams.
The Packers take on the Chicago Bears this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. EST