2010 NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships Round Preview

Everything will be on the line “Championship Sunday” as the Chicago Bears (WR/KR Devin Hester pictured) take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship and the Pittsburgh Steelers square off with the New York Jets in the AFC Championship

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The Conference Championships of the 91st NFL Season, are upon us and for the final four teams (Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears) it is now or never in order to achieve their ultimate goal of winning Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas.  The match-ups  interestingly enough will be  “Back to the Future” moments for NFL Universe as for only the 17th time since 1970 both championship games are rematches from the regular season. 

The AFC Championship Game (NY Jets vs. Steelers ) is a rematch from Week 15 (NY Jets won 22-17 at Heinz Field) and the NFC Championship Game (Bears vs. Packers ) renews the oldest rivalry  — 182nd meeting but only the 2nd time in postseason — in NFL history.  And will serve as a “rubber match” with both the hated NFC North rivals having won during their regular season series (Chicago won 20-17 in Week 3 and Green Bay won 10-3 in Week 17). 

The 2010 NFL Season has truly been a wild rollercoaster type affair, where not even the best prognosticators could have seen the many ups, downs, and strange twists that have flipped the script on NFL history.  Former NFL Commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle’s favorite word, “Parity”, has ruled the day once again in the National Football League.  For the second time in the past three postseasons (last time in 2008), the Championship Games will not feature a No. 1 seed. 

Prior to 2008, there was at least one top-seeded team in the Championship Games in 28 consecutive seasons, dating back to 1980.  After a “wacky” divisional round where both #1 Seeds (Patriots and Falcons) were vanquished, the Conference Championships have been left with two #2 Seeds (Pittsburgh and Chicago) and two #6 Seeds (NY Jets and Packers) to fight it out for a ticket to the Super Bowl in two weeks at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. 

I have heard arguments on both sides regarding whether “parity” is helping or hurting the NFL.  Of course I grew-up on perennial Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers, Dolphins, Niners, Cowboys, and Raiders bullying the rest of the teams with road to the Super Bowl running through these prestigious franchises.  However I have to admit I am a fan of the kinder “Anything Can Happen” version of the NFL rather than the ’70s and ’80s Super Team model.  So hold-up,  Wait a minute…as  you have to admit that these improbable match-ups are pretty cool.  It will be league royalty (Steelers – 6 Lombardi Trophies and their 15th Championship Game appearance, the most since 1970) versus Ryan’s Running-at-the-Mouth Rebel J-E-T-S in the AFC Championship and the NFL’s most heated rivalry, the Bears and Packers, playing for the coveted NFC crown. 

Speaking of the NFC match-up, these  two teams locked horns in a Week 17  match-up where Chicago tried to leave their hated Black-and-Blue Division rival dead for the playoffs by not “resting” and playing everyone for a full 60 minutes.  But the red-hot Packers did get in the playoffs and now led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they are a road favorite.  Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who is shooting for his 2nd Super Bowl appearance, said of the upcoming game “It doesn’t get any better than the NFC Championship coming down to the Packers on our turf.  It’s the Packers and Bears to finish it up.”

Make no bones about it… people love gathering around to watch the NFL.  You know, CBS and FOX cannot wait for Sunday’s action as all four Divisional Playoff games averaged more than 30 million viewers for the first time ever and accounted for the four most-watched shows on television last week.  In fact, according to the latest Nielsen ratings, after a record-setting regular season and Wild Card Weekend, an average of 35.1 million viewers watched NFL games last weekend — the most ever for an NFL Divisional Weekend and a six percent increase from the 2009 round (33 million viewers).  The 35.1 million average surpasses the previous Divisional record of 34.2 million in 1993.  And the granddaddy of them all was last Sunday’s New York Jets-New England Patriots game on CBS which drew 43.5 million viewers ranking as the most-watched Divisional Playoff game ever and is the most-watched show since the record-setting Super Bowl XLIV last February. 

Hopefully the four remaining teams will focus on their precious opportunity to move-on to the Super Bowl and everything else that has transpired in the past 18 weeks doesn’t matter anymore.  As brash NY Jets head coach Rex Ryan recently said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “If you can’t get motivated to win an AFC Championship, then you shouldn’t be in the building.”  The NFL is by far the best game going and that is why this time of the year on the league’s calendar is one to savor.  Sadly we all know the season will be over soon, but the next two weeks filled with the Conference Championships and then the hype of the leading to Super Bowl are over the top phenomenal to me – of course ommitting next week’s glorified vacation called the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.  The “big stage” is now alive for the Bears, Packers, Steelers, and NY Jets so now is the time for two teams to “Seize the Moment”.

Whatever happens in this Sunday’s games, this round of the playoffs is truly special as the NFL’s junior prizes — conference championship trophies (George Halas Trophy for the NFC and Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC) — and a trip to the Super Bowl are all on the line.  However players on all four teams better focus on first winning this Sunday before looking ahead to confetti laced on-field celebrations and planning trips to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.  All the prepartion that the players and coaches have been through from OTA’s to training camp to the long grueling 17-week regular season, and two playoff rounds all hangs in the balance.  As Pittsburgh Steelers DE Brett Keisel said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “We’re very excited to be going back to the AFC Championship Game, but it’s all for naught if we can’t take care of it.”

Trust me, as someone that has experienced the ultimate high and low from Championship Sunday while following the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise from a very early age, I can attest to both potential drastic endings.  In terms of winning I can still feel the goose bumps from 1980 when the Eagles exorcised their demons against the hated Dallas Cowboys as running back Wilbert Montgomery, quarterback Ron Jaworski (Jaws), coach Dick Vermeil and the rest of the Birds finally could call themselves a “winner” and were making the ultimate trip to Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans.  And the gut-wrenching pain from 2002 when Philly’s beloved Veterans Stadium’s last football game was a Championship Sunday loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers known as “The Day Gruden, Barber, Sapp, Keyshawn, and the Bucs Drove the Bulldozer Over the Vet”.

Alright that is enough remembrance of the good and bad times of the already on the sidelines Eagles as now is the time for the Packers, Steelers, Bears, and NY Jets to show their mettle. Surprisingly only the Steelers are a home favorite (-3.5) this week by Vegas while the surging Packers (-3.5) are a road favorite over the host underdog Bears. Everyone including yours truly will be pontificating on what will happen, but luckily the games will be played on the field and anything can happen — Any Given Sunday…right?? 

My predictions are soon two follow, but there is no doubting that both games are “Coin Flip” matchups in my opinion.  Plus you can never forget our always talked about playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play (Bears have edge here w/ Hester), Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” still being the key factors as to which teams will move on to Super Bowl XLV.

Some Lloyd’s Leftovers from Championship Sunday include:

Several Hot Teams are left – Over and over we say that it does matter how you start in the NFL, but how you finish.  This has never been more prevalent than this season as since the midseason (5-3 at the time), Green Bay have won seven of their last 10 games; Pittsburgh has won 7 of 10 and and so have the New York Jets; Chicago has won 6 of their last 10. 

Rodgers is ridiculous — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes (86.1 percent) for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 136.8 passer rating in Green Bay’s 48-21 victory over the Falcons last week.  Rodgers is the 1st player in NFL history to pass for at least 3 TDs in each of his first three postseason starts and his 129.4 career playoff passer rating is the best mark all-time (minimum 100 attempts).  Speaking of Rodgers, receiver Greg Jennings said, “Aaron played absolutely phenomenal.  It was a treat to play with him during that performance.”

Good Quarterback Play is the key this time of the year – We know that quarterbacks get too much praise for wins and too much blame for losses.  But this time of the year, the quarterbacks have to protect the football and be efficient. I hate to pile on Baltimore QB Joe Flacco, but his 16 of 30 for only 125 yards, 1 TD, and 1 huge INT effort last week was probably the major reason the Ravens had significant trouble in the divisional round.  This year’s final four QB’s includes one former Super Bowl participant (Ben Roethlisberger) and three young guns (Rodgers, Cutler, and Sanchez) looking for respect.  The four quarterbacks remaining have been very good at not turning the ball over (No INTs by the group last week) and they will need to continue that trend against a several tough defenses.

Road Warrior Teams in the playoffs – For years, teams fought to get home-field advantage in hopes that they would have an easier road to the Super Bowl.  However the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants showed that teams can get it done in hostile environments on the road to Super Bowl titles.  This year is following the aforementioned model as through the first two rounds, road teams have won 5 of 8 games tying 2005 for most road wins since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams in 1990.

Defenses coming to play – It has been said through out NFL history that defense wins championships and this year is no different.  The conference championship round will feature some good defenses from the regular season– 2nd ranked Steelers (276.8 yards per game), NY Jets (261.1), Packers (309.1).  The Bears, who were 9th in total defense during the regular season (314.3), have picked it up in the playoffs limiting their opponents to an average of 276 yards

Former Champs Abound — All of the teams participating in the Conference Championship round have won at least one Super Bowl title.  Those teams are Pittsburgh (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, and 2008); Green Bay Packers (1966, 1967, and 1996); Bears (1985) and NY Jets (1968);

One last leftover: On a personal note, I am dedicating this piece to my Mother, Lloyia, who is currently fighting her way through some health issues.

2010 NFL Playoffs Championship Round Games

GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-6) at CHICAGO BEARS (12-5) (Sunday, FOX, 3:00 PM ET)

 

NEW YORK JETS (13-5) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-4) (Sunday, CBS, 6:30 PM ET)      

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and Sports Journey Network , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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