Conference Championships preview
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Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
When these two teams last met on January 2 in the regular-season finale for both , Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the team in rushing with 21 yards in a 10-3 Green Bay win. Unbelievably, Rodgers led his team in rushing three times in the last six regular-season games - from that perspective, it's a wonder his team made the playoffs at all. But when James Starks came out of nowhere to put up 123 rushing yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and 66 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in the two playoff games they've won, the Packers became a different team. Adding the threat of play action to Rodgers' own mobility turned Green Bay's passing offense into what you saw against the Atlanta Falcons, when Rodgers completed six different passes of 20 yards or more. To put that into perspective, he hit just 54 all of the regular season.
Beyond his 31 sacks in the regular season, Rodgers was also his 28 times, but he's been the NFL's best quarterback under pressure, based on Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, over the last two seasons. It's difficult to know how to defend him at this point, but the Bears do have one advantage against Green Bay's multi-dimensional receiver corps - they rank highly in pass defense efficiency when facing just about every type of receiver, including running backs and tight ends. The only exception is against No. 2 receivers, but there's a pretty steep dropoff from Green Bay's Greg Jennings (who ranks third in the NFL in receiver efficiency) and Jordy Nelson (who ranks 49th).
Chicago's Jay Cutler, on the other hand, has never been great under pressure, and he'll face an extreme challenge. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers had more sacks than the Packers, and their multiple fronts have confused Cutler in the past. When facing Green twice already this season, Cutler completed 37 passes in 66 attempts (a 56.0 percent completion percentage) for 389 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the things that makes defending Ben Roethlisberger so difficult is that when you have the Steelers in third-and-long situations, Big Ben knows how to convert. He had the league's best conversion percentage on pass plays that came on third-and-8 or longer (23 of 51 possible plays), and the league's best on third downs overall (54 of 107). And in a general sense, the Steelers of today are transitioning between passing offense and pass defense - they tied with the Denver Broncos for the second-most passing plays of 20 yards or more (62, behind only the San Diego Chargers' 66), and they allowed the fewest (35).
Quite often with defensive players, their value becomes more evident when they're off the field than when they're on. This may be the case more with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu than any other defensive player in the game right now. Over the last two seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays, and 6-7 when he does not. It's a team game, and putting too much on an individual can be oversold, but Polamalu is clearly the exception. Polamalu was hurt and out when the Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, in Week 15. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had thrown at least one interception in each of his eight games before that game, but he went pick-free with Polamalu out of the picture. In that same game, Roethlisberger completed just 23 of his 44 passes, which is a very important number for the Jets - their defense allowed the lowest regular-season completion percentage (50.7), and they'll have to keep that up.
Neither of these defenses allows much on the ground - the Steelers ranked first in the league in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards (a Football Outsiders metric which assigns responsibility for rushing plays based on the length of the play) with 3.47 Line Yards per play, and the Jets ranked fifth with 3.61. Pittsburgh caused fewer negative plays (20 percent to New York's 21 percent), and the Jets lagged a bit behind Pittsburgh in short yardage conversions allowed, but it's hard to put the proverbial thin piece of paper between these two defenses. This could turn the AFC Championship game into a passing contest, which gives the Steelers a decided advantage.
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Posted by: dstafford2 | January 23, 2011 1:56 PM
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