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Monday, January 17, 2011

AFC/NFC Championship NFL Predictions: January 23, 2011

I only have one play against the spread this weekend, but I will have full analysis for both games.  Write-ups posted soon.

Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears: GB -3
If you didn't pick a side in this game earlier in the week, you will notice that the betting odds have changed since the opening line.  Now GB is -3.5, but I still believe there is value to buy the half point in order to avoid the hook.  The line move was a little surprising because it takes a lot to move a game off a key number, but this is what happens when over 70% of the public like a side.  However, when I look at all the factors involved with this matchup it becomes very clear why GB is favored - they simply own too many advantages within the X's and O's.  In fact, as you will see GB is probably the worst matchup that CHI could have hoped for.

But before I get to why GB will win this game and cover, let's take a closer look at CHI's side of the ball.  One major area that they will own the edge in is stopping the run.  Unfortunately for them, GB have no interest in winning this battle on Sunday.  Running the ball is obviously important, but it is not a make or break factor for them.  The only other area that CHI have a clear-cut advantage is in the return game.  Devin Hester continues to create many sleepless nights for opposing special teams coaches and personnel, but it is possible to nullify him out of the game as well.  This is something GB would be wise to do because their cover units have not been good this year.  Most of this is due to the injuries they sustained throughout the year, but there is little they can do about that now.   Directional punting has eliminated Hester before and you can be sure that GB are designing schemes to make him irrelevant once again.  Even if he does create some favorable field position for CHI on Sunday, Jay Cutler and company are going to have a difficult time translating it into touchdowns.

A team like SEA might not have the capability to exploit the bone-headed tendencies of Mike Martz and Jay Culter, but GB certainly can.  In fact, GB's defense might be one of the leagues worst kept secrets at the moment.  Jay Cutler was sacked six times the last time these two teams met and look for him to be uncomfortable in the pocket once again.  Clay Matthews and company are going to bring the pain.  With defensive coordinator Dom Capers, it's hard to know exactly how they will attack CHI this time around, but they enjoyed a lot of success blitzing from the slot last time.  This is also a bad matchup for the CHI wide receivers.  Williams and Woodson have a clear edge here, so CHI will need to sustain drives on the ground with Forte/Taylor.   Unfortunately for CHI, there isn't a lot to get excited about there either.  Look for the Bears to continue using a lot of three wide receiver and two tight end sets to maximize Cutler's options.

However, I will be surprised if CHI can win this game with their offense.  They have not been good in the red zone or on third down all year long and this explains why they rank so low in points from long drives and completely plays per game.  Sooner or later deficiencies in these areas are going to catch up with them.  They certainly can't rely on GB taking 19 penalties like they did in their first meeting.    

To make matters worse, no one in the league seems to know how to attack Aaron Rodgers.   He is elusive, accurate, poised, and elite.  A deadly combination that opposing teams have no answer for.  Looking back at many of GB's losses, they are rarely the result of meltdowns from the quarterback position.  I expect CHI to take away the big play with their cover 2 scheme, but it doesn't seem to matter what teams do against GB.  Rodgers can beat the blitz, generate big plays, or sustain drives in the short passing game.  His wide receivers are excellent after the catch and Starks is a new addition that CHI didn't contend with in their previous matchups.  CHI are solid on defense and will make GB earn their points, but I'll be shocked if they can contain this offense for an entire 60 minutes. 

In the end CHI will have a chance and certainly keep this game competitive.  Playing on that slick surface has served them well this year and a fanatical crowd will be on their side, but this year's version of the Packers will prove to be too much to handle.  They own all the advantages in the critical categories linked to winning and the smart money is on them to continue that trend this weekend.  The Bears have been a nice story this year, but this is Aaron Rodgers time to shine and unlike last year, he is now complimented by a great defense.  Prediction: Bank GB -3.

New York Jets vs Pittsburgh Steelers: Skip it
One could pick either side of this game and have good justification for it.  Personally, I don't have a strong feeling either way, but here are some reasons why each team could come out on top.

First off, both teams are riding high after huge emotional wins in the divisional round.  I don't expect either team to suffer from a let down or overconfidence.  NY would seem to have the psychological advantage here because of the opponents they beat.  They can come into this game with very little pressure as they are once again the underdog road team.  However that advantage disappears when you consider how tough it is to come out of PIT with a win.  They have a great home field advantage with a rowdy crowd and tough field conditions. 

In the matchup department there isn't a lot to get excited about for either team.  Both defenses hold considerable mismatches in the air and on the ground.  Surprisingly, NY have the slight edge in the sack/pressure category, but not by a lot.  This is largely due to the fact that NY have a better offensive line, but Big Ben does a great job at fighting off defenders and making smart decisions with the ball.   Neither team is particularly good in red zone offense, but PIT have a much better red zone defense than NY.  This could prove to be a decisive factor on Sunday.  PIT has also been better on third down offense/defense this year, too.  Maybe one area that there is a clear advantage in will be in special teams.  NY should win the field position battle because they have the better return game with Brad Smith.  Meanwhile, PIT will probably be facing long fields when they receive the ball.

The PIT defense have the ability to completely take over this game as well.  Polamalu didn't look 100% last week, but if he is able to play he is able to be a difference maker.  Look for PIT's pressure packages to be less predictable in this game because he didn't play the first time around.  It could be even more dynamic if Aaron Smith can suit up and contribute some quality snaps.  NY will once again counter this with the short passing/run game, but I'm not crazy about Sanchez successfully executing this game plan for a third week in a row.  I really like the NY team as a whole, but their QB doesn't exactly inspire confidence from where I'm watching.  Another area of potential concern is the effectiveness of NY kicker Nick Folk.  If you are leaning with the Jets in this once, how much faith do you have in him if he lines up for a field goal?  

Perhaps one of the most puzzling areas of concern for PIT is points from long drives.  In the first month of the season they ranked near the bottom in this category, but I assumed it would dramatically improve once Ben returned.  Yet this wasn't the case.  During the course of the remainder of the season PIT only improved by a field goal per game.  They also didn't improve a lot in the completed plays per game area.   Both teams are pretty even here as well.   Both rank high in turnover differential and low in penalties per game.  

You will likely see a lot of analysis regarding their last matchup this week, but take it with a grain of salt.  Many will tell you that because of the way NY scored their points (return TD, safety, TD off naked bootleg), that it is improbable for them to execute these low percentage plays again.  However, this game is so evenly matched that it will come down to variance as the deciding factor.  The team that commits the least mistakes will win the game.  Of course this isn't rocket science, but considering that there aren't a lot of advantages for either side, this is the simple truth of who will win or lose.  Sometimes we can overanalyze a game and look for something that isn't there.  For this tilt, you could go with the underdog in a relatively even matchup and take the points or you can side with the home field advantage and ride the favorite.  I'll be enjoying it as a fan.  Prediction: Skip it.
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