Evan Silva

Matchups

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Matchups: Conference Round

Thursday, January 20, 2011


3:00 ET Sunday: Green Bay @ Chicago

When the Packers Have the Ball

A 28-14 halftime lead allowed Green Bay to reel off 31 divisional-round rushing attempts, but the Packers remain a pass-first team. Lethal since midseason, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has accounted for a 24:3 touchdown-to-turnover ratio in his last nine games. He also had plenty of success throwing on Chicago during the regular season, completing 72.6 percent of his passes and averaging 7.47 yards per attempt in two games against the Bears. The Packers can't get too cute on Sunday. They're at their most dangerous with Rodgers ripping it in four- and five-receiver sets, and when the run game is only used as a change of pace.

Packers rookie tailback James Starks has been a postseason media darling, but he's unlikely to be a successful source of big plays in the NFC Championship. Coming off a divisional-round game in which he averaged just 2.64 yards per carry against Atlanta's No. 10 rush defense, Starks now faces a Bears team that ranks No. 2 in the league against the run and is serving up nearly a full yard less per rushing attempt than the Falcons. Despite a potentially snowy, chilly Soldier Field forecast, the Packers' coaching staff must resist the temptation to employ a balanced offense against the Bears. Just as they did to the Seahawks, the Monsters of the Midway will shut down Green Bay's ground game.

When the Bears Have the Ball

These longtime NFC North rivals split the regular season series, with quarterback Jay Cutler throwing two interceptions in the Bears' Week 17 loss compared to just one turnover as a team in Chicago's Week 3 win over the Pack. As usually is the case, key for the Bears will be Cutler's ability to avoid turnovers. Cutler is far less effective and more error-prone when pressured, so his protection will also have to have its best game of the season. The Packers led the NFC in regular season sacks and have tacked on another 11 in the playoffs -- the most of any team in January.

Running back Matt Forte continued his late-season tear in Chicago's divisional-round thumping of Seattle, tallying 80 yards rushing and 54 receiving. He has at least 98 total yards in four straight games, and seven of his last eight. The Packers failed to keep Forte bottled up in Week 17, as he averaged 6.1 yards on 15 carries and added a season-high eight receptions for 60 yards. Forte is the most versatile running back left in the playoffs. The Bears will be a safe bet to win if he gets the football 25-30 times on Sunday.

Coaches

Last week's win over the Falcons moved Packers coach Mike McCarthy's career playoff record to 3-2, and he's now won back-to-back postseason away games. Particularly in light of Green Bay's 10-3 win over these same Bears in the regular season finale, McCarthy's team should not be intimidated by playing Chicago on the road. The Packers have won four of their last six meetings with the Bears. One of the losses came by three points, and the other went to overtime.

Bears coach Lovie Smith is undefeated in three career playoff home games, winning them by a combined margin of 101-62. Smith's recent struggles against the Packers have to be on his mind, however, and are compounded by the fact that the Bears needlessly played their starters three weeks ago at Green Bay, and still lost. McCarthy has the coaching edge, head to head.

X-factors

Andrew Quarless

A fifth-round rookie from Penn State, Quarless was forced into a bigger role than expected when starting tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a year-ending knee injury in Week 4. While Quarless has been mostly quiet since, he's flashed athleticism in limited opportunities and could follow in the footsteps of James Starks and Jordy Nelson as the next "no-name" Packer with a big playoff game. In the regular season's final month and a half, the Bears gave up six catches per game and three touchdowns to tight ends. Chicago's Cover-2 zone can be vulnerable down the seam.

Johnny Knox

Knox had 96 yards in the Bears' Week 3 win over the Packers, and went catch-less in the Week 17 loss. It's no coincidence, as Knox is Chicago's lone deep threat. Green Bay will likely pay more attention to Greg Olsen and Kellen Davis after the tight ends' breakout game last week against Seattle, freeing up Knox for single coverage down the sideline. The Bears need a big play from their field stretcher to keep blitzing cornerback Charles Woodson from teeing off on Cutler.

Prediction: Packers 23, Bears 16

6:30 ET Sunday: NY Jets @ Pittsburgh

When the Jets Have the Ball

Much has been made of quarterback Mark Sanchez's 4-1 career playoff record, but the reality is he's not winning games with his passing. Sanchez hasn't completed more than 18 throws in any of the victories. New York's offense is dangerous only when the run game is clicking, and Sanchez is avoiding turnovers while making throws strictly to keep the chains moving. The Steelers held Sanchez to 5.86 yards per attempt and no passing touchdowns in Week 15 of the regular season. Sanchez's key stat in New York's 22-17 win was zero turnovers. His role is to avoid takeaways, keep his composure, and throw the ball away when the pass rush closes in.

The Jets can't reasonably expect LaDainian Tomlinson or Shonn Greene to top 70 or so rushing yards on Sunday. The Steelers have given up the fewest rushing yards in the league (62.8 per game), fewest yards per rush attempt (3.0), fewest rushing touchdowns (5), and fewest runs of 20-plus yards (1). The Jets can still generate ball movement by executing in short-yardage situations and keeping oft-overweight Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton on the field for long stretches. Big running plays won't happen, but New York can win the trench war if Greene and Tomlinson fill the night with workmanlike three-, four-, and five-yard carries.

When the Steelers Have the Ball

The Jets wasted shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis on declining 34-year-old Hines Ward in Week 15 against the Steelers, and are unlikely to repeat the mistake. While New York outlasted Pittsburgh 22-17 in the aforementioned game, Rex Ryan's team was two late goal-line pass breakups away from losing. Look for Revis to shadow Mike Wallace on Sunday, meaning the Steelers will need more heroic efforts from rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders and Brown combined for 129 yards in the divisional round, and this weekend will be matched up with burnable Jets reserve defensive backs Drew Coleman and Dwight Lowery.

Rashard Mendenhall has slowed down late in the season, averaging just 3.37 yards per carry in his last six games. Mendenhall's last big performance came against these same Jets, however, as the third-year back rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts. To say Mendenhall has the number of New York's top-three run defense would be too bold, but the Steelers appear to have a critical advantage when comparing ground games. Of the four teams left in the playoffs, the Jets have given up the most rushing yards, highest yards-per-carry average, and the most rushing attempts for first downs. Pittsburgh must have a big game from Mendenhall because Roethlisberger's offensive line has been a scrambled mess all season.

Coaches

The Jets' Rex Ryan and the Steelers' Mike Tomlin have squared off head to head just the one time, with Ryan coming out on top. All told, Ryan is 4-1 in playoff games, with all four wins coming on the road. Just keep in mind that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is also 4-1 in his last four meetings with a Rex Ryan defense, dating back to Ryan's days as Ravens defensive coordinator..

Tomlin is also 4-1 in his postseason career, although he's lost at home before (2007, 31-29 to the Jaguars). Still, he hasn't lost a playoff game since. Including postseason games, Tomlin's career record stands at 47-22 (.681) in four seasons. Ryan's career record is 24-13 (.649). Neither coach has much bulletin board material after a relatively quiet week in terms of trash talk.

X-factors

Braylon Edwards

Edwards cleared 100 yards just once this season, and it happened to be against the Steelers in Week 15. Working often against Pittsburgh left cornerback Bryant McFadden, Edwards racked up eight catches and showed rare -- for him -- fearlessness over the middle. It is worth noting that the Steelers played that game without hard-hitting strong safety Troy Polamalu due to an Achilles' strain. The Jets need Edwards to continue to excel on crossing routes with Polamalu back in the lineup. Edwards has at least 52 yards in five straight games.

Heath Miller

The Steelers played Week 15 without Miller because of a concussion, and Ben Roethlisberger missed the tight end's red-zone presence on two fourth-quarter throws that were batted down at the goal line. Miller has at least four catches and a touchdown in each of his last two games. He'll also be a big factor as a "help" blocker in passing situations with the Steelers' front five reeling. Both of Pittsburgh's offensive tackles were lost to in-game injury in the divisional round.

Prediction: Steelers 17, Jets 10


Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva



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