Sunday's NFL Title Game Previews

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OUR NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW - PACKERS-BEARS SET TO SLUG IT OUT SUNDAY AFTERNOON AT SOLIDER FIELD AND WE HAVE ALL THE PERTINENT FACTS/FIGURES

By Jim Hurley:

And you thought you had a beef with your next-door neighbor!

The Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears have been the NFL's version of the Hatfields and McCoys since - get this - 1921 and now they strap up the helmets for a 182nd meeting but Sunday's showdown in this year's NFC Championship Game figures to be the biggest, best and most emotional battle of 'em all ... trust us!

The Packers come into this title tilt the "hot item"in the NFL having won playoff road games the past two weeks in Philadelphia and in Atlanta and when can you remember a #2 seed getting 3 ½ points in the Las Vegas line come a Conference Championship Game?

The Bears now journey into this game having yet to fully convince the masses that they are "for real"despite charging out to a 28-0 lead last weekend against Seattle en route to that 35-24 victory at Solider Field.

Let us ask you this question:

Has the public been "duped"into believing the Packers are the best team in the league right now? Keep in mind former Green Bay icon quarterback Brett Favre just stated his opinions and he claimed the Pack was -- by far -- the best team in the NFL.

Now, some real history:

Chicago leads the all-time series against Green Bay 92-83-6 - yes, as you might have heard this is the league's longest-running rivalry - but do keep in mind that the Bears and Packers have made it into the playoffs the same year only four times (1941, 1994, 2001 and now here in the 2010 season) and note that '41 season marked the only time these clubs have collided in the post-season. Chicago copped a 33-14 win back then to settle who would capture the NFL's Western Division and then the Bears went on to beat the New York Giants for the NFL Championship.

Now, here's the Last 5 NFC Championship Games in chart form (and note all home teams are in CAPS):

SEASON WINNER LINE LOSER SCORE
2009 NEW ORLEANS - 4 Minnesota 31-28 (ot)
2008 ARIZONA + 3.5 Philadelphia 32-25
2007 Ny Giants + 8 GREEN BAY 23-20 (ot)
2006 CHICAGO - 3 New Orleans 39-14
2005 SEATTLE - 3.5 Carolina 34-14

Extra, extra: Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers will continue to rock your NFL Playoff world with this weekend's NFC and AFC Championship Games - get both the Side & Totals Winners, folks -- and do remember there's NBA and NCAA Basketball too when you call us daily at our toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 or else simply when you log online right here.
    

THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

#6 GREEN BAY (12-6) at #2 CHICAGO (12-5) - 3 p.m. ET, Fox

Okay, so the GB Packers are the betting favorites for this clash in Chitown but did you realize that prior to the start of this season it was the Pack that entered play at 7-to-1 odds to win it all this year while the Bears were a true long-shot at 23-to-1 ... we kid you not!

Now, Lovie Smith's club is one home win away from getting back to a second Super Bowl in five years and no doubt Chicago will be forced to play a full 60 minutes here after allowing lowly Seattle to hang around towards the end of last weekend's 35-24 win.

There was plenty of talk - including right here - about the Bears lacking a "killer instinct"in that NFC Divisional Playoff tilt but here's it's vitally important for the home folks to finish plays, finish tackles and finish off the archrival Packers when they can because this Green Bay offensive juggernaut can't be expected to be kept down for long.

The Packers have scored 69 points in two playoff games this year and they scored on five consecutive possessions in last Saturday's 48-21 blowout win against #1 seed Atlanta - the numbers were downright ridiculous as QB Aaron Rodgers completed 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards with two TD passes and one scoring run and there's not a whole lot of folks arguing these days when it's stated that the Pack slinger is the best player still standing in this post-season.

No doubt that Rodgers' ability to scramble for key yardage is critical here 'cause Bears D-lineman Julius Peppers - among others - will be coming hard at him and so maybe the most important part of this game for the Bears is their ability to tackle in space. Look for Rodgers to dump off an array of screen passes here to RBs James Starks and FB John Kuhn (we won't be surprised if this duo catches a dozen-or-more balls between 'em here) and what Starks/Kuhn do after they latch onto the passes will be ultra-important.

Keep in mind the Bears' defense collected only two quarterback sacks in last Sunday's win against Seattle - not a great sign considering the Seahawks were playing from way behind all afternoon - and so it's quite possible that the defensive-minded Smith will have his troops blitz more here and bring up-the-gut pressure and so Green Bay's interior O-line must be ready/willing/able to pick up the extra pass rushers.

On the flip side, the Bears were busy lauding the play of their QB Jay Cutler last week after he rushed for two scores, threw for two others and aired it out to the tune of 274 yards with no INTs but he must dent the Packers deep a few times here or else the Windy City gang won't be making it to Super Bowl XLV.

In last week's win, athletic TE Greg Olsen caught three passes for 113 yards including the 58-yard TD catch-and-run that cracked open the scoring seal but speedy WRs Johnny Knox (4 receptions worth 48 yards) and Devin Hester (2 catches for 4 yards) were barely blips on the screen and that has to change here - bad weather or not!

If you're looking for a couple of key stats, than check this out:

The Bears must let RB Matt Forte get his hands on the ball close to 25 times - but please no passes out of the Wildcat, okay?

Meanwhile, Green Bay needs LB Clay Matthews, CB Charles Woodson and mates to lead the way to at least half-dozen negative yardage plays and keep in mind last week Cutler was sacked three times plus Green Bay sacked him six times in all in that critical 10-3 non-cover win in Week 17 that clinched a Packers' playoff berth.

Spread Notes - Chicago is now 2-3 ATS (against the spread) in post-season games since 2000 and that includes the 29-17 loss to 6 ½-point favored Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 41. The Bears enter this clash having covered just eight of their last 21 head-to-head spread verdicts against Green Bay with one pointspread push back in 2005 (see our accompanying chart below) and note Chicago's a collective 29-31-1 against the odds at home in the Smith Era that started back in 2004. On the flip side, Green Bay is now 5-6 versus the vig in all post-season games since 2000 and that includes the back-to-back covers the past two weekends at Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Packers are a collective 28-15 ATS away in the Mike McCarthy Era that started back in 2006 (that's a heady .651 winning rate) and did you know that G-Bay is 19-11 against the odds overall when playing same-division teams since 2005?

GREEN BAY

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 Green Bay - 3 PHILADELPHIA 27-20
#2 GREEN BAY - 12 Buffalo 34-7
#3 CHICAGO + 3 Green Bay 20-17
#4 GREEN BAY - 14.5 Detroit 28-26
#5 WASHINGTON + 3 Green Bay 16-13(ot)
#6 Miami + 3 GREEN BAY 23-20(ot)
#7 GREEN BAY - 3 Minnesota 28-24
#8 Green Bay + 6.5 NY JETS 9-0
#9 GREEN BAY - 7.5 Dallas 45-7
#10 BYE      
#11 Green Bay - 3 MINNESOTA 31-3
#12 ATLANTA - 2.5 Green Bay 20-17
#13 GREEN BAY - 8.5 San Francisco 34-16
#14 DETROIT + 7 Green Bay 7-3
#15 NEW ENGLAND - 14 Green Bay 31-27
#16 GREEN BAY - 3 NY Giants 45-17
#17 GREEN BAY - 11 Chicago 10-3
WC Green Bay + 2.5 PHILADELPHIA 21-16
DIV Green Bay + 1 ATLANTA 48-21

Note that the Packers enter this NFC Championship Game having notched spread wins in four of their last five games with the lone spread setback since mid-December occurring in that regular-season finale at Lambeau Field against the Bears.


CHICAGO

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 CHICAGO - 6.5 Detroit 19-14
#2 Chicago + 7 DALLAS 27-20
#3 CHICAGO + 3 Green Bay 20-17
#4 NY GIANTS - 3 Chicago 17-3
#5 Chicago + 3 CAROLINA 23-6
#6 Seattle + 6 CHICAGO 23-20
#7 Washington + 3 CHICAGO 17-14
#8 BYE      
#9 Chicago - 3 BUFFALO 22-19
#10 CHICAGO PK Minnesota 27-13
#11 Chicago + 3 MIAMI 16-0
#12 CHICAGO + 3 Philadelphia 31-26
#13 Chicago - 5 DETROIT 24-20
#14 New England - 3 CHICAGO 36-7
#15 Chicago - 5.5 MINNESOTA 40-14
#16 CHICAGO - 3 NY Jets 38-34
#17 GREEN BAY - 11 Chicago 10-3
DIV CHICAGO - 10 Seattle 35-24

The Bears have covered four in a row since that embarrassing snow-filled home loss to New England back on December 12th but did you realize that Chicago's not covered five in a row since way back in the 2000 campaign? Really!

THE PACKERS-BEARS RIVALRY (2000-present)

Now, here are all the head-to-head showdowns between the Packers and the Bears dating back to the start of the 2000 season. Note that Green Bay's won a rather amazing seven times in Chitown the past 11 years.

PACKERS-BEARS MEETINGS, 2000-PRESENT

SEASON WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
2010 CHICAGO + 3 Green Bay 20-17
  GREEN BAY - 11 Chicago 10-3
2009 GREEN BAY - 4.5 Chicago 21-15
  Green Bay - 4 CHICAGO 21-14
2008 GREEN BAY - 3.5 Chicago 37-3
  CHICAGO - 4 Green Bay 20-17(ot)
2007 Chicago + 3.5 GREEN BAY 27-20
CHICAGO + 8.5 Green Bay 35-7
2006 Chicago - 3 GREEN BAY 26-0
Green Bay + 3 CHICAGO 26-7
2005 CHICAGO - 6.5 Green Bay 19-7
Chicago - 7 GREEN BAY 24-17
2004 Chicago + 8.5 GREEN BAY 21-10
Green Bay + 3 CHICAGO 31-14
2003 Green Bay - 4 CHICAGO 38-23
GREEN BAY - 7 Chicago 34-21
2002 Green Bay + 1 CHICAGO 34-21
GREEN BAY - 9.5 Chicago 30-20
2001 Green Bay - 2.5 CHICAGO 20-12
GREEN BAY - 5 Chicago 17-7
2000 Chicago + 5.5 GREEN BAY 27-24
Green Bay - 2 CHICAGO 28-6

 

OUR AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW - JETS-STEELERS PUT UP THEIR DUKES SUNDAY EVENING AT HEINZ FIELD AND WE HAVE ALL THE KEY FACTS/FIGURES

By Jim Hurley:

Talk about coming into this AFC Championship Game from different ends of the spectrum!

On one hand there's the six-time Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers who have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy twice in the past five years alone (see 2005 under then-head coach Bill Cowher and then in 2008 under current head coach Mike Tomlin) and who epitomize major success in the National Football League.

Then there's the New York Jets - the last time they went to (and won) a Super Bowl was way back on Jan. 12, 1969 (raise your hand if you weren't yet on planet earth back then) and so no wonder Gotham City is simply aching to get its "gang green" bunch back to the promised land.

The Steelers are fresh off a grit-your-teeth 31-24 AFC Divisional Playoff Round win against archrival Baltimore - in no uncertain terms this Pittsburgh team "wills" itself into the winner's circle more often than not.

The Jets, meanwhile, are this year's NFL version of the league's road warriors:

As you've no doubt been hearing over the air waves this week, NYJ's attempting to become only the fourth team in league history to win three consecutive post-season road games en route to a Super Bowl berth - the 1985 New England Patriots, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2007 New York Giants all accomplished that tough feat with the latter two teams eventually copping the Super Bowl crown to boot.

Now consider this: The Jets are being asked to win at Heinz Field for a second time this season - the AFC East crew snagged a hard-fought 22-17 win there back on Dec. 19th - and the only other team to ever beat the Steelers twice in the same year at Heinz Field were the 2007 Jacksonville Jaguars who nabbed a late-season 29-22 win and then later secured a 31-29 playoff non-cover win against the black-and-gold guys.

Hey, Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been calling this playoff run "Mission Impossible" as it already includes wins at Indianapolis and at New England.

What does Part III hold in store for the all-too-chatty Jets here? Stay tuned.

Now, here's the Last 5 AFC Championship Games in chart form (and note all home teams are in CAPS):

SEASON WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
2009 INDIANAPOLIS - 8 NY Jets 30-17
2008 PITTSBURGH - 6 Baltimore 23-14
2007 NEW ENGLAND - 14 San Diego 21-12
2006 INDIANAPOLIS - 3.5 New England 38-34
2005 Pittsburgh + 3 DENVER 34-17

    THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

#6 NEW YORK JETS (13-5) at #2 PITTSBURGH (13-4) - 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
    
Here's what NFL history tells us about #6 seeds getting to - and then winning - the Super Bowl: It's only happened once since the league re-jiggered its playoff format back in 1990 and that team was the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers who busted their way through playoff road wins in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver before whacking Seattle in Super Bowl 40.

So, maybe it's only appropriate that if the here-and-now New York Jets want to become that next #6 seed to win it all they have to conquer the Steelers - and in Pittsburgh's own sloppy back yard to boot!

Much is being made of the fact the Jets have defeated QBs Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in this post-season run - a pair of signal-callers who have a combined four Super Bowl rings between 'em - and now here comes a showdown with the immovable object ... QB Ben Roethlisberger owns a pair of Super Bowl rings and he is the without-a-doubt key to this clash and here's the major reasons why:

Roethlisberger "extends the play" like no other quarterback in this league - and we include Philadelphia's slippery Michael Vick here - and that puts added stress/strain on enemy secondaries. Last week the Jets played a brilliant defensive game en route to that 28-21 triumph at New England with the defensive backs playing an "A+" type tilt but here the Jets' front seven must take a gang-tackle approach to bringing down Roethlisberger or else even the likes of Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis will be forced to cover his man for five or six seconds longer than usual.

Next, Roethlisberger - who's taking the Steelers here into their fourth conference championship game in seven years - has demonstrated real mental and physical strengths in these big games and the J-E-T-S defense must crack his veneer and make him slip up whether it's with a bad pass or else they must deliver a rock-'em, sock-'em blow on a scramble run. In short, the Jets must get "into" Roethlisberger's head here or else he'll keep coming and coming back.

Finally, the Jets must take away Roethlisberger's downfield threats here and so that means silencing speedy WR Mike Wallace (only 3 catches for 20 yards in the 31-24 win against Baltimore in last weekend's AFC Divisional Playoff Game), SMU rookie Emmanuel Sanders and Central Michigan rookie Antonio Brown who hauled down that ultra-critical 58-yard bomb late last week that set up the go-ahead two-yard touchdown run by RB Rashard Mendenhall.

In short, if Roethlisberger plays "his game" here, the Jets ain't gonna end that Super Bowl drought.

In the meantime, the Jets' offense really needs to stay disciplined here: New York cannot be discouraged in the ground game if/when the Steelers' top-ranked rushing defense stones 'em as last week's 29-carry, 120-yard rushing performance in Foxboro proved that patience can be a real virtue and the Jets absolutely need RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson (a combined 27 carries for 119 yards or 4.4 yards a pop last Sunday) to both chew yards and clock here and make life easier on second-year QB Mark Sanchez who has been overthrowing a slew of receivers thus far in this playoff run.

Sanchez must get back to basics here: Tight end Dustin Keller (only 3 catches for 15 yards against New England last Sunday) has to be targeted more often and the Jets' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must have Sanchez throw it on first downs - if Steelers Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau discovers the Jets are becoming predictable in their play calls than it could be a major problem for the road folks.

Final key here: Everyone knows that kicking field goals - especially lengthy ones - at wore-torn Heinz Field is tough and so neither team can afford to miss 50-yarders and thus surrender the ensuing field position. Expect the Jets to punt it a couple of times even when on Pittsburgh's side of the field (see last week's game against the Patriots) instead of trying to get greedy with a long "3". The conservative game plan here is the smart way to go.

Spread Notes - Pittsburgh's a rock-solid 10-5 ATS (against the spread) in all post-season games since 2000 and that includes the perfect 4-and-oh spread run through Super Bowl 40 back in the 2005 season. Overall, the Steelers are 36-32-1 versus the vig in the Tomlin Era that started in 2007 and note that this AFC North crew enters this clash having covered three in a row and five of its last six contests. On the flip side, the New York Jets are 7-4 spreadwise in all post-season games since 2000 and that includes four-of-five covers in the Ryan Era (and all of them on the road). Note that the J-E-T-S are a collective 22-15 ATS under Ryan and that features a spiffy 11-5 spread mark whenever in the underdog role (that's a .688 wining rate).

NEW YORK JETS

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 Baltimore + 1 NY JETS 10-9
#2 NY JETS + 3 New England 28-14
#3 NY Jets + 2 MIAMI 31-23
#4 NY Jets - 6 BUFFALO 38-14
#5 NY JETS - 4.5 Minnesota 29-20
#6 NY Jets - 3 DENVER 24-20
#7 BYE      
#8 Green Bay + 6.5 NY JETS 9-0
#9 NY Jets - 5.5 DETROIT 23-20 (ot)
#10 NY Jets - 3 CLEVELAND 26-20 (ot)
#11 NY JETS - 6.5 Houston 30-27
#12 NY JETS - 9.5 Cincinnati 26-10
#13 NEW ENGLAND - 4 NY Jets 45-3
#14 Miami + 4.5 NY JETS 10-6
#15 NY Jets + 3 PITTSBURGH 22-17
#16 CHICAGO - 3 NY Jets 38-34
#17 NY JETS + 1 Buffalo 38-7
WC NY Jets + 2 INDIANAPOLIS 17-16
DIV NY Jets + 9 NEW ENGLAND 28-21

The Jets zoom into Sunday's AFC Championship Game having covered three in a row but note Ryan's guys notched a five-game spread winning streak earlier this year and last year's team sported three-game-or-longer spread winning streaks on three separate occasions.

PITTSBURGH

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 PITTSBURGH + 1 Atlanta 15-9 (ot)
#2 Pittsburgh + 5 TENNESSEE 19-11
#3 Pittsburgh - 3 TAMPA BAY 38-13
#4 Baltimore + 2.5 PITTSBURGH 17-14
#5 BYE      
#6 PITTSBURGH - 14 Cleveland 28-10
#7 Pittsburgh - 3 MIAMI 23-22
#8 NEW ORLEANS - 1 Pittsburgh 20-10
#9 Pittsburgh - 5 CINCINNATI 27-21
#10 New England + 4 PITTSBURGH 39-26
#11 PITTSBURGH - 7 Oakland 35-3
#12 Pittsburgh - 6.5 BUFFALO (ot) 19-16
#13 Pittsburgh + 3 BALTIMORE 13-10
#14 PITTSBURGH - 8 Cincinnati 23-7
#15 NY Jets + 3 PITTSBURGH 22-17
#16 PITTSBURGH - 14 Carolina 27-3
#17 Pittsburgh - 6 CLEVELAND 41-9
DIV PITTSBURGH - 3 Baltimore 31-24

The Steelers have rolled up a three-game spread winning streak upon entering Sunday's clash but did you know that Pittsburgh's covered five of its last six games overall with the lone exception to the rule coming in that 5-point home loss to the Jets? The Steelers are 8-5 ATS as wagering favorites this year after registering a rotten 4-10-1 ATS mark as chalk-eater sides a year ago.

THE JETS-STEELERS RIVALRY (2000-present)

Now, here are all the head-to-head showdowns between the Jets and Steelers dating back to the start of the 2000 season:

SEASON WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
2009 NY Jets + 3 PITTSBURGH 22-17
2007 NY JETS + 9 Pittsburgh 19-16
2004* PITTSBURGH - 9 NY Jets 20-17 (ot)
2004 PITTSBURGH - 5 NY Jets 17-6
2003 NY JETS - 3 Pittsburgh 6-0
2001 PITTSBURGH - 3.5 NY Jets 18-7
2000 Pittsburgh + 7.5 NY JETS 20-3

* = AFC Divisional Playoff Game

NOTE: Catch College Basketball Updates in our next edition of Jim Sez.

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