National / Sports / January 19, 2011

Conference championship weekend arrives for NFL

Everybody’s talking about respect. Who gets it, who doesn’t. Who deserves it, who doesn’t. New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott shouted at ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio after the game, complaining that the Jets’ defense was overlooked, while the New England Patriots’ defense was praised heading into their divisional round matchup.

“They can’t stop a nosebleed!” Scott growled, shortly after his team’s 28-21 upset.

But this was stupid. Nobody thought the Jets’ defense was bad. In fact, everyone was well aware that it was their strength—perhaps their only one. And everyone thought the Patriots’ defense had holes—as evidenced by nearly coughing up a game against a Matt Flynn and John Kuhn led Packers team in December.

This is the master of all motivational techniques, however, the “no one respects us!” line of reasoning. Jets head coach Rex Ryan must have spent all week telling his guys that everyone thought the Jets were trash; that their 45-3 loss to the Patriots in Week 13 was an accurate measure of their worth, that the media was crowning the Patriots already; that the Patriots wouldn’t see it coming.

So I guess you can call Ryan a genius, or whatever. I’m sure the media has harped on this point, praising Ryan for getting to Scott and co. and convincing them they were disrespected. And if I had cable, I’m sure I’d hear some talking head claim that the foot fetish stuff was orchestrated; how the legitimately creepy videos of Michelle Ryan taking off her shoes went viral to keep the focus off the Jets.

This is the constant media narrative: the notion that coaches, beyond scouting and game planning, are effective only insofar as they motivate their players. But at this stage in the game, how is any player unmotivated? Who really needs pumping up?

It is true, however, that there are teams who aren’t getting much respect. The Jets as a whole were not expected to fair very well against the 14-2 Patriots. But that lack of respect was well-founded: Mark Sanchez just isn’t very good. Tom Brady—very good. In the playoffs, for better or worse, good to great quarterbacks tend to succeed. There may be the occasional Rex Grossman, buoyed by an elite defense, but they are the outlier.

The Bears are certainly short on respect right now. A three point underdog at home, the Bears and their fans probably aren’t too pleased that their biggest rival, the Packers (who squeaked into the postseason on a win against the Bears in the final week), are the overwhelming favorite to advance to Dallas.

I guess that’s a decent segue.

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, 2 p.m. Sunday

The Packers are, as I noted, favored by three—which is rather rare. At this stage, a three-point road favorite means something out of the ordinary has happened. In this case, it’s two things: Aaron Rodgers has evolved into the best quarterback in the National Football League, and the Chicago Bears are actually hosting the NFC Championship. Given the Bears’ status as a “lucky” or “fortunate” team and the Packers’ contrasting status, it’s not surprising that the line would be set in Green Bay’s favor.

But it’s not like the Bears have had trouble with the Packers this season. Early in the year, for whatever reason, the Packers played their worst game of the season, committing 18 penalties in the course of a three-point loss at Soldier Field. And in Week 17, the Packers eked out a seven-point victory at home, advancing as one of two wild card teams in the NFC.

This Week 17 game, in particular, has been a point of significance for many Bears fans. Most insist, rightly, that the game meant nothing to the Bears. Thanks to Minnesota Viking Joe Webb’s Shaun King impression against the Philadelphia Eagles in their embarrassing Tuesday night matchup, Chicago had locked up the two seed. Still, anyone who knows the Bears knows two things: head coach Lovie Smith wants to beat the Packers, even when it defies all logic to try, and he isn’t big on resting guys, preferring that they go into the playoffs “in rhythm” or whatever.

These same folks also insist, I think wrongly, that the Bears were not trying. If Jay Cutler was out there getting his head bounced against the turf for kicks, well, I have no words.

They were trying. They tried. And they held the Packers to just 10 points.

If the Packers want to score more, they have to stop defensive end Julius Peppers. Forget the Bears’ linebacker tandem—criminally overrated Brian Urlacher and the slightly overpaid Lance Briggs—the key to the game is Peppers. If the Packers can make the Bears blitz, forcing them to bring more guys at Aaron Rodgers and free up options underneath, the Packers will have a field day.

But if they can’t, and Peppers is in the backfield a lot, the Packers will struggle. Unlike others, I really don’t think their lack of a running game is a bad thing. The more the Packers utilize their receiving corps, and the more they get creative with Rodgers—rolling him outside the pocket, play action, etc.—the better off they will be.

The Bears offense, despite their three-point showing against the Packers in Week 17, has the personnel to beat the Green Bay 3-4 defense. The only problem with that is that the Green Bay secondary is much better than Seattle’s. So don’t expect tight end Greg Olsen to get free—he won’t be covered by any fossils like Lawyer Milloy.

If I had to bet on this game, which I obviously don’t (and won’t, thanks NCAA), I would have to go with the better quarterback. But if you want to bet against the best quarterback in the game, go for it. I just don’t think that’s very smart.

TKS picks: Green Bay 24 Chicago 17

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers, 5:30 p.m. Sunday

I’ve seen a few different blogs proclaim this matchup as “alleged rapist vs. loud-mouthed foot fetishist!” That’s some equivocation, there. What does that even mean? Being accused of rape, at Ben Roethlisberger’s rate, is a pretty shameful pattern. Liking feet, on the other hand, is quirky at the absolute worst. At best, it’s actually a little interesting. Given Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s love for foul language and incredible turns of phrase, I’d probably double my student loan debt to hear him describe his collection of pumice stones.

Anywho, this won’t be easy for the Jets. They are the three-point underdogs­—which is a pretty respectful line, given that this game is in Pittsburgh. Perhaps Vegas doesn’t want to hear Bart Scott’s foaming-at-the-mouth rants all week. Who can really say?

The reason I think the Steelers are at an advantage is, again, because of the quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger, despite being a fat puke, is somehow very elusive, and much more mobile than Tom Brady—who the Jets rattled last week. With the Steelers’ speed at wide receiver, the Jets will have to, for the third consecutive week, come up with a new game plan to stop one of the better quarterbacks in the game. But can they do it this week? I doubt it.

TKS picks: Pittsburgh 23 New York 11

Kevin Morris

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