It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were sizing up rosters and trying to figure out who might still be kicking by the time this part of the season rolled around.
And now, here we are. In August, this would have seemed to be a pretty reasonable final four … with the exception of Chicago, who most people saw as a team that would be .500 or worse. Can they get to the Super Bowl against a tough Packer team? Can the Jets live up to their preseason promise? Will the Packers or Steelers add to their well-stocked championship cases?
Damned if we know. We’re good at telling you what happened in a game, not how they’re going to turn out. But we’ll try anyway.
Jonathan Comey: 7-1 (6-2 vs. spread)
Neil Hornsby: 5-3 (5-3 vs. spread)
Nathan Jahnke: 4-4 (4-4 vs. spread)
Ben Stockwell: 4-4 (4-4 vs. spread)
Sam Monson: 3-5 (3-5 vs. spread)
Khaled Elsayed: 2-6 (2-6 vs. spread)
NEW YORK JETS (+3.5) at PITTSBURGH
Sam Monson: I really hope Mark Sanchez can avoid “Bad Sanchez” for this game. The thing about the Jets is that they don’t need him to be great to make this a really good game, just to avoid being awful and throwing the game away. The Steelers are rolling, and unlike other teams, they don’t panic when things aren’t looking good for them. Ben Roethlisberger is quietly having an excellent season, despite a disaster of an O-line in front of him, and the Steelers are getting big plays from rookie receivers. The Jets are built the way you want a team to be built for the postseason, and all of the pieces are in place IF they can get reliable quarterback play. I’m a little bit concerned with the dynamic of Cromartie tracking Mike Wallace and Revis staying on Ward, but the more interesting look comes when the Steelers go 3-wide and we see whether Revis stays on Ward inside, or passes him off to stay outside and cover Sanders. I think the Steelers just know how to win these games, I’m not convinced the Jets do yet. Steelers 24, Jets 17.
Jonathan Comey: The Jets have already dispatched two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, so they can certainly do the same to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. So, what do the Steelers have that Indy and New England didn’t? A great defense, the type that would be good enough to get you to a Super Bowl even if you didn’t have a pretty good offense — which the Steelers also have. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most underrated QBs in history. You never hear his name mentioned with the league’s greats, and you wonder if even a third title will get him the respect he deserves (on the field, at least). The Jets are a nice story, and Rex Ryan deserves a lot of credit for getting the most out of his team, but at some point Mark Sanchez is going to get exposed by a hungry opponent. That should be the case today, although I wouldn’t be surprised by anything the Jets do at this point. Steelers 20, Jets 9.
Neil Hornsby: Just like last year, after a great victory that no one expected, I see the Jets falling a couple of wins short again. The Steelers’ main weakness is on their O-line, but the one thing the Jets don’t do well is rush the passer without blitzing. I also don’t see Big Ben and Troy Polamalu being quite so mediocre two weeks in a row. On the other hand, Mark Sanchez was better than the previous week — but still didn’t set fire like he did last year in the playoffs. He’ll have to do much more this week, as I can’t see the Steelers letting Tomlinson and Greene run on them like the Patriots did. Steelers 24, Jets 17.
Ben Stockwell: Two potentially stifling defenses and two offenses that blow hot and cold. Now that I’ve made the pick for a low-scoring game I’m fully expecting this game to develop into a shootout. Both defenses are well set to stop the opposition running games, and if it comes down to a battle of the passing games and one quarterback just doing what it takes to will his team to score on a late drive the edge has to go to the Steelers & Ben Roethlisberger. Are the Steelers the new dynasty of the NFL? Steelers 17, Jets 13.
Khaled Elsayed: Amazing that I feel like I’m going to completely look past the Jets winning their earlier meeting. But it was a game that could have gone either way, and there were a few things the Steelers will take massive heart from. Firstly Big Ben is playing exceptionally well. He’s done it before, and he knows how to win these games. But more importantly for him? The line protected him really well in the first meeting, and in terms of one-on-one match ups, this is one game the Steelers’ pass protection won’t get destroyed on. Throw in a James Harrison who is playing as well as he did when he was Defensive Player of the Year, and I just can’t see Sanchez playing mistake-free football two games in a row. Steelers, 24-13
Nathan Jahnke: It would really be something if the Jets could beat the Colts, Patriots and Steelers, who have won six of the past nine Super Bowls, in back-to-back-to-back weeks, all on the road. I don’t think ether team will run the ball as well as they did in their past meeting. The Steelers have been beating up on weak teams all season, and other than beating the Ravens twice they haven’t beaten a good team since September. I can’t bet against veterans who came to the Jets like LaDainian Tomlinson, Tony Richardson and Jason Taylor, all of whom are a step away from their first Super Bowls. Jets 17, Steelers 10.
Green Bay (-4) at Chicago
Sam Monson: Well there’s been something about the Bears that has bothered me all season. I’ve never really been 100 percent sold on them, and beating up on a Seattle team that (to quote a certain coach) “were who we thought they were,” doesn’t really convince me either. Chicago’s O-line is still a pass blocking liability, and Cutler can be rattled if the Packers can get to him. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, aside from generally being on fire at the moment, is arguably the best passer in the league when blitzed, and he showed last week a ridiculous ability to escape pressure when it was all over him. The duel between Brian Urlacher and Rodgers will be fascinating, but I can’t do an about-face on my reservations about Chicago now. I’ve got to say this is the week they come undone. Green Bay 31, Chicago 24.
Jonathan Comey: Green Bay is very well-coached, has the best young quarterback in the league, a good pass rush and the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. Those are pretty much the things you need to win Super Bowls these days, and the Packers have them. Not bad for a team that lost very good players at tailback (Ryan Grant), tight end (Jermichael Finley) and linebacker (Nick Barnett). Chicago has a lot going for it as well, but the matchups aren’t so great and Cutler just doesn’t seem to be good enough to win a game like this. Then again, I thought the same thing about Eli Manning three years ago, and we know how that turned out. Aaron Rodgers won’t be as good this week as he was in Atlanta the week before, but he’ll be good enough. Packers 24, Bears 13.
Ben Stockwell: This is only the second playoff encounter in this most storied of NFL rivalries, and possibly the least black-and-blue encounter you’re likely to see between them. Both teams are either guilty of an inability (or unwillingness) to establish the run and are predicated around throwing the football from multiple WR sets. However, this is playoff football, it’s January, it’ll be cold in Chicago, and when it comes down to who can run the ball, which QB can make the decisive clutch play late it’s tough to go away from the hot hand that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have. I favor the Pack to be stronger at the start and end of the game, and that should see them off to Dallas & their first Super Bowl appearance in over a decade. Packers 24 Bears 21.
Khaled Elsayed: You’ll struggle to find a guy more impressed with Aaron Rodgers then me. But against a defense like the Bears, and in trickier conditions, he won’t be having the joy that he had in leading the Packers to victory over the Falcons. That said, if they can be a bit more balanced, I can see them putting up more points than they did in the Week 17 encounter between these two. The real difference maker in this game will be Jay Cutler. Will Good Jay or Bad Jay turn up? He’s never been in a game of this magnitude in his life, so can he rein in his gunslinger, turnover-just-around-the-corner mentality? I just can’t see it. Packers, 20-10.
Nathan Jahnke: Over the past month the Packers have been playing extremely strong football, and I don’t see that stopping. The Bears have a very good team, but they haven’t looked overly impressive over the past month. Jay Cutler is coming off of games with PFF pass ratings of -3.0 and -4.0, so I don’t see the Bears’ offense keeping pace with the Packers. Special teams and the rough sod of Soldier Field are intangibles that could work in Chicago’s favor, but that won’t be enough. If Rodgers plays anywhere close to what he played against the Falcons, the Packers will win this easy. Packers 34-Bears 20.
Neil Hornsby: It’s unanimous. The Packers have had as many (if not more) problems moving the ball on the Bears as anyone else, but I think they’ll win more easily this time. This is now a unit moving into gear, and while the Chicago defense will put up tough opposition I don’t think they can stop Rodgers a third time. And even when Jay Cutler’s been winning, some of the stuff he’s been throwing looks awful. He’ll throw a pass so superbly you think he’s got it all under control, and then his arrogance will take over and he’ll try and fit something in that simply won’t go and then miss something by miles. Can he win it with the expected excellent support from Forte? Yes, but logic says: Packers 27, Bears 16.