The Sports Geeks Present: Game Picks for the NFL Conference Championships

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It was a sad weekend at The Sports Geeks offices as all of the teams that our writing staff root for were eliminated from the National Football League’s postseason.  Pat’s Vikings bowed out before the postseason, while Matt’s Eagles had their wings clipped in last weekend’s Wild Card round.  This past weekend saw Alex’s Ravens and my Patriots falling to hated division rivals, ending promising seasons and making for difficult TV watching this Sunday as the Conference Championships are played.

NFC Championship LogoAFC Championship Logo

However, we are professionals here—or at least, we try to be—and thus the game picks and analysis will continue without delay.  This means, of course, that I need to update everyone on the current picks standings between the four of us here at The Sports Geeks:

TSG Post-Divisional Standings

After all of us ended Wild Card Weekend with 2 correct picks each, there was a little bit of separation in the Divisional Round.  The first game of the weekend—which saw the Steelers come back to defeat the Ravens 31-24—was correctly picked by everyone but Alex.  In the Saturday night game, the Packers blew out the Falcons by a final score of 48-21; a result that only I correctly picked.  All four of us correctly predicted the Bears’ 35-24 victory over the Seahawks in the early game on Sunday, while all four of us were wrong in picking New England as the Patriots lost 28-21 to the New York Jets.  With three more picks to go—the two Conference Championships and Super Bowl XLV—I’ve built a one-game lead over Matt and Pat going into this weekend.

Here’s the updated playoff tree:

2010-11 Playoff Tree Conference Championships

Click to enlarge the image.

The NFL is now down to its Final Four and both of the match-ups are rematches of games which were contested during the regular season.  In the NFC, the Conference Championship will be contested between long-time NFC North rivals.  While the Jets and Steelers may not be divisional rivals in the AFC, there are certainly a number of storylines at play after the Jets acquired former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes in the offseason and then won at Heinz Field during the regular season.

New NFC George Halas Trophy

Along with new NFL Playoff logos, new Conference Championship trophies will be presented this weekend. The trophies are the same except for conference logo and trophy name; above is a shot of the George Halas Trophy for the NFC Champion.

There’s potential for Super Bowl history to be made as both of the #6 seeds in the playoffs remain alive; the Super Bowl has never been contested between two #6 seeds, but wins by the Packers and Jets would make that situation a reality.  Wins by Green Bay and New York would also mark the first time that either of those teams made the Super Bowl in the 21st century; both the Bears (Super Bowl XLI) and Steelers (Super Bowls XL and XLIII) have had appearances since the dawn of the millennium.  And while Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is trying to make his third Super Bowl appearance, none of the other quarterbacks involved—the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, the Bears’ Jay Cutler, and the Jets’ Mark Sanchez—have made the championship in their careers.

But that’s enough general background for the weekend; let’s get into more specifics of the match-ups, beginning with the NFC Championship Game:

NFC Championship -- Packers versus Bears

In the storied histories of the Packers and Bears as NFL franchises and the rivalry between the teams over the years, playoff meetings have been relatively few and far between; in fact, the last such meeting happened in 1941,  a full 70 years ago.  Though Green Bay has had the upper hand in recent years, Chicago was able to put together a division-winning season this year against the projections of many NFL pundits; myself included.  The Bears eked out a one-game lead to take the NFC North, but—fittingly—both teams have amassed 12 wins on the season as they prepare to rush out onto Soldier Field with tickets to Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV on the line.

It is funny to look back at my preseason predictions for the year—and the votes of our readers here at The Sports Geeks—when considering how the National Football Conference has come to play out.  While I picked the Packers to win the NFC North and Bears to finish third in the division, Chicago took advantage of some early fortune in the season to win the division title and Green Bay was forced to wait until the last weekend of the regular season to punch their ticket to the postseason at all.  You all as fans were even harsher to the Bears, with readers thinking the Lions had a better chance of winning the division than Chicago, and only a single reader picking the Bears for a Wild Card spot; by comparison, three readers voted that the Lions could take a Wild Card position.  This speaks to the unpredictability of the National Football League and the built-in parity that the league strives for so that any team can put together a good gameplan and win on any given Sunday.

Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler began the season getting sacked and slinging interceptions; cutting back on mistakes and using his legs has allowed him to lead the Bears to the brink of a Super Bowl berth. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Taking pure offensive and defensive yard statistics into account, the Packers and Bears match up fairly evenly.  However, the Bears have an “X”-factor on special teams, specifically the dangerous kick return game of Devin Hester.  On the other side of the field, Green Bay’s special teams were among the worst in the league, which makes that oft-overlooked phase of the game something that the Packers will need to be aware of if they want to leave Chicago with the NFC title.  Free advice: don’t kick to Hester unless absolutely necessary.

In terms of scoring numbers and point differential, however, the Packers have the edge in both categories; Green Bay scores nearly four points more per game than the Bears do, and they outscored opponents by 180 points while Chicago only outscored their opponents by 59.  Finally—as evidenced by the backbreaking pick-six return by Tramon Williams against the Falcons last weekend—the Packers have the upper hand in terms of turnover differential as well; though, of course, a good reason for the low turnover differential for Chicago lies in early interceptions from Jay Cutler.  Since that part of the season, Cutler has been able to cut down on his mistakes, which has helped the Bears get to the cusp of a Super Bowl trip.

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers has now defeated two of the top NFC QBs on his way to the Conference Championship; with a precision passing game and scrambling ability, he'll hope to erase Packer fans memories of the 2007 game behind #4. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In their divisional match-ups this season, the Bears won at home in Week 3 by a field goal and the Packers won at home in Week 17—in a game they needed to win just to make the postseason—by a 10-3 final score.  With only a single possession deciding each of those games, the only thing that can be taken from the results leading into the Conference Championship is that fans can expect a tough game to be played—hopefully in wintry conditions to set the stage—and for the final score to be very close at the end.

Despite the good stories in Green Bay and Chicago this year, only one NFC North team will get to play in Super Bowl XLV.  Both teams have gotten strong play at the quarterback position in the postseason so far, and each defense has been able to contain their opponents on the way to victories.  It would be hard to fault anybody for picking either way, as the game could literally be a toss-up.  For the sake of my pick, I’m once again going to tempt fate by picking against the Chicago Bears; though I was wrong in picking the Packers to win the division before the season began and in my predictions with five weeks left to play in the season, I can’t pick against the hottest quarterback in the postseason: Aaron Rodgers.

The Sports Geeks Picks

  • Brian – Packers win 28-24.
  • Alex – Packers win 21-20.
  • Pat – Packers win 20-17.
  • Matt – Packers win 27-21.

AFC Championship -- Jets versus Steelers

For the second straight season, Rex Ryan has coached the New York Jets to the AFC Championship Game and a shot at making the Super Bowl for the first time since they won Super Bowl III in January of 1969.  For the second time in the past four years, Mike Tomlin has directed the Pittsburgh Steelers to this game as well; in the previous appearance, the Steelers won their way to Raymond James Stadium and a stunning last-minute Super Bowl XLIII victory.

As mentioned earlier, however, times have changed.  The wide receiver on the other end of Ben Roethlisberger’s game-clinching pass—game MVP Santonio Holmes—will be suiting up in green-and-white for the Jets on the road against his former team.  Holmes will have special motivation to prevent Pittsburgh from making another Super Bowl after they sent him packing for off-field concerns related to drug use.

Tom Brady & Mark Sanchez

The AFC East may be facing a shift of power as Tom Brady is 0-2 (both at home) in the last two postseasons while Mark Sanchez is 4-1 (all on the road) under the tutelage of head coach Rex Ryan. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In comparing the Jets and Steelers, the teams are in many ways mirror images of one another.  Both have suffocating defenses led by strong personalities and tough playmakers.  The Jets bring Darrelle Revis to the field as one of the league’s top defensive backs, while few can overlook the long hair of Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu as he breaks on plays and intercepts opposing quarterbacks.  And while Roethlisberger can be looked at as a higher-level quarterback, both the Jets and the Steelers seem to find success in spite of their quarterbacks; with Mark Sanchez in only his second season as a pro, the Jets averaged barely 50 yards of passing more than rushing this season.  It is striking, as well, to note that Roethlisberger was not named Super Bowl MVP in either of his victories; that, combined with the Steelers’ 3-1 record during his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, cements the image of each team as defense-first.

Much like the yardage statistics between the Packers and Bears, the Jets and Steelers are also an even split as far as those comparisons are concerned.  In terms of scoring and point differential, however, there is again a solid favorite: the Steelers.  Though Pittsburgh only average one point more than the Jets in points per game this year, they doubled the point differential of the Jets compared to their opponents.  The Steelers also doubled up the Jets in terms of turnover differential during the season, boasting a +18 to the Jets’ +9.

Hines Ward

Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward continues to be a threat for the Steelers as Pittsburgh looks for a seventh Lombardi Trophy to extend the franchise's lead over the rest of the league. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In their Week 15 match-up at Heinz Field, the Jets were able to right their ship—they’d previously lost back-to-back games to the Patriots and Dolphins—by winning on the road over the Steelers, 22-17.  The game came down to a final drive by Pittsburgh which was unable to find the end zone before time expired, helping the Jets fight their way into the playoffs and delaying Pittsburgh’s opportunity to clinch the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye.

After a Divisional Round in the AFC which featured plenty of trash talk between the Ravens and Steelers as well as the Jets and Patriots, the rhetoric was toned down considerably between two teams who know that they have a tough task ahead of them.  While it was “personal” for Rex Ryan to face Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he’s spoken with nothing but respect for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers.  One more win against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback—the Jets have toppled Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks—will put “Gang Green” on the biggest stage of the National Football League with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.  The last time a team faced such a gauntlet came only a year ago, when the New Orleans Saints faced the Arizona Cardinals’ Kurt Warner, the Minnesota Vikings’ Brett Favre, and then Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV on their way to the franchise’s first championship.  That bit of recent history certainly favors the Jets’ chances if they can find a way to win in Pittsburgh.

At the end of the day, as sports fans, it is hard to complain about having two NFL Conference Championship games that will literally be toss-ups as to who will prevail.  Some would point to the Steelers having home-field advantage as a key to them winning the game, but just about a month ago New York came into town with a lot of pressure riding on their shoulders and managed to take a hard-earned victory.  Momentum would also seem to favor the Jets as they handily beat the Patriots in a game that was not as close as the final score would suggest, while the Steelers had to battle back from a huge deficit early in the game in order to defeat Baltimore.  It is hard to discount the success that Mike Tomlin has had in the postseason, however; though Rex Ryan willed a team to the AFC Championship last year that was inferior to this year’s Jets, he was still unable to call a gameplan to finish the job.

Since Super Bowl XXXVIII, the only teams to win AFC Championships have been the Patriots, Steelers, and Colts.  For the sake of my pick this weekend, I’m expecting that trend to continue; especially after every game played in the Divisional Round saw results opposite of how those teams’ regular season meeting ended at the same stadium.  The Jets have served notice that they’re not a “flash in the pan” competitor for AFC supremacy; even so, Pittsburgh has been here many times before, and I expect them to go for the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl this February.

The Sports Geeks Picks

  • Brian – Steelers win 21-17.
  • Alex – Steelers win 17-14.
  • Pat – Steelers win 20-10.
  • Matt – Steelers win 24-21.

Putting together all of our picks, here are the collective NFL Conference Championship picks for The Sports Geeks, along with the average score for each team based on our predictions:

Packers with 100% of picks by an average score of 24 to 20.5

Steelers with 100% of picks by an average score of 20.5 to 15.5

Be sure to watch this weekend’s NFL Conference Championships, as it may be the last time that we have multiple football games to watch in a single weekend for a long time depending on how the collective bargaining agreement negotiations go in the offseason.  We’re going to hear—and already have heard—a lot of talking from both the owners and the players about what needs to be done going forward; as fans of the game, all we can do is make our voices heard that we don’t want America’s Game to go away anytime soon.

Brian Parker - Born in Maine, a state with no professional sports team, Brian Parker is nonetheless a huge statistics nerd and fan of the NFL and NHL, with some passing interest in the MLB. Regional ties see him as a Patriots and Red Sox fan, though a childhood of watching Patrick Roy tend the net as a Montreal Canadien puts him on the opposite side of his fellow New Englanders for that NHL rivalry. Brian has both an M.A. and a B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Maine. - Follow him on Twitter here - Visit his personal website

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  • Mattaquiline

    I already know my pick email for next week: “brian, my pick is…. reverse yours, add 10 to the winner.” Is that allowed? ;)