Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Record: Packers 12-6 overall, 5-5 on road; Bears 12-5 overall, 6-3 at home Time/TV/radio: 3 p.m.; Ch. 13; 1010-AM
Weather: Mostly cloudy, high to mid teens, 20 percent chance of snow. Line: Packers by 3½
Packers: If it's a close game — and a cold winter's day in Chicago between two good teams is a recipe for a close game — it could come down to a kicker. The Packers have a good one in Mason Crosby, above, who has made 11 of his past 13 field goals and one of those misses was when he hit the upright on a 50-yarder. However, he has had trouble at Soldier Field. He is just 4-for-8 there, including two blocked kicks.
Bears: You just know that at some point in this postseason, Bears super returner Devin Hester is going to make a play. He is probably the best returner in the history of the game. He had three punt returns for touchdowns this season and has 10 for his career. He also has four kickoff returns. Teams always swear they aren't going to let Hester beat them, then they end up kicking to him anyway. And he often beats them. It only takes one punt return for Hester to change the game.
These are two of the good guys. Chicago's Lovie Smith might have saved his job this season. After going to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season, Smith's Bears went 23-25 over the next three seasons to make 2010 a make-or-break year. The team responded with an 11-5 regular season and is now just a victory away from the third Super Bowl appearance in team history. Meantime, Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 3-2 all-time in the playoffs.
The Packers will win if:
They stop the Bears from making big plays. Green Bay is going to score points. What it can't afford is for the Bears to strike quickly and stay close on a Devin Hester kick return or a Jay Cutler long pass. If the Packers can force the Bears into making long drives to score, eventually Cutler is going to make a mistake before he drives the Bears into the end zone. The more times Cutler has to make a play, the better off the Packers are.
The Bears will win if:
They can protect QB Jay Cutler because when Cutler gets pressured, he gets rattled. In the past four games against the Packers, Cutler has been intercepted nine times. Not coincidently, the Packers have put major pressure on him in those games, including six sacks in the regular-season finale — a 10-3 Packers victory in which Cutler threw two interceptions. If Cutler doesn't get happy feet or become stupid with his decisions, the Bears have a chance to score the points necessary to beat a Green Bay team that is clicking on offense. It wouldn't hurt if the Bears can run the ball, too.
Three key matchups
1. Bears TE Greg Olsen vs. Packers FS Nick Collins
After disappearing in the second half of the season, Olsen re-emerged last week, catching five passes. With CB Charles Woodson helping to shut down the Bears receivers, Olsen could be a critical weapon for QB Jay Cutler. In the Bears' victory over Green Bay in Week 3, Olsen had five catches for a season-high 64 yards and one touchdown. But Collins did a solid job last week shutting down Falcons all-world TE Tony Gonzalez. If he can shut down Olsen, the Bears passing game could be in trouble.
2. Packers LB Clay Matthews vs. Bears offensive line
What isn't known: Where Matthews will line up on a given play. What is known: He will pressure the quarterback. Matthews, getting a lot of buzz for NFL defensive player of the year, has three sacks in two playoff games and seems to spend as much time in the other team's backfield as the other team's running backs. If Matthews is constantly in the face of Bears QB Jay Cutler, Cutler will throw interceptions. That's a guarantee.
3. Bears DE Julius Peppers vs. Packers LT Chad Clifton
Peppers has had a terrific season, once again establishing himself as one of the best defensive ends in football. Clifton has struggled at times this season, and this would appear to be a mismatch in Chicago's favor. And that would be very bad for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who always seems one decent lick away from another concussion. But Clifton has done well against Peppers this season. In the two games against Clifton and the Pack, Peppers had no sacks and six tackles.
Three things you might not know
1. Bears QB Jay Cutler is 1-3 all-time against the defenses of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In those four games, he has four touchdowns, nine interceptions and a dismal passer rating of 57.49.
2. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has found the magic touch. In his past 10 starts, Rodgers has thrown 22 touchdowns and a mere two interceptions. In three career playoff starts, Rodgers has 10 touchdowns and only one interception, and has completed 77 percent of his passes. The Packers have averaged 38 points in Rodgers' three postseason starts.
3. The Bears defense has done a splendid job against Packers QB Aaron Rodgers this season. This interesting stat from Sports Illustrated: In 21 possessions against the Bears this season (not counting kneel-downs at the end of the game), Rodgers has led the Packers to three touchdowns and two field goals. But the rest of the possessions: 11 punts, two interceptions and no points. The Packers averaged only 13.5 points against the Bears in two games, while averaging 26.9 points against everyone else.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
Records: Jets 13-5 overall, 8-2 on road; Steelers 13-4 overall, 6-3 at home Time/TV/radio: 6:30 p.m.; Ch. 10; 1010-AM
Weather: Clear, high to low teens, 0 percent chance of snow. Line: Steelers by 31/2
Jets: QB Mark Sanchez, despite his 4-1 playoff record with all the victories coming on the road, still appears to be the Jets' biggest question mark. If he plays well, the Jets have a chance. If he doesn't, they don't. Look at last week. He threw three TDs and no interceptions and the Jets upset the Patriots. Still, not everyone is convinced he is that good.
Steelers: The Steelers' goat might not be one person, but 11 — specifically, those who defend kicks. The Steelers have had issues all season stopping returns. The Ravens returned a punt for a touchdown last week, but the Steelers caught a huge break when the Ravens were flagged for an iffy holding call. The Jets have good returners, and the Steelers might be vulnerable to a return.
After taking shots at his opponents the past couple of weeks, Jets coach Rex Ryan, above right, has shown nothing but respect for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, below. And Tomlin has shown nothing but respect in return. Their personalities are vastly different, yet both have the loyalty of their players. And, you know, they can coach, too. Ryan has been an NFL head coach for two seasons and is in his second AFC Championship Game. Tomlin has been a head coach for four seasons, is 4-1 in the playoffs and is also in his second AFC Championship Game. The difference: Ryan is 0-1 in the title game; Tomlin is 1-0.
The Jets will win if:
They can put QB Ben Roethlisberger on the ground. Last week, the Jets harassed Pats QB Tom Brady and sacked him five times. But it seemed like a couple of times, Brady almost laid down from the pressure. That's not going to happen with Big Ben. If Roethlisberger can fight off Jets defenders, his receivers are too good and too fast not to get open. The Jets have to do more than pressure Roethlisberger. They have to tackle him. If they do, they have a shot.
The Steelers will win if:
They can stop the Jets' running attack. A good way to do that is to get an early lead and force the Jets to play catchup. Put the game in QB Mark Sanchez's hands instead of the very capable legs of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The Jets are successful when they get a lead and can mix the run and pass. But they have problems when Sanchez is forced to win games by himself.
Three things you might not know
1. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is starting to sneak up on the likes of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady when it comes to postseason resumes. He is 9-2 in his career in the postseason and, at age 28, is a victory away from appearing in his third Super Bowl, where he is 2-0. He is an impressive 80-31 as a starter.
2. The Jets' most impressive victory of the season (well, besides last week's victory in New England) was probably the 22-17 win Dec. 19 in Pittsburgh. However, it should be pointed out that the Steelers were missing two key players in that contest — S Troy Polamalu and TE Heath Miller. Still, the Steelers drove to the Jets 10-yard line in the final moments but just couldn't convert on two passes into the end zone.
3. Unsung coach of the day: Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff. Since Westhoff took over in 2001, the Jets have had 14 kickoff returns for touchdowns — the most in the NFL over that span. That includes two in 2010.
Three key matchups
1. Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. the Jets rush defense
It's true the Jets beat the Steelers in December, but the Steelers ran the ball on the Jets like no other team in 2010. The Jets ranked third in rushing defense this season, giving up only 90.9 yards a game. But the Steelers carved up the Jets for 146 yards on the ground, including 99 from Mendenhall. And this stat shows how important running the ball is. Teams are 8-0 in these playoffs when they outrush the other team. The Steelers' offensive line is beaten up, so running on the Jets might not be as easy as it was in December.
2. Steelers WRs Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders vs. Jets CBs Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis
One would assume Revis would cover Wallace until you find out the numbers show that Revis has struggled this season against fast WRs such as Wallace. Either way, the Jets corners will have to do better than they did in Week 15. In that Steelers-Jets matchup, Wallace and Sanders caught seven passes each for a combined 180 yards. And, oh yeah, there's Hines Ward, too, who might be Pittsburgh's best clutch receiver. Believe it or not, the Steelers offense creates more problems for the Jets than the Patriots did.
3. Jets WR Santonio Holmes vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor
This is the most interesting matchup of the day as the two friends, and former teammates, go at one another. Taylor already said he wants to "lay out'' Holmes, the former Steelers star who was shipped to the Jets last offseason because the Steelers grew tired of Holmes' off-field issues, which included a failed drug test. Holmes is an elite receiver who saves his best moments for the most important times, as he proved when he caught the winning touchdown and was named MVP in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa when the Steelers beat the Cardinals.
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down today's NFL conference title games: