Patriots

Analysis: NFL conference championship games

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Analysis: NFL conference championship games

By Ray Didinger
CSNPhilly

Sizing up Sundays NFL Conference Championship games.:

NATIONAL CONFERENCE
GREEN BAY (12-6) at CHICAGO(12-5)
3 p.m. FOX

Ever since Aaron Rodgers returned from the concussion he suffered against Detroit (Dec. 12th), he has been untouchable and the Packers have been unbeatable. They won four in a row over the Giants, Chicago, the Eagles and Atlanta to advance to the conference final. They are playing with tremendous confidence and for good reason: They have the hottest quarterback in the final four.

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Ever since Aaron Rodgers returned from the concussion he suffered against Detroit (Dec. 12th), he has been untouchable and the Packers have been unbeatable. They won four in a row over the Giants, Chicago, the Eagles and Atlanta to advance to the conference final. They are playing with tremendous confidence and for good reason: They have the hottest quarterback in the final four.

Rodgers had a 134.5 quarterback rating in the playoff wins over the Eagles and Atlanta with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was 31 for 36 passing against the No. 1 seed Falcons and was in complete command, avoiding the rush and coolly picking apart the Atlanta defense. The Packers won the game 48-21 and it really wasnt that close.

The Chicago defense is very good (fourth in points allowed), but it is also very vanilla. The Bears play almost exclusively a Cover 2 zone scheme with the safeties deep. They allow few big plays, they tackle well and they are stout against the run (90.1 yards per game), but Rodgers knows them so well at this point he will know exactly where to go with the ball.

If the field is as sloppy as it usually is -- it was an absolute mess for the Eagles game in November it may work to the advantage of the visiting Packers. The Bears must get a rush on Rodgers if they hope to slow him down, but if the footing is bad, it will make it harder for Julius Peppers and the other D-linemen to push off. Also, Greg Jennings, the Packers best receiver, loves to double move and that could leave a defensive back on the seat of his pants.

On the other side, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler had a big game last week against Seattle (two rushing touchdowns, two touchdown passes), but the Green Bay defense is a different animal. When these teams played in the final week of the regular season, the Bears managed just three points and Cutler was one-for-13 on passes to wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.

The suffocating coverage of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams combined with the pass rush of linebackers Clay Matthews and Erik Walden will be more than the Bears can overcome.

Didinger's pick: Packers 21, Bears 16.

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

N.Y. JETS (13-5) at PITTSBURGH(13-4)
6:30 p.m. CBS

On Week 15, the Jets beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, 22-17, in game that probably saved their season. They had lost back-to-back games to New England (45-3) and Miami (10-6) and fallen to 9-4 and appeared in danger of missing the playoffs.

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However, the Jets regrouped to win in Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history. Quarterback Mark Sanchez came up with a clutch performance and the Jets slipped into the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Following upset wins in Indianapolis and New England, coach Rex Ryans team now is just one win away from the Super Bowl.

All the Jets need to do is win another game in Pittsburgh. Shouldnt be that hard, right? They did it just a few weeks ago.

Well, this will be different. For one thing, it is a conference championship game which raises the stakes considerably. Also, the Steelers will have All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for this game. They did not have him when the teams played last month.

How much of a difference does that make? In the past two seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays and 6-7 when he does not. He is that important to coordinator Dick LeBeaus defense. His versatility, his ability to blitz as well as cover and line up all over the field can unnerve and distract a young quarterback, even one as cool as Sanchez.

Sanchez is 4-1 in post-season starts, all of them on the road, which is quite a record, but he has not faced a defense as good as this one. The Indianapolis defense ranked 20th, the Patriots defense ranked 25th. The Steelers were second overall in defense and led the NFL with 48 sacks. They mauled Baltimores Joe Flacco in the divisional playoff (one fumble, one interception, five sacks).

Ryan has devised schemes to defeat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks, but Ben Roethlisberger is a different kind of quarterback: bigger, stronger and better than either Manning or Brady at extending plays and creating outside the pocket. He usually finds ways to win (9-2 in the post-season) and he will do it again Sunday.

Didinger's pick: Steelers 17, Jets 13.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Wentz tosses 4 TDs, Eagles beat Redskins, 34-24

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MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Wentz tosses 4 TDs, Eagles beat Redskins, 34-24

PHILADELPHIA - Carson Wentz tossed four touchdown passes, and the Philadelphia Eagles overcame losing nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters in a 34-24 win over the Washington Redskins on Monday night.

Wentz threw for 268 yards and ran for a career-best 63 after a shaky start to lead the NFL-best Eagles (6-1) to their fifth straight win. But the victory was costly because Peters was carted off the field with a knee injury in the third quarter.

Kirk Cousins had 303 yards passing and three TDs for the Redskins (3-3).

The Eagles went three-and-out three times in their first four drives and had only 57 total yards before Wentz hit Mack Hollins in stride with a perfect 64-yard TD pass to tie it at 10.

That got the offense rolling.

Wentz connected with Zach Ertz for 46 yards on the next series and found him again for a 4-yard TD pass to make it 17-10.

After getting the second-half kickoff, the Eagles drove 86 yards for another touchdown. Peters was injured during the series, and fans chanted his name while teammates surrounded the cart.

Wentz finished the drive off with a play that Peters would appreciate.

While being hit by two defenders and falling forward, Wentz lofted a 9-yard TD pass to Corey Clement.

Wentz fired a 10-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor to expand the lead to 31-17. Wentz kept that drive alive by escaping a sack and running 17 yards on third-and-8.

Cousins tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Chris Thompson to give the Redskins a 10-3 lead. He connected with Jordan Reed on a 5-yard TD to cut the deficit to 24-17 and threw a 12-yard pass to Reed to cap the scoring.

The Eagles were penalized on four straight plays to start their first possession before Wentz was intercepted by Quinton Dunbar on a deep pass to Torrey Smith on second-and-31.

Philadelphia swept Washington for the first time since 2013 and has a commanding lead in the NFC East. The Cowboys and Redskins are tied for second place.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Are Patriots' defensive problems solved?

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BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Are Patriots' defensive problems solved?

0:41 - Tom Giles, Michael Holley, and Tom Curran react to the Patriots’ 23-7 win over the Falcons on Sunday night and whether the Patriots deserve to be considered Super Bowl favorites.

6:09 - Is Johnson Bademosi an upgrade over Stephon Gilmore at cornerback for the Patriots? Michael Hurley joins BST to debate with Tom Curran, Michael Holley, and Kayce Smith. They also discuss the defense’s overall improvement in Sunday night’s win.

14:37 - NBC Sports Boston’s Red Sox insider Evan Drellich joins the show to talk about the Red Sox hiring Alex Cora to be their new manager, whether it was the right choice, and how his presence will affect the Red Sox clubhouse.

22:14 - Kayce Smith and Tom Curran discuss Kyrie Irving’s vulgar response to a Philadelphia fan yelling “Where’s LeBron?” at him on Friday night.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE