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AFC, NFC championships compelling beyond Tom Brady-Peyton Manning

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AFC, NFC championships compelling beyond Tom Brady-Peyton Manning

The boxing cliché that “styles make fights” says that contrasting strengths make for the best competitions, and the matchups in the AFC and NFC championship games this weekend are all of that. And these extend far deeper than just Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Besides, those two aren’t ever on the field at the same time anyhow.

Other matchups are far more relevant to game conduct and outcomes.

Coaches

Both championship games involve teams with head coaches from opposite sides of the football. Offense vs. defense. Both games.

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Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is a go-downfield boss who reined in quarterback Carson Palmer in a overtime win against the Green Bay Packers. Arians says now that the Cardinals will get back to their core style, the one that made Arizona No. 1 in total yardage and No. 2 in points per game.

Against him is Ron Rivera, he of the ’85 Bears, aggressive defense (part of where he and Lovie Smith diverged sharply) and the No. 6 overall defense.

Bill Belichick’s legend owes in very large part to the quarterbacking of Brady, but in even larger measure to Belichick’s New England defense.

Against that will be former NFL quarterback Gary Kubiak’s Denver Broncos, the one offense among the final four not ranked in the top three in points scored. But the Broncos also the only one who didn’t have its starting quarterback for all 16 games, yet was solid enough to win five games starting a backup quarterback (Brock Osweiler).

Offenses vs. defenses

In one of the key tipping-point stats:

Arizona ranks No. 1 in yards per pass play. Palmer’s 8.70-yard average is nearly a full yard more than Cam Newton’s (7.75) for Carolina. Carolina is No. 2 against the pass.

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Meaning: The NFC championship game has the conference’s best passing offense against its best pass defense.

The only defense better per pass than the Panthers is the Broncos. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 2) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3) were better than Brady and New England in the AFC this year. The Broncos did allow seven pass plays of 20 yards or longer in defeating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, but more than half were short tosses with yards after catch, and the Broncos didn't allow Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers a single touchdown pass.

Meaning: The thing that the Patriots do best — pass the football — is the thing that the Broncos are best at stopping.

Ball security

If there is a decision point in either game, it is in turnovers. And then only in the AFC.

Three of the four remaining quarterbacks — Brady, Manning, Newton — have thrown zero interceptions in their one-game postseasons. Palmer, in what was a decidedly shaky playoff game, threw two. Carolina led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential. Arizona stood fourth with a plus-9.

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Carolina had the NFL’s best passer-rating-against this season (73.5). No team intercepted more than the Panthers’ 24 pass pick-off’s. Turnovers decide football games and if Palmer and the Cardinals commit them in Charlotte, they will lose.

Brady-Manning? The two rank 5-6 with nearly identical career passer ratings, reflective of ball security. The Broncos led the NFL in sack rate and ended the Steelers season with a final takedown of Roethlisberger.

But the Patriots were 4-2 in games in which Brady was sacked three or more times. Denver defensive lineman Antonio Smith said that Brady may whine a bit, looking for penalty flags, when he’s hit, but Smith also said that hits don’t particularly faze Brady, either. 

Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Bears add another pair of players following Mitch Trubisky to the Pro Bowl

Add two more names to the list of Bears Pro Bowlers this season.

Offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno Jr. are also heading to Orlando to help lend some protection to Mitch Trubisky, who was named as a replacement to Rams QB Jared Goff Monday.

Leno takes the place of Saints tackle Terron Armstead and Whitehair is replacing New Orleans center Max Unger for this weekend's exhibition game.

Whitehair and Leno have been staples on the Bears offensive line, starting every game the last three seasons (Whitehair at center or guard, Leno at left tackle). 

Whitehair, 26, was a 2nd round selection in 2016 while Leno, 27, was a 7th round draft pick in 2014 in Phil Emery's last draft as Bears GM.

Both players were a huge part of a line that paved the way for Trubisky and Co. to pass for 3,747 yads and rush for 1,938 yards with 44 total offensive TDs.

The complete list of Bears players going to the Pro Bowl after a 12-4 season now sits at: Trubisky, Whitehair, Leno, Tarik Cohen, Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. 

This is the first time the Bears have had 8 Pro Bowlers since 2007 (following the 2006 season). They previously had 9 selections in the Super Bowl championship season of 1985 and 11 Pro Bowlers in 1942.

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Elite? More proof the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2019

Elite? More proof the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2019

Comparisons in sports are both easy and inevitable, particularly when the actual entities being compared don’t in some way compete directly against each other to settle the discussion. Joe Louis didn’t ever meet Muhammed Ali in the squared circle. The ’85 Bears defense was a decade too late to take the field against the ‘70’s Steel Curtain, and besides, they wouldn’t have been on the field at the same time anyway.

But comparing the 2018 Bears – and for purposes here, the 2019 Bears – to the current standards of excellence – Super Bowl entrants Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots – is possible. And arguably relevant. More on that momentarily.

For context’s sake, consider the Bears vs. the NFC North and in particular the two measuring standards going into last season, Green Bay and Minnesota.

The Bears went a convincing 5-1 in the division. They dispatched the Detroit Lions twice by a combined 19 points, including 7-point win in Detroit in the second game when their backup QB outplayed the Lions’ starter, whose arrow is what it is at this point. Detroit had won nine of the previous 10 meetings before last year; it can all change that quickly.

The Bears also took the measure of the Packers, going on the road in week one and letting complacency creep into a game they controlled. That was back when Cody Parkey was making all (three) of his field goals and before a young team fully grasped that a wounded animal is sometimes more dangerous than a healthy one. By the time the Packers made their visit to Soldier Field, the Bears had evolved to the point of never trailing in a game in which they, fittingly, clinched the NFC North outright.

As for the Vikings, the popular pick to win both the division and the NFC was squashed a second time in a season. The Bears won going away over a team that was playing for its playoff life.

Pulling the camera back for a wider perspective…

The division is one thing, and it’s entirely possible that the Bears could be incrementally better in 2019 with a settled-in coach, system and roster and still lose more than one game in the division. Green Bay is getting a new coach, Kirk Cousins could perform closer to the level the Vikings thought they were getting with their $84 million guaranteed, and the Lions could…well, the Lions…the Lions are tough at home.

But with the not-assured assumption that the Bears at least offensively can improve in 2019, the case can be made that they in fact are deserving of being in the NFC-elite discussion, perhaps NFL-elite.

The reasons start with the obvious, that they field a defense that is superior to that of the Patriots (16th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking) and the Rams (19th). The correlation between that and success, however, isn’t automatic: Only they and the Baltimore Ravens from among the top seven defenses reached the postseason.

Seven of the top 10 offenses, based on Football Outsiders’ metric, did reach the playoffs, though, and Nos. 2 (Rams) and 5 (Patriots) play for the next Lombardi. The Bears ranked 20th; among the playoff participants, only Houston (21st) and Dallas (24th) ranked lower, and the Bears and Texans were out in the wild-card round.

The Bears benefitted from a fourth-place schedule that included only three playoff teams – Rams, Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. But the Bears did defeat two of those three (Rams, Seahawks).

Next season, six of the Bears games are against playoff teams, plus two against 8-7-1 Minnesota, meaning that half of their games are against winning teams, based on that strength-of-schedule permutation.

But getting to a final point of comparison, the Bears defeated the Rams despite an-overamp’ed Mitchell Trubisky throwing three interceptions (to Jared Goff’s four). They led the Patriots early in the third quarter, fell behind and came up a yard short on a Hail Mary that would’ve tied the game (with the leap of faith that Parkey would have converted the PAT). Trubisky threw 2 interceptions but the Bears out-rushed the Patriots, an area that has been an underappreciated area of strength for the Brady offense. The majority (81) of the Bears rushing yardage (134) came from Trubisky, and an upgrade at running back rates here as the No. 1 offseason Bears need. (Well, tied for No. 1, with kicker; that’s in a different class.)

The future is promised to no one. GM Ryan Pace said as much in his season-ending remarks: “It’s on us to ensure that we’re on the right track and that we stay on the right track.”

But rare has been the season this decade that ended with legitimate bases for projecting the Bears into a position where the oft-amusing odds of winning the Super Bowl get at least a cursory look for reasons other than ridicule. Reflecting on the conference championship games and the upcoming Super Bowl, the Bears have those legitimate reasons.

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