Anybody can get 3/4 right; it's one pick off of a coin flip's chance. The conference championships are, I think, the hardest round to pick. You've got two games, and you really only get credit if you get both right. At least with the Super Bowl you just have the one game, and lots of people get it wrong. And you can always explain away a miscalculation: "Oh, well if so-and-so hadn't gotten hurt," or "I don't know why the coach changed them from what they'd done all season." But conference championships? It's win or go home for predictors, too.
So let's win. Or go home.
NFC Championship Game
#6 Green Bay Packers at #2 Chicago Bears
Pretty much every year, I've tried to convince myself that there's a way to predict the Packers will go to the Super Bowl. I always talk myself out of it, but this year's team is better than any has been since Favre was in town. As I talked about last week, the defense has caught up with one of the league's most potent offenses to create maybe the best team in football. Yes, better than the Patriots, or the Steelers, or the Falcons.
Meanwhile, the Bears seem to yet be winning games with smoke and mirrors. They took a quick lead on the Seahawks, then seemed to think the game was over in the fourth quarter (which it mostly was, but still), when they gave up three touchdowns to Matt Hasselbeck in garbage time. Did they need to hammer down on Seattle at that point? No. But I think it says something about your team when you close out the other guys.
The biggest concern here is that it was the defense that seemed to lose focus. The defense is the only reason the Bears have come this far. They sport the fourth-best points defense and ninth-best yardage defense in football, which is good, because they have the third-worst yardage offense at 289.4 yards per game. That puts them behind such offensive juggernauts as the Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams, and Miami Dolphins.
In the end, I think things will bear out as expected, and Green Bay will be the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. I don't think home-field or weather or "fate" will stop these Packers from playing in Dallas. And honestly, I don't think it'll be close.
Prediction: Packers 42, Bears 20
AFC Championship Game
#6 New York Jets at #2 Pittsburgh Steelers
As some of you know, I really don't like the Steelers. It's not an assessment of their talent, as you saw me pick them to beat the Ravens last week in a nail-biter (which it was). And as I've said, I think Troy Polamalu is one of the few guys in football you simply can't overrate. But having to deal with out-of-town Pittsburgh fans, between the Penguins and Steelers, it gets obnoxious.
(Conspicuously absent are any mentions of the Pirates by Maryland's "Pittsburgh" fans; hey, Neil Walker is a nice story!)
What you might not know, however, is that I actually like the Jets. I worked in a liquor store back in 2001, and we had one of those candy machines that sold miniature football helmets for fifty cents. One of our customers bought a couple, and he didn't want the Jets helmet, so he offered to me. I've had a little Jets helmet at my desk either at home or at work ever since. I embraced the Jerricho Cotchery years (to my own demise). I cheered on Curtis Martin's end-of-career revival. And I've always had a soft spot for Chad Pennington.
And now this new group is, I think, even more likable. Rex Ryan seems like the kind of coach who can get guys to go to battle for him, and his willingness to be the focal point of trash talk and controversy is refreshing. Darrelle Revis is one of the elite players in football today (another guy like Polamalu, who is simply as good as advertised), and Mark Sanchez, while young and unpolished, is an exciting quarterback to watch when his confidence is up.
That's what makes it so hard to pick the Steelers, but it's what I've got to do. I think the Pittsburgh offense is too good at spreading the ball around to be stifled by Revis and the rest of a very good defense. And the Pittsburgh defense is going to make sure that the Jets' running game is stuffed, forcing Sanchez to win the game. He's good, and he's growing, but I don't think he's ready for that yet. Should be a good game, though.
Prediction: Steelers 26, Jets 21
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