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NFL Conference Championship Storylines for Sunday

We started the season with 32 teams, but now the cream has been separated from the crop and the best, final four teams are left standing.  Chicago, Green Bay, New York and Pittsburgh will leave no stone underturned, jockeying for the right to play in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. 

Here are 10 storylines that could determine which teams earn one more game and which teams season with end with a disappointing final loss.

1.  Can the Jets be road warriors for the third straight week?  Knocking off the Colts and Peyton Manning in Indy? Check.  Avenging a humiliating defeat on Monday Night Football and bouncing Brady and the Patriots in Foxboro?  No sweat.  Now all that’s standing in New York’s path to Dallas is a third straight playoff road game, this time in Pittsburgh.  Rex Ryan and his squad have extinguished personal demons and settled personal scores the past two weeks.  They’ve been brash and chatty, and if you ask them, they’ll tell you just how good they are.  The Jets have relished the underdog role in their wins over the Colts and Patriots, while expending a lot of energy and emotion in those rivalry clashes.  Will they have enough left in the tank against the Steelers, or will the Jets fall short in the AFC title game for the second year in a row?

2.  The awesome-ness of Aaron Rodgers.  Since Dec.26th, the Packers have been in win-or-head-home mode.  And since that date, including the playoffs, Rodgers has thrown 11 TD’s to just one interception.  Last week, Rodgers was phenomenal against the Falcons, with 366 passing yards and three scores.  He led the Pack on four scoring drives of at least 80 yards and threw only five incompletions.  Perhaps the best and most dangerous No.6 seed in the history of the playoffs, Rodgers lead Green Bay into Chicago where, unlike the Falcons’ Kleenex-soft defensive effort, the Bears’ fourth-ranked defense will be a drastically stiffer test.  Chicago kept Rodgers at bay in two meetings in the regular season, as Rodgers threw for a touchdown and an interception in both games.  Rodgers sports a QB passer rating in the playoffs of 134.5, 546 yards passing, six touchdowns and no picks.  Philadelphia did a decent job on Rodgers and Atlanta got smoked by Rodgers.  The Bears will need their stand out defensive effort of the season if they plan on going to the Super Bowl.

3.  Home cooking in conference title games.  Going back to the past 40 conference championship games, the home team is 27-13.  In the AFC, the road team hasn’t won since 2006 when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Denver Broncos, 34-17, in Denver.  On the flip side in the NFC, the road team in a conference championship has won only once in the past six years, the 2007 New York Giants winning a thriller over Green Bay in Lambeau Field, 23-20 in overtime.  In the past two seasons, the home team in conference title games is 4-0:  Indianapolis and New Orleans were both victorious at home last year and two years ago Arizona and Pittsburgh both punched Super Bowl tickets by winning at home as well.

4.  Will Jay Cutler be able to outduel Aaron Rodgers?  This is what the Bears envisioned by trading for Jay Cutler  before the 2009-10 season.  Much was made last year about Cutler’s lead high 26 interceptions.  Often described as cocky and careless with the football sometimes, this season his gun-slinging, brash demeanor has Chicago 60 minutes from playing in their second Super Bowl since 2007.  Sitting at 4-3 going into their bye week after a 3-0 start, the Bears won seven of their final nine games with one of their losses coming against Green Bay on the last day of the regular season.  In their 7-2 run and nabbing the No.2 seed, Cutler threw 16 TD’s in that span.  Last week in his first ever playoff appearance, Cutler relished January football, with four combined touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) and 274 passing yards.   In two meetings with Green Bay this season, Cutler threw three picks and only one touchdown.  He’ll need to be the 2010-11 Jay Cutler today should the Bears get past the Packers.  Never one to shy away from the heat of the moment and the competition, this is Cutler’s big chance to outplay his counterpart, Rodgers, and take the Bears to the promise land.

5.  Sanchez has a chance to do something special.   Albeit a memorable one, the last time the New York Jets played in the Super Bowl was 1969, their shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, down in the Orange Bowl.  That was over 40 years ago, when a gallon of gas was 35 cents and Sugar, Sugar by The Archies was the top song on the Billboard Top 100.  Yeah, it was a long time ago.   Now for the first time since 1998, the Jets are back in the AFC Championship and it’s on the shoulders of Mark Sanchez to get New York back onto the grandest stage in all of sports.  All he’s done in two short seasons in the NFL is take his team to two consecutive conference championship games and post a 4-1 playoff record, with all four of his wins coming on the road.  His hit list of quarterbacks he’s beaten is impressive:  Carson Palmer, Phillip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Sanchez led the Jets on a game-winning drive to beat the Colts with a field goal as time expired and last week, he threw three touchdowns to three different receivers while playing mistake free.  He holds a victory of Roethlisberger, as the Jets beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh earlier this season, 22-17 despite just 170 yards passing.  Against the Steelers’, once more he’ll have to move fast, think even faster, and put the Jets in a position to win rather than putting them in chase mode.  If he’s given time, he’ll beat the Steelers with his arm just like he did a week ago against New England.   Should he complete the trifecta, in three straight weeks Sanchez will have beaten Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger.  How many quarterbacks can brag about accomplishing that feat?

6.  Devin Hester and Brad Smith could be key X-factors.   The game plan is simple:  don’t kick to Chicago’s Devin Hester.  Just don’t do it.  Green Bay would be wise to employ that strategy on punts because if the ball ends up in Hester’s hands, there’s a dangerous chance he’ll end up putting six points on the board.   He did it to the Packers once already this season, returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the Bears’ 20-17 win.  Considered the most dangerous return man in the NFL, no doubt Hester took notice of Atlanta’s Eric Weems taking a kickoff 102 yards for a score against the Packers.  Brad Smith got the Jets started fast with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown just 12 seconds into their first meeting with the Steelers.  Both Hester and Smith will play critical roles in the return game, jockeying to win the field position battle for their respective teams.  Caution to Green Bay and Pittsburgh: kick to Hester and Smith at your own risk.

7.  Will Pittsburgh’s defense be able to get to Sanchez this time around?   Of the four teams left, the New York Jets’ offensive line has by far done the best job in the playoffs.  They’ve made life easy for Sanchez, giving him ample time and a clean pocket to work with.  That was the case in their first contest against the Steelers.  Without safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ defense didn’t force any turnovers and registered just one sack on Sanchez.  Pressure will be a big determining factor.  The Steelers must life uncomfortable, if not downright miserable for Sanchez.  Pressure him, hit him, knock him down, force him out of the pocket.  Get him off his game early.  Like any quarterback, if you give him time and space, he’ll successfully operate.  The Steelers need to force Sanchez to make some bad throws and bad decisions with the football.

8.  Whichever front seven wins the battles will determine outcome of Bears/Packers.   Both teams sport top five defensive units and despite the glitz and glamor both have on offense, it’ll come down to defense for the Bears and the Packers.  Last week, Chicago held the Seahawks to 276 total yards, but didn’t force any turnovers.  Defensive tackle Tommie Harris registered both sacks on Matt Hasselbeck.  Along with Harris, defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije have to find ways to dominate the Packers’ offensive line.  Both Peppers and Idonije had eight sacks each in the regular season and combined for three tackles last Sunday.  Along with stalwart linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, the Bears have the tools and the talent make it a long, tough afternoon if they’re able to successfully pressure Aaron Rodgers.   The object for Chicago would be to avoid the Falcons’ formula.  The Packers’ sport two defensive MVPs, last year’s winner CB Charles Woodson and this year’s likely winner OLB Clay Matthews, who had 14 sacks in 2010.  BJ Raji and Cullen Jenkins each finished the year with seven sacks, and LB AJ Hawk led the team in tackles.  The wild card here is Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who is a scheme genius.  Capers will have a game plan designed to both pressure and confuse Cutler.  How he’s able to determine who’s coming and where and when it’s coming will be vital for the Bears’ offense.

9.  The Jets’ running attack has to help, not hurt Sanchez.   The first time around the Jets’ total 106 rushing yards on the Steelers’ defense, while no Jets running back rushed for more than 49 yards in the game.   But against one of the league’s heavyweight defenses at stopping the run, New York was only the second team this season to rush for over 100 yards on the ground against the Steelers.  The Jets can ill afford to become one dimensional and put the game entirely on Sanchez.  New York’s bread and butter is ground, ground and pound.  Against Pittsburgh they don’t have to be outstanding running the ball, they just have to duplicate the formula in the first meeting where they run it well enough so the offense doesn’t become predictable and it doesn’t become a shooting galley against Sanchez.

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