NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — The Green Bay Packers go to Soldier Field favored to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday in their first NFL playoffs match since 1941 thanks to impressive results in the last month.
With wins over the New York Giants and Bears at Lambeau Field to get into the playoffs, then victories at the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is performing at a championship level, and he has the surrounding talent to keep this surge going.
This will be the 182nd meeting between the Packers and Bears in their 90-year rivalry, and none more anticipated than this one for the NFC Championship. Only once before have they met in the playoffs and that was a week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, when the Bears beat the Packers at baseball’s Wrigley Field.
The AFC Championship follows at Heinz Field where the underdog New York Jets, after disposing of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, then Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, try for the trifecta of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rex Ryan might be bombastic, but in his two seasons as Jets coach he also has been brilliant, leading them to four road playoff victories in five attempts. Roethlisberger made note of that this week, but veteran Steelers receiver Hines Ward mentioned that his quarterback gets away from the rush better and stays up longer when hit than Manning or Brady did against the Jets this month.
Still, the Steelers want to be a run-first offense and need to prosper on the ground to beat the Jets. New York cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie match up well against Pittsburgh’s wideouts, although Ward has a penchant for big plays in the biggest games.
The Steelers concede less yards than the Jets, particularly against the run. That means Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez must be as effective as he was last week in the upset of New England, against which he threw for three touchdowns. One of those was to Santonio Holmes, the hero of the Steelers’ Super Bowl win two years ago and now the Jets’ game-breaking receiver.
“Your mindset has to be you are going to be the guy to make that play,” Holmes says.
New York won 22-17 at Heinz Field in December, a game that two key Steelers missed. Star safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller are back, and the Jets can struggle down the middle covering tight ends.
Polamalu’s unpredictability — he has enough freedom to pop up anywhere — makes it that much more difficult to avoid him.
“There isn’t anyone in the league that can cover space like Troy can,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “There isn’t anyone that has a feel for the game, I think, like Troy has. You don’t see anyone jumping over on fourth-and-1 situations on a quarterback sneak, timing the blitz perfectly to where they snap the ball, and he is over there making the play.
“That’s the biggest thing: You know you are going to get a couple of special plays from that guy, especially when it comes around to playoff time. We look forward to seeing some spectacular moves from Mr. Polamalu.”
The Jets don’t.
Green Bay nearly won at Soldier Field in September, and was stymied by a team-record 18 penalties as much as anything. The Packers have been far more efficient recently, with Rodgers regularly finding his impressive receiving corps, led by Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones. They will present matchup problems for Chicago’s cornerbacks.
Green Bay’s defense also has become formidable, just as dominating as Chicago’s can be.
The Bears have playmakers Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. The Packers counter with Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and B.J. Raji.
“It’s probably the best defense we’ve played to date, just fundamentally sound in the way they’re playing,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said, “Right now, the best thing we can do is out-execute their defense.”
Perhaps the Bears’ difference-maker will be the dynamic Devin Hester. The record-setting kick returner has a strong history in the postseason, and it would be wise for the Packers to avoid kicking his way.
The Bears haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 2006, when they lost to Indianapolis. Green Bay last appeared in the big game in 1998, losing their title to Denver.
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Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.