When I worked for CBS, the stories about "The NFL Today" were endless and entertaining, but most every story involved legendary commentator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder. The Greek each week would discuss three games with host Brent Musberger, then tell the television audience who he thought would win. On his radio show an hour before "The NFL Today" went on the air, The Greek also made his predictions on those three games to his radio audience. But in every case, Greek's radio picks never matched his television picks. He either changed his mind or, depending on which platform you heard his picks that week, he had a chance to be right.
Well, the same thing happened to me this week. On Monday, I was a guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and they asked me who I liked in the games this weekend. Then, later that same day I was on Bill Simmons' podcast breaking down both games and predicting who would win. However, today after spending the last few days studying tape, I need to pull a Greek.
My first instincts told me one thing, and now my research tells me another. Here are my breakdowns of the conference championship games:
What the Bears must do to win
Chicago's formula for winning has been the same all season: Control vertical field position with special teams, make opponents play on a long field and prevent big plays. Then, offensively protect the football, don't try to be too cute and take calculated risks.
The Bears are one of the best red-zone defensive teams in the league. Even if a team drives down the field, it will be met with resistance as it nears the goal line. This keeps the Bears in most games and allows them to maintain balance on offense, not exposing this poor offensive line to an all-pass game.
The Bears ran the ball well in the season-ending game against the Packers, but that statistic is misleading, in part, because the Packers played nickel to the Bears' two-back formation and dared them to run the ball. However, in this game the Bears must also run the ball to keep the Packers from employing their flock of exotic blitzes. The Bears cannot get desperate or panic if they are not moving the ball on the ground, as they need to eliminate negative plays to avoid third-and-long situations. Chicago faced 16 third downs in the last game against Green Bay, which is a high number. Even though they did not convert well (31 percent), the Bears were able to reduce the game, thus limiting the Packers' offense to 53 plays. Any play count below 60 favors the Bears.
Special teams must dominate for the Bears, much like it did in the first meeting between these two teams back in September, when the Bears had 91 yards on just three kickoff returns and 93 on three punt returns. Those 184 yards are not included in the offensive numbers, but they greatly affect the offense. The Bears had only 47 yards on kickoff returns and just 50 on five punt returns in the rematch. This is a must-win area for Chicago.
What the Packers must do to win
Green Bay must be patient on offense and have its best third-down efficiency performance of the season. Last time they played the Bears, the Packers only converted two of 11 third downs, which limited their chances of keeping the ball. The Packers throw to run, so with James Starks more involved with the offense, those runs might be more impactful. Aaron Rodgers can't finish this game as the team's rushing leader.
Last time they played, the Packers' wide receivers had some critical drops on key downs. For them to win this game, they must catch the ball (the Packers are ranked 13th in the NFL in drops), they must contain Julius Peppers and they must have their best red-zone offensive plan of the season. Their ability to execute in the red zone will be critical.
The grass at Soldier Field favors the Bears, in part, because it is a slow track that will slow down a fast Packers defense. However, the biggest factor on a bad field is to be able to stay in balance when playing man-to-man, something the Jets didn't do when they faced the Bears in Week 16. If the Packers are able to deal with the field and not get called for defensive holding in critical situations, then their pressure packages will be able to create problems for the Bears.
The Packers are strong along their defensive line, and the Bears are weak in their offensive line, therefore the Packers must dominate this area. Cullen Jenkins or B.J. Raji must win his one-on-one matchup inside, pushing the pocket back and closing Cutler's escape route. Cutler is a good runner with his eyes always down the field. For the Packers to win, they must contain Cutler like they did the last game.
Both kickers are used to kicking cold footballs, therefore the most crucial element for both coaches will be to determine the cutoff point when attempting a field goal, putting the offense in four-down territory or pooch punting. These decisions must be made before the start of the game, and adjusted as the winds shift and the temperature drops.
Mistakes in this area, resulting in a missed field goal, will create the turnovers each team desperately seek and the field position to score.
Watching the tape from both games, the Packers appear to be the better team, but the Bears play them well and make them work for every yard. My biggest concern for the Packers centers on being able to control the kicking game and not letting the Bears find those hidden yards. In the final analysis, though, I favor the Packers in a close game.
What the Jets must do to win
The Jets' path to the Super Bowl is similar to the Bears: Control vertical field position with dynamic returner Brad Smith; proceed carefully on offense, taking calculated risks; and playing great defense. The Jets must run the ball, which is difficult -- not impossible, though -- against the Steelers.
Also, the Jets must win first downs, gain positive yards and limit their negative plays. It allows quarterback Mark Sanchez to have some easy throws, getting into the rhythm of the game and not playing too fast. When the Jets cross midfield, they will take a shot down the field, utilizing their skill players to make plays. This formula starts with being productive on first down, which is critical for the Jets.
The Jets must be able to handle the speed of Mike Wallace, and rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. In the last game, back in Week 15, Antonio Cromartie played on Wallace, while Darrelle Revis handled Hines Ward. This might not happen this week because I doubt the Jets want to waste Revis on Ward. The Jets must play better in their defensive front, getting pressure when rushing just four people. If they send overload pressures, they run the risk of allowing Ben Roethlisberger to escape the pocket. Out of the pocket is when Big Ben is at his best.
What the Steelers must do to win
The Steelers' offensive line must have its best game of the year. Even though it handled the Jets in the first game, it still made the one mistake that ultimately cost Pittsburgh the game, allowing Jason Taylor to break through the line and tackle Mewelde Moore in the end zone. The Steelers' offense is set up to handle the Jets, in terms of scheme, as they will use more bunch formations to prevent the Jets from easy access to coverage, hoping to create blown assignments. That is, if the line can protect.
In the first game, the Steelers ran the ball well, especially from the spread, which even New England did well last week. This must continue. Their wide receivers must win at the line of scrimmage, and Big Ben must put the Steelers in the right protection when the Jets bring pressure. Roethlisberger is always the key player for the Steelers' success, as he can turn broken plays into big plays. He must protect the ball, especially in the pocket when the pressure is coming.
There will be plays to be made, as the Jets will struggle to cover with their third and fourth corners. But even though Cromartie covered Wallace well in the first game, there were still times when Wallace got behind Cromartie. Wallace is currently the fastest player I have seen on tape, and he will need to make big plays for the Steelers to win.
The Steelers must play the run better this time than they did in the first game, and they must disrupt the easy throws the Jets love so much, especially on first down. The Jets' offense is not complex, and the Steelers must lock in and win the down-and-distance battle. If they do, they will create turnovers.
Weather will be a factor, as the temperature will hover around 10 degrees come kickoff time, which will make the ball extremely hard and tough to kick. Both kickers in the game, Nick Folk for the Jets and Shawn Suisham for the Steelers, will be challenged. Add in the difficulty of kicking on the Heinz Field turn, and the kickers will play a huge role in deciding the outcome of this game. When to kick, much like the Packers-Bears game, will also be a factor.
One thing for sure, these games will be great, the Super Bowl will be even better, and I hope to see you in Pittsburgh.