TheDC sports columnist Andy Hayes: Conference Championship picks

Andy Hayes Contributor
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Finished last weekend 3-1 (because the Pats didn’t show up). That leaves me 6-2 for the playoffs and 141-119 overall. Some great games coming up Sunday.

  • Packers vs Bears. The Bears’ record when Brian Urlacher is on the field: 56-33. Their record when he’s not: 7-16. Urlacher’s return this year has been huge. He is the soul of a Chicago defense that was made better by the additions of Chris Harris and Julius Peppers. Strong play from Charles Tillman, the always steady Lance Briggs and the re-emerging Tommy Harris has helped too. This is a good defensive team. And obviously with Hester (and the unheralded kick returner Danieal Manning), the special teams for the Bears is…special. The offense is a different story. I hesitate to bring up the now cliche references to Good Jay and Bad Jay – but it’s hard not to because his inconsistent play affects his team significantly. Take a look at Cutler’s last 5 games for example. In 3 of those 5 games he’s had a QB rating of more than 104, but in the other two games the QB ratings were 43.5 and 32.9. (The 43.5 QB rating, incidentally, was against the Packers at Lambeau in Week 17). Jay Cutler struggles with what Dom Capers throws at him and his tendency to get sacked and turn the ball over could really hurt the Bears this weekend. But as much attention as Cutler, the Bears’ D, Hester, Rodgers and the Packers’ offense are getting in the media before this game – I think the silent key Sunday will be whether or not the Packers can slow down Matt Forte. In 4 of the 5 Bear losses this year, Forte was largely absent. When Forte is running well and/or catching lots of passes, the Bears’ offense opens up considerably, Cutler doesn’t press as much and the Bears typically win. But when Forte is a non-factor, that’s when Cutler starts forcing passes and getting sacked a bunch. You can bet that Dom Capers will be setting up the Packers D to stop Forte (both running and catching the ball), daring Cutler to chuck it around against a Packer secondary that has been playing well lately. For the Packers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike McCarthy leans heavily on rookie RB James Starks early in an effort to set up play action and open up the passing game. Then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Aaron Rodgers eventually go nuts. In keeping with my pre-season pick of the Pack winning the Super Bowl, I’ll take the Pack to roll here.  Packers 31, Chicago 16.
  • Jets vs Steelers. The Jets impressed last week by not flinching at all in Foxboro against the mighty Patriots. They took their brand of football right to the favored Pats and ultimately, made the Pats look pretty bad. Tom Brady in particular looked incredibly bad when considering he’ll likely win the MVP award. But I’m still not convinced. I still don’t think the Jets are that good. While there are an number of folks who believe the Jets are destined to knock off Pitt and continue their run, I’m not one of them. And the main reason why I can’t jump on board is the Jets’ offense. I still think the Jets have one of the most vanilla offenses in the NFL. The plays are simplified so that Sanchez can manage the game. Not a dumb strategy with a young QB – but a strategy that should make veteran D-Coordinators salivate. When the Jets played the Packers earlier in the year, I predicted a Packer victory (despite the Pack being a 6.5 point dog), mostly because I assumed Dom Capers would see right through the vanilla offense. He did – the Jets scored 0 points. Against good defensive teams (and the Pats, by the way, are not a good defensive team), the Jets offense should do very little. Yes, the Jets put up 22 on Pitt in Week 15, but 9 of those points came from their special teams/defense and importantly, Troy Polamalu wasn’t playing. My guess is that the Jets score no more than 10 points this Sunday and Pitt wins comfortably. Polamalu being back in the lineup can’t be underestimated – he’s the best player on a defense loaded with good players. The Jets only chance this week is for Brad Smith to go nuts with a run back or two. Pitt 24, NYJ 10.