Analysis: NFL conference championship games

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Analysis: NFL conference championship games

By Ray Didinger
CSNPhilly

Sizing up Sundays NFL Conference Championship games.:

NATIONAL CONFERENCE
GREEN BAY (12-6) at CHICAGO(12-5)
3 p.m. FOX

Ever since Aaron Rodgers returned from the concussion he suffered against Detroit (Dec. 12th), he has been untouchable and the Packers have been unbeatable. They won four in a row over the Giants, Chicago, the Eagles and Atlanta to advance to the conference final. They are playing with tremendous confidence and for good reason: They have the hottest quarterback in the final four.

Checkoutpredictionmachine.com for analysis and forecast of the Packers-Bearsgame

Ever since Aaron Rodgers returned from the concussion he suffered against Detroit (Dec. 12th), he has been untouchable and the Packers have been unbeatable. They won four in a row over the Giants, Chicago, the Eagles and Atlanta to advance to the conference final. They are playing with tremendous confidence and for good reason: They have the hottest quarterback in the final four.

Rodgers had a 134.5 quarterback rating in the playoff wins over the Eagles and Atlanta with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was 31 for 36 passing against the No. 1 seed Falcons and was in complete command, avoiding the rush and coolly picking apart the Atlanta defense. The Packers won the game 48-21 and it really wasnt that close.

The Chicago defense is very good (fourth in points allowed), but it is also very vanilla. The Bears play almost exclusively a Cover 2 zone scheme with the safeties deep. They allow few big plays, they tackle well and they are stout against the run (90.1 yards per game), but Rodgers knows them so well at this point he will know exactly where to go with the ball.

If the field is as sloppy as it usually is -- it was an absolute mess for the Eagles game in November it may work to the advantage of the visiting Packers. The Bears must get a rush on Rodgers if they hope to slow him down, but if the footing is bad, it will make it harder for Julius Peppers and the other D-linemen to push off. Also, Greg Jennings, the Packers best receiver, loves to double move and that could leave a defensive back on the seat of his pants.

On the other side, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler had a big game last week against Seattle (two rushing touchdowns, two touchdown passes), but the Green Bay defense is a different animal. When these teams played in the final week of the regular season, the Bears managed just three points and Cutler was one-for-13 on passes to wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.

The suffocating coverage of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams combined with the pass rush of linebackers Clay Matthews and Erik Walden will be more than the Bears can overcome.

Didinger's pick: Packers 21, Bears 16.

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

N.Y. JETS (13-5) at PITTSBURGH(13-4)
6:30 p.m. CBS

On Week 15, the Jets beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, 22-17, in game that probably saved their season. They had lost back-to-back games to New England (45-3) and Miami (10-6) and fallen to 9-4 and appeared in danger of missing the playoffs.

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However, the Jets regrouped to win in Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history. Quarterback Mark Sanchez came up with a clutch performance and the Jets slipped into the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Following upset wins in Indianapolis and New England, coach Rex Ryans team now is just one win away from the Super Bowl.

All the Jets need to do is win another game in Pittsburgh. Shouldnt be that hard, right? They did it just a few weeks ago.

Well, this will be different. For one thing, it is a conference championship game which raises the stakes considerably. Also, the Steelers will have All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for this game. They did not have him when the teams played last month.

How much of a difference does that make? In the past two seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays and 6-7 when he does not. He is that important to coordinator Dick LeBeaus defense. His versatility, his ability to blitz as well as cover and line up all over the field can unnerve and distract a young quarterback, even one as cool as Sanchez.

Sanchez is 4-1 in post-season starts, all of them on the road, which is quite a record, but he has not faced a defense as good as this one. The Indianapolis defense ranked 20th, the Patriots defense ranked 25th. The Steelers were second overall in defense and led the NFL with 48 sacks. They mauled Baltimores Joe Flacco in the divisional playoff (one fumble, one interception, five sacks).

Ryan has devised schemes to defeat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks, but Ben Roethlisberger is a different kind of quarterback: bigger, stronger and better than either Manning or Brady at extending plays and creating outside the pocket. He usually finds ways to win (9-2 in the post-season) and he will do it again Sunday.

Didinger's pick: Steelers 17, Jets 13.

Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

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Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

Malcolm Butler was one of many not spotted during OTAs on Thursday when the media got a looksee at one of the practices.

Butler wasn’t the only one. But he did stand out as a missing player who hadn’t (to my knowledge) had a surgery but did have a contract that needs addressing. Another one? Rob Gronkowski. If we really want to extend it out, throw in Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan.

This is the point where it’s important to point out that these workouts are voluntary – VAW-LUN-TERR-EEEE! Players don’t have to be there. Additionally, I’m not even sure Butler or Gronkowski (or Ryan and Harmon) weren’t at the facility. All I know is they weren’t on the field. And, per usual, nobody’s tipping his hand as to why.

But we do have this, relative to Butler. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to his contract status.” Reiss said that Butler “told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.”

In the same vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronkowski opted out as well for the same reason, especially since he threw out a tweet that signaled dissatisfaction with his pact in March.

But in terms of a statement, not going to OTAs is more of a throat-clearing than a noisy proclamation.

Not to minimize the move if Butler, Gronkowski or anybody else is actually staying away because of business. The Patriots usually enjoy almost perfect OTA attendance. Also, there hasn’t been much contract strife around here for the past five seasons.

Money matters were an annual issue for the Patriots from about 2003 through 2010. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ty Warren, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and – quietly – Tom Brady all had their contract dances back then. But the only one that got hairy in the recent past was Wes Welker.

It’s still too soon to know if any of these will get contentious. When will we know? When either a player or his agent spouts off. Or, when someone’s a no-show at mandatory minicamp beginning June 7.

That would amount to a shot across the bow. Of all the players likely to take that shot, Butler seems a reasonable bet. His base pay this season is $600K after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 that saw him check the opposition’s best wideout on a weekly basis. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He deserves longer-term security than he currently has. Gronkowski has a lot less to kick about. He may make less than lesser players, but he also was the league’s highest paid tight end when he was missing scads of games due to injury.

After Butler, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower would figure to have the strongest cases to want new deals and want them snappy. Ryan and Harmon would be right behind those two. Then Jabaal Sheard.

Sheard, Hightower and Collins were all on the field Thursday. 

Can the Patriots get all these guys reupped? Will they even try? How do they have them prioritized? If the guy who howls loudest gets to the front of the line, the time to make some noise is close.

But we have yet to hear any of these players loud and clear.