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.

Clickhereto see who predictionmachine.com picks to win the Jets-Steelers game,with complete statisticalbreakdown

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 DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

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Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch knew he had a good case, otherwise he wouldn't have appealed. It was just a question of when that appeal might be heard. 

As of Wednesday, the Patriots defensive tackle hadnt heard anything as it related to the appeal of his four-game suspension. But by Saturday morning, according to Field Yates of ESPN, Branch had won the appeal and been cleared of the league's ban. 

Branch's agent later confirmed the news on Twitter.

Word of Branch's punishment, which stemmed from what was reported as a positive marijuana test, became public when reported by ESPN on Nov. 21. Per the league's substance abuse policy, appeal hearings are typically scheduled for the fourth Tuesday after a player has been informed of his penalty. The policy notes that it is possible for appeals to be heard on another date should the two sides be able to work out different schedule, but Branch was not optimistic that would be the case earlier this week. 

Good news came quickly, though. 

Had Branch been forced to miss any time, it would have docked the Patriots arguably their top interior defensive lineman. Branch has started every game, and he leads all Patriots defensive tackles with 457 snaps played. 

The Patriots recently waived running back DJ Foster and signed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo, seemingly as a way to build some depth on the roster if Branch had been suspended. 

By having his four-game suspension wiped away not only are the Patriots saved from having to deal without one of their top players in the trenches, but Branch saved himself a relatively hefty financial penalty.

A four-game ban would have cost him nearly $300,000 in base salary as well as four game-day bonuses adding to $100,000. He also stood to lose as much as $750,000 in season-long playing-time incentives. In all, had the suspension stood, it could have cost him about $1.1 million. Patriots salary-cap expert Miguel Benzan goes into more detail about the potential financial impact of Branch's suspension here

Thankfully for Branch, he doesn't have to worry about that any longer. With this situation in the rear view, he can now focus on helping the Patriots win games during the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs.