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Everywhere you look you are likely to read about the 18 game regular season being a big point of discussion in the NFL labor agreement negotiations between the owners and the players.  But don’t be fooled, this is not the key issue.

Dollar Bills

The big sticking point for the NFL labor agreement.

The 18 game regular season is a nice chip for the league to use to show that they are trying to give the fans what they want – more football that really counts.  In other words, it’s a tactic to get the fans on their side.  But, it was more likely just floated out there to get a feel for public approval.  Well, the public is not that crazy about the idea.  Less than 50 percent of people identifying themselves as NFL fans support the jump to 18 regular season games.

So what’s the real issue?  No surprise – it’s money.  The one thing you need to watch for is the revenue split between the owners and players.  In the current deal $1 billion is taken off the top of the $9 billion of total NFL revenue and given to the owners for “expense credits” that include stadium payment issues and the like.  The rest of the $8 billion is split with 60% going to the players and 40% going to the owners. 

The owners are pushing for another $1 billion to come off the top in the next agreement, dropping the players pool share by $600 million.  How the discussions around that issue work out will determine how quickly a deal gets done.  Everything else will be decided relatively quickly.

I hope the agreement comes soon, but my fear is that it won’t happen until late August or September.  Until then most everything in the NFL will be frozen in time.

Photo source: borman818

It all comes down to this…after two weeks of preparation for the teams and endless analysis from the NFL community, Super Bowl 45 is almost upon us.  And it should be a great matchup.  Both teams got off to great starts in their championship games and were able to hold off their opponents to advance to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Rings

Will the Packers or Steelers add to the collection?

I can see both teams winning this game.  Here are the key things to watch:

  • Early nerves – Watch how the Packers come out in the first quarter.  Do they look nervous?  Are they a little too pumped?  Or are they settling in quickly?  Having been here before the Steelers might be able to get a quick score.
  • Line of scrimmage battle - B.J. Raji has really taken off for the Packers.  He is an extremely disruptive force in the middle of their defensive line.  The Steelers are at a major disadvantage with Doug Legursky at center in place of the injured Maurkice Pouncey.  Pittsburgh is going to have to contain Raji and prevent him from blowing up their running plays and getting a quick jump on Ben Roethlisberger.
  • The outside edge – The Steelers should have an advantage in getting Rashard Mendenhall to the outside on runs.  Watch Green Bay’s defensive strategy to see if they run blitz outside the tackles to try to crumble the edge before Pittsburgh can establish it.
  • Four and five receiver sets – One of the more interesting story lines should be the offensive formations of the Packers.  Will they even try to run the ball?  Will they attempt to utilize the “Bone” formation at all?  Or will they just start from the get go with four and five receiver sets and try to spread the Steeler defense out?  Green Bay is likely to have a major advantage in multiple receiver sets as their wideouts have favorable matchups against the extended secondary of Pittsburgh.
  • The impact of Polamalu – Troy Polamalu has been kind of quiet in these playoffs.  As he’s still recovering from major bumps and bruises suffered throughout the season this last two weeks of rest should really help him.  Will the Steelers set him loose on blitzes?  Or will they need his help in coverage?

Who do I like: Packers 27-21

Why: Aaron Rodgers was spectacular in the Georgia Dome but struggled in the elements of Soldier Field.  He’ll be back inside for the Super Bowl and I expect him to be sharp.  The Packers should be able to do enough quick read stuff on offense to keep the nasty Steelers pass rushers off of Rodgers. 

I think Raji will play a big role for the Packers.  I think Pittsburgh will struggle to control him the whole game.  I do think the Steelers will have success running the ball and finding Heath Miller in the ball control passing game but I think their receivers will struggle to get open against the excellent Green Bay cornerbacks.  I think the Packers will call on their defense to make a big stop within the last two minutes and that the unit will be up to the task and seal the historical win for this great Green Bay franchise.

Photo source: jdtornow

Last weekend was not exactly a bright one in my history of picking games.  I was 1-3 with my only successful pick being the Bears.  The most interesting thing to me about last weekend is that each of the four teams that lost the regular season matchup in the stadium where the playoff game was played won the playoff game.  And, as a teaser for my picks, I think that trend will continue this weekend.

I was going to do more extensive write ups on the two championship games, but to be honest, I’ve been much more interested in the work I’m doing over at my NBA blog.  I’m researching and posting my mid-season rankings by position.  I just posted my mid-season point guard rankings.

Back to the NFL – I do think these championship games could be excellent.  Let’s take a look.

NFC Championship
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Sunday, 3:00 pm

The Packers and Bears split their season series, with each team winning on their home turf.  They most recently met in Green Bay in week 17 in a must win for the Packers who held off the Bears 10-3.  It’s almost amazing to me that Green Bay and Chicago have met 181 times but only once in the playoffs.

Key for the Packers: They have to contain the Bears’ return game.  Devin Hester is explosive and their coverage teams have struggled – see the Eric Weems 102-yard kickoff touchdown return from last weekend.

Key for the Bears: They have to get a strong pass rush from their front four.

Who do I like: Packers 20-13

Why: Rodgers is playing better than any other individual player so far in these playoffs and the Packers defense has been vicious. I like what the Bears have done but I think it ends here.

AFC Championship
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 6:30 pm

Both of these teams scored impressive wins over division rivals last week.  I was especially surprised by the Jets who I expected to get crushed by New England.  Their coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for their tremendously successful game plans.

Key for the Jets: They’ve had success switching to a coverage defensive approach in the last two weeks.  I think they need to go back to the attacking blitz scheme that got them into the Playoffs.  The Steelers offensive line is susceptible to the blitz and the Ravens had success with the blitz.  Baltimore’s switch to a conservative approach is a large part of what did them in.

Key for the Steelers: Stopping the run.  The Jets had over 100 yards rushing when they beat the Steelers in week 15.

Who do I like: Steelers 21-10

Why: It’s important to remember that neither Troy Polamalu nor Heath Miller played in the first matchup.  I think both of those guys make a difference in this game.  Also, the Jets are due for a let down after the huge emotional win over the Patriots.  Ultimately I like the ability of Ben Roethlisberger to make plays more than I like the ability of Mark Sanchez to make plays.

Who do you like in these games?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

Sunday’s NFL playoff undercard is a matchup that you immediately want to write off as one-sided.  The Seahawks, who still don’t have a .500 record after winning a playoff game, travel to Chicago to face the Bears, who finished the season 11-5 and had a bye last week.  But after what the Seahawks were able to do against the defending champion Saints in the Wild Card round you cannot write them off.  Add to that the fact that Seattle has already won in Chicago this year, 23-20 in week six, and this game becomes a whole lot more interesting.

Cedric Tillman at snowy Soldier Field

Cedric Tillman and the Bears defense will not be the pushovers that the Saints were.

The Seahawks have demonstrated a lot of resolve by beating the Rams and Saints in consecutive weeks with their backs against the wall.  Very few NFL observers picked them to win either game.  Last Saturday night against New Orleans it was Matt Hasselbeck who had one of the finest games of his career, completing 22 of 35 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns.  And it was Buffalo castoff Marshawn Lynch who clinched the game with a determined 67-yard touchdown run that thwarted the Saints fourth quarter comeback attempt.

Chicago had its doubters throughout the season, especially after that home loss to Seattle was followed by another home loss to Washington.  But they solidified their need areas during the bye week and finished the season winning seven of their last nine games against a tough schedule. 

The Seahawks win if: They can exploit the Bears’ formerly struggling offensive line to sack Jay Cutler and force him to rush his passes.  The Bears allowed 56 sacks this season, more than any other team in the NFL.  The Seahawks defense was in the top half of the league with 37 sacks and were led by Chris Clemons who had 11.  Seattle had six sacks in the first matchup.

The Bears win if: They take care of the ball and do not turn it over.

Who do I like: Bears 27-13

Why: The Bears team the Seahawks will play in this game is not the same team they matched up with in week six.  Chicago has solidified its offensive line and worked the running game into its offense more.  The Bears should completely shut down the Seahawks running game forcing Hasselbeck into third-and-longs that will enable their pass rush to get good pressure.  I expect the Bears to build a safe lead and cruise to the victory.

Photo source: The U.S. Army

Tom Brady

Expect a big game from Tom Brady against the Jets Sunday afternoon.

Ladies and gentlemen…get ready for your main event!  The Jets and Patriots have been battling through the media since the preseason.  They’ve also met twice on the field with each team winning at home.  They most recently met in week 13 in a game that was never close.  Everything went against the Jets and the Patriots crushed them 45-3 in Gillette Stadium.  But they have split their last six games.

The Jets come into this battle off an excellent wild card win over the Colts in Indianapolis.  Rex Ryan shockingly called off the dogs, not turning on the blitz and dropping linebackers into coverage.  The Jets cranked up the running game gaining 169 yards on 38 carries.  Mark Sanchez didn’t play well but it did not end up costing New York.

New England was the best team in the NFL this season, winning 14 games and racking up 518 points, almost 100 more than the next best team.  The Patriots young defense struggled against the pass early in the season but has improved by leaps and bounds in the second half of 2010.  Tom Brady had an MVP season and the offense featured a number of new weapons with no weak link.

The Jets win if: They adequately cover the Patriots’ tight ends and backs.  New England is deadly with the underneath and delayed running back routes.  It is not the Jets’ strong suit but they are going to have to shut down the tight ends and backs as much as possible.

The Patriots win if: They can stop the Jets running game.  They cannot depend on as many things going wrong for New York as did in the week 13 game.  The defense needs to be stout and stack up the run, forcing Sanchez into third and longs.

Who do I like: Patriots 27-17

Why: After all the talking this week the Patriots will be ultra-motivated to beat the Jets, not that they need to be to beat New York.  I think the Jets will slow them down a bit but Brady will dink and dunk his way down the field on long drives with lots of passes.  I think Ryan’s best play this week will again be to drop more ‘backers into coverage.  I also think New England will force Sanchez into difficult situations and bring different looks to confuse him.

I definitely like New England by a big margin in this playoff matchup.  Let me know who you think will win and why in the comments section below.

Photo source: americanistadechiapas

The Packers and Falcons will meet Saturday night in the Georgia Dome for what many will consider to be the de facto NFC Championship game.  The same teams met in the same place in week 12 with the home team winning 20-17 on a Matt Bryant field goal with nine seconds left in the game.  Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to major yardage, with 344 yards passing and 51 yards on the ground, but not enough scoring for a win.  Matt Ryan and Roddy White were relatively quiet while Michael Turner gained 110 yards on 23 carries.

Georgia Dome

The Georgia Dome will see an explosive game on Saturday night.

The Packers won a tight game in Philadelphia over the NFC East champion Eagles last Sunday.  Rodgers was solid but it was rookie running back James Starks who made the difference.  He racked up a surprising 123 yards on 23 carries.

While the Packers were battling to hold on against the Eagles the Falcons were home waiting to see who their next opponent would be.  At 13-3, Atlanta had a great year and won the NFC South behind the three-headed monster of Ryan, Turner and White.

The Packers win if: Their defense can keep Turner contained on first and second down.  Green Bay’s run defense is just 18th in the NFL and it hurt them in the first game against Atlanta.  They played the run well against Philadelphia last week, giving up just 49 yards on 13 carries to running backs.

The Falcons win if: They can slow down the Packers potent passing game.  The Falcons have not played the pass real well, ranking 22nd in the NFL in pass defense.  They rank only 20th in the NFL in sacks.  They’ll need to pressure Rodgers and excel in coverage to beat Green Bay.

Who do I like: Falcons 34-30

Why: This will be a shootout.  I think the Falcons defense will be able to stop the Packers running game and not allow Starks to break through for another big day.  I expect John Abraham to apply the pressure on Rodgers and the Falcons secondary to do just enough to slow down the Packers passing game.  I think Turner will put forth another solid effort and take some of the pressure off Ryan.  I would not be surprised to see Eric Weems break a big return.

Who do you like in this NFC heavyweight matchup?  Let me know your thoughts on the game in the comments section below.

Photo source: Chrisjnelson at en.wikipedia

This almost had to happen didn’t it?  The Ravens and Steelers battered and bruised their way to identical 12-4 records.  They split their two meetings, with each team winning on the road.  And before, during and after the season many folks had Baltimore and Pittsburgh identified as NFL championship contenders.  On Saturday, they’ll meet one more time to settle the AFC North score for the 2010 season.

Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco's poise under pressure will be a key to the Ravens beating the Steelers on Saturday.

Baltimore comes into the game after an impressive Wild Card win in Kansas City.  The Ravens dominated the time of possession, held the Chiefs to just 161 total yards and forced five turnovers.

Pittsburgh had a bye last week by virtue of winning the AFC North and clinching the two seed in the AFC.  The key to the Steelers success throughout the season was their stellar defense, which was second in the NFL in allowing only 276.8 yards per game. 

The Ravens win if: Joe Flacco makes quick reads and finds the open man.  Flacco showed great poise in the pocket against the Chiefs and had the patience to let the underneath routes develop.  Obviously pass protection will be key as well.

The Steelers win if: The offensive line wins their individual battles.  To stop the Ravens from teeing off on Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh will have to mix the run and pass with success.  The Steelers line will have to drive the Ravens front seven off the line of scrimmage while giving Roethlisberger the time to look for Mike Wallace.

Who do I like: Ravens 14-13

Why: I think you can throw the fact that the Steelers have won the last six matchups against the Ravens with Roethlisberger in the lineup out the window.  What I think this game will come down to is emotion and motivation.  I think the Ravens will rally around the grief that Ed Reed is experiencing right now and be absolutely determined to win this game for him.  I think the game will come down to a last minute defensive stop by the Ravens after they get Ray Rice involved early.

How do you see this brutal battle playing out?  Let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Photo source: swiecicki

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