Five storylines to follow for NFL Championship Sunday

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It’s the NFL and it’s Championship Sunday – we know you don’t need reasons to actually watch the games. But here are five storylines to keep an eye on as we draw closer to kickoff.

1. Are the Jets worn out?
Very few pundits thought the Jets would beat Peyton Manning on his home field and nobody thought they would upset Tom Brady in Foxboro. But after two straight upsets, Gang Green now has everyone’s attention and you get the sense that people are actually starting to get behind Rex Ryan’s team. Compared to the last two weeks, the Jets have been awfully quiet over the past five days as they prepare for the Steelers. Are they focused or have they worn themselves out? Playing on the road is draining enough during the regular season. What happens to a team when they have to play three-straight road games in the playoffs when a Super Bowl is on the line and they’re constantly underdogs? This time last year, the Jets fizzled out. Do they have enough left in the tank this year to pull off one more upset?

2. Will Rodgers continue his onslaught on opposing defenses?
After they crushed the Giants and beat the Bears in their final two regular season games, then went on the road and contained Michael Vick in Philadelphia, the Packers already had plenty of believers last week when they traveled to Atlanta. And after Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic against the Falcons, there’s a large contingent that believes the Pack are Super Bowl bound. But Rodgers has a tough test this Sunday against the Bears, whose defense might as well be cement to Atlanta’s Charmin extra soft. In their Week 17 loss at Lambeau, Chicago held Rodgers relatively in check but he still competed 19-of-28 passes for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Rodgers can make plays with both his arm and legs and he has a knack for getting the ball out of his hand quickly and accurately. Can the Bears pressure him in the pocket and if so, can their corners play as physical as they did last week against Seattle in order to disrupt Rodgers’ rhythm with his receivers? Or will the gunslinger elevate his play one last time in order to make Green Bay’s improbable Super Bowl dreams a reality?

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) points to Jets fans while celebrating his win over the New England Patriots in the AFC division playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on January 16, 2011. The Jets defeated the Patriots 28-21. UPI/Matthew Healey

3. Can the Steelers pressure Sanchez?
Pittsburgh led the league in sacks with 48 but it barely touched Mark Sanchez the first time these two teams played this season. Despite throwing for only 170 yards and rushing for one touchdown, Sanchez led the Jets to a 22-17 victory as the Troy Polamalu-less Steelers failed to make big plays. The Patriots failed to lay a hand on Sanchez last weekend as well and they were burned when the quarterback threw for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Pressure will play a huge role in the outcome of this game, as Pittsburgh must force Sanchez into making poor decisions. The key will be stopping the run and forcing the Jets into obvious passing situations. Once that happens, Dick Lebeau can dial up the blitz and maybe force a turnover or two. He’s no Drew Brees, but the Steelers can’t sit back and allow Sanchez to get comfortable because he’s proven that he can beat defenses with his arm.

4. Can Hester be a difference maker?
The Packers’ game plan for dealing with Devin Hester is not to punt – as in, not to punt, period. But if Chicago’s defense has anything to say about the situation, Green Bay will be punting a handful of times this Sunday. Will the Packers kick to Hester or will they limit his impact by punting the ball out of bounds? In the first meeting between these two teams, Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to set the stage for a Chicago victory. Last week in Atlanta, the Packers allowed a 102-yard Eric Weems kickoff return for a touchdown so it’s apparent that GB’s special teams will give up a big play from time to time. If they do punt to Hester, then he needs to be the game-changer he was all season. The Bears have played exceptionally well under Mike Martz, but Dom Capers’ defense looks lights-out right now and this is certainly a game that could come down to special teams.

5. Will the home teams continue to succeed?
In the last 40 conference championship games, the home teams are 27-13. Last season, the Colts whipped the Jets 30-17 at home and thanks to late-game heroics by Lord Favre, the Saints edged out the Vikings 31-28 in overtime. Two years ago, the Cardinals knocked off the Eagles 32-25 at home and the Steelers handled the Ravens 23-14 at Heinz Field. Could we be in store for a Steelers-Bears Super Bowl or will the public’s new darlings the Jets and Packers rise to the occasion?

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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