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?

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Two factors that could doom the Packers or Bears

Chicago Bears punt returner Devin Hester (C) breaks tackles by Green Bay Packers special teams players Brandon Chillar (L) and Brett Goode on his way to a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on September 27, 2010. The Bears won 20-17. UPI/Brian Kersey

As we approach kickoff for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, here are two factors (one for each team) that could potentially keep the Packers or Bears from reaching the Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers: Special Teams
Against the Falcons last week, the Packers dominated two of the three main phases of the game (offense and defense) but lost the third (special teams). After tying the score 7-7 early in the second quarter, Eric Weems returned a 102-yard kickoff for a touchdown against Green Bay’s shaky kickoff coverage. In Week 12, it was Weems’ 40-yard kickoff return and subsequent facemask penalty on Matt Willhelm that helped put the Falcons in position to kick a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

In the Bears’ Week 3 win over the Pack, Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, which gave Chicago a 14-10 lead with 14 minutes to play. If there’s one area of concern for the Packers heading into this weekend, it has to be their special teams. They’re allowing 38.9 yards per punt attempt this season, which ranks them 26th in the league in that category. Granted, they rank first in kickoff touchback percentage (4.23%), but Weems proved last week that their coverage unit is liable to give up a big play at any time. Hester is a game-changer; the Packers better be prepared.

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Should the Bears extend Lovie Smith’s contract?

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith watches his team play the New England Patriots during the second quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on December 12, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey

If Bear fans were presented with this question before the season started, half of them would have probably said that Lovie Smith would have to win the Super Bowl this year and the other half would have given an empathetic: “No.”

If the hated Packers wax the Bears this Sunday at Solider Field, it stands to reason that Chicago fans will return to the same mindset they had before the season and wish Smith the best as he heads out the door. But what if the Bears win? Then what? Even if they lose to the Steelers or Jets in the Super Bowl, Smith would be responsible for taking the Bears to the title game twice in the past five years. Doesn’t he deserve a contract extension because of that?

Smith has one more year left on his current deal and at least one of his players thinks that he deserves an extension (from ESPN.com):

“I believe he has done a great job here. He’s the reason we’ve won,” [Brian] Urlacher said Wednesday on “Mike & Mike In The Morning” on ESPN Radio. “I think he’s been here seven years and this is our second NFC Championship [Game], and it hasn’t been that way around here in a long time. There were a few years where we were 7-9, 8-8 and that was good. People were excited about that because it meant we were getting better.

“Now if we’re not in the playoffs or the NFC championship people are disappointed, and that’s because of him. That’s how he makes people believe around here, and that’s what he expects out of us. I believe in him. I don’t see why he wouldn’t get an extension. He’s earned it, and I don’t want to play for any other coach.”

Urlacher makes a fair point but fans aren’t going to forget how Smith has struggled with game preparation and in-game management over the years. Good coaches put game plans together that take advantage of their opposition’s weaknesses throughout the course of a game. The better ones are not only good game-planners, but they make solid halftime adjustments to win in the second half.

The best head coaches, guys like Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and even Rex Ryan from a defensive standpoint, can make adjustments on the fly. They don’t stray from their game plan, but they can attack opponents series-to-series and strike when the iron’s hot. Whether fans like to admit it, Smith can put together a good game plan more times than not. But he doesn’t always make sound halftime adjustments and he rarely makes in-game adjustments to attack his opponent when they’re not looking.

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Cutler lifts Bears to Divisional win over Seahawks, sets up rematch with Packers

Chicago Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler celebrates after his touchdown pass to teammate Kellen Davis in the fourth quarter of play against the Seattle Seahawks during their NFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Chicago, January 16, 2011. REUTERS/Frank Polich (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are five thoughts on the Bears’ impressive 35-24 victory over the Seahawks in the Divisional Round on Sunday.

1. What inexperience?
Jay Cutler did Sunday what Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan couldn’t this weekend: Elevate his game when it mattered most. For all the talk about his lack of postseason experience, Cutler played like a 10-year playoff veteran on Sunday. He set the tone early with a picture-perfect 58-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen on the Bears’ third offensive play from scrimmage and then showed pure grit and determination on his 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. On the day, he was 15-of-28 passing for 274 yards with four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) and zero interceptions (although he came close to throwing a couple of picks, including one at the goal line). Cutler has really put a lot of his past troubles behind him and deserves praise for his unflappable play on Sunday. He was highly impressive.

2. Cutler also got a lot of help from his offensive line.
The Bears’ O-line has taken a lot of heat for its play over the last couple of years, and deservedly so. But they’ve been a transformed unit since midway through the season and a lot of credit goes to Mike Tice and Lovie Smith for moving guys around to better match their strengths (and quite frankly, hide their weaknesses, too). Cutler was excellent but he also had plenty of time to survey the field and pick apart Seattle’s overmatched secondary. His front five did an outstanding job swallowing the Seahawks’ pass-rushers and keeping them out of the backfield.

3. That’s Bear defense right there.
The final score doesn’t do the Bears justice. Their defense played out of its mind for three quarters and that’s about as aggressive as I’ve seen Chicago’s secondary play all season. Unlike other teams who like to play their corners 10 yards off the ball and give opponents easy yards via slants and screens, the Bears’ DBs suffocated Seattle’s wideouts all afternoon. Granted, nobody outside of Brandon Stokley fought back, but credit still goes to the Bears’ corners for bringing the fight to them right from the start. Once again, Julius Peppers failed to record a sack but he got pressure on Hasselbeck all day. You have to focus on him to really appreciate what he does for that defense. He helped paved the way for fellow linemen like Tommie Harris, who did rack up two sacks. Without a doubt, J-Pepp was worth the money the Bears spent this offseason.

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