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AFC, NFC title games rooted in pain

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 21, 2011 02:51 PM

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The autopsy of the Patriots is still ongoing, but while football season is dead and gone in New England it rages on in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, and gridiron's mecca, Green Bay.

It's championship weekend in the National Football League and if you can bear to watch after the Patriots' untimely demise at the hands of the jawing Jets then there should be some good football to fill up Sunday afternoon. The Steelers and Jets tangle in the AFC title game at Heinz Field, and eternal rivals the Bears and Packers are pitted against each other in the NFC title tilt at Soldier Field, or as Wes Welker might refer to it, Foot-Soldier Field.

I can't blame you if you choose not to watch. This playoff defeat for the Patriots stung like rubbing alcohol on a fresh wound. This weekend is reminiscent of the 2003 baseball playoffs, which around here was like the strike-shortened season of 1994 -- there was no World Series. If I have to tell you why you're either too young to remember Aaron Boone's blast or you've suppressed it from your memory. Good for you, either way.

This weekend is even tougher television viewing for the Foxborough Faithful because the NFL's Final Four is comprised of teams the Patriots beat during the regular-season, and in the cases of the Steelers, Bears, and Jets, handily. The AFC Championship Game is a particularly loathsome affair for the locals. Rooting for either of those teams feels a bit like a root canal.

The Jets are still taking shots at Tom Brady, while being all lovey-dovey with Ben Roethlisberger. You know, the same guy who missed the first four games of the season due to an NFL suspension that stemmed from allegations of sexual misconduct. But boy does Bart Scott admire the way Big Ben can take a hit. While it's impossible for the In Bill We Trust crowd to support the J-E-T-S, it is worth keeping in mind that Rex and his wrecking crew are now oddly defenders of the Patriots' legacy place.

If the Steelers advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons and then go on to win it, then it would be hard to argue that the Patriots are still the reigning royalty of the NFL, not with Pittsburgh winning three Super Bowls since the Patriots last held the Lombardi Trophy aloft. Another Super Bowl win would also tie Roethlisberger with Tom Brady, three a piece.

On the other hand, the only thing that will shush Team Snack Pack is having to eat their own words after losing in the AFC title game for the second straight year. If they win it's two more weeks of Jets unplugged. Mark Sanchez will have set an NFL record for most road playoff wins by a quarterback with five, and Ryan and his defense will have taken out the top three quarterbacks in the AFC -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Roethlisberger (sorry, Philip Rivers) on the way to North Texas.

We'll never hear the end of that from the jabbering Jets. Talk about a no-win situation for New England.

The Jets beat Pittsburgh in Week 15, 22-17, albeit the Steelers were without safety Troy Polamalu. It's not going to be easy for the Jets to go to the old ground-and-pound and shield Sanchez this time.

Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards on the ground in the NFL this season (62.8). The latter day Steel Curtain didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 15 consecutive post-season games. Expect a slug-fest that the Jets pull out.

The NFC presents more likeable teams. Ever since the Packers came into Gillette Stadium with a great game plan and without Aaron Rodgers and nearly beat the Patriots, they've looked like Super Bowl contenders. Keep in mind the Pack had to win their last two regular-season games, including a 10-3 win over Chicago, just to get into the playoffs. So, they've basically won four straight playoff games.

Make it five. The Packers have the look of the 2007 Giants, but they remind me of the 2003-2004 Patriots. They're a team that can play any game and beat you at it. You want to trade haymakers and highlights in a high-scoring shootout? No problem, they have Rodgers, who is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw three touchdown passes in his first three postseason starts.

You want to play a grind-it-out, defense-first, turf-war? No problem. The Packers have an aggressive attacking defense with the best set of corners in the NFL in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, an impact pass rusher in Clay Matthews and an underrated Pro Bowl safety in Nick Collins.

The Packers blew the doors off the Giants, 45-17, in Week 16 and then came back in the regular-season finale and bested the Bears, 10-3. They also have a 9-0 win over the Jets. Plus, coach Mike McCarthy always sounds like Elvis at the podium.

Chicago and Green Bay split their two regular-season meetings, but the Bears' 20-17 win on Sept 27 was a bit flukey. The Packers had a franchise-record 18 penalties, including a pass-interference penalty that wiped out a game-sealing pick by Jay Cutler (get ready to hear those words again) and instead set up the winning field goal with four seconds left. The Packers actually had two penalties late in the fourth quarter that negated Cutler interceptions.

I just don't trust Cutler in a game of this magnitude. Offensively, in eight quarters of football, Cutler and the Bears have one touchdown against the Green Bay defense. Cutler has thrown three interceptions, had two more wiped out by Packers' penalties and been sacked nine times, including six in the regular-season finale at Lambeau.

Da Bears are done. It's going to be Jets vs. Packers at Jerry Jones Texas' showplace in Super Bowl XLV. We'll see if it comes to fruition.

If you can stand to watch.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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