Is it ‘Curtains’ for Ryan’s Express?

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You’ve got to hand it to Rex Ryan. For a second straight week his players backed up his talk.

Most impressively his Jets defense bottled up a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in successive weeks, first frustrating Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and then doing more of the same to New England’s Tom Brady.

The win over the Pats expunged the bad taste that had lingered with the Jets for the past six weeks following that ugly 45-3 beat down administered by New England on this field on the first Monday of December.

And thus the Jets provided the last piece to the puzzle that is the NFL’s version of the Final Four, joining Chicago, Green Bay and Pittsburgh to stand just one win away from playing in Super Bowl XLV.

In what is widely acclaimed as the NFL’s best weekend of football each season, last weekend’s divisional round was highly entertaining if not dramatic. On average, 58 points were scored in the four games as each went OVER the total.

Both Conference Championship games feature rematches of games played earlier this season. In the AFC, the Jets return to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, looking to repeat their win in the Steel City in mid December. In the NFC, Chicago plays host to division rival Green Bay as the Bears and Packers meet for a third time this season after the home team won both regular season meetings. It’s the first post season meeting of these long time bitter rivals since a week following the attack on Pearl Harbor back in 1941.

Perhaps even more interesting about Conference Championship weekend is that both games feature No. 6 seeds at No. 2 seeds after Green Bay ousted top NFC seed Atlanta on Saturday and a day later the Jets did the same to the Patriots.

Prior to the 2008 playoffs, at least one top seeded team had played for its conference championship in each of the 18 seasons that the current playoff format has been in place! Only twice before has a 6 faced a 2 for a Conference title and both involved Pittsburgh.

In the 2005 playoffs, the sixth seeded Steelers won the AFC at second seeded Denver 34-17 (as three point dogs) before defeating Seattle to win Super Bowl XL. Three seasons later, Pittsburgh was the 2 seed hosting No. 6 Baltimore. The Steelers won 23-14 and went on to defeat Arizona in XLIII.

Pittsburgh opened as pretty much a solid three point favorite over the Jets in what will be the nightcap Sunday. By Monday morning, the line had risen to 3½ in a number of locales while attaching a vig of -120 to -125 at the books that continued to post Pittsburgh as a FG favorite.

The total opened at 38 and had moved up a half point at some books, approaching 39 which was the final total of their first meeting, won by the Jets 22-17.

In the NFC Championship game, Green Bay opened as a three point road favorite and much like the Steelers, has moved at some books to 3½ while remaining three at other books with a vig of -120 to -125 attached. The total opened at 43½ and had risen to 44 at some books as of Monday morning.

Since the current playoff format was introduced in 1990, there have been six other Conference Championship games in which the road team was favored. The home team lost the first three (0-2-1 ATS) but has won two of the last three (also 2-1 ATS).

Defense has always been a strong indicator of success in this round of the playoffs, especially when it comes to preventing points. Over the past 30 seasons, the team which allowed fewer points during the regular season has covered the point spread in nearly two thirds of all conference title games.

Here’s a look at the two games that will determine the matchup for Super Bowl XLV to be played two weeks hence, on Sunday, Feb. 6, in Arlington. TX.

NFC Championship

Green Bay -3 at Chicago (43½): The Packers have won four straight and the streak could be longer but for the concussion suffered by Rodgers early in a 7-3 loss to Detroit which also caused him to miss the next week’s game, a 31-27 loss at New England. Green Bay was second only to Pittsburgh in allowing the fewest points in the league this season, an average of just 15 per game.

Chicago ranked fourth defensively, allowing just under a FG more per game than the Pack. In terms of yards per game, Green Bay ranked fifth and Chicago was tenth. Offensively Green Bay had a significant edge, ranking ninth in yards and tenth in scoring. Chicago’s ranks were 30 and 21 respectively and its significantly higher points ranking compared to yards gained results largely from the outstanding returns of Devin Hester.

The pick in this column at the start of the season and repeated on the eve of the playoffs was for Green Bay to play in the Super Bowl. In the 40 Conference Championship games played under the current format that began in 1990, the straight up winner of the game is 33-6-1 ATS (84.6 percent). Of the three playoff rounds prior to the Super Bowl, home teams have won a smaller percentage of Conference Championship games (62.5 percent) than wild card (66.3 percent) or divisional (73.8 percent).

Against that same level of competition (which does not include their playoff win against a losing Seattle team), Chicago was 3-3, outscored by an average of 6.3 points per game and outgained by an average of a whopping 139 yards per game. PACKERS.

AFC Championship

Jets +3½ at Pittsburgh (38½): Ryan has shown brilliance both in devising a game plan to attack the strength of the opponents the Jets will face and in creating a loose and confident attitude in the locker room. While New England has been considered the dominant team of the new millennium by virtue of winning three Super Bowls since the dawn of the century, Pittsburgh is just three weeks away from equaling that feat with a win in Super Bowl XLV that would also be the seventh in franchise history.

In many ways, this week’s situation is much like the one the Steelers were in last week. They defeated a Baltimore team that had won four road playoff games over the past three seasons under the guidance of a third year head coach and leadership of a third year quarterback. The Steelers allowed the fewest points in the league this season (240) and allowed the second fewest yards (277 per game).

Pittsburgh was dominant against the rush, allowing just 63 ypg – a full 27 ypg game less than second best Chicago, an extraordinarily wide gap between first and second. The Jets were also strong defensively, third best in fewest yards allowed and No. 6 in fewest points surrendered. The strength of the Jets’ offense is their ground game, No. 4 in the league compared to No. 22 in passing offense. The Steelers were a more balanced 11th rushing and 14th passing.

The Steelers have the experience edge of winning a pair of AFC titles over the last five seasons, once at home and once on the road. The concern for the Jets is their pedestrian offense which scored just 17 points in their win over the Colts and was held to just 14 points in the win over New England until the fourth quarter.

It would not be a surprise if the game falls right on the point spread with Pittsburgh winning by a FG. Especially with Troy Polamalu playing this week after missing the regular season contest. UNDER.

last week                 since Oct 25                     PCT

1-3                             85-69-2                            55.6

 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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