What a sick set of playoff games we got going here, folks. The Seahawks shocked the world in the first round by knocking off the champs. Then they got beaten up in frosty Chicago. Atlanta was 13-3, but they had no answer for the red-hot Packers and their deadly QB. The Ravens stuck it to the Chiefs, but couldn’t stop Pittsburgh from coming back to secure their third straight playoff victory against Baltimore.

Then there’s the Jets. Everyone loved ‘em, then turned on them, and now all the love is back. If the Pats win, Rex Ryan is a pompous fool whose shit-talking ways could not match the evil composure of New England. But the Pats lost, so Ryan’s bluster is a strength once again.

The Jets have every right to be all proud and swaggery. They shut down the Colts at home. They neutered New England in Foxborough. They were motivated by so many factors: beatdown redemption, fetish jokes, hell, they were even fighting for Dennis Byrd, who overcame a gruesome neck injury in 1992 and beat paralysis so he could inspire future Jets players to stick it to the Patriots.

So many story lines. So much drama. And now we’re down to the final four. With three more meaningful football games left, let’s take a look at who we think will make it to the big dance.

Green Bay -3.5 At Chicago

It had to be this way. What a classic NFC matchup. These two teams have such a storied, historic rivalry, but they met in the playoffs only once (back in 1941). Seventy years is long time to wait for a postseason rematch, but these teams know each other well, and they’ve been preparing for this moment for some time.

Road to the NFC Championship

When he was hired back in 2004, Chicago head coach Lovie Smith laid out his strategy for success: 1) Beat the Packers. 2) Win the division. 3) Win the Super Bowl.

The following year in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers was brought in to make everyone forget about Favre. He sat in the shadows, growing his beard for a handful of seasons before Green Bay finally pulled the trigger and sent Favre packing. Rodgers has developed into a top-tier quarterback, something the Bears lacked desperately.

Fast forward to 2009. Chicago brings in sleepy face all-star Jay Cutler to run the offense. Things didn’t work out that well last season (or during the first half of this year), but with the o-line coming together and Mike Martz making his celebrated in-season strategy adjustment after the bye week, the Bears offense is finally working.

Now on paper, Chicago’s had the easiest road to the Super Bowl in the history of the NFL. They got to host the worst playoff team in NFL history, and they follow that up with a visit from the No.6 seed in the NFC. The Packers aren’t your typical six seed, and the Seahawks earned some respect by taking out the Saints. Still, the Bears are just one home win away from their second Super Bowl appearance in five years.

The Packers have had their back against the wall since Week 16 of the regular season. To get into the tournament, Green Bay needed victories in two must-win regular season games against the Giants and the Bears. The Packers took care of business. They followed that up by taking out an Eagles team that was favored to win. They were dogs in Atlanta and they dismantled that team. The Packers have been in playoff mode for more than a month. The Falcons and Pats showed this weekend that momentum is a huge factor in the postseason. Like the Steelers in ‘05, the Giants in ‘07 and the Cardinals in ’08, teams that peak at the right time can do serious damage in the playoffs.

The Matchup

Chicago matches up well against the Packers. The Bears won the first regular season meeting in Soldier Field by a field goal, and with nothing for the Bears to play for, the Packers beat the Bears in Lambeau by a score in the final game of the regular season. Field conditions won’t be an issue for either team. These teams compete in the coldest division in football. They’re both used to playing in shit conditions.

So the real question is, which Cutler will we see this weekend? The confident, attacking, even-I-can’t-believe-I-ran-for-two-scores warrior that we saw for most of the Seattle game? Or the guy who too often targets the wrong color jersey (like he did on that one, unthinkable goal line pass this past Sunday).

Cutler’s a question mark, but Rodgers isn’t. The guy’s on a different level right now. In two playoff games, he’s completed 49 passes on 63 attempts for 546 yards, 6 TDs and no picks. Completing 77.8 percent of your playoff passes is pretty ridiculous. He’s obviously getting great protection, but even when the pocket collapses, Rodgers has been able to create opportunities. His QB rating this postseason is 134.5.

The Bears defense is back in a big way, baby. Seattle only mustered 34 rushing yards against Chicago. The Seahawks converted only three third downs in 14 opportunities. In two games against the Packers this season, Chicago held Green Bay to 62 rushing yards. Starks may have given the Green Bay ground game a shot in the arm, but Rodgers will be responsible for moving the chains and putting points on the board.

Green Bay’s no slouch on defense either. Tramon Williams has three picks in two playoff games. Clay Matthews may look like a shampoo model, but he’s a terror. If the Packers mix it up on D, they can force Cutler to make some bad throws.

McCarthy calls the right plays, Rodgers stays locked in and the Packers roll over the Bears in Chicago.

PICK: Packers -3.5

At Pittsburgh -3.5 N.Y.  Jets

Can the Jets keep the magic going? Can they ride that emotional tidal wave for one more week? Will the frenzy surrounding the Pats game to lead to an inevitable emotional letdown? Rex Ryan will be forced to find some new, semi-ridiculous way to motivate his team this week. Maybe some Pittsburgh scribe will pen a line about Santonio Holmes being a thug on a classless team. I could see that happening. Let’s rally around Santonio! He was a victim of a heartless organization! What other us vs. the world story lines could Rex come up with? I bet some brilliant Steeler like Ike Taylor takes the bait and says something real stupid. He’ll say something extra-clever like Rex is fat or all firemen are lazy. It’s going to be tough to come up with bulletin board material this week,so the Jets will need to find internal ways to motivate themselves.

Road to the AFC Championship

What a tough road these Jets have had. Two road game victories against the Colts and the Pats and the reward is a trip Pittsburgh to face a team that’s won two Super Bowls in the last five years? Ouch. You can’t script a more difficult path to a Super Bowl berth. It’s like what the Chicago Bears had to do this postseason, only the exact opposite.

If you recall, the Steelers weren’t supposed to be in the playoffs. With Big Ben’s big, four-game suspension, this was an 8-8 team at best.  But the Steelers are good. And they’re healthy, too. When the Jets beat the Steelers a few weeks back, Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu were watching from the sidelines. Remember how that game ended? The Steelers were near the goal line in the final seconds of the game and and Roethlisberger hit backup tight end in the hands twice in the endzone. There’s no way Miller drops both those potentially game winning passes.

The Matchup

The Jets shut down Peyton Manning and Tom Brady by disguising their looks and playing great coverage. I bet they blitz the hell out of Pittsburgh. If you give Big Ben all kinds of time to throw, he’ll create passing opportunities out of nothing. He’ll find Heath Miller in the flat or he’ll connect with Hines Ward as the receiver flows back to the ball. The Jets need to find a way to create pressure.

The Steelers will have their work cut out for them when they have the ball. If Revis takes out Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall can’t find any running lanes, it’s up to Pittsburgh’s young receivers to make the most of their targets. Luckily for the Steelers, young speedsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are both capable making plays in the passing game. Big Ben plays big in big games. Even when he sucks (like he did in Super Bowl XL), he still makes you believe that the play is never dead.

Mark Sanchez played like garbage against the Colts. He regularly sailed passes over open receivers, and he just looked jittery all game. Jittery Sanchez made a couple appearances early against the Pats, but you got to give the winningest QB in Jets playoff history credit for calming down and showing poise as the game progressed. The Steelers will present Sanchez with his biggest challenge yet. They just bring way more pressure than the Colts (even with Freeney) and the ultra-young Pats D. New York’s o-line is no joke, but rest assured, Sanchez will need to run for his life on more than one occasion this weekend.

The Jets can run the ball, even on the Steelers. New York ran for 106 yards against the Steelers in their regular season matchup. That might not sound all that impressive, but the Steelers set a franchise record by holding opponents to an average of 62.8 rushing yards per game. The Jets gained more yards on the ground against the Steelers than any other team this season.

But the Steelers are the better team. They have a better defense, a better QB and a more even-keeled approach. The Jets can’t help but be emotionally deflated this weekend. No matter how fired up they are, nothing will match the intensity that the Jets brought to New England. The Steelers cover and make it to the Super Bowl.

PICK: Steelers -3.5

Last week: 2-2
Season: 131-124-7

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