Seattle tries to make it two huge upset specials in a row.
Plus we get the best rivalry going in the AFC — and the Patriots and the Jets.
We look ahead with a game of boom or bust.
1. The Jets will successfully pressure Tom Brady
Frankly this is everything for the Jets on Sunday. It’s more important than Mark Sanchez throwing touchdowns or Antonio Cromartie cursing at Tom Brady. When you look at the rare times Brady has struggled in his career, whether it was the loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl or a random Monday night game in Miami when Jim Bates was coaching, it is all about taking Brady out of his comfort zone.
Yes, the Patriots blasted the Jets 45-3 the last time these clubs faced each other, but the Jets are actually 2-2 against New England in the two years since Rex Ryan took over. And in the two wins, the Jets have done a great job applying pressure. But with Logan Mankins back at guard, with the Patriots’ outstanding young tight ends, and with Brady’s great knack for checking down and making the right read in a season for the ages, it is a bust, at least in terms of doing it consistently enough for a Jets win.
In talking to Jets defensive end Mike DeVito on Sirius NFL Radio this week he said that while the Jets have the utmost respect for Brady, they also have a lot of confidence facing the star quarterback because they beat the Patriots by double digits in Week 2. DeVito added, “We’ve beaten them and beaten them pretty badly. We need to get them into a rough, physical brawl.”
It’s the absolute right mentality. But while there is precedent that the Jets can do it, the pass rush has been inconsistent all year long. In Week 16, they couldn’t overpower the beatable Bears’ offensive line, allowing Jay Cutler and Chicago to cruise to a win and score over 30 points.
And oh yeah — Tom Brady is amazing.
We talked to future Hall of Famer Jason Taylor about Brady’s genius and how you game plan for it on SNY this week. Taylor said, “He obviously has all the physical abilities and all the talent. But beyond that, he always finds a way to win. He can diagnose what is going to happen. He won’t put his team in a whole lot of negative plays. He is very protective of the football and won’t turn it over. And the thing about them this year is that they are so high in the turnover ratio and Brady scores points off of turnovers. He is always tough to play against. He’s the best in the league. But you have to stay after him, stay in his face. You have to get pressure with not only blitzes, but with your front 4 or 3 or whatever you send. You have to be consistent. There will be a time he holds the ball and that’s when you make a play.”
It all sounds great in theory. But with the aforementioned tight ends, the steady Wes Welker and Deion Branch at receiver, Danny Woodhead catching it out of the backfield, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis running it for balance, it is tough to see the Jets solving Brady on Sunday.
2. The Bears will overlook the Seahawks
After last week’s Seahawks upset for the ages, this is a bust.
And there’s really no way it can happen after Seattle won in Chicago earlier in the year.
But in talking to Seahawks general manager John Schneider on Sirius NFL Radio this week, he made an excellent point. You really cannot take anything from the regular-season game. Chicago was a team, specifically an offense, in transition; leaky up front and way too reliant on the pass. The Bears have established much more mixture on offense, running the ball more down the stretch of the season and running it with authority.
And the last time these clubs played, Marshawn Lynch had just unpacked from Buffalo.
The Bears will be ready and should win this one comfortably with a great defensive performance. Chicago is second against the run, third in takeaways. Brian Urlacher won’t let the Bears lose.
3. Aaron Rodgers will outplay Matt Ryan
I cannot wait for this game. And while I respect both quarterbacks immensely, this is an absolute boom.
Matt Ryan is a great, clutch player. I documented his pure genius in our last column. But the Packers defense is playing better than it has all year. They forced six Giants turnovers in Week 16. Green Bay held Chicago to three points in the regular-season finale. And they bottled up Michael Vick last weekend. Tramon Williams’ pick of Vick at the end of the game typifies the clutch, game-changing plays Green Bay makes under defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Green Bay’s defense has become dominant on every level. B.J. Raji is an elite nose tackle. Clay Matthews is now practicing after some injuries late in the year slowed him and is back to his dominant level. Williams and Charles Woodson form the best cornerback combo in the NFC. I don’t see Ryan and the Falcons lighting it up.
On the flip side, I have such tremendous respect for the job that Mike Smith and the underrated Falcons defense has done all year. But Rodgers is playing brilliant ball. The Green Bay offensive line is clicking. And in talking to Rodgers a few weeks ago, he was still chapped about his goal-line fumble in Atlanta Thanksgiving weekend. And now with James Starks giving Green Bay at least the threat of balance, it makes Rodgers and the passing attack even more difficult to contain.
4. The Ravens defense will outplay the Pittsburgh defense
I cannot wait for this game. This is old-fashioned, smash-mouth football. This, not the Patriots and the Jets, is the best rivalry going this weekend. And I love it. Or as Haloti Ngata told us on Sirius NFL Radio, “We are so alike. And when you are so similar, you dislike each other so much.”
Well said, Haloti. And he’s a big reason why this is a boom.
While I think Pittsburgh has the better defense, Baltimore’s offensive line is superior to the Steelers offensive line. I think the Ravens’ front seven can manhandle Pittsburgh up front. Ngata said, “We have so many talented guys on the line. And the key is we can all move around. Terrell Suggs is such a great talent and can line up at either end, can line up at linebacker. Paul Krueger can play anywhere. Cory Redding, too. We can exploit some match-ups and we can get some one-on-one match-ups.” That’s my point exactly. Not to mention the Ed Reed factor.
Now Ngata paid Ben Roethlisberger the ultimate compliment when he said, “He’s so tough and clutch. He can turn a busted play into a big gain at any moment. He is so physical and can shrug you off.” But Ben hasn’t had an even season.
On the flip side, with Todd Heap back as a factor, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and the Ravens have the most sizzle on offense they’ve had in franchise history. Sure, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrier and LaMarr Woodley are elite players who change games and have big-game experience. While I have too much respect for the Pittsburgh run defense to predict Ray Rice will go off, I think if Flacco has time, he has good match-ups down field he can exploit. And Rice should be a factor out of the backfield. Watch Cosmic Schein for the full effect but I like Baltimore just a bit more than Pittsburgh. It’s going to be a sensational slug-fest.