WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 6 NEW YORK JETS (13-5) at No. 2 PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-4)
Kickoff: Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET, in Pittsburgh
To the winner: A berth in Super Bowl XLV against the NFC No. 6 Green Bay Packers (12-6) or the NFC No. 2 Chicago Bears (12-5) on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Players with Latin American ties: New York Jets: Mark Sánchez has become a cult hero among Latin Americans throughout the United States, as the quarterback with Mexican heritage is playing to his lofty expectations. This season, he has thrown for 3,291 yards and 17 touchdowns. Pittsburgh: none.
What you need to know: New York: Since the NFL playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only seven times has a team played three postseason road games – and the Jets are doing it for the second time in as many seasons. New York won at Indianapolis and at New England in consecutive weeks to earn its second road AFC title game berth in two years.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers own an NFL-record six Super Bowl titles and are making their fourth AFC title game appearance in seven seasons. Pittsburgh, which won the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2008, lost to the Jets in the teams’ lone meeting, 22-17, during the regular season on Dec. 19. The Steelers reached the AFC title game by mounting a 14-point comeback to stun rival Baltimore, 31-24, last week.
Keep an eye on: New York: Brad Smith. The quarterback/running back/kick returner is the most dynamic player on the team’s roster. He often lines up under center for trick running plays and runs back kickoffs. He missed last week’s 28-21 win over New England with a groin pull, but returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in an earlier win over Pittsburgh and has a solid 28.6 yards per return average.
Steelers: Rashard Mendenhall: The running back was less than spectacular in the win over Baltimore. He had just 46 yards and a fumble on 20 carries against the Ravens, even though he did score two touchdowns. But in the earlier game against the New York Jets he was a beast, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries to lead his team to its first win in Pittsburgh in eight tries.
The game likely comes down to: Mistakes. In an earlier meeting against the Jets, the Steelers gave away nine points on offense or special teams – a kickoff return and safety. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the teams’ first meeting.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 6 GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-6) at No. 2 CHICAGO BEARS (12-5)
Kickoff: Jan. 23, 3 p.m. ET, in Chicago
To the winner: A berth in Super Bowl XLV against the AFC No. 6 New York Jets (13-5) or the AFC No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Players with Latin American ties: Chicago Bears: Roberto Garza. Roberto Garza. The guard is one of the biggest advocates of Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL. He was born in Texas, but his family is of Mexican descent. Garza starts on the right side of the Bears’ offensive line and helped pave the way for 1,616 rushing yards and 10 scores this season. Green Bay: none.
What you need to know: Chicago: The Bears earned a first-round bye via winning the NFC North Division by a game over the Green Bay Packers, as the two sides split the season series. Chicago won the first meeting, 20-17, while Green Bay won on the final day of the regular season, 10-3, to make the playoffs. Chicago won the NFC Championship Game in 2006 over New Orleans, 39-14. Green Bay lost to the New York Giants its appearance in the NFC title game, in 2007.
Green Bay: The Packers join the Jets as one of just seven teams to play their third straight playoff game on the road. Green Bay beat Philadelphia, 21-16, before destroying NFC No. 1 seed Atlanta, 48-21, last week. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was magnificent against the Falcons, throwing for 366 yards and three touchdowns, in addition to rushing for another.
Keep an eye on: Chicago: Devin Hester. The league’s best kick returner has terrorized the Packers this season. He returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the first meeting. In the second game, he averaged an impressive 17.5 yards on punt returns in the teams’ second game. In a game that likely will be decided by a single score, his ability to change field position and score on a kick return could be the difference.
Green Bay: Tramon Williams. The cornerback has emerged as one of the best players at his position. He has an interception in each of the postseason games this postseason and combined for 10 solo tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and an interception in two games this year against Chicago. He made the game’s biggest play against the Falcons by returning an interception 70 yards as time expired in the first half to extend his team’s lead to 28-14.
Bottom line: Green Bay is the hottest team in the NFL, but Chicago plays great defense, knows how to stop the team’s offense and already has topped the Packers once this year. The Bears should make just enough plays to come out on top of a surprisingly high-scoring game.