And then there were four. If we learned anything from the Divisional Round, it's that defense still matters, as four of the NFL's best defensive squads showed up big and helped vault their teams one step closer to a spot in the Super Bowl. Who has what it takes to make the trip to Dallas? Let's look at the matchups.
Green Bay (-3.5) @ Chicago (Sunday, 3:00 PM ET)
It's not often that a road team is favored in the NFC Championship, especially in a matchup against division rivals. But after the performance Aaron Rodgers put up against the Falcons (366 yards and 3 touchdowns, not to mention completing 86% of his passes), it's hard to justify betting against him. And let's not forget about Green Bay's defense, who sacked Matt Ryan five times and forced four turnovers against Atlanta. But the Bears look to be playing their best football at the right time as well. Jay Cutler looked like a veteran against the Seahawks, despite appearing in his first playoff game. More importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. And Chicago's defense showed why they're the second best defense against the run, allowing only 34 rushing yards against Seattle.
Chicago will win if: their secondary shuts down Green Bay's receivers. As good as the Bears' defense is against the run, they are mediocre against the pass, ranking just 20th. And Green Bay has no intention of relying on rookie running back James Starks to get them past Chicago. Rodgers will be throwing early and often, so Bears cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman must be prepared to challenge Green Bay's receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt their routes.
Green Bay will win if: they harass Jay Cutler. The Packers were able to consistently get to Matt Ryan, and it completely threw him off his game. Thanks to this constant pressure, Green Bay's front seven were able to force Ryan into making uncharacteristic mistakes that led to turnovers. Cutler has the ability to pick secondaries apart, but he tends to make poor throws with the football when flushed out of the pocket. Getting to Cutler will inevitably lead to turnovers, and the Bears cannot afford handing the ball back to Rodgers.
X-Factor: Bears return man Devin Hester. He has the ability to change a game with one return. The Packers just allowed a kickoff return touchdown to Atlanta's Eric Weems. Weems is no Hester.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, Chicago 20
New York Jets (+3.5) @ Pittsburgh (Sunday, 6:30 PM ET)
No squad looked better in the Divisional Round than the Jets' defense, who completely locked down New England's receivers in their 28-21 upset victory. From the way New York's defensive line was consistently getting to Tom Brady (sacking him five times), one would think Rex Ryan was calling non-stop blitzes. Not the case. The Jets were often rushing just four men, but thanks to New York's secondary completely blanketing Wes Welker and company, Brady had nowhere to throw. Thanks to two completely different but equally effective gameplans, Rex Ryan and the Jets have been able to shut down two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Brady and Peyton Manning) in consecutive weeks.
Coming into their matchup with the Ravens, I thought the Steelers' offensive line would have to play well for Pittsburgh to win. They didn't play well, allowing six sacks. But the Steelers pulled out the win anyway, thanks to another solid performance from Ben Roethlisberger, and a defense that held the Ravens to only 160 offensive yards (just 35 yards rushing).
Pittsburgh will win if: they can get their running game going. Running back Rashard Mendenhall rushed 20 times for 46 yards against the Ravens, an average of barely over two yards a carry. If the Steelers hope to create some space for their receivers to work with, they will have to establish a running attack that forces the Jets to sacrifice coverage and stack the line. The Jets gave up 113 yards rushing against the Patriots, so they have shown they can be ran on. It will be up to Mendenhall to find running room so that Pittsburgh can rely on the rush to set up the pass.
New York will win if: they can prevent the deep ball to Mike Wallace. There's no doubt that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis can cover Mike Wallace on a short field. The question is: can he run with him downfield? Wallace is the fastest receiver in the league (based on 40 yard dash times), and as good as Revis is at shutting down top receivers, he may not be quick enough to keep up on deep fly routes. While the Jets secondary was able to make the Patriot's receivers a non-factor, they did not have to keep up with a deep ball threat the likes of Wallace. If the Jets can find a way to contain Wallace, their front seven should have no problem beating up on Pittsburgh's depleted offensive line.
X-Factor: Mark Sanchez. Sanchez followed up a poor showing in Indianapolis with a very solid performance against the Patriots, throwing three touchdowns and not allowing a turnover. When Sanchez is on, he's a game changer. When he's off, he's a huge liability. Regardless of which Sanchez shows up Sunday, expect him to have a huge impact on the outcome.
Prediction: When in doubt, go with the better quarterback. Steelers 17, Jets 14