A Look At NFL Playoffs, Upcoming Labor Dispute

This Sunday, four football teams play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Host Robert Siegel talks with sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about this weekend's playoff games and the labor dispute that threatens to disrupt the next NFL season.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To football now and the upstart New York Jets, they're trying to play in a Super Bowl for just the second time in their history. The first was in 1969, when the team was led by a brash young quarterback named Joe Namath.

This season's Jets lead the league in brash. And a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday would put them a game away from living up to a season of bold talk.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And lets go back to 1969, Stefan. Joe Namath famously guaranteed a win for his Jets and the upstart American Football League, over the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, but you rarely hear the full story, Robert, which is documented very nicely in Michael MacCambridges history of NFL, Americas Game. Namath made that boast at a dinner three days before the Super Bowl -Super Bowl III in Miami - where he was receiving an award as the best player of year.

He had a couple of drinks and while he was at dais, somebody in back of room shouted: Namath, were going to kick your bleep. And thats when Namath said: Hey, Ive got news for you. Were going to win the game. I guarantee it. And the Jets did, 16 to 7.

SIEGEL: So it was a very well thought out, analytical statement by Namath.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, exactly.

SIEGEL: But todays handsome, young Jets quarterback is named Mark Sanchez. He has not guaranteed a win on Sunday though, has he?

Mr. FATSIS: No. And, you know, compared to the Jets last game, against New England, it's been nothing but crickets this week. Before the New England game, the Jets fun-loving coach, Rex Ryan, said that the match-up against Patriots coach Bill Belichick was personal. Players were shooting their mouths off in various ways all week.

My friend, Nate Jackson, who was a tight end with the Denver Broncos when I was with that team writing book about the NFL, he has an excellent essay up on the website Deadspin, arguing that what Rex Ryan did last week was control the media narrative and in the process use it to motivate his players.

This week, Ryan must be taking a subtler approach, maybe because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has warned everyone to quit trash-talking.

SIEGEL: Okay, lets talk about the two big playoff games this weekend. If the Jets win, they will have beaten the three dominant American Football Conference franchises in a row on the road.

FATSIS: Which would be amazing, and then those three teams, by the way, have three of best, if not the best, quarterbacks.

First, it was the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning, then the Patriots and Tom Brady and now the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger. And, by the way, no team other than the Patriots, the Colts or the Steelers has represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the 2002 season.

I think there are two keys to this game: Can the Jets defensive backfield again shut down the passing attack of another fantastic quarterback? This season, the stat I got from Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders and the New York Times: the Jets secondary has allowed just 14 passes of longer than 25 yards all season in 79 attempts. And that's real good.

The second key: the Steelers defense. It's allowed just 63 rushing yards per game this season, the third best in the NFL since it went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. If it can stop the Jets running game and force Mark Sanchez to pass the ball more, edge Steelers.

SIEGEL: Okay, let's move on to the National Football Conference championship: The Chicago Bears, da Bears, are hosting the Green Bay Packers.

FATSIS: The 182nd meeting of these two franchises. The first was in 1921. It predated the name NFL. The Bears were the Decatur Staleys, the house team of the A.E. Staley Company, which made corn starch.

This year, the Bears won in Chicago in September, 20 to 17. The Packers won in Green Bay in the final game of regular season, 10 to seven. Low-scoring games, a testament to the stout defenses of both of these teams, the Bears particularly against the run, the Packers against the pass.

The last time they played, each team punted the ball eight times. Now, Green Bay's got quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He's been fantastic in the playoffs. Chicago's quarterback, Jay Cutler, terrific in his one playoff game, but Cutler can be erratic. Rodgers is more efficient. The weather should tamp down both offenses: wind chill in the single digits.

SIEGEL: Wow. Now, there's also some real concern that these two games and the Super Bowl could be the last NFL football of the year because the labor situation is looking pretty bleak right now.

FATSIS: The NFL players union has filed two claims against the owners in recent weeks, which is not a great sign. There have been no negotiations on a new labor deal in almost two months, and there's a growing belief that the league is going to lock out the players in March.

The influential Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, just back in Pittsburg, and according to a tweet this afternoon from a New York Times reporter, said the two sides need to get it together.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and about the business of sports.

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