Super Bowl Contenders Battle Their Final Foes

The Chicago Bears face the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs for the first time since 1941, and the New York Jets take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about Sunday's big games in the NFL conference finals. The secret to both games, according Pesca, is all in the Mikes.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Football, winter, Chicago, Pittsburgh - four words that go well together. Later today, the Chicago Bears will play host to the Green Bay Packers in football's longest running rivalry. The Steelers play host to the New York Jets. It's the NFL conference finals and the winners go on to play in Super Bowl XLV.

NPR's Mike Pesca is as geared up as anyone. So, Mike, you got your face paint and your big foam finger?

MIKE PESCA: Yes, four foam fingers with four number ones 'cause I dont want to tip my hand. Literally, I guess, in this case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I know that there'd been a lot of conversations about these games. But what I thought we'd do here is may be look at them in a different way, if thats all right with you. Unless you want to talk about who has gap responsibility in the fourth reset.

HANSEN: Well, if I knew what gap responsibility - whatever that meant, then we could talk about it. But I'd rather hear what you have to say. So take it.

PESCA: Well, all the games come down to the Mikes. Each team, as it turns out, has a Team Mike - a person named Mike in a decision-making position - and the choices that those Mikes make could decide the game.

HANSEN: Now, two of the head coaches are named Mike.

PESCA: Yes. And let's start with the Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy. Beyond being the head coach, he also calls all the plays for the Packers' offense, and they have a great offense. Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback. There is a school of thought that says Aaron Rodgers - because he is so young and so promising - might actually be, over the next decade, the best quarterback in the NFL.

A lot of that comes down to McCarthy's play-calling. And against the Bears' defense, which is a very good defense, he's going to have to be a little more creative than he has been in the past. Because as good as the tools that McCarthy has on offense are, they haven't scored a lot of points against the Bears.

HANSEN: And who's the Chicago Mike in question?

PESCA: The Chicago Mike is the Bears offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. Mike Martz was the architect of those great St. Louis Rams' team. They were called the Greatest Show on Turf. The feeling was he loves to throw the ball around the field, aerial assaults and so forth. And he came to Chicago and people said, well, is he going to be able to graft that sort of offense - which was played in a dome, not at the swampy and often wet and windy Chicago field, and Mike Martz has shown that he's just simply a very smart guy.

He didnt transfer it whole sale. He worked with Chicago's offense and the tools they had in place. The downfall of the Bears' offense for a longtime was their offensive line. But luckily, their offensive line coach, whose name happens to be Mike Tice, has gotten their line in order. So this game will have two kind of genius play-callers, both named Mike against each other.

HANSEN: What about the Jets?

PESCA: Jets have a defensive coordinator named Mike Pettine. Jets head coach Rex Ryan works with his defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in a way that no other head coach and no other defensive coordinator works. Usually in the NFL, either a coach will call the defensive plays or the coordinator will call the defensive plays. But Ryan and Pettine collaborate. And it's not written down or decided beforehand how they're going to collaborate.

Sometimes they would debate and yell at each other so much but eventually the plays would be called correctly. And the defensive play-calling - the defensive alignment, how smart the Jets have been on defense - has absolutely been the key to their march through the playoffs thus far.

HANSEN: And then there's the Steelers' head coach, Mike Tomlin.

PESCA: This is cheating a little bit because unlike all the other Mikes we've talked about, Tomlin is not involved in calling specific plays at specific times. But he is a really good and, I think, under-rated coach. But how he inspires his team and if he gets them up to playing, get revenge on the Jets -cause the Steelers had lost to the Jets a couple weeks earlier - that, of course, is going to be a key.

HANSEN: And because it's all about the Mikes, NPR's Mike Pesca thanks a lot.

PESCA: Yeah, that was a little self-serving of me. But you are welcome.

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