STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Four teams remain in the NFL playoffs and this weekend they fight it out for two spots in the Super Bowl. We're going to talk about this with NPR's sports correspondent Mike Pesca. Mike, good morning.
MIKE PESCA: Hi.
INSKEEP: Okay. We begin here with the Chicago bears playing the Green Bay Packers.
PESCA: That is a quintessential NFL match-up - storied NFL teams. Oddly, they've only played one other time in the postseason. It was in 1941, a week after Pearl Harbor due to a quirk in scheduling.
INSKEEP: Yeah, we all remember that one. No, go on.
PESCA: Yeah, I had the Packers minus four in that one. So, this is only the second time they've ever played. Every year they play twice a year 'cause they're in the same division. People will point to the fact that at Soldier Field the Packers lost. But the Packers had 18 penalties in that game and so that might have been a factor.
Now, the outsider might say, wait, shouldn't the Bears be favored? They're the home team, they had more wins in the season. They Packers going into the year were thought to be a Super Bowl favorite, but they were so destroyed by injuries that they lost a lot of games, they feel off the radar a little bit. But now they're playing the kind of Packer football that people always thought they would. That's why there was slight favorite in this game.
And, of course, people are talking about their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, as being the next NFL great quarterback.
INSKEEP: He was, if I'm not mistaken, 31 out of 36 - he threw the ball 36 times, completed 31 passes, last weekend to get into this championship game, which is practically no one's playing defense.
PESCA: Yeah. The key for a quarterback to do that is to get a lot of time or enough time to throw. Now, in the NFL, the average amount of time a quarterback has to throw the ball is 2.4 seconds - not a lot. So, what the line has to do -what the guys in front of him have to do - is hold their blocks for that time or longer.
INSKEEP: Keep the defense off for 2.5 seconds or three if you can manage it. Something like that.
PESCA: Oh, three, forget it. You don't know what to do with that amount of time.
The best player on the Bears' defense in Julius Peppers. He's an absolute beast when it comes to getting into the backfield, wrecking the quarterback's timing. I talked to a researcher at Menlo College named Ben Alamar, and all Ben Alamar did was time - sit with a stopwatch and time - every pass play in the NFL, and he showed that the Packers offensive line is actually pretty good.
And one of the little wrinkles people are talking about in this game is - let's take Julius Peppers, let's line him up against the rookie on the Packers' line - a guy name Bryan Bulaga. But Ben Alamar shows that Bulaga's been great against the pass. Bulaga could have been a very high pick - he has short arms so he fell a little bit to the Packers but he's been really allowing Aaron Rodgers to get a lot of time to throw.
And at least I like the fact that we talk about linemen in this game. It doesn't, you know, usually happen. It's usually the star players that get all the attention.
INSKEEP: I'm sorry, as you talk I just have this image still of the researcher on the edge of his couch hours at a time, eyes wide open, bags under his eyes, looks like a zombie just clicking a stopwatch.
PESCA: Yeah, he's saying everyone always says that college professors have it so easy.
INSKEEP: Well, apparently, the New York Jets line has been giving sufficient protection to Mark Sanchez, their quarterback, because he was very impressive, winning a game against the Patriots to get into this match-up this weekend now against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
PESCA: Mark Sanchez, a second-year quarterback, has kind of done something amazing, which is in the first round of the playoffs he beat Peyton Manning and in the second round of the playoffs he beat Tom Brady and now he's trying to beat Ben Roethlisberger. So, among those three quarterbacks, we're talking about six Super Bowls won. There are only two other quarterbacks in the NFL who have won a Super Bowl at all.
So, the Jets are the slight underdog here. These two teams played earlier in the year. The Jets won. The key in that game was that Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh defensive safety, was not in that game. Santonio Holmes, the Jets receiver, at a press conference earlier this week said that Troy Polamalu was the best player he's ever seen. And a lot of people would agree. This thinking is his presence could make the difference in the game.
But the Jets really do have a realistic chance of pulling the slight upset and making it to the second Super Bowl in their history.
INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.
PESCA: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's sports correspondent Mike Pesca.
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