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Seahawks-Bears could steal AFC's thunder

The Jets and Patriots. Yeah. But who are these other guys? Before Gang Green and Team Belichick settle their war of words in Foxborough, Mass., in the AFC divisional game today, two unlikely NFC combatants will go at it in Soldier Field in Chicago. Everybody laughed when the Seattle Seahawks sneaked into the playoffs with a losing record. And since summer training camp, we've been told how the Chicago Bears would go nowhere with erratic Jay Cutler at quarterback and mad scientist Mike Martz calling the plays as offensive coordinator. Well, the Seahawks moved through the opening round with an upset of defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans. The Bears won the NFC North, a division that was supposed to be the property of the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. Chicago's questionable offense grew more sound and effective as the season went along. The supposed Patriots-Jets rivalry is testament to hype. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls and lost another in this century. The Jets, on the other hand, have accomplished virtually nothing since the upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. Since the 1970 merger, the Jets have won one outright divisional title. Gang Green is almost always overrated, overhyped and overwhelmed. Here's a capsule look at today's games:

Seahawks (8-9) at Bears (11-5)

TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.

The line: Bears (-10)

The scoop: Seattle won only two road games all season, but one was a 23-20 upset at Chicago on Oct. 17. The Bears were missing linebacker Lance Briggs that day and it was before Chicago reorganized its offense in the bye week. Chicago went 7-2 after the bye, 4-1 at home, losing only to New England. Seattle defeated the Saints last week despite the fact that New Orleans rolled up 32 first downs and had 474 yards total offense. The Saints were hurt by lack of a running game and the failure of QB Drew Brees, who couldn't get them into the end zone three times from inside the 10-yard line on drives they settled for field goals. Hasselbeck, on the other hand, completed 22 of 35 for four touchdowns. Two of his TD passes went to TE John Carlson. Others went to ancient slot receiver Brandon Stokley for 45 yards and recycled WR Mike Williams for 38.

Seattle got a 131-yard rushing performance from ex-Bill Marshawn Lynch, including a game-clinching 67-yard TD run with 3:22 left. The Bears had a pass-protection crisis early in the season, but have tightened up since. QB Jay Cutler, who had 26 INTS in '09, has an improved 23-16 TD-INT ratio this season. Bears got a ton of productivity from RB Matt Forte, who ran for 1,069 yards and is an effective receiver as well. Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are Cutler's receiving targets.

Defensive players to watch: SS Earl Thomas, LB Aaron Curry, DE Chris Clemons of the Seahawks; DE Julius Peppers, MLB Brian Urlacher and DE Israel Idonije of Bears.

Outlook: Seahawks were helped greatly by Qwest Field crowd noise but they won't get that help at Soldier Field. Bears look like a solid favorite to win, but Pete Carroll's Seahawks actually believe they are a team of destiny. Bears, 20-14.

Jets (12-5) at Patriots (14-2)

TV: Ch. 4, 4 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-9)

The scoop: The WWE Wrestling-style blathering of Jets coach Rex Ryan heated up this rivalry. Pats humiliated the Jets, 45-3, in Foxborough on Dec. 6. Patriots are hottest NFL team coming into the playoffs, winning their last eight, scoring 31 or more in each. Last loss was at Cleveland on Nov. 7 (34-14). The 45-3 victory over the Jets was a season best both offensively and defensively. The Jets recovered from that and have won three of four since, including a badly needed road win at Pittsburgh.

Jets were 6-2 on road in regular season. Patriots went 8-0 at home, winning by an average of 34-20.

Key to New York's win at Indianapolis last week was running game (169 yards, 4.4 average), which led to two second-half touchdown drives that consumed 15 minutes and 6 seconds. Colts and Peyton Manning ran only three offensive series in second half. Jets would love to do the same to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

How quickly the Patriots rebuild. Since 2009, they added leading TD receiver Rob Gronkowski (10), NFL's leading rookie interceptor Devin McCourty (6), kick returner Brandon Tate (25.8), punter John Mesko (43.3) and waiver pickup RB Danny Woodhead. Jets CB Darrelle Revis is the key to New York's defensive strategy against Brady's passing.

Defensive players to watch: CB Revis, OLB Calvin Pace and DE Jason Taylor of the Jets; NT Vince Wilfork, ILB Jerod Mayo and McCourty of Patriots.

Outlook: Brady and Patriots have been a highly efficient offensive machine the last month and a half. Still, the Jets were so embarrassed by the previous loss in Foxborough, it's difficult to imagine another meltdown -- unless it's by QB Mark Sanchez. Patriots, 31-24.

e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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