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Time to warm up to the big games

A few days ago, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley declared for the NFL draft and said he didn't want to play in a city where it gets cold. I've found that a multi-million dollar signing bonus tends to brighten a young man's attitude about the weather up north.

But if Fairley is serious, he might want to skip today's conference championship games. He can watch golf, or some other sport that's mainly suitable for warm weather.

The temperature in both Chicago and Pittsburgh is expected to be in the teens. Sorry, Nick, this is a celebration of football's hardy, leather-helmeted past, featuring some of the most famed frigid franchises in the history of the sport. All four teams play up here in the North, where you see your breath this time of year and have to sweep snow off your car four times a day.

This might make me sound old, but I love it. I've always felt the weather was an essential part of football's character. There's a charm to the way a season unfolds in a northern locale, with a warm, sunny and optimistic start giving way to the caprices of late fall and winter.

Why is it the conference championships can be played in the cold, but the Super Bowl has to be held in a warm, pristine climate, or a dome? When they awarded the 2014 Super Bowl to the New Meadowlands Stadium, you'd have thought they decided to play the game in Greenland.

I can't remember being this excited for the AFC and NFC title games. These figure to be hotly contested and hard-hitting affairs, with gifted young quarterbacks and terrific defenses. Champions don't moan about the weather in January, they embrace it. Remember what it felt like when the Bills won playoff games here? Remember Darryl Talley coming out in his Spiderman sleeves?

Packers at Bears. In Soldier Field. How can you top that? Wasn't big-time pro football meant to be played in a place named for soldiers, instead of banks or phone companies? Today marks the 182nd meeting between Green Bay and Chicago, more than any teams in the history of the NFL. Can you imagine Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke saying they'd prefer not to play in a cold city?

Jets at Steelers. I covered a Bills playoff game in Pittsburgh after the 1995 season and it felt like the inside of a refrigerator. I recall walking off the field as Steelers fans leaned down over the tunnel and spewed abuse at the Buffalo players. They're in a different stadium now, but I imagine it gets just as ugly.

Last week, after his Jets pulled off the big upset in New England, coach Rex Ryan said, "When it's tough on everybody else, it's just right for us." All right, so he stole the line from Marv Levy. I'm sure Bills fans (and Marv) appreciate the sentiment.

Ryan's Jets have won two straight road games to reach this point, same as a year ago. It gets a little tougher on them now. This is the Steelers, who are tougher to run against than a Kennedy in Massachusetts. Pittsburgh has allowed 62.8 yards a game on the ground, the third-lowest figure in the Super Bowl era.

The Steelers were second in the NFL in total defense. The Jets were third. The Packers were fifth, the Bears ninth. All four finished in the top sixth of the league in fewest points allowed. Now check the thermostat and tell me it's a myth that defense wins championships.

Quarterbacks usually make the difference in big games, of course. All four starting quarterbacks today were selected in the first round, which is something for Buddy Nix to think about. The question is, who will stand up to the pressure, the weather, and a vicious opposing defense and make the kind of plays that separate the good QBs from the great ones?

This is the real test for Mark Sanchez, who played winning, mistake-free football against average Colts and Pats defenses. Running will be difficult today. So Sanchez will have to do more than manage the game, and he'll be up against Dick LeBeau's notorious zone blitzes. Sanchez played well in the Jets' win at Pittsburgh last month. But Troy Polamalu didn't play that day. Polamalu, who should be a candidate for league MVP, will be a big factor.

Big Ben Roethlisberger will have his work cut out for him, too. Tom Brady was confounded by Ryan's switching defenses last week. The Jets have two superior cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. The Steelers' offensive line is suspect. But Roethlisberger has a way of moving around to make big plays in unconventional ways. He might only need to make a couple to lift his team into a third Super Bowl in six years.

The Packers' Aaron Rodgers has moved into the elite class of QBs. Last week's performance in Atlanta (31-for-36 passing, 366 yards) was the culmination of the finest stretch of his career. That 48-21 victory brought back memories of the Bills' 51-3 win over the Raiders 20 years ago.

Over his last eight full games, Rodgers has completed 73 percent of his passes for 2,411 yards, a shade over 300 a game. Rodgers has thrown 22 TD passes and one interception during that time.

Rodgers doesn't need to be that good today in Chicago. He has to be efficient against one of the top pass defenses in the league. He needs to outplay Jay Cutler, an erratic player who has a lot to prove. This isn't Seattle. Green Bay has a terrific defense, one that leads the NFL in lowest passing rating by the opposition.

It comes down to this: In harsh weather conditions, against superior defenses, one big play or mistake by the quarterback can make the difference today. Whom do you trust more?

Roethlisberger has done it before. He's won two Super Bowls. Rodgers is on one of the best QB rolls you'll ever see (I know, so was Tom Brady).

I see Green Bay and Pittsburgh, two of the great NFL franchises, moving on to the Super Bowl. It should be close. Something tells me this is the day we get to see the new playoff overtime format in effect.


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