This is it. At the end of this day we know who is in Super Bowl XLV (45).
My favorite week of the year is Week 1. Every team has a chance and 7 months of waiting ends.
My second favorite week is Week 17, the last week of the regular season when we know who is in the playoffs.
My third favorite week is this. The Conference Title Games sort out the entire season.
In 1993, both top seeds advanced as Buffalo played Dallas. Then for 15 straight years at least one top seed went down in flames. Last year the streak was broken as top seeds Indy and New Orleans reached the big game. This year both top seeds Atlanta and New England were one and done, losing to the # 6 seeds. The action is still as thrilling as can be. It is not “parity.” It is competitive balance, as “Any Given Sunday” remains meaningful.
I read an article questioning whether the best days of the NFL are behind us. That thought process is insane, and most likely brought about by those thinking America itself peaked in 1775.
The game is better than ever.
The NFC Title Game is the Packers and the Bears. This is old school at its finest. The winner receives the George Halas Trophy and gets to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The game of football exists today in its glory because of players like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Sid Luckman, and Dick Butkus. Then came more great ones on both sides, including Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and Brett Favre. Now we have Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher, and Devon Hester.
Unlike other rivalries, this one features a ton of mutual respect and admiration. These franchises helped each other when football was in its infancy.
Yet how amazing is it that the most stories rivalry is not even the marquee game today?
The New York Jets are at the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are on the verge of a dynasty, having won 2 Super Bowls in the last 5 years to go along with the teams of the 1970s. Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain would be proud of the guys playing today. Ben Roethlisberger played through a broken nose and won. Troy Palomalu and James Harrison have honored Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert with fierce play.
The New York Jets have brought back bravado. Joe Namath guaranteed victor and won it, creating the modern NFL as we know it. Now Rex Ryan is trying to end the dominance of Indianapolis and New England in the same way Green Bay in 1996 took on San Francisco and Dallas. Ryan might be the most colorful character in football today. Bart Scott is the emotional leader on the field. The Jets are on the road, but they are out to prove that they are every bit as important to the game of football as their 1968 champions.
The NFL is better than ever. So before looking at the recaps, lets have some precaps.
NFC Title Game: I still believe the Bears are pretenders. Every few years they get a soft schedule and make the most of it. They remind me of the 1997 San Francisco team that coasted to a 13-3 record in the NFC Worst (still a dreadful division), only to get throttled at home in the NFC Title Game by Green Bay. This year Detroit remained Detroit, Minnesota imploded, and Green Bay was devastated by injuries. Yes the Bears at home, but that has not mattered in recent years. In 2001 and 2005 the Bears were at home and lost in the first round convincingly. The 2006 Bears did get to the Super Bowl, but any of the top 4 AFC teams would have beaten them.
The 2010 team survived in an NFC nobody outside of Atlanta wanted to win, and was lucky enough to draw the worst team in playoff history in Seattle at home.
Jay Cutler is learning well from mad scientist Mike Martz, and Lovie Smith has held the team together. Brian Urlacher remains the emotional leader on defense. Devon Hester is as electric as ever. The Bears are at home. Yet the Packers are simply the better team.
Green Bay on the road obliterated Atlanta, and that was after a tough win at Philly. Aaron Rodgers is playing phenomenal football, and Charles Woodson is back to being all world on defense. Clay Matthews is playing like a crazed dog. As long as the Packers do not kick the ball anywhere near Devon Hester, they should win going away without much difficulty. Cold weather will not be a factor since both teams are used to it.
The team split the season series, with both teams winning at home. The Bears prevailed 20-17 early in the season while the Packers hung on 10-3 in the final week when the Bears had a chance to knock them out of contention altogether.
Prediction: Packers 34, Bears 17
AFC Title Game: Bring your iodine and gauze pads. This will be a hard hitting affair. Both of these teams are battle tested, and they are both coming off emotional wins against hated rivals against the 2 teams expected to be playing today, New England and Baltimore.
The Jets have been able to run the ball in the way Rex Ryan loves to ground and pound it. Yet the Steelers, while not the Steel Curtain, are the best in the NFL on defense. The Jets are up there as well. The Jets will have to rely on Mark Sanchez, but he proved last week that he is not a weak link. He has won 4 road games in the past 2 years. If he wins this one, he will have the NFL record of all time. He has only played 2 years!
Ben Roethlisberger is as gutty as they come, and the team has rallied around him. Hines Ward and Mike Wallace are dangerous, as is Antwon Randle-El. The Steelers appear to have more talent, but the Jets just have more heart than I have seen in some time. Bringing in Dennis Byrd last week to speak to the team was a stroke of genius.
A few weeks ago the Jets went into Pittsburgh and won a headknocker 22-17. Mike Tomlin and Rex Ryan respect each other, and neither is taking the other one lightly. This game should live up to its billing. If it comes down to field position, Brad Smith could be the key for the Jets.
Prediction: Jets 20, Steelers 17.
Enough buildup. Let’s get down to the business of football. Business is d@mn good.
NFC Title Game: Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears–The Packers began at their own 16 and Aaron Rodgers immediately went to Greg Jennings for gains of 21 and 26 yards. Starks ran for 6 yards and then caught a pass from Rodgers for 7 more. Rodgers then fired to Jordy Nelson for 22 yards to set up 1st and goal at the 2. On 2nd and goal from the 1, nosetackle BJ Rajy entered in the great tradition of Refrigerator Perry of their opponents. Yet with everybody bunched up the middle, Rodgers took a naked bootleg around the end for the score as the Packers made the 84 yard drive look very easy to lead 7-0.
Determined to avoid Devon Hester, the Packers kicked it short to an up man, as the Bears began at their own 37. Matt Forte ran for a couple and then took a well designed screen pass from Jay Cutler for 24 yards. On 3rd and 7 from the Packers 35, Cutler overthrew an open Devon Hester. Lovie Smith decided to punt rather than try a 53 yard field goal or go for it. The Packers took over at their own 10.
Starks got the Packers going with an 16 yard run, and Rodgers hit James Jones for 10 more. On 2nd and 9 a draw play by Brandon Jackson went for another 10. Yet while Mike McCarthy was dialing up a perfect game plan, a pair of deep balls fell incomplete, and another incompletion led to a punt. The Bears took over at their own 16 and went 3 and out after a false start, with a sack of Cutler ending things. Tremon Williams returned it 11 yards to midfield. Rodgers continued his passing clinic, hitting Jennings for 20. On 3rd and 6 Rodgers was sacked, putting the Packers out of field goal range. Perfect punt coverage had the Bears at their own 1 as the first quarter ended.
The Bears began the second quarter by barely avoiding a safety on consecutive plays and going 3 and out. The Packers took over at the Chicago 45. After a false start, Rodgers hit Jackson for 16, and Starks rumbled for 13 more. Rodgers then hit Nelson for 15 yards to set up 1st and goal at the 5. Starks took the carry and just broke the plane to make it 14-0.
From the Chicago 34, Cutler hit Johnny Knox for 24 yards. A screen pass to Chester Taylor added 12 more. Offensive holding killed the drive and the crowd booed when Lovie Smith passed up a 49 yard field goal try to punt. After almost downing it at the one, instead the crowd booed more after the touchback.
The Packers kept rolling as a 10 yard run was followed by Rodgers scrambling for 25 yards. A pass to Jennings set up 3rd and 1 at the Bears 36. Starks got upended to set up 4th and 1. In a game where both coaches were playing ultra conservatively, Mike McCarthy without hesitation punted. The Bears continued having miserable field position, starting at their own 11.
A pair of incomplete passes would have hurt the Bears but they were bailed out by defensive holding. After a near interception, Forte took a delayed draw 13 yards. The Bears faced 3rd and 7 at their own 33 at the 2 minute warning. Cutler was sacked and fumbled, but the Bears retained possession and punted. The Chess match between Mike Martz and Dom Capers was at this point totally favoring the Green Bay defense. The Packers took over at their own 36 with 1:44 left in the half and one timeout.
Rodgers quickly scrambled for 12 yards. A completion to Jennings set up another 3rd and 1. This time Rodgers took the quick snap and the quarterback sneak got the yard. With Green Bay in total control, a low throw bounced off the hands of Donald Driver and was intercepted by Lance Briggs. The Bears took over at their own 42 with 49 seconds left in the half.
Cutler quickly hit Forte for 17 yards. Yet Cutler went for the deep ball, and the interception by Sam Shields near the goal line ended the threat. Rodgers took a knee to end the half. Despite dominating and leading 14-0, the Packers missed out on several chances to deliver the knockout blow. As for the Bears, in their entire playoff history, their largest comeback win was 7 points.
The second half kickoff went to Devon Hester, and he returned it 24 yards to the Chicago 40. Yet the Bears wasted the field position by going 3 and out when Cutler threw incomplete on 3rd and 4. The Packers took over at their own 17 and Rodgers kept firing. On 3rd and 8 he found Nelson for 21 and Jennings for 20 more. Starks gained 9. On 3rd and 1 Rodgers went deep. The ball was dropped, but defensive pass interference had the Packers with 1st and goal at the 8.
Again the Packers were in total control with a chance to end things. Again, they failed to do so. On 3rd and goal, with men in his face, Rodgers threw an ill advised pass in traffic that was intercepted by Brian Urlacher. Urlacher was racing for a score the other way with only Rodgers in his way. Rodgers tripped up Urlcher just enough to save the touchdown as the Bears began at their own 44. The tackle was reminiscent of a touchdown saving tackle in 2005 that Ben Roethlisberger made after a Pittsburgh fumble to preserve a key playoff win over Indy on the way to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is a great passer and scrambler, but in this game his one tackle on defense was key.
Yet when the Bears took the field, Cutler was not in the huddle. His knee was injured, and he stayed on the bench as 40 year old backup Todd Collins came in. Several incompletions later, the Bears punted yet again. The Packers soon faced 2nd and 16 at their own 15, when Rodgers hit Jennings for 22. A second offensive holding penalty on the drive set up 3rd and 8 at the Green Bay 37. Rodgers threw incomplete and the Bears got the ball back again at their own 18. Collins repeated the previous drive with incompletions and a punt. The Packers quickly punted it back and the Bears took it at their own 33.
With one minute left in the third quarter, the Bears were now down to their third string quarterback Hanie. Ironically, the tv show decades ago featuring Mr. Hanie was called Green Acres. Forte gained 11 and 4 as the third quarter ended. Hanie hit Forte for 8 and Forte gained 3 and 11. On 2nd and 13 from the Green Bay 33, Hanie hit Knox for a 21 yard gain down to the one yard line. The Bears finally cracked the scoreboard as Taylor ran it in to get the Bears within 14-7 with an entire 12 minutes still left in regulation.
The Packers took over at their own 24, and roughing the passer tacked on 15 yards. Yet on 3rd and 2 from the Chicago 43, Rodgers threw a pass that went right through the receiver’s hands. The Bears took over after a touchback with 9 1/2 minutes left to play. With no help from Eva Gabor, Eddie Albert, or the Chicago receivers, Mr. Hanie received no handout from the Green Bay defense. 3 and out resulted in another punt. Maynard shanked a 24 yarder, and with 8 1/2 minutes left the Packers took over at the Bears 44.
Running the ball would grind down the clock, but Mike McCarthy runs the West Coast offense, and the passing continued. On 3rd and 1, Rodgers threw low and incomplete. On 4th and 1 from the Bears 35, going for it or trying the 53 yard field goal would have been the first bold gamble of the game. The Packers punted, as the Bears had another terrible start to a drive at their own 10 with 7 1/2 minutes on the clock.
The Packers had every chance under the sun on offense to end things, and could not close the door. They were giving the Bear chances, which the Bears did not take. Finally, with 6 minutes left, things were settled. On 3rd and 5 from the Chicago 15, Mr. Hanie ws intercepted by BJ Raji, who practically walked in for the score as the Packers led 21-7. An ugly game saw an ugly play appear to settle things. With the season slipping away, Mr. Hanie had to try and mount a miracle comeback.
The Packers made it look easy, which was a problem since they were on defense. A 16 yard kickoff return had the Bears at their own 40. Hanie hit Olsen and Bennett for gains of 7 each, Forte for 5, and then Bennett for a 35 yard touchdown. With 4:43 to play, the Bears were only down 21-14.
The Packers took over at their own 25 and quickly went 3 and out as the West Coast Offense did its job with incomplete passes. The Bears had their billionth chance to tie things from their own 29 with 2:53 to play. On 3rd and 9 Caleb Hanie hit Olsen for 10. A questionable intentional grounding call set up 2nd and 20. Passes to Forte went for 10 and 9 as Forte was just short of the sticks. A trip to the Super Bowl was hinging on 4th and 1 just shy of midfield with 1:54 to play.
Forte ran for 4 yards as the drive continued. A perfectly executed screen pass to Forte went for 12 yards to the Green Bay 34. The Bears had 2 timeouts and 1:27 left to work with. A completion at the sideline to Olsen set up 3rd and 2 with 1:15 left. A draw play gained the 1st down but it was waved off as the Bears took their 2nd timeout. The Bears tried the draw play again and it was blown up in the backfield. On 4th and 4 with the clock running, Hanie went deep middle and fired a perfect pass to Shields at the 12.
Unfortunately for all of Chicago, Shields still plays defense for the Packers. His second pick of the day was the difference. It was a hard fought game, but Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers won their third straight road playoff game to take their # 6 seed to the Super Bowl. Four hours later, they would know their opponent. 21-14 Packers
AFC Title Game: New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers–A 23 yard kickoff return to start the game had the Steelers at their own 34. On 3rd and 7 Ben Roethlisberger threw incomplete, but defensive holding prevented the 3 and out. On 3rd and 5 from the Pittsburgh 47, Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for 6. Rashaard Mendenhall gained 8 and 2 more to keep the chains moving. Mendenhall then broke tackles in the backfield and turned a loss into a 9 yard gain. Redmond gained 5 to have the Steelers at the Jets 23. Big Ben then went deep and found a wide open Heath Miller, who made a diving catch at the 3 yard line.
Rex Ryan challenged the call, and on further review the call was reversed incomplete. Mendenhall got the carry and this time was stopped for a loss. With the Steelers facing 3rd and 12, Roethlisberger scrambled and dove head first for just enough to make it 1st and 10 at the 13. Mendenhall gained 5, and then Big Benfired to Hines Ward just shy of the goal line. Mendenhall got smacked short, but second effort allowed him to stretch the ball just over the plane. The 9 minute drive covered 66 yards and 15 plays as the Steelers led 7-0.
The Jets began at their own 26 and quickly faced 3rd and 10. Yet Mark Sanchez calmly hit Jerricho Cotcherry for 14 yards. A deep incomplete pass to nobody was offset by defensive illegal contact. Another incompletion on 2nd and 8 was offset by defensive pass interference. Another 2nd and 8 incompletion saw another penalty. This time it was a false start on the offense, but it still helped the Jets. Yet the Jets were finally out of breaks as a couple of incompletions and a punt had the Steelers at their own 13. Mendenhall gained 11 and 2 as the first quarter ended.
The second quarter began with an incomplete pass on third down. Yet a questionable defensive personal foul on the Jets for hitting a defenseless receiver kept the drive going. It was not helmet to helmet, but it was still called. On 3rd and 1 from the Jets 31, Mendenhall took a deep handoff and got buried. On 4th and 1 Mike Tomlin decided to go for it. A play action pass bounced off receiver’s hands and was intercepted.
It did not matter as the Jets went backward and punted. The Steelers took over at their own 38 and Mendenhall quickly ripped off a 27 yard gain. Gains of 8 and 13 by Redman set up 1st and goal at the 6. The Steelers were simply cramming it down the Jets throats, as 60 yards on the ground and 0 passes led to 3rd and goal at the 2. They finally did try a pass, which fell incomplete. On 4th and goal at the 2, Tomlin called for the field goal. Suisham made the 20 yarder as the Steelers led 10-0.
The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Jets the ball at their own 40. It did not matter as their lifeless offense went 3 and out. The Steelers began at their own 34 and this time went straight to the air as Big Ben hit Heath Miller for 24 yards and Sanders for 20 more. A 14 yarder to Mendenhall set up a 2 yard touchdown scramble by Roethlisberger as the Steelers led 17-0 with 2:05 left in the half.
The Jets took over at their own 33, but disaster struck. On 3rd and 17 Sanchez went back to pass and got belted. The resulting fumble was picked up and returned 19 yard for a touchdown by William Gay. An official booth review upheld that Sanchez’s arm was not going forward as the Jets now trailed 24-0.
The Jets took over at their own 31 with 1:08 left in the half. Sanchez hit Dustin Keller for 5 and Brad Smith for gains of 16 and 9. With 18 seconds left in the half, the Jets faced 3rd and 1 at the Pittsburgh 25. Sanchez threw incomplete, and on 4th and 1 with 14 seconds left, Rex Ryan opted for the field goal. Nick Folk’s kick started outside but snuck just inside as the Jets were on the board. Yet this showdown was a one-sided affair as the Steelers led 24-3 at halftime. The Steelers led 231-50 in yards, 16-5 in first downs, and 21-9 in possession minutes.
The Jets deferred to start the game and began the second half at their own 10. Greene quickly ripped off a 23 yard run. On 3rd and 4 Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for 16. On the next play Sanchez went for the bomb and found Holmes again for a wide open 45 yard touchdown as the Jets were back in it down 24-10.
The Steelers took over at their own 28. On 3rd and 2 Big Ben was nearly intercepted as the Steelers punted. Yet roughing the kicker kept the drive going. The kick was almost blocked, but the Steelers kept the ball. The Steelers then fumbled a snap but retained possession. Yet on 2nd and 11 from the Jets 37, Big Ben went for all the marbles and was intercepted by Pool at the 5. The Jets took over at their own 14.
The Jets quickly went 3 and out when a 3rd and 7 completion was ruled out of bounds. The Steelers moved from their own 30 to the Jets 42, but then 3 straight plays losing yards led to another punt as the third quarter wound down. From the fourth quarter Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards for 18 and LaDanian Tomlinson gained 5 more to the Jets 42 as the clock clicked into the fourth quarter. Sanchez hit Keller for 19 yards to the Pittsburgh 39. On 3rd and 4, Sanchez hit Keller for 6. Sanchez scrambled for 7 to set up 3rd and 3. A pitchout to Green resulted in him colliding with James Farrior near the sticks. Farrior won the battle as a critical 4th and 1 at the 18 came up with 12 minutes left in regulation.
Greene rammed up the middle 2 yards to keep the drive going. Yet Sanchez was in the shotgun on 1st and 10, fumbled the snap, and fell on it. On 2nd and 18 from the 24, Green gained 16. On 3rd and 2 from the 8, Sanchez hit Cotcherry for 6 to set up 1st and goal at the 2. Greene gained one yard, but on 2nd and 3rd down Rex Ryan called passe rather than ram it in. Then on 4th and goal at the 1 with 8 minutes left, Tomlinson got the carry and ran into a black and gold brick wall. The goal line stand kept the game at 24-10 as the 17 play, 8 minute drive resulted in nothing.
Yet one key player was not in the game, as starting center Pouncey went out in the first half with an injury. From the one, Roethlisberger fumbled the center exchange and fell on it in the end zone for a safety. For the second time this year the Jets had a safety against the Steelers, as the Jets were within 24-12 and prepared to receive the free kick. They took over at their own 43 with 7 1/2 minutes left.
Sanchez quickly hit Edwards for 22 yards. On 3rd and 1 from the 27 with 6 minutes left, Tomlinson got stuffed, setting up another 4th and 1. Sanchez passed to Edwards for 10. On 3rd and 4 from the 11, Sanche hit Keller for 6. Sanchez hit Cothcerry for the 4 yard touchdown as the Jets still had life. 3 minutes remained, and they trailed by 5 with all 3 timeouts. Rex Ryan decided to kick it deep and rely on his defense that had blanked Pittsburgh in the second half.
Brown took the kickoff at his own 14, and several mistckles had the Steelers starting at their own 41. On 2nd and 9 the Jets took their 1st timeout. Big Ben hit Heath Miller for a critical 14 yard gain and a 1st down as the Jets took their second timeout. A pair of 2 yard Mendenhall runs had the Jets take their final timeout and then the 2 minute warning hit. A trip to the Super Bowl hinged on the Steelers facing 3rd and 6 at the Jets 40 yard line.
Roethlisberger roled out, and with a pair of men in his face and a third giving chase, did his Joe Montana to Dwight Clark impersonation. Big Ben found Brown, who made a diving catch for a 14 yard gain. Review showed the ball did not hit the ground. The only thing hitting the ground was Rex Ryan’s headset in disgust. The Jets were game, but for the second straight year they came up one game short on the road. The Steelers are going to the Super Bowl for an NFL record 8th time, the 2nd time in the Mike Tomlin era and the third time for many of these players. All 3 of the recent Super Bowl trips have seen the Steelers do it without having the top seed. That is why they play the games. 24-19 Steelers
Nex week is the Pro Bowl. In 2 weeks on February 6, 2011, Super Bowl 45 takes place. Green Bay Packers vs Pittsburgh Steelers. The traditions of Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll are upon us, and defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Dick Lebeau are already planning how to blitz Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.