The Packers and Steelers fended off late rallies to win the new (and significantly uglier) Conference Championship trophies.
(6) Packers 21 at (2) Bears 14
The Jay Cutler drama overshadowed what was mostly an ugly game. I spent the better part of my afternoon wondering how the Eagles finished a combined 0-3 against these teams. It still haunts me.
Anyway, the Packers looked sharp early before sputtering for the better part of three quarters while the Chicago offense did its very best to replicate its ghastly performance against the Giants way back in October.
Let’s start with Aaron Rodgers. It wasn’t his best day, but he was hot enough early to quiet the home crowd and give his defense a sizable cushion. The outstanding play of punter Tim Masthay and Rodgers’ ability to consistently move the offense limited the effectiveness of Devin Hester and forced Chicago to start most of its possessions from within its own 20 yard line. On a cold day, in a game featuring two great defenses, field position was almost as important as scoring. And even though Rodgers didn’t have his usual gaudy numbers, he still made the game’s biggest play. More on that later.
I don’t know how to explain this game. I thought the game was headed for a blowout until the Packers appeared bored due to the lack of fight from the Bears.
In the first half, the Packer offense put together four drives of 35 yards or more and registered at least one first down on every drive. A Chicago interception just before halftime kept the Bears within two touchdowns in a game the Packers had completely dominated.
The second half began with another long drive by the Packers into the red zone. It wasn’t until Brian Urlacher’s interception at the five yard line that the Chicago defense finally woke up. Although the Bears offense failed to do anything with the turnover, the Packer offense would struggle the rest of the way, punting on its final five drives and totaling just over 50 yards of offense. The helmet-to-helmet collision with Julius Peppers may have also been a factor in Rodgers’ second half struggles. Rodgers began sailing passes and missing open targets after the hit.
Enter Caleb Hanie. With Cutler sitting with an injured knee and Todd Collins performing like Todd Collins, Chicago thrust third string quarterback Caleb Hanie into the game. Hanie showed poise, energy, and determination upon entering the game, something neither Cutler nor Collins demonstrated in their time under center. The Chicago offense responded by scoring 14 points in the 4th quarter.
By now I’m sure you know how it ended. Hanie threw a pick six and then mounted a touchdown drive to bring the Bears back within seven again before throwing another interception to seal the Green Bay victory. Nonetheless, Hanie’s play inspired his teammates and had the Packers scrambling in a game they should have won by multiple touchdowns.
While it appeared trivial at the time, Rodgers hustling to tackle Urlacher in the open field following the red zone interception turned out to be a crucial play. I’m not sure if Urlacher deserves to be ridiculed for being tackled by a QB or if Rodgers deserves an award for his effort in a situation where most quarterbacks pretend to run and then helplessly flop at the defender’s feet, but it was a huge play either way.
The Packers now move onto Dallas, the Bears get to lick their wounds and defend their persecuted quarterback.
Whether Cutler was seriously injured or not isn’t really what has fans/players/analysts irate. If Cutler was on top of his game in the first half and went down with a knee injury, fans would still be disappointed he didn’t return in such a big game, but not spitting venom. Unfortunately, Cutler was unbelievably atrocious in the biggest game of his life. Even worse, he looked disinterested and overwhelmed by the moment. Cutler made Donovan McNabb’s postseason performances look heroic.
I don’t care to question Cutler’s injury, but he clearly has some tendencies that should worry Chicago. First, he didn’t even look bothered that he couldn’t return. It’s the biggest game of his career and his response to sitting out the second half was essentially, “Awe shucks.” Second, he made no effort to be a part of the team following the injury. Wear a headset, stand by the coach, help your teammates, get up on the bench and wave a towel. Do something! Even Terrell Owens figured this out. Com’n, Jay!
Cutler’s knee will heal. His reputation in Chicago won’t…unless he brings home a Lombardi trophy.
Also, there were plenty of active and former players throwing shots at Cutler, but Deion Sanders’ criticism of Jay Cutler’s toughness is laughable. I’m pretty sure Sanders never scuffed a helmet (his or anyone else’s) nor made a tackle without clinging to someone’s ankle like a toddler being dropped off at daycare. Please, Deion, just don’t talk. Ever.
(6) Jets 19 at (2) Steelers 24
Ben Roethlisberger made too many plays. It’s amazing to say that about a quarterback who finished 10/19 for 133 yards and 2 interceptions, but it’s true. Roethlisberger was too big, too strong, and too composed for the Jets. After the Jets successfully flustered Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, they failed to rattle Roethlisberger. Whenever the Steelers needed a big play, Roethlisberger made it.
I’ve read a lot about the Jets coming out flat in the first half, but I’m not buying. The Jets were bullied in the first half. Simple as that. After physically dominating the Colts and Patriots, the Jets couldn’t handle the physicality of the Steelers.
Pittsburgh proved it was the tougher team, especially in the first half, by overpowering the Jets with an effective running game, extended possessions, and a dominating defensive performance that limited the Jet offense to 60 yards in the first half.
Unfortunately, the Steelers couldn’t maintain that same level of play in the second half, and for the second consecutive week, the Steelers won a playoff game by playing one outstanding half and disappearing for the other.
As bad as New York played in the first 30 minutes, it took over the second half, scoring 19 unanswered points (ok, 3 of them came in the final seconds of the first half) and nearly erased a 24 point deficit.
If we break down the second half, each team had four possessions. The Steelers totaled 75 yards, threw an interception, punted, and surrendered two points via a safety. The Jets racked up over 230 yards, scored two touchdowns, punted once, and were stopped at the one yard line on 4th down. As much as the Steelers dominated the first half, they were equally dominated in the second half.
While the New York defense stepped up to limit the Steeler offense, it was Mark Sanchez who led the Jets back. Sanchez looked cool and confident doing it, too. In only his second year, Sanchez has more postseason wins and big game experience than most quarterbacks get in a career. However, despite Sanchez’s play, New York fans are still having nightmares of the Jets failure to score on four attempts from the two.
The play calling failed, and it failed miserably. I understand the desire to preserve the clock, so throwing the ball in that situation is appealing. However, scoring is the top priority when erasing a large deficit. If you don’t score, time is irrelevant. Throwing the ball didn’t give New York its best chance of scoring. Handing the ball to Shonn Greene four times in a row did.
To make matters worse, New York turned to LaDainian Tomlinson on 4th and 1…against the Steeler defense, nonetheless. Why? I haven’t come up with a reasonable answer yet. It still doesn’t make sense to me. LT was averaging less than two yards a carry at that point. As I’ve preached since December, Shonn Greene is the Jets best back this time of year. He needed the ball on 4th and 1. More importantly, the Jets needed him to get the ball on 4th and 1.
It’s over now, though. Roethlisberger ended New York’s comeback by completing a 3rd down pass across his body while scrambling to his right. Fittingly, it was the same pass Peyton Manning failed to complete against the Jets in the Wildcard round. Manning’s incompletion kept the Jets alive for two more weeks. Roethlisberger’s completion finished the Jets for good.
Now we’re tortured with the nauseating sound of Steeler fans singing about Pittsburgh going to the Super Bowl.