The Green Bay Packers were able to hold off a late surge by the Chicago Bears Sunday, advancing to their fifth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been performing at an MVP-caliber level heading into the NFC Championship Game, but seemed to cool off along with the frigid temperatures at Soldier Field. Rodgers completed 17-of-30 attempts for 244 yards and threw two interceptions, but I still believe Rodgers was very impressive. His first interception was a poor throw that took an awkward deflection for an unlikely interception, and his second interception was a bad decision deep in Bears territory.
The Bears forced Green Bay to throw the football vertically downfield in this game, and for the most part Rodgers was able to do an excellent job in that regard. On the Packers opening touchdown drive, Rodgers completed all four of his passes downfield, the majority of them being "skinny post" throws, which is one of the toughest routes to complete for a QB. When you consider that Rodgers was throwing the football in cold weather with lots of wind, it makes those types of passes so much more difficult to execute.
Looking back on Sunday, I actually think that Rodgers was more accurate throwing the football deep downfield than he was on shorter passes. I thought the Packers also did a nice job of mixing in running plays during the first half, which kept the Bears defense off balance early.
Packers rookie RB James Starks is a long strider, who isn't the most "sudden" running back in the NFL, but he does know how to put his foot in the ground and get north up field. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers gets a gold star since it was the Packers defense that stole the show Sunday, holding the Bears to zero points until third string Bears QB Caleb Hannie entered in the fourth quarter. The Packers were able to register three interceptions, with DT B.J. Raji taking one to the house midway thru the fourth quarter. Dom Capers dialed up pressure all game long, with many of his blitzes involving nickel corner backs coming the wide side of the field in the slot, although the Packers also brought short field corners as well. The pressure never allowed QB Jay Cutler to get into a rhythm early and it forced multiple third and long scenarios for the Bears offense.
I thought the MVP of the game was Packers DT Cullen Jenkins, who just seemed relentless all game long. Jenkins registered a sack early, and also made a big tackle in the backfield deep in Bears territory. With his ability to rush the passer, it makes the Packers blitz packages so much more difficult to handle.
It's fitting that the Packers are headed to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, since they were easily the hottest team in the NFC heading into the playoffs. Winning three road playoff games is never easy as a No. 6 seed, but head coach Mike McCarthy has led his team through the storm and is now one win away from football immortality.
Let's Get Physical
The Pittsburg Steelers bested the New York Jets 24-19 on Sunday by playing "Steeler Football". The Steelers ran the ball on offense and stopped the run on defense, to capture their NFC record tying eigth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The Steelers set the tone early, beating the Jets up at the point of attack, on their way to a 15- play opening drive that took up a little over nine minutes on the clock. I thought RB Rashard Mendenhall did a great job of running very patiently, allowing for his blocks to set up in front of him before accelerating through the different holes. Mendenhall is a physical runner that also possesses excellent speed, and he was able to use that speed on occasion to get outside for bigger gains. The Steelers did a nice job of mixing in screens and swing passes early to Mendenhall, in order to get him on the perimeter of the field. In essence, swing passes and screens are extensions of running plays and with the cold temperatures at Heinz Field; the Steelers were content to simply wear the Jets defense down.
While Ben Roethlisberger didn't by any stretch have a career day passing the football, he was effective with his ability to keep plays alive with his legs, and several occasions, tuck the football to generate first downs. Roethlisberger even scored on a scramble in the second quarter of the game. As expected, the Steelers' defense were near impossible to run against, living up to their billing as the best run defense in the NFL, allowing only 70 rushing yards to the Jets.
I believe it is the Steelers physicality that makes this football team so special, and it's the reason why I think the Steelers will win Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers can run the football on offense behind Mendenhall and Isaac Redman in order to control possession and eat up the clock, and they can force opposing offenses to become one dimensional because of their run defense. Let's also not forget that the Steelers have been there before and done that.
Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, James Farrior and company are all two-time Super Bowl champions, and they know what it's like to play for the Lombardi Trophy when the whole world is watching.
Grin And Bear It
Bears QB Jay Cutler is taking a lot of criticism from current and former NFL players, as well as fans, for not staying in the game Sunday after he hurt his knee sometime at the end of the first half. Many people are wondering how the leader of the Bears could possibly allow himself to be pulled from the biggest game of his life, when his team needed him most.
I think it is silly for people to speculate on other people's injuries. It's very easy for people sitting on their couches to second-guess athletes and their toughness, but all of this criticism started without anyone knowing the extent of Cutler's injury (he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee late in the first half and underwent an MRI on Monday). There have been many NFL players lashing out in the public about Cutler's lack of toughness.
Jacksonville Jaguars RB Maurice Jones Drew and hall of famer Deion Sanders have spoken out against Cutler via Twitter, while future hall of famer Derrick Brooks and Arizona Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett have voiced their opinions as well. I think that the criticism against Cutler that he is not tough enough is unwarranted and unfair.
Cutler certainly doesn't have great body language for a QB and he is often criticized for seeming too aloof or indifferent on the sidelines. That sort of behavior rubs certain people the wrong way, and that's fine, but I don't question his toughness. Cutler was sacked 52 times this season. That's 12 more times than any other QB in the NFL! I've never heard Cutler complain about the abuse he was taking this year. It was obvious that Cutler's knee was preventing him from being effective throwing the football downfield on Sunday, as he was unable to plant his foot in the ground properly in order to achieve enough velocity on his passes. If anything, I give Cutler credit for not allowing himself to return to the game because he knew the truth: that the Bears had their best chance of winning with a healthy Caleb Hannie in the game, rather than him.
It couldn't have been easy for Cutler to allow this to happen. As a player, you have sacrificed so much all season long, having gone through mini camps and training camp, a grueling 16-game regular season, and to finally reach your conference championship game only to have an injury force you out is not what Cutler had anticipated. Consider also that Cutler had never played on a championship team since he was in high school, and here he was, one game away from playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
Cutler's injury and inability to continue playing in the NFC championship game is the type of thing that can be suicide for a player's career, especially in a city like Chicago. I hope it isn't. It's unfortunate that in today's society, we would rather see an injured Jay Cutler limp around and grind out the second half, throw about 20 more incomplete passes, and have his team lose by 28 points, rather than leave the game because he can't help his team win because he's not close to 100 percent. You can say whatever you want about Cutler off the field, but I hope the fans will consider all of the factors that went into this season on the field before labeling Cutler a "quitter."
A Forced To Deal With
Pittsburg Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will be looking for his third Super Bowl trophy on Feb 6 as the Steelers get set to take on the Green Bay Packers in Arlington, TX. It is pretty incredible to think that Big Ben will have that opportunity, considering he is only 28 years old.
Tom Brady is the only other active QB with three Super Bowl rings, but he is already 33 years of age. Just what makes Roethlisberger so clutch in the post season? For one, Roethlisberger brings calmness to the Steelers huddle. I think that calmness is developed by having played in the biggest of games, on the grandest of stages. If you watched the Steelers on Sunday, you certainly didn't see Big Ben's career defining performance. Roethlisberger completed only 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards and two intercepstions. But it was the little things that he did that helped win the game.
I think that Roethlisberger's greatness is his ability to extend plays with his legs. You wouldn't assume that a 6'5 250 lbs quarterback could run around and make plays, but that is exactly what he does. Roethlisberger was able to use his scrambling ability to keep plays alive against the Jets by either throwing the football downfield or scrambling to convert crucial third downs. Roethlisberger even scored on a run in the second quarter Sunday that wasn't designed. Roethlisbergers scrambling ability helped him make the play of the game Sunday night, when on the most crucial and final third down of the game, he was able to scramble to his right and find Antonio Brown for a first down to seal the victory for the Steelers.
Big Ben's scrambling ability will be something that the Green Bay Packers defense will be forced to deal with come Feb 6th. It won't be easy.