A trip to Dallas and immortality on the line, four cold weather franchises known for hard hitting defenses took to the field in frigid mid-January temps. The result—ugly if intense football and a matchup between franchises known for dynasties past come two weeks.
The NFC clash – or “The Game of the Century,” as it was referred to on the El trains of Chicago all week – won’t be remembered as a crowning achievement, at least in the Second City. Instead Chicago faithful will remember January 22 as the day they faithful gave up on Jay Cutler as the savior of their franchise. Cutler submitted meekly to the blitz schemes of the Green Bay pass rush, before being pulled with a knee injury that earned the ire of the NFL Twitterverse, accusing Jay of playing soft
The pain Bears fans felt watching their star QB miss time with light cramping was no doubt compounded by seeing Aaron Rodgers shred the Bears defense on the game’s opening drive. Rodgers routinely hit Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and company as if still in warm-ups, and the Packers seemed on there way to putting up another 40 spot.
But the Bears defense turned up the heat on the Packers receivers, not letting them breathe off the line and rattling the previously unflappable Rodgers. Both Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher had interceptions as the Bears D showed heart and skill.
The problem for the Bears was, they had to score themselves. With Cutler ineffective and injured, and backup Todd Collins needing to be put out to pasture the Bears’ fate was left to the hands of third-stringer Caleb Hanie. Game Over.
Or not. Hanie gave the Bears offense some life, bringing poise and accuracy to the pocket. The Bears finally scored on a catch and run by Johnny Knox, and Hanie appeared on the way to a Rudy moment. But the margin for error was too small and Hanie committed the quizzical error of missing the 350 pound body of B.J. Raji in zone blitz coverage. Raji made a quick read and move on the ball that would make Ronnie Lott proud, rumbling into the end zone on a pick six that sealed the Pack’s place in the Super Bowl.
The AFC championship’s ups and downs represented the schizophrenic nature of both the Steelers and Jets. Throughout the year, both teams had the ability to look like world-beaters and amateurs in the same game. The first half was Steeler football: bone-crushing run defense, turnovers and a heavy dose of Rashard Mendenhall down the throats of the Jets interior. A 24 to 3 halftime lead for Pittsburgh seemed more than safe.
But as has been the case the past few years, the Jets proved a tough out. Sanchez, at his incompetent worst in the first stanza, recovered revitalize the Jets passing offense, as the Steelers cornerbacks struggled to match up with the physical Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes. Still the game appeared over when Pittsburgh’s D held the Jets on 4th and 1 from the goal line to take over on downs.
But Big Ben booted the snap from his backup center, giving the Jets a safety, possession and a chance. A meandering drive by Sanchez and company ended with the Jets one score down and in need of a quick stop of the Steelers offense. But Pittsburgh smartly went for the jugular, risking a clock stoppage by throwing the ball—and hitting two huge first downs on completions that sealed the game. And then, the crying started. Emotions were running so high Heinz Field was nearly swept into the Allegheny.
Big Ben fake cried, continuing his image consultant’s 12-step process to prove to remind everyone he’s changed. Rex Ryan cried because that’s what he does. Casual fans everywhere cried because neither Green Bay or Pittsburgh’s offense scored a second half point, meaning we could be in for an all field goal Super Bowl. And I cried because Tom Brady and the Pats are better than these clown teams and it’s just not fair.
But such is life in the NFL. It’s not always the best teams that win the championship. It’s the teams whose survival instincts maintain through every haymaker, jab and hook their opponents throw at them. It’s the team that never has an off day, or if they do, can grind out enough body blows and parries to move on to the next round. The two teams left standing go at it in the 19th round two weeks from now. Only one gets the trophy.