The Observer tackles the final hurdle leading up to the Super Bowl
Issue date: 1/21/11 Section: Sports
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Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler has seen two sides of being a quarterback in Chicago. Ever since his arrival in 2009, Cutler has been hated, discriminated against, loved, and glorified. Both the Bears' organization and the fans were looking for that one moment when Cutler would live up to his two-year $30 million contract. Perhaps Cutler had finally found his niche in the NFC Division matchup against Seattle.
The Bears' 35-24 dismantling of the overmatched Seahawks last Sunday set up a huge NFC Conference Championship between two heated rivals. Jay Cutler rushed for a pair of touchdowns and threw for two more as the Bears ended the Seahawks' Cinderella-esque playoff run early. Cutler, in his first postseason game, showed consistency, a rarity in his five-year career, and some shifty moves on a 6-yard touchdown run that made the score 21-0. The rest of the Bears didn't leave anything up to chance. Tight end Greg Olsen showed impressive speed as he streaked past Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy for a 58-yard touchdown reception on Chicago's third offensive play and running back Chester Taylor added a one-yard rushing touchdown.
Not much was expected of the Bears when they began the season by going 4-3, but they improved rapidly, clinching a playoff berth with two games remaining, earning their first NFC North title since 2006. The last time the Bears tasted Super Bowl glory was back in 1985, and they are looking to bring one more back to the Windy City. The Bears will meet longtime rivals the Packers, who lost to the Bears 33-14 at Wrigley Field on Dec. 14, 1941 in their only previous playoff meeting.
Green Bay Packers: He used to the apprentice to the great Brett Favre, be the kid looking for his own moment to shine. Aaron Rodgers may have been used to the freezing Lambeau Field, but he made the Georgia Dome feel like home. Rogers threw three touchdown passes and ran for another as he led the Green Bay Packers to their second straight postseason road victory with a stunning 48-21 victory over the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons.
Green Bay scored 35 unanswered points that included cornerback Tramon William's 70-yard interception return that ended the first half and left a crowd of more than 69,000 fans in a state of shock. Rodgers sealed the deal when he guided the Packers on an 80-yard drive to open the second half, running the last seven yards for the touchdown to make the game 35-14. The quarterback stayed in the zone as he led another scoring drive, capped off with a seven-yard pass to running back John Kuhn late in the third quarter. As Falcons fans headed toward the exits, Aaron Rodgers made everyone forget about Brett Favre. The second half was a victory lap for the Packers, whose devoted fans were able to move down right near the edge of the emptying Georgia Dome and cheer on their team's victory.
The Packers will have to win one more on the road to complete their miraculous run as a sixth seed to the Super Bowl, but Rodgers got the Green Bay fans feeling optimistic. It has been 14 years since Brett Favre led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory. A new era has arrived in Green Bay, but can Aaron Rodgers lead his Packers to the promise land? Only time will tell.
The X-Factor: The Quarterbacks
Essentially, this is going to be a battle between two quarterbacks that lack deep playoff experience. Cutler never played a playoffs, game until he met the Seahawks, and the last time the Packers were in the playoff, they lost to the Arizona Cardinals 51-45. Rodgers had an excellent game against the Cardinals, completing 28 of his 42 passes as he racked up 422 yards and four touchdowns. Rodgers's extra playoff experience will help him edge out Cutler.
Prediction: Green Bay 35 Chicago 17
Rodgers is in the zone and Cutler's inconsistency will catch up to him eventually.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Jets
Pittsburgh Steelers: For Pittsburgh fans, it sure feels like 2008 all overagain. The Steelers captured the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2008, and the usual three-year wait is almost over. The winning formula is still intact, head coach Mike Tomlin is in his fourth season, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has returned to his MVP form of 2008. In AFC Divisional matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, Roethlisberger showed the kind of playmaking that put a pair of Super Bowl rings on his fingers. The Steelers quarterback found rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown with a 58-yard pass with less than two minutes left as he led Pittsburgh to a hard fought 31-24 victory. Running back Rashard Mendenhall scored the winning touchdown from two yards out with 1:33 left and ended the Ravens' chance of finally defeating their division rivals in a playoff game.
After a rough start, Roethlisberger regrouped as he threw for 226 yards and recorded two touchdowns before his hail-mary pass on third-and-19. Despite leading by two touchdowns at the half, it was the Ravens that fell apart after the break. Pittsburgh's rally got some help from three Baltimore turnovers in the third. The Ravens' offense imploded, recording just 28 yards in the second half. As Roethlisberger found Hines Ward to tie the contest as 21 apiece, the Ravens stood on sideline shocked they had surrendered the lead - and couldn't figure out how to get it back. From there, Pittsburgh took the final control and are one win away from a third Super Bowl visit in six years.
New York Jets: The Jets backed up their trash talk as they stunned the New England Patriots. Head coach Rex Ryan's rowdy bunch is headed to its second straight AFC championship game after the Jets backed up its coach's boasts with a 28-21 win against the team with the NFL's best record. USC alumus Mark Sanchez connected for three touchdown passes and the Jets defense sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady five times. In the end, Coach Ryan was true to his exuberant self, running down the sideline to celebrate with his players after running back Shonn Greene's 16-yard touchdown with 1:41 left capped off the improbable upset.
The Jets led the Patriots 14-3 at halftime before Brady's two-yard touchdown pass to Algae Crumpler and running back Sammy Morris's run for a two-point conversion. However Sanchez returned the favor when his seven-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes gave them lead. The Patriots lost their third straight postseason game while the Jets kept Coach Ryan's Super Bowl appearance prediction alive. Sanchez completed 16 of 25 passes for 194 yards and racked up three touchdowns.
With his advancement to the AFC Championship, Sanchez gets a chance to beat another top NFL quarterback. After taking out past MVPs Peyton Manning and Brady, the second-year quarterback now has a 4-1 postseason record. This victory gave the Jets their franchise record for road victories in a season with their eighth, topping last season's seven. The Jets are ready to take off for Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, so bring on the Steelers because this one is personal.
The X-Factor: This Time, It's Personal…Again
If trash talk wins Super Bowls, then Rex Ryan should the Coach of the Year. It used to be "it is defense that wins ballgames" -who knows, maybe we are entering an era where "trash talks leads to playoff victories." This is pretty much Steelers' playoff experience against Rex Ryan's "charismatic" motivational ability.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24 New York 21
I want to believe that playoff experience beats a week of Twitter attacks. I want to see Ben Roethlisberger make a full comeback from his 2010 turmoil. Mostly I think it's Steelers' time to shine…again.