After 20 weeks of meaningful football, it has come to this.
Two NFL franchises full of history and consistent approaches to winning, will meet in Dallas 13 days from now for the NFL championship.
But there's much more to the story than just the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers meeting for NFL supremacy one week for Sunday.
Both teams survived late challenges from their opposition Sunday, and both got huge contributions from players who were only known by true pigskins fanatic as little as a week ago.
Their efforts will be documented shortly, but to really understand what will make this game truly compelling, we must first examine the historical significance of these two teams meeting in football's biggest game, and what is at stake for their quarterbacks.
5 Things That Impressed Me About Conference Championship Weekend
1. The creation of a Super Bowl Matchup that combines history with compelling stories.
There has never been a Super Bowl in which the two participants are teams that are older than 75 years old. In addition, no two teams that have met in the big game have more combined Super Bowl wins than the Packers and the Steelers.
Both of these organizations just bleed history, from their humble beginnings under football luminaries Curly Lambeau and Art Rooney, to their commitment to excellence, to the scores of great players who played for both teams.
In short, this is a Super Bowl that no true football fan who appreciates the game's history, won't be intrigued by.
But there is something else that makes this game compelling, the legacies of the quarterbacks involved.
Quite simply, should Aaron Rodgers lead Green Bay to the promised land, he will entirely remove the stigma of following in Brett Favre's shadow.
In other words, he will earn his place historically among Packer legends and no longer be remember as the guy who replaced Favre.
If Roethlisberger wins, he will cement his place among the game's quarterbacking elite historically, as he will join the select few who have won three titles.
He will also provide an amazing ending to a topsy-turvy season which started with both his character and ethics being quested, but ended with championship glory.
How's that for intriguing?
2. Sam Shields
It's always refreshing to see virtual unknowns get their chance to shine on a big stage.
According to today's Peter King column, Shields was once a wide receiver at the University of Miami that impressed coaches with his speed, and was moved to cornerback before his senior season to address a need in the secondary.
The gamble paid off, as a Packers scout was impressed with his skills, and was able to convince the team to sign him as a undrafted free agent.
That faith manifested itself yesterday as Shields recorded two interceptions in the second and fourth quarters respectively, that killed Bears drives.
He also recorded a sack, making him the questioned star of the Green Bay defense.
3. James Starks
A sixth-round draft pick out of the football hotbed that is the University of Buffalo, Starks followed up a solid effort in Atlanta last week by out gaining Matt Forte.
He also couldn't have picked a better time to score his first NFL touchdown, as it came in the NFC championship game against the Packers bitter rival.
I, for one, am interested in seeing what kind of impact Starks will have with a healthy Ryan Grant next season. I think it will lead to a formidable running attack.
4. Antonio Brown
The Steelers new "Mr. Clutch" ended the Jets' Cinderella playoff ride by hauling in a Roethlisberger pass on a third and six with under two minutes left in the game and the Jets having no time outs.
What makes him clutch however is that he was able to make a big time play in a scenario in which he was Roethlisberger's fourth best target on the field.
No wonder Rex Ryan slammed in his headset down in disgust upon the play's conclusion.
5. Ike Taylor
Taylor executed a perfect corner blitz that forced Mark Sanchez to fumble and led to teammate William Gay taking the fumble into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 24-0 lead.
As it turned out, the play ended up being vital to the Steelers victory, because the Jets scored 19 unanswered points, and there's no telling what would have happened had that play not occurred.
5 Things That Depressed Me About Conference Championship Weekend
1. The Jay Cutler Saga
It's unfortunate that people are overlooking Cutler's poor NFC Championship Game performance by questioning his toughness and commitment to winning.
Cutler was downright awful Sunday, throwing for only 80 yards, and registering a quarterback rating of only 31.8.
Cutler should have known that this was not going to be his week when everybody's favorite sportswriter. Rick Reilly devoted his weekly column to pointing out that Jay Cutler refuses to make eye contact with reporters and displays a surly personality around people he's not comfortable around.
As I write this, ESPN is reporting that Cutler has a sprained MCL. Since I have not had one of those myself, it is difficult for me to gauge how much pain he was actually feeling.
So, I really can't say Cutler was wrong to miss the rest of the game.
However, I can say this: football is a tough game that is full of guys who wear past injuries on their sleeves as if it's a badge of honor.
It stinks that the man who the Bears were counting on to be their leader couldn't tough it out when he didn't appear to be injured that badly.
However, it also stinks that Cutler's NFL contemporaries interpreted his injury as a sign of weakness and took to Twitter to voice their displeasure.
For example, Jaguar's running back Maurice Jones-Drew implied that Cutler was a quitter, and the Cardinals' Kerry Rhodes was upset that Cutler did not return when there was so much on the line.
I tend to agree with Rhodes's assessment, the injury did not appear to be serious enough for Cutler to miss the rest of the game when the stakes were high and a win meant a trip to the big game.
However, those who questioned Cutler's commitment and toughness should be reminded that Cutler was playing in the playoffs and they weren't.
While it's true that the Bears defense was a large part of getting them into the position they were in yesterday, Cutler had a good season and developed good chemistry with both his offense and new coordinator Mike Martz. He should be afforded that much respect.
The bottom line here is that they're are too many unanswered questions here for me to say that Cutler's actions were wrong:
How much pain he was he truly in?
Did the Bears training staff keep him out of the game because they feared that it could get worse?
If Cutler did want out, how can we prove it?
But kudos to teammates Olin Kreutz and Brian Urlacher for defending Cutler, and telling those who questioned his toughness by telling them to back off.
It's easy to judge people you are jealous of when you're sitting on the coach snacking on Fritos and still angry that your team didn't make the postseason.
But until you experience that situation yourself, you shouldn't be allowed to question a man's toughness.
2. The Jets long fourth quarter drive
In their defense, it's hard to obtain a quick scoring drive on a Dick LeBeau coordinated defense when they don't give you much to work with.
That said, for the drive to end with a goal line stand was disappointing, when you consider that it took over 8 minutes and may have effectively ended the Jets chances for a win.
3. Todd Collins
I don't know why Lovie Smith didn't go with Caleb Hanie to replace Cutler in the first place.
The 16-year pro misfired on all four of his passing attempts, and at 39, he's not a guy I would want to pin my team's season on when there's a younger quarterback who's probably more capable of leading the offense.
4. Antonio Cromartie
Karma's a mistress who shouldn't be messed with.
Sure Cromartie was able to get away with calling Tom Brady an inappropriate name a week ago, and back up his statement with the Jets winning, but I believe in karma's effect to make one look silly
Case in point: Cromartie was flagged for a blatant hold on the Steelers Mike Wallace and had the gall to question the call when the replay clearly showed he had a hold of Wallace's jersey
5. Mike Martz's playcalling
It's not that I don't think Martz hasn't reaffirmed his status as a great offense coordinator this season, but I found his play calls to be a little too conservative in the first half.
He relied too much on Matt Forte, and Forte's inability to run the ball effectively was paramount to the Bears scoreless first half.
By the time he focused on the passing game, it may have been a hair too late for Chicago to pull it out.
1. Here in New England, the hangover from the Patriots disappointing season still lingers, although it's not as bad as it was this time last week.
I say this because of the optimism that abounds in this region.
The Celtics have the best record in the NBA's Eastern Conference, the Bruins lead their division, and the Red Sox are a loaded team.
Thus, we're fortunate fans.
2. A good friend of mine, who has Patriots season tickets, chose not to go to the game last Sunday.
He said it was because he wanted to use the money he probably would have spent on food and drinks to fly in an old friend of ours for the AFC Championship game.
He was very depressed over the loss, but when I told that it could be worse for us in that we could be Cleveland sports fans, it seemed to cheer him up.
3. I sense trouble brewing in the Bronx. According to Phil Rodgers of the Chicago Tribune, Brian Cashman was against giving Rafael Soriano a third year on his contract but was overruled by Hank Stienbrenner.
Rodgers also reported that Cashman was seriously considering bringing infamous Yankee bust Carl Pavano back as a free agent.
4. I admire the valor of the Royals Gil Meche, who chose to retire last week instead of having the team pick up his 12 million dollar option. You don't often see an athlete admit he's done when he stands to make a lot of money.
5. The Rays may have lost a lot of talented players this off-season, but at the very least, they'll be entertaining with Manny and Johny Damon in the fold.
6. I drew the ire of many of my Facebook friends last week when I suggested that the terrified look on Tom Brady's face on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated made me laugh and was a result of him finding out that Giselle had just left him for Charlie Sheen.
7. As many of you long time readers know, next week is my annual bye week from this column I see the Pro Bowl as nothing more than a meaningless exhibition game in which players play like they're more excited to be in Hawaii than playing for conference pride.
I will see you in two weeks for all my analysis on the Super Bowl!
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