The 2010-11 NFL postseason has been all about rematches, and the championship round will be no different. Four teams remain in the Packers, Bears, Jets and Steelers. Let’s recap how each team has gotten to this point and the potential outcomes of their matches.
Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Wild Card Round vs. Eagles, 21-16
Why They Won: The Packers won this game with a brilliantly balanced offensive attack. Aaron Rodgers threw for 180 yards and three touchdowns. What had been missing all season for the Packers, with the absence of Ryan Grant, was a legitimate running game. They got that in spades for this game. The rookie out of Buffalo, James Starks, pounded the Eagles front seven, toting the ball 23 times for 123 yards.
Oh, and then there was that pesky Packers defense. They did their best to harass Vick throughout the contest, and Green Bay’s unit tallied three sacks on the typically fleet-footed Michael Vick. He was held to just 32 rushing yards with one touchdown.
When two teams are as evenly matched as these teams were, any one deciding factor will determine the game. Packers cornerback Tramon Williams was that deciding factor. He picked off the final heave to the end zone to dash Philly’s hopes of a comeback.
Divisional Round vs. Falcons, 48-21
Why They Won: There is one reason, and one reason only, why the Packers dominated this game, and his name is Aaron Rodgers. He turned in one of the best playoff performances of all time by completing 31 of his 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns as well as one rushing score. That sort of precision ultimately doomed the favored Falcons at home.
Oh, and that one guy Tramon Williams picked off two more Matt Ryan passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown, swinging the momentum before halftime to the point where the Falcons never recovered. The Packers defense was too much for the upstart Falcons and recorded five more sacks. James Starks didn’t play too badly either with 25 carries for 66 yards.
Chicago Bears (11-5)
Divisional Round vs. Seahawks, 35-24
Why They Won: The Bears were up 28-0 by the end of the third quarter, so the score does not indicate how much of a blowout this actually was. While Jay Cutler and the usual stingy Bears defense played well, the Bears won this game because they were playing the 7-9 Seahawks. The Seahawks were on a high coming off their first-round home upset over the Saints, but let’s face it, beating Chicago at home for the second time in a season was too tall of a task for the wily old Matt Hasselbeck.
Cutler attacked the Seahawks defense early and often, and before you knew it, the game was a rout. Once Greg Olsen caught a 58-yard touchdown right down the middle of the field, wide open, in less than two minutes into the first quarter, you could sense this one was over.
New York Jets (11-5)
Wild Card Round vs. Colts, 17-16
Why They Won: Ultimately, the Jets won this game off the foot of Nick Folk, who hit the game-winning field goal as time expired. But the two things that led up to that were just as big of contributing factors. Firstly, Antonio Cromartie’s excellent kick return to the their own 46 set up the Jets in great field position. Secondly, Mark Sanchez completed a great drive in less than one minute to set up the game-clinching field goal.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonne Green were outstanding on the ground throughout the game as well. They combined for 35 carries and 152 yards, with LT punching in two touchdowns. The Jets offensive line, arguably the best in the league, kept Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney in check, as they combined for only six tackles, no sacks and one QB hit.
Divisional Round vs. Patriots, 28-21
Why They Won: The Jets defense confused and confounded Tom Brady the entire game—a feat not many have accomplished all season. The Jets threw a number of exotic defensive packages that threw Brady off his game and proved decisive in the victory. They did not allow a single big play downfield while sacking Brady five times and even picked him off for the first time in 11 games.
This game was also about the resilience of the Jets offense. Sanchez did more than manage this time, and shone as threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns. The running tandem of LT and Greene performed once again, but the key performers on offense were Sanchez and Santonio Holmes. The latter seems to have at least one play for every playoff game, and didn't disappoint this game. Furthermore, Cromartie played a brilliant return game, including his onside kick recovery and runback to virtually crush the Patriots’ hopes of winning.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Divisional Round vs. Ravens, 31-24
Why They Won: This win can be chalked up to resilience and perseverance. Much like the Packers-Eagles matchup, in a game with two teams as evenly matched as the Ravens and Steelers, something had to give. And it did. Both quarterbacks found themselves under duress for most of the game and there were 11 total sacks.
Both defenses forced a sloppy game as two of the NFL's toughest front seven clashed again. There were five total turnovers, four of them coming off fumbles. Neither team ran the ball over 80 yards in a typically tight contested matchup, and that defense contributed to the Ravens holding a halftime lead of 21-7. That plus and a little awareness.
But ultimately, the better quarterback won—with a little help from his friends. Rookie wideout Antonio Brown caught a 58-yard pass on 3rd-and-19 to put the Steelers in position for the win. The Steelers might need another wild finish from Big Ben and their ragtag team of receivers to beat the Jets.
It’s been a tough road for each team to this point (with the exception of the Bears). But who will play in the Super Bowl?
Packers over Bears
Player of the Game: Aaron Rodgers
X-Factor: Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, James Starks (Pick your poison)
Why: In Bill Simmons’ mailbag, after the Bears-Seahawks matchup was set, a reader wrote about how the Bears might be the luckiest team in the league. I think they may have a point.
The Bears might not even be here if they had played the Packers in the divisional round instead of the Seahawks. Let’s also not forget about the Week 1 catch/no catch debacle with Calvin Johnson and the Lions. The Bears are here because they’ve gotten lucky.
I try to stay away from statistical predictions, but I think Aaron Rodgers has another outstanding 300-plus-yard game. His ability to pick apart a defense with his eyes, as well as his legs, is unmatched by any QB in the league (Yes, better than Vick). The Bears defense has shown vulnerability in the past against top-notch offenses, (see Week 14 vs. Patriots) and could be exposed here against the Packers.
I think this is a game that could be close but won’t end up being so. The result will be like what the Packers did to the Falcons although possibly not as severe. I just don’t see a scenario in which Jay Cutler beats Aaron Rodgers right now, unless the Bears defense plays their absolute best game of the season. Packers win 24-10.
Steelers over Jets
Player of the Game: Troy Polamalu
X-Factor: Rashard Mendenhall, Antwaan Randle El, James Harrison (Too many to choose from)
Why: This will undoubtedly be a tight matchup, but I think the Steelers do enough to come out of the scrum with the victory. I just think the Steelers defense has too many impact players that will end up being Mark Sanchez’s undoing. You just go down the list and it looks a little overwhelming: James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton, William Gay, and, of course, Troy Polamalu.
That guy could well be the reason why the Steelers win the game. He, like no other defender, strikes fear into the opposing quarterback’s eyes. The Steelers didn’t have him available Week 15 when the Jets beat the Steelers, but his impact is practically immeasurable. However, just last week, we learned he is mortal and can have an off game.
This is what Sanchez had to say about Polamalu earlier in the week, “He’s the ultimate playmaker. He’ll do anything. He’ll sacrifice his body. He’ll kind of freelance out there and read your eyes. Especially a young quarterback, he’ll try to get after you early and rattle you.” Those sentiments might be foreboding Sanchez’s fate.
If you want to look at the quarterback matchup, Ben Roethlisberger has the rings and the experience to aid in his case. It will be a tall task to limit his effectiveness, even for a defense as good as the Jets. But if it’s any defense that can rattle Big Ben, it’s this one. The Ravens did their best to do so in their matchup but ultimately fell short.
One thing’s for sure; it will be a grudge match. I think Polamalu has a field day with the young Mark Sanchez. He’ll get his fair share of tackles, deflections and maybe even a pick or forced fumble. He is a complete defensive force. I believe he’ll impact this game heavily. Steelers win 16-14.