Did anyone predict a Packers-Steelers Super Bowl? I got it half-right, picking Green Bay to be here, but while I was hardly alone in picking the Pack, somehow it was the Steelers that everyone slept on. The NFL gets plenty of storylines to feed the Dallas-bound hype machine. There are plenty of stars, some great matchups and no reason to expect this compelling run of playoff games will stop now. With two weeks to prep and heal up, both teams should be ready. Let's fast forward around to see how they got here and what we can learn from it:
The game seemed sealed early in the third quarter when Jay Cutler left the game with a knee injury. There had been no real offensive threats from the Cutler-led offense, but looking forward, the way that Cutler went out is going to be a problem. Chicago's a blue-collar town, and Cutler didn't look hurt. He stood on the sidelines in his jacket, telling the trainers that he could "feel it" when he moved to his right. I'll give him a pass for not icing the knee, given the outside temperature, but it would have been a smart move for perception. No one should question whether or not Cutler was hurt, but the perception of it is going to be tougher to overcome than any injury. The Bears can't dump Cutler -- he's their QB for at least next season -- but he's going to have to figure out how to win over fans or get comfortable in a black hat. Losing Todd Collins as well put Caleb Hanie in a really tough spot. Credit where credit is due, Hanie didn't fold, putting up passes and points for his side.
The storyline is going to focus on Cutler and the QB situation, but it shouldn't. The game the Bears didn't want was the one they played, where Aaron Rodgers got time enough to do what he wanted, where he was mobile, and where the running game was opened up by the passing game. Cutler played the game Bears fans feared, the one where he was Brett Favre Lite, without the arm strength, but none the bad decisions. Rodgers made some mistakes and showed some vulnerabilities with a couple interceptions. One was a goofy hop off his wide receiver's foot, but the Urlacher INT was as bad as they come. There were a couple times when it seemed Rodgers was forcing things, perhaps the first time we've seen him step outside "The Zone" during the playoffs.
At times, it seemed like we were watching the first half of Packers-Bears again. Running and passing at will, the Steelers controlled the game without lighting up the scoreboard. By the Two-Minute Warning, with a Ben Roethlisberger run-pass option leading to a TD, it wasn't what we'd expected at all. Of all the ways that Rex Ryan saw this going, I guarantee seeing the Steelers run it down their throats wasn't one of them. One big blitz and a controversial fumble later, the game was almost out of hand. On 1050 ESPN in New York Sunday morning, I listed LaDainian Tomlinson as a Jets key to victory. But he produced just nine yards on three carries in the first half.
The second half was a story of adjustments and execution. The Steelers appeared to lose focus, while the Jets came out on a mission. They began to run. They began to make the plays that held up the Steelers as they ran the clock, including a powerful run of three negative plays last in the third quarter. That stop led to an epic Jets' drive, ending on a key fourth down stop as the Jets went to Tomlinson for the short run instead of a charged-up Greene. That's a decision that's going to get a lot of second guessing in New York this week, but Ryan loves "his guys" and Tomlinson has been his guy all season.
The physical nature of the game also took hold and took its toll. Mark Sanchez appeared to have a stinger on the sack that led to a Steelers TD. Shonn Greene popped up from a seemingly serious shoulder injury. Jerricho Cotchery fought through a leg injury as well. Roethlisberger hobbled from an inadvertent knee to his leg. Maurkice Pouncey left early with what appears to be a serious ankle injury (more on this below), though comically, the Steelers didn't announce he wouldn't be back until just before the start of the fourth quarter. I could have told you that after seeing the first replay. In the end, the Jets came back, but the execution on one short Roethlisberger pass on third-and-short was the ballgame.
For the third week, the Jets played a game of football that many haven't seen. While Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie have been with the Jets all season, the Colts, Pats, and now Steelers essentially played 9-on-9 football. I chatted with a friend who's an offensive assistant with a Division I school during the game and he was convinced the Steelers had it game-planned that way. "They used the isolation," he explained, "which either opened up some lanes for the running game or they put enough guys in the pattern that someone had a matchup. It seemed like Heath Miller was getting the most from it, either in seams or across the middle. If the Jets are going to do that, I wonder if more teams will keep running Revis and [Cromartie] down and out." If so, we're going to have to make big adjustments in the fantasy game for this and it could make AFC East WR3s and tight ends a bit more valuable.
The cliche is that teams run to establish the pass. It took years to realize that's backwards and a few years more for Rodgers to perfect the formula. With teams trying to stop Rodgers and not really respecting the three-headed running game that's emerged for the Packers, the holes have opened up, mostly for James Starks. Starks, a low pick from a mid-major school, is going to be a fashionable fantasy pick next year as people wonder whether Ryan Grant can come back from ankle surgery. Grant will have had a full season, plus the offseason, to heal up and we've seen guys come back from worse. Grant, once traded because he wasn't going to make the Giants roster out of camp, took a similar opportunity and became a fantasy top-10 RB. I'm not saying Starks can't do that, but I'm not sure he'll get the same chance. Grant has a reasonable salary for 2011 and even with a roster bonus, it's more likely that the Packers will go with a committee approach again. Starks is going to be a massive overdraft next season. Don't fall into that trap.
Cullen Jenkins had a dominant game from the front, showing the Packers defense is more than ball hawks, A.J. Hawk, and Clay Matthews' hair. At one point early in the second quarter, just after Jenkins almost stopped Matt Forte in the end zone, Troy Aikman talked about his mobility and his size. Aikman pointed out that at "just" 300 pounds, Jenkins was more mobile than most guys on the the defensive front. Remember when 300 was big? Now it's undersized, mobile and ... hey, is Dom Capers on to something here, going with "mobile" fronts and speedy linebackers? It's hardly secret sauce, but it's tasty. IDP leagues should be looking to see if anyone tries to copy-cat this strategy as a look for cheap sacks.
Julius Peppers should be expecting a call from the league after leading with his head on Rodgers. Watching Rodgers' helmet visibly removed from his head, held only by the chinstrap, reminds us just how close we might have been to a Super Bowl ruined by concussion. Rodgers has had two this season and with two weeks to prep, he should be fine. That said, he took two big hits and seemed to lose some accuracy afterward. Sadly, his head is going to be a huge target for the Steelers
... The reason the NFL sticks with the two weeks off between the championship games and the Super Bowl is hype, of course, but injuries like the one we saw to Pouncey, is the other reason. His ankle was forcibly inverted when a defender fell on him. No details yet from the Steelers, but that's an injury that can be very serious
... Were there any Packers fans excited by the Mike McCarthy hire a few years back? How about when Mike Tomlin was named Bill Cowher's successor? I remember a collective "huh? who?" by the public on both those moves, but it's hard to imagine any move working out better ... It wasn't Rodgers that sealed the game, but a zone blitz pick-six by 338-pound B.J. Raji. Give Capers big-time credit for that one
... I hear that the NFL is trying to be a bit stricter about players opting out of the Pro Bowl, but that worries about the NFLPA slowed that effort. Getting a CBA done is infinitely more important than the Pro Bowl will ever be.