PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an interesting, but rather uneven Championship Sunday in the NFL ...
• It's a good thing the NFL is planning to squeeze more than 100,000 football fans into two-year-old Cowboys Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday in Arlington, Texas. Because now that the Packers and Steelers have earned their way to this year's big Roman-numeraled affair, the league is going to need every last bit of stadium capacity it can muster. Somebody tell Jerry Jones to get his "plaza'' ready. He's about to get an overflow crowd, no matter what he charges per head.
If there are two more fervent fan bases in the NFL, with loyalists who are willing to pick up and travel wherever their favorite team is playing, I couldn't imagine who would rank higher than the good folks of Pittsburgh and Green Bay. By the time the hype ends, Super Bowl XLV might just wind up being one of the toughest tickets in NFL history.
In the Packers and Steelers, we have a Super matchup of two old-guard franchises, with decades of winning tradition and almost unmatched history when it comes to their relationship with their fans (and beloved status) in western Pennsylvania and all of Wisconsin, respectively. Be it Cheeseheads or Terrible Towels, they both will be well represented in Texas.
These two giants have been playing pro football for what seems like forever, and they share much more than the similar color of their gold/yellow football pants. Pittsburgh and Green Bay fans live and breathe NFL football, and now their wildly popular teams will meet for the first time in the postseason, getting yet another chance to add to their impressive Super Bowl ring collections.
The Packers own three Super Bowl titles, and have the game's trophy named after their legendary head coach, Vince Lombardi. Pittsburgh has a league-record six Lombardis and will be making its record-tying eighth trip to the game (Dallas has the same number of Super Bowl appearances). Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls, but Pittsburgh has claimed two of the most recent titles (2005 and '08 seasons).
There are numerous Super Bowl storylines to be fleshed out in the coming two weeks. QBs Aaron Rodgers vs. Ben Roethlisberger could be intriguing. As could the chess game between Dom Capers (Green Bay) and Dick LeBeau (Pittsburgh), who once worked together in Pittsburgh and are both onetime Steelers defensive coordinators. But these two fan bases might be the real stars of the show, and their loyalties have again been rewarded.
A Packers-Steelers Super Bowl is in the offing, and two teams with history, tradition and a winning legacy are once again taking center stage. It could be a classic, but you had better get your tickets early.
• Other quick-hit thoughts about the Packers-Steelers matchup:
-- Both teams employ 3-4 defenses, with LeBeau and Capers teaching out of the same defensive playbook. They feature pass-rushing star outside linebackers like Clay Matthews (Packers) and Pittsburgh's James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and big talented space-eating cogs on the defensive line (B.J. Raji in Green Bay, Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh).
-- These teams didn't face one another this season but played a doozy in 2009. The Steelers beat the Packers 37-36, with Roethlisberger throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as time expired. It was Green Bay's only loss in the entire second half of last season.
-- In Roethlisberger and Rodgers, we have a matchup that revolves around the showdown between the best quarterback to come out of the deep 2004 draft (Roethlisberger, 11th overall) and the best QB to come out of the disappointing 2005 draft (Rodgers, 24th). And it's worth noting that neither was the first passer off the board. Big Ben is pursuing his third Super Bowl ring in just seven NFL seasons, while Rodgers is trying to win his first.
-- I don't believe Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has any Packers ties, but Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy is a native of western Pennsylvania and once worked as both a bartender in Pittsburgh and a toll-taker on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I'm pretty sure he'll be asked about those gigs a couple times in the coming weeks.
• Have to admit I was somewhat surprised by how many current and former NFL players took to Twitter Sunday to criticize Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for exiting the NFC title game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Players far and wide -- including Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, ex-Bronco turned ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders -- questioned Cutler's absence and whether his injury was serious enough to keep him out of a championship game.
It's pretty tricky terrain, obviously; but in Cutler's case, the fact that no one initially identified the play he was injured on led to some of the questions. And Cutler's nonchalant and even disinterested sideline demeanor didn't help his cause. In fairness, the Bears say their team doctors and trainers made the call, and it wasn't Cutler's decision in any way, shape or form.
This much we do know: Before he was hurt, Cutler was in the midst of one of his worst games this season and clearly didn't come up big in the most important Packers-Bears game ever played. And that alone is going to make it a difficult and challenging offseason for him in Chicago.
• Mike Martz endured many positives in his first season as Chicago's playcaller and offensive coordinator, but he's going to have to live down that terrible third-and-3 end-around call to receiver Earl Bennett on the play before Caleb Hanie's game-deciding interception. Bennett was dropped for a two-yard loss by Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop, putting Chicago into a tricky fourth-and-5 with 47 seconds remaining.
Making matters worse, the Bears carelessly burned their second timeout just before that play, an indication that perhaps Martz had too much time to think about a call that was too cute.
• I thought Hanie played remarkably well given the tough situation he was tossed into against the Packers, but are people serious when they predict a quarterback controversy in Chicago next year? Really? Hanie over Cutler? I'm not the biggest of Cutler fans, but does anyone believe the Bears would have won 12 games this season with Hanie as their starter?
• As if Green Bay's secondary isn't ridiculously strong enough at cornerback, with Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson both earning Pro Bowl invites, now the Packers have unearthed another playmaker in rookie nickelback Sam Shields.
In the first half against the Bears, Shields had a strip-fumble sack of Cutler (the ball was recovered by Bears running back Matt Forte), and later intercepted Cutler at the Packers' 3, snuffing out a late scoring threat just two plays after Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs had intercepted Rodgers.
Then, in the game's final, frantic moments, Shields provided the game-clinching play when he picked off Hanie with 37 seconds left at the Packers 12. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted and couldn't even get on the field for the Packers in the preseason.
The emergence of players like Shields is the silver lining to the wave of injuries that beset the Packers this season, with Green Bay placing 10 key contributors on injured reserve. The Packers' ability to fill those holes with players who have performed far better than expected is the most underappreciated part of Green Bay's success. Among them are Shields, rookie running back James Starks, third-year outside linebacker Erik Walden, and Bishop.
• A lot of curious things happened to the Bears, but I still don't understand how Chicago decided to punt from both the Packers' 34 and 31 in the first half. It was cold and no doubt that would have made long-distance field goals more challenging than usual. But isn't Robbie Gould one of the league's better long-range kickers? In another strange move later on, Chicago ran Forte on third-and-eight from its own 4. Forte lost two yards on the run and the Bears had to punt from their own end zone.
• In the past four seasons, the NFC has advanced two 10-win teams to the Super Bowl (the 10-6 wild-card Giants in 2007 and the 10-6 wild-card Packers), and a nine-win division champion (the 9-7 Cardinals in 2008). Only last year's top-seeded Saints (13-3) broke that trend in the NFC. And don't forget, the Giants won the Super Bowl and the Cardinals came darn close to getting a ring, as well.
Juxtapose that to the eight seasons from 1999 to 2006, when the NFC's Super Bowl qualifier was the conference's top seed six times and the NFC champion never had fewer than 11 wins in the regular season.
And one more tidbit about the Packers' road-exclusive road to the Super Bowl: They're just the fourth team to win three consecutive road games in the playoffs, joining the 2007 Giants, 2005 Steelers and 1985 Patriots. The Jets could have joined that list and made it five teams to turn the trick with a win at Pittsburgh in the AFC title game.
So, in the first 39 years of the Super Bowl era, three road wins in a row happened just once. But in the past six postseasons, the feat has become almost commonplace.
• For all their accomplishments this season, the Jets ended up in exactly the same spot as they were last year at this time -- one win away from the Super Bowl. So now it's 42 seasons and counting since the Jets played in the Super Bowl, when Joe Namath delivered on his much ballyhooed guarantee.
The Jets became the first AFC team to lose consecutive title games since Cleveland dropped the 1986 and 1987 games to Denver (the Broncos made it three out of four in 1989). The last NFC team to lose two in a row was Philadelphia, which dropped three straight title games from 2001 to 2003.
New York looked ragged and a bit worn out in the first half against the Steelers, as if it had played and won its Super Bowl last week at New England. But as they've done all season, the Jets came alive in the fourth quarter and made a game of it by scoring 16 points after halftime.
• After the game, Steelers rookie center Maurkice Pouncey said that despite the high-ankle sprain he suffered in the first quarter, he knows he'll be "playing in that game,'' meaning the Feb. 6 Super Bowl. I wouldn't expect him to say anything differently, of course, but high-ankle sprains are not usually two-week injuries. And from the looks of it Sunday night, Pouncey suffered a particularly bad sprain, because he couldn't put any weight on his left leg whatsoever while coming off the field.
I'm sure he'll do everything possible to get back in time for the game, but Pouncey has to be considered a longshot to play again this season.
• Here's another reason why the defenses might just be the story of this Super Bowl: It's only the third time ever, and the first time since 1982, the top two teams in terms of scoring defense are meeting in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh ranked first (14.5 points per game) and Green Bay finished in second (15.0).
The last time we got that kind of pairing was when No. 1 Washington faced No. 2 Miami in January 1983, but that was a strike-shortened season. In 1973, Miami and Minnesota ranked 1-2 in scoring defense (with the Dolphins winning Super Bowl XIII for their second straight title).
• Roethlisberger won Sunday's game with a 35.5 passer rating. Rodgers won the NFC title with a not-so-gaudy 55.4 rating. Passer ratings can be overrated, but neither quarterback had a strong second half on Sunday.
Roethlisberger, however, played better than his 10 of 19, 133-yard, two-interception showing would indicate. He made key plays with both his arm and feet, and though his game isn't always perfect, it's usually effective.
When the Steelers needed to close out the Jets in the game's final minutes, Pittsburgh asked Roethlisberger to throw the ball rather than play it safely with the running game. "That's us. It's not always pretty,'' Roethlisberger said. "But somehow we find a way to get it done.''
• For a game the Packers never trailed, I'm sure that had to be an agonizing stretch of football to watch for Green Bay fans. After the Packers went up 14-0 in the first half, it still seemed like it took about 3½ hours for the rest of the game to play out.
The Packers simply couldn't put the Bears away, despite running up huge statistical advantages for most of the game. And a lot of that falls on Rodgers, whose strong first half and shaky second half sends him into his first Super Bowl on something less than his playoff hot streak before halftime.
• But give Rodgers credit for this much: His touchdown-saving tackle of Brian Urlacher -- who picked him off in the third quarter and had clear sailing to the end zone -- was one of the game's most pivotal plays. The Packers led 14-0 at the time, and the Bears wound up not scoring off the turnover. Had Chicago gotten its comeback started in the third quarter, it might have been a different story for the Packers.
Probably felt pretty good for Rodgers to tackle his friend and familiar opponent, Urlacher, for a change. The Bears middle linebacker sacked Rodgers earlier in the game, and he's usually the guy who gives the QB more trouble than any other Chicago defender.
• Never ceases to amaze me how a player like Shields can be so shortsighted as to return that game-icing interception rather than just fall down, cover the ball up and take the victory that Chicago just handed the Packers. Naturally, the ball came loose at the end of Shields' unnecessary return, but Green Bay recovered it.
That kind of stupid stuff never seemed to happen before the dawn of the SportsCenter era, but now almost every player wants to make the highlight shows and take it to the house -- even when the points aren't important.
• If you could have taken Green Bay's first half and Pittsburgh's first half and combined it into one four-quarter game, both conference champions would have played remarkably well. But the Packers and Steelers were largely just hanging on by their fingernails in the second half, with the Bears and Jets both making late charges.
I guess that makes for an even matchup of sorts on Super Bowl Sunday.