CHICAGO -- We'll get to the Super Bowl matchup that Doris Kearns Goodwin would love (it's historic, for those not familiar with Ms. Goodwin's work), and to the volcanic Jay Cutler situation, and to one of the greatest predictions in sports history (sort of) soon enough. But I begin this morning with two things -- the Super Bowl XLV Factoid That Will Interest Everyone, and something Packers GM Ted Thompson said, uncharacteristically, in the winning locker room 45 minutes after Green Bay 21, Chicago 14: "I think this game was good for America.''
He was speaking about the game just completed, but he may well have been speaking about the Pittsburgh-Green Bay matchup in 13 days. The Packers were born in 1921 and the Rooney family bought a franchise in Pittsburgh in 1933 (the Pirates then, and renamed the Steelers in 1940). In the 45-year history of Super Bowls, there's never been one with such history. Never has there been a title game with two teams more than 75 years old. And never has there been a matchup of teams with as many Super Bowl titles -- Pittsburgh six, Green Bay three.
Steelers-Packers. It's just cool.
And Jerry Jones, you built the big Arlington ballyard, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, for occasions just like this -- a Super Bowl dripping with history, and with fans who would walk a thousand miles to see the game. I can just hear those voices that spoke to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Kind of. You built it, Jerry, and they will come. Oh, they will most definitely come.
Now for a Paul Harveyish factoid:
In the summer of 1989, a small-college tight end from Baker (Kansas) University came home to Pittsburgh to begin a coaching career. He found his way onto the staff at the University of Pittsburgh as an unpaid grad assistant. To support himself, he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth at Exit 5 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the Allegheny Valley exit), 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. His dad, a firefighter, police officer and bar owner near a dying steel mill, raised him to be tough, respectful, hard-working and -- a Steeler fan. Which he was, loving the Steelers as a teenager when they won their four Super Bowls in the '70s.
The toll-taker, Mike McCarthy, will try to break the hearts of everyone back home. He's the Green Bay coach.
And now you know the rest ... of the story.
The matchup is a reward to two organizations that built teams.
Early this morning, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians considered Green Bay-Pittsburgh, the matchup. He said from his home what a good chunk of the country's going to be thinking when people get their arms around this one. "Wow! Pittsburgh-Green Bay. Steeler Nation against the Cheeseheads! I know there're 100-some thousand seats in that stadium down there [in Texas], but there's not going to be near enough tickets for everyone who'll want to see this one.''
Part of the reason is history, part is big-time quarterbacks, part is that it's the Super Bowl. But I contend part is what each team has gone through to get here. The depth that Steeler director of football operations Kevin Colbert built may be rivaled this year by the depth built by only one man -- Green Bay GM Ted Thompson.
The Packers led all NFL teams this year with 15 players on injured reserve. "We've played four quarterbacks and seven tackles,'' countered Arians. "It's been unbelievable. And today, we lose a great-blocking center, Maurkice Pouncey, with an [ankle] injury early and play an inexperienced kid there, Doug Ligursky, and what happens? We have our biggest rushing day of the year. What sets this year apart, this team apart, is the next-man-standing thing we've got going on.''
Here in Chicago, Green Bay running back James Starks, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Buffalo) who rode the bench most of the year, scored a first-quarter touchdown and rushed for a game-high 74 yards. In Pittsburgh, Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Central Michigan), caught the clutch pass of the game ... for the second week in a row.
Starks: draft pick number 193. Brown: 195.
With two minutes left and nursing a 24-19 lead, the Steelers had third-and-six at the Jet 40. No New York timeouts left. If Ben Roethlisberger converted the first down, the game was over. If not, the Jets would have one more chance at a miracle. "Antonio Brown was Ben's fourth option,'' said Arians. Hines Ward and Heath Miller, the vets, were 1 and 2, and Mike Wallace 3. Roethlisberger got flushed right. He rolled and rolled, and just before he was going to have to eat it, he threw it over the outstretched hands of the pursuers into Brown's gut. Gain of 14. Ball game.
"What's rewarding,'' Arians said, "is that Ben saw what I saw in training camp. I saw Emmanuel Sanders [a third-round pick] and Antonio playing well, and I told Ben, 'These kids are gonna help us in December.' I coached him, rode 'em really hard. I was unmerciful. But Ben saw it early, saw how good they could be. I said to Ben, 'You hug 'em, I'll cuss 'em,' and it's worked out. They've become good players for us.''
In Green Bay, you can say the same thing about Starks, who's gotten some tough love from McCarthy, and free-agent cornerback Sam Shields, who has been terrific as the season's gone on. Great story, this Shields.
An all-state receiver in high school in Sarasota, Fla., the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Shields went to Miami to play receiver, which he did for three years. Entering his senior season, the Hurricanes had a corner need and moved him to defense. "Never played corner in my life,'' Shields said after the Pack survived and advanced. "But it's what the team wanted, and I thought it might be better for my future.''
When the Pack scouted him after the season, regional scout Brian Gutekunst saw his raw speed and recommended him as a free agent. Sunday, in the biggest game of the year, he played about 70 percent of the snaps.
"Why? Because he's gotten better in a hurry every week,'' defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me afterward. "Plus, every practice he's been in since he's come here, he's made a play. When you make plays like that, you get noticed.''
Maybe the Bears should have noticed him more. Late in the first half, driving at the Green Bay 41, Jay Cutler threw a deep ball up the left side for Johnny Knox; Shields leaped high and snagged it, sending Green Bay into the half with a 14-0 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, down 21-14, Caleb Hanie had the Bears at the Green Bay 29. On fourth-and-five, Hanie threw into double coverage and Shields stole his second ball of the day.
"I'm speechless,'' Shields said meekly, grinning widely.
Shields reminded me of Brown the week before, when I saw him in the Steelers' locker room in Pittsburgh after the win over the Ravens. Giddy, almost. Just happy to be there. Now these college football afterthoughts nearly a year earlier are headed to the Super Bowl as important players. It's a crazy game.
Hate to say the Bears are the same old Bears, but they are.
Sitting in the press box at Soldier Field Sunday, middle of the third quarter, toothless Bears down 14-0, and Mike Wilbon walked by me. "I'm 52 years old,'' said the media icon, "and I grew up in this town, and the best quarterback my team has ever had is Erik Kramer!''
He was being a little facetious; there was, after all, the punky QB, Jim McMahon. But that was the level of absolute dejection and letdown in this city Sunday night. The locals feel Jay Cutler deserted them.
There's no question that the defense did its part, allowing only 14 points in 13 Green Bay offensive drives. (The winning points game from a B.J. Raji interception return for touchdown in the fourth quarter.) Point of emphasis here: Green Bay had the ball 34 times against the Bears in three games this year, not including three kneel-down series. Chicago held the Packers to five touchdowns and 41 points total. That's winning defense.
That means the Chicago offense, which scored 13, 3 and 14 points, respectively (not including a Devin Hester punt return for touchdown in the first meeting), just didn't do its job. Thirty offensive points in three games. Awful. And Jay Cutler was in charge of 10-plus of those 12 quarters of football. Chicago had better fix the offensive line, and the Bears had better get a solid receiving weapon. Because the Jay Cutler did-he-quit story of today is going to die eventually, and once it does, the distraction of whether he's tough or not tough, and the outrage of so many about him leaving the game without appearing terribly injured, is going to come back around to him still being the quarterback of the future for the Bears.
You could tell the Bears locker room was seething about the perception -- from Chicagoans at the game, and from the outside world via Twitter -- that Cutler was soft, or was jaking it. As Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett wrote via Twitter during the second half: "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!''
SI's Jim Trotter wrote a good explanation of what he saw in the Bears locker room after the game, finding an emotional Cutler near tears when told about the perception from some around the league thought that he was soft for not playing the final 25 minutes of the game. Here's the link to Trotter's piece, which I recommend reading.
The problem when you're not a popular player, and Cutler certainly is not, is that you don't have the kind of good will built up to make something like this go away. I read one report early this morning of a Cutler jersey being burned in the Soldier Field parking lot after the game. And if the MRI he undergoes today comes back negative, or shows a minor injury, it'll take Cutler a long time to get over this. If he ever does.
The NFC's the land of opportunity.
Winners of the championship in the 16-team NFC in the past 10 seasons:
2010 Green Bay2009 New Orleans2008 Arizona2007 New York Giants2006 Chicago2005 Seattle2004 Philadelphia2003 Carolina2002 Tampa Bay2001 St. Louis
Ten seasons, 10 different franchises. Of the six non-champs over the past decade, five (Atlanta, Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco and Washington) have each won at least one playoff game. Only Detroit hasn't won a playoff game among the 16 NFC teams in the past 10 years.
Interesting. I could see Dallas contending next season. How amazing would 11 different championship cities in 11 years be?
What a weird series of plays that doomed the Jets.
When the Jets' LaDainian Tomlinson was stoned on fourth-and-one at the goal line by Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and James Farrior midway through the fourth quarter, New York's hopes were kaput ... even though the Jets went on to make the game very interesting in the last couple of minutes. The reason? They just took too long -- eight minutes, down 14 points against a team that wasn't going to give up big chunks and was trained to keep the Jets inbounds -- and came away with no points, and then took too long on their next possession. It had to be maddening for Rex Ryan to watch his offense while away the minutes on the clock, playing right into Dick LeBeau's hands.
The Jets had the ball for the first 7:16 of the fourth quarter, down 24-10, and took 15 plays to go 57 yards. The Steelers just weren't letting the receivers get behind the secondary. Even after New York got a safety on the first play of the ensuing Steelers possession, it was still a two-possession game, and the Jets, down 24-12, had but 7:38 to make two long drives and get the ball into the end zone, which they'd done only once in the first 52 minutes of the game. It took New York 4:32 to go 58 yards to score a touchdown.
By the time the Steelers got the ball back with 3:06 to play, all they had to do was sit on the ball, convert one third down (if they didn't throw an incompletion). That would force New York to use its three timeouts and have no way to stop the clock afterward. The Steelers actually got two first downs on the possession, then easily ran the clock out.
We've seen the Patriots and the Jets in this postseason take too much time in the fourth quarter of playoff games and all ruin their chances to win because of it. In the Jets' case, it was that, plus a fourth-and-goal stop by the Steelers on a play -- against one of the best run-stopping teams in NFL history -- that should never have gone right up the gut, but rather gone wide.
You wanna crown me? Then crown my a--!
No. Don't, really.
For those who would like to backpat me for picking Steelers 33, Packers 27 in the SI NFL preview issue last summer, I'd remind you that I'm the same guy who swerved over to pick the Patriots to win the AFC three weeks ago, as the playoffs began, and to face the Packers in the title game. So as much as I'd like to take a bow for nearly being right, and for having my two teams make it to Super Bowl XLV, I really can't.
But I am proud of the principle of my picks. The NFL has shown us a couple of things in the past few years. Not only do Super Bowl winners not repeat, but also they don't win playoff games. This is the fifth straight year the defending Super Bowl champ didn't win a playoff game the following year. So next season (assuming there is a next season) I won't pick the winner of the Steelers-Packers game.
And next year I probably won't pick an outright division winner from this season as Super Bowl champ. In the past four years (including this one), the Super Bowl champ was either tied for first in its division or in second place or lower. I'm not saying it's a science. I'm saying the games are so ridiculously close, and the chalk hasn't been repeating lately, so why force it?
"It's like I tell my players,'' Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me in the Packers locker room Sunday. "In almost every game you play, it's going to come down to two, three, four plays. If we make 'em, we win. If we don't, we don't.'' That goes for the great teams and the upstarts, which is why it's fine to pick good teams that aren't far away. But recent history says it's not smart to pick teams coming off 12-4 seasons.
Best Coaching Move of the Week
When I was visiting with a veteran NFL general manager the other day, I asked what he thought was the best coaching hire, head coach or assistant, so far this month. Easy, he said. "The Rams hiring Josh McDaniels,'' the GM said. "When you look at the job he did with Matt Cassel in New England in 2008, and then how much he got out of Kyle Orton this year, there's no doubt in my mind he'll help Sam Bradford expand his skill set and be a better quarterback.''
The big question is how will McDaniels be able to make Bradford better in a strange labor year like this one. Unless there's a labor deal reached before the end of the league year on March 3, no players can work with a new coach until a new CBA happens. And between now and March 3, no team can have any kind of organized workouts. So if McDaniels and Bradford are to begin the process of retooling the St. Louis offense, it will have to be done unofficially, with Bradford voluntarily in a classroom with McDaniels. That is likely to happen, and soon. But after March 3, they can't even have contact.
McDaniels said he'll tweak the Ram system, not overhaul it completely. The system he learned in New England and adopted in Denver is more of an amalgam of lots of different offensive philosophies, with terminology not wholly different from the West Coast. For instance, the "Y stick'' common pass-route in the West Coast scheme is "Y hook'' in McDaniels' offense.
"I think sometimes the terms 'system' and 'language' and all the flashy terms that are used in football today, sometimes there can be a lot more made of those than there really needs to be,'' McDaniels said upon taking the job last week. "I think we all use words and terms and numbers and those kinds of things to tell them what we want them to do on the field, but ultimately it comes down to giving them an opportunity to do some things that they can be effective doing. There's plenty of things that the St. Louis Rams ran last year that we're certainly going to repeat again and there's plenty of things that we'll probably study this offseason.''
But it bears repeating that with so many new head coaches and coordinators, it's going to be a major story in so many places if there's any job action that erases minicamp or training-camp time for staffs to install new systems and wrinkles on new teams.
Let's not fit Pat Shurmur with a dunce cap
I start to seethe when I hear so many of the fans in Cleveland going crazy about the qualifications of Pat Shurmur to be the new head coach. Specifically, about how it's agent Bob LaMonte's hire, or that the fix was in because club president Mike Holmgren and Shurmur share the same agent, and LaMonte orchestrated the hire. Idiocy.
The Browns did what so many teams have done in the last five years: put a good franchise architect in place (or have a good franchise architect in place), then hire a coach to work with said architect. Let's examine the 27 changes that have been made with a classic GM/coach combination. I do not include teams with ownership having a major hand in personnel (Dallas, Oakland), or without a clearly defined decision-making GM (Minnesota). And let's see what the results have been.
Let's make some judgments, without using the hires in 2010 or 2011 ... too early to make definitive assessments on the newbies. Of the 20 coaches hired into classic coach/GM structures between 2006 and 2009, here's how I'd break them down:
Certain successes (8): Payton (Saints), Tomlin (Steelers), Caldwell (Colts), McCarthy (Packers), Harbaugh (Ravens), Mike Smith (Falcons), Ryan (Jets), Whisenhunt (Cards).
Making it (3): Haley (Chiefs), Morris (Bucs), Spagnuolo (Rams),
Middling (3): Schwartz (Lions), Turner (Chargers), Sparano (Dolphins)
Middling, but arrow pointing down (3): Mangini (Jets), Mangini (Browns), Kubiak (Texans).
Failed, whether it's fair to put it on the coach or not (2): Marinelli (Lions), Mora (Seahawks).
Disgraceful (1): Petrino (Falcons).
The tote board: 12 of the 20 coaches hired into classic structures from 2006 to '09 made the playoffs at least one; that's 60 percent. Nine of the 20 (45 percent) won at least one playoff game. Five of the 20 (25 percent) won a conference championship game or Super Bowl.
Shurmur's a smart, anonymous kid, on the same fame level as Mike Smith when the Falcons hired him. He might have the kind of accurate, smart kid who will make a good West Coast quarterback in Colt McCoy. I don't know how good a GM Tom Heckert will be; we'll see, but he has a good background in the game, the way Thomas Dimitroff had when he left the Patriots to run Atlanta. I know you've heard this before in Cleveland, but give the kid a chance, will you?
Curious Coaching Move of the Week
Baltimore defensive coordinator Greg Mattison migrated from one of the league's premier assistants jobs to downtrodden Michigan to work under new Wolverines coach Brady Hoke. Now, Mattison knows Hoke, and Mattison has a daughter having a baby in Michigan soon. So it makes sense ... sort of. (And I'm not saying that coaching at Michigan is the pits; I'm saying Michigan is down right now, and the move from one of the top five defenses in the NFL annually to a rebuilding college job looks just plain weird.)
Mattison certainly didn't get fired by the Ravens, but this was one of those situations where the message went out to him that it might be a good idea if he took the job. For a couple reasons. One: Mattison looked into returning to the University of Florida after the 2009 Ravens season, and now he was looking into the Michigan job; how much did he really want to coach the Ravens if he kept looking into college jobs at the time he was coaching a top defense in the big leagues?
Two: Baltimore didn't want to lose secondary coach Chuck Pagano and were happy to promote him when Mattison had the wandering eye. (I am told by a source close to the Eagles that Philadelphia would have inquired about Pagano to be their defensive coordinator after they fired Sean McDermott.) At the end of the day, I believe the Ravens are happier to have Pagano as their defensive coordinator than having Mattison run it without Pagano as the secondary coach.
Strangest Coaching Non-Move of the Week
Miami passed up former Vikings coach Brad Childress for the offensive coordinator's job to hire Brian Daboll. St. Louis passed up Childress for the offensive coordinator's job to hire Josh McDaniels, despite the fact that coach Steve Spagnuolo agreed to tinker with the Rams' offense to get McDaniels instead of hiring Childress and keeping the same West Coast scheme. Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur, apparently, has so far passed up Childress though Shurmur, like Spagnuolo, worked with Childress in Philadelphia. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis had dinner with Childress the other night, and could, I suppose, replace offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski with Childress. But taking a coordinator's job in Cincinnati is no attractive coach's idea of a prime gig.
Brett Favre and others have called Childress "Chilly'' affectionately over the years. That could also describe his postseason job search.
1. Pittsburgh (14-4). I don't know if a defense can play a better half in the clutch than the Steelers did in the first 30 minutes against the Jets: one rushing yard, zero catches for Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes. Wow.
2. Green Bay (13-6). Five straight weeks the Packers have been in a must-win scenario to survive. Beat the Giants by 28 and Bears by 7 to win the sixth playoff spot. Beat the Eagles by 5 and Falcons by 27 to win the right to play the NFC title game in Chicago. Beat the Bears by 7. Now they're favored to win the Super Bowl. What a run.
3. New York Jets (13-6). I'll say this about the Jets: They don't die. That's a gallant team. There's much to hand-wring about this morning, including trying to determine who should have picked up Ike Taylor on the corner blitz that ended up costing the Jets the game. But the Jets have the kind of fortitude that rolls downhill from the coach. I like it, and I like the team.
4. New England (14-3). The Patriots staff will be in Honolulu this week. But they have to be sick about not being in Foxboro, preparing for their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 10 seasons, after seeing Pittsburgh win the AFC ... after the Patriots dominated Pittsburgh on the road during the season.
5. Chicago (12-6). When the Bears look back on this game -- in an offensive vein -- they'll say: "Too much Forte.'' They ran 64 offensive plays. Seventeen were rushes by Forte (for 70 yards, which is good). But 15 passes were thrown his way. He caught 10, for 90 yards. And 160 yards on 32 touches is good ... But Devin Hester never touched the ball from scrimmage, Johnny Knox touched it twice, and the tight ends (such a big factor last week) totaled three catches for 30 yards. The offense needs to be more diverse, even with a third-string quarterback who has to rely on the back more than a Jay Cutler might.
6. Baltimore (13-5). Ray Lewis is telling friends he definitely wants to return for a 16th year, whenever that may be. He'll do it under a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano. Interesting Pagano trivia: He was an assistant on the University of Miami staff in Lewis' last year there, 1995.
7. Atlanta (13-4). More Sean Weatherspoon impact in 2011, please.
8. New Orleans (11-6). Not to make excuses for the Saints or anything, but I have to say I've never seen a team get so many running backs hurt in one year. Ever. Five on IR. Two more in the first three quarters of the playoff game.
9. Philadelphia (10-7). Kevin Kolb's not getting traded, folks.
10. Indianapolis (10-7). This is what happens when you have the worst running game in the NFL over a two-year period, as the Colts have had (although some of that is in Peyton Manning's hands): your running backs coach for the last 18 years, Gene Huey, gets the ax.
11. Tampa Bay (10-6). Ron Rivera has the toughest job of any of the new head coaches, in Carolina. When the Bucs are the third-best team in the division, and you're eight wins behind them this year ... tough duty right there.
12. Kansas City (10-7). Taking the Chiefs an awfully long time to fill that offensive coordinator's job.
13. San Diego (9-7). Those rumblings in Southern California are not tremors from a quake. They're tremors of fear that the Chargers are moving to Los Angeles.
14. New York Giants (10-6). Just what the natives wanted to hear: Eli Manning's in a big Double-Stuf Oreos Super Bowl commercial.
15. Seattle (8-10). So you wonder why Pete Carroll brought Jeremy Bates with him from USC and then fired him 12 months later? Couldn't get along with Alex Gibbs, forcing the highly respected offensive line czar's departure just before the start of the season. Never integrated Marshawn Lynch into the offense as much as the muckety-mucks would have liked after the midseason trade from Buffalo. Never got the quarterbacks to play well. Never got Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate to be the offensive weapon the Seahawks were sure he'd be when they used the 60th overall pick on him last spring. That should just about do it.
"We'll be back. You'll see.''-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, after his team lost in the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year.
"Jay was hurt. I don't question his toughness. He's tough as hell. He's one of the toughest players on our football team. He doesn't bitch, he doesn't complain when he gets hit. He goes out there and plays his ass off every Sunday, he practices every single day, so no we don't question his toughness. I love jealous people watching on TV making judgments when their season is over."-- Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, defending quarterback Jay Cutler against charges from players around the league that Cutler was soft for not returning to Sunday's NFC Championship Game because of a sore knee.
"We play enough games. We have a system that works. Why add [games]?''-- Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney, now the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, to a small group of reporters in Pittsburgh Friday, commenting on his opposition to the NFL discussing increasing the number of regular-season games from 16 to 18.
Rooney, because of his diplomatic job, is not a part of the negotiating committee working on a new collective bargaining agreement. But I wish he were. The league needs more influential voices of reason to challenge the cockamamie idea of adding games in an era when concussions and injuries make it obvious that more games will dilute the quality of the product.
"There is no question we're going to win the division.''-- Oakland coach Hue Jackson, at the news conference announcing his hiring by owner Al Davis.
Offensive Player of the Week
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh.
With the best game any back has had this year against the Jets (27 carries, 121 yards, one touchdown), Mendenhall made up for a mediocre performance against the Ravens in the divisional round. He hit holes like the explosive back the Steelers have seen out of him at times, and for Pittsburgh to dent the Green Bay front effectively in two weeks, Mendenhall has to have the same kind of game.
Defensive Players of the Week
Sam Shields, CB, Green Bay.
The rookie corner from the U (University of Miami, for you who don't watch the players introduce themselves during prime-time games) strip-sacked Cutler late in the second quarter, forcing a fumble and a Bear punt; then intercepted Cutler and Hanie in the second and fourth quarters, respectively, to clinch the win. Charles Woodson began the postseason as the most famous and accomplished Packers cornerback, but now here come Tramon Williams and Shields with back-to-back two-interception games to spark playoff wins in Atlanta and Chicago.
Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh.
What looked like icing on the cake at the time, late in the first half of the AFC title game, became the decisive points of an exciting game. Taylor's corner blitz from quarterback Mark Sanchez forced a fumble with 73 seconds left in the second quarter, and William Gay picked it up and ran 19 yards for the touchdown that made it 24-0. A vital touchdown, as it turned out, because the Jets scored 19 unanswered points and made it very nerve-wracking for the Steelers late.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Tim Masthay, P, Green Bay.
Under the circumstances, I thought Masthay had one of the best postseason games I'd ever seen a punter have. With a wind-chill temperature of 7 degrees, and punting in 14-mph swirls, Masthay had eight punts for a 41.8-yard average, and held Devin Hester to 16 return yards on three punts. Five times he pinned Chicago inside the 20. Masthay has a beautiful backspin on his punts when he wants to make the ball come back to him on the short ones. Every one of his punts either landed inside the 20 or was fielded there. Here's where his eight punts landed: Bears 13, Bears 3, Bears 11, Bears 16, Bears 11, Bears end zone, Bears 10, Bears 18. Brilliant performance.
Coach of the Week
Dom Capers, defensive coordinator, Green Bay.
Loved watching the various ways he attacked the Bears, like starting the game with three nosemen, in effect. They were Howard Green (340 pounds), B.J. Raji (337) and Ryan Pickett (340). That's 1,017 pounds of run defense. He also gave rookie Sam Shields about 45 snaps, though he's still getting used to playing cover corner. Capers has persevered through mounting injuries to make the Packers D one of the five best defenses in the league, and he frustrated Cutler at every turn Sunday.
Goat of the Week
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago.
GM Jerry Angelo made a huge deal for Cutler 22 months ago so the Bears would be competitive in big games such as the NFC title game. They were competitive in this game, but not until Cutler left the field and third-stringer Hanie battled valiantly and almost forced overtime. Cutler (six of 14, 80 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, a 31.8 rating) will be dogged for a long time by this performance and for coming out of the game -- unless the MRI he undergoes today shows significant damage to his left knee.
The Packers and Steelers last met 13 months ago, at Heinz Field, with the Steelers' season slipping away and the Packers on their way to an 11-5 wild-card berth.
In the game, the two quarterbacks who will meet in Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers and Roethlisberger, had one of the biggest passing days in NFL history -- and they did it in 21-degree wind-chill temperatures, with 11-mph winds. Roethlisberger set a franchise record with 503 passing yards, and Rodgers threw for 383. That's 886 passing yards in four quarters.
More interesting, I thought, was the offensive line for Pittsburgh that day, compared to the line that started Sunday's AFC title game against New York. Comparing them:
Two of them, actually, in reference to the last time the Packers and Bears met in the playoffs:
1. The Packers and Bears finished 10-1, in a tie for the NFL Western Division title in 1941. There was a one-game playoff for the right to face the Giants for the NFL title, and that playoff was at Wrigley Field on Dec 14, before 43,425 fans. A week later, for the NFL Championship at Wrigley Field, the attendance was 13,341. Shows you where our country was at the time, and where the locals' regard was for a Bears-Packers game, no matter what the national crisis.
2. On the premises at Wrigley on those December days: huge steel light poles. Wrigley was going to install lights for the next baseball season. But when the war broke out, the Cubs donated the steel poles to the war effort, and the project was put off. For two generations, as it turned out. Lights weren't installed at the ballpark until 1988.
This seems only humorous in retrospect. Sometimes when I travel and get recognized it's fun. Sometimes it's a chore. One of the latter came on Sept. 7, when I flew into New Orleans for NBC to prepare for the first game of the season, the Vikings-Saints Thursday-nighter at the Superdome.
I'd just picked the Steelers to beat Green Bay, 33-27, in the Super Bowl in the Sports Illustrated preview issue, and I guess one of the local skycaps had heard about the pick. When I was waiting for my bag at the luggage carousel, this fellow came up to me and said, "You Mr. King?''
"Yes,'' I said.
"You picked the Packers to win the NFC and not the Saints?''
"Yep,'' I said.
"Can I ask you why?''
"I think Aaron Rodgers is going to have an MVP-type season, I love their defense, I think--''
"Let me tell you something,'' the skycap said. "The Saints ain't losing.''
"Well, I like the Saints but teams in the NFL just don't repeat --''
"You hear me? We ain't losing.''
He walked away, not happy. I got my bag, went to the hotel, and thought: I never root for teams. But I really wouldn't mind the Packers winning the NFC this year, just so on my next trip to New Orleans, a place I love, I'd scout around for the skycap and see what he thought of my prediction.
"Cmon Cutler u have to come back. This is the NFC championship if u didn't know!''--@kerryrhodes, Arizona safety Kerry Rhodes, after the Bears, trailing 14-0 midway through the third quarter, turned to over-the-hill Todd Collins to replace Cutler. The press-box announcement said Cutler was out with a knee injury. Several in the press box groaned.
Rhodes wasn't alone in his disdain for Cutler. "Knee injury has to be VERY VERY INJURED ... Philip Rivers played on torn ACL ... seriously, JAY CUTLER,'' Tweeted @DBrooks55, former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks.
A half-hour later, with Cutler standing on the sidelines with the news coming out that he had no idea how he got hurt, Brooks sent this eviscerating Tweet: "HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart.'' Ouch.
1. I think, now that we're down to one game, many fans' fancies will turn to the draft. Since I watch very little college football, and since I was a guest of Mel Kiper's on his talk show Saturday, I asked him my three most pressing draft questions during the break.
• On who is the more likely top pick -- Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley or Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers: "Very tough. They're different obviously. Fairley is a big and disruptive three-technique tackle, and Bowers is sort of similar to Julius Peppers. I'd give Bowers a slight edge based on his body of work.''
• On who is the likely top quarterback to be picked: Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. "I like his release, his size [6-5, 235], his mobility, his smarts. He's a young player  who will need some work with a good coaching staff, but I like his upside.''
• On which big receiver, 6-4, 220-pound Julio Jones of Alabama or 6-4, 212-pound A.J. Green of Georgia, will be picked higher: [Actually, I phrased the question, "Which receiver will the Patriots trade up to get?''] Kiper likes the more polished Green slightly better, though he said: "Julio Jones is big, physical, tough, and blocks better than any receiver I've ever graded. But he drops the ball sometimes.''
So there are your draft nuggets to chew on: Bowers over Fairley, Gabbert going high, and Green over the more physical Jones in the receiver group.
2. I think this is what I liked about championship weekend:
a. You go, Mid-American Conference. On the Green Bay Packers' 53-man roster, the two conferences with the most players are the SEC (11) and the MAC (eight). Need to get more Ohio Bobcats in the mix.
b. Good job, Chris Mortensen, on fleshing out the Carson Palmer-wants-out-of-Cincinnati story. I buy it 100 percent. I've always thought he was dying to be the first quarterback of the new L.A. franchise. But now I think he figures he can't wait that long.
c. The start of Aaron Rodgers.
d. The block of Julius Peppers to the way-wide side in the second quarter, clearing the way for a 25-yard Rodgers scramble.
e. Sam Shields, for four quarters.
f. Brian Urlacher. Even though the season ended a game too soon for this all-time Bear, he was as good as he could be in defeat: 10 tackles, a sack, an interception and a pass defensed. Urlacher will be 33 in May, but the way he played this season shows me he has a couple of impact seasons left, if he can stay on the field.
g. Ben Roethlisberger. Stats can be deceiving. Very deceiving. His passer rating of 35.5 and rushing average of 1.9 yards (11 carries, 21 yards) don't show how he made five or six plays when his team had to have them, including the game-clinching completion to Antonio Brown.
h. Mark Sanchez. Much to be optimistic about in your morning gloom, Jets fans.
i. Jerricho Cotchery's fortitude. There aren't many players who come back from the kind of leg injury he suffered at the end of the first half.
j. Brett Keisel's beard. It belongs in the Smithsonian. Or Canton. Not sure which. One of the best sports beards in history.
k. That James Farrior hit on Shonn Greene with 12 minutes to go, keeping him one yard short of a vital first down, face-to-face, a monster shot on either side ... just an amazing thing that both men got up and walked back to their huddles.
3. I think this is what I didn't like about championship weekend:
a. Cutler scrambling on third-and-11 on the edge of field-goal range ... and sliding at the line of scrimmage. Dude, that's not the time to slide. That's the time to stick your head in there and try to get in field-goal range ... or close to a first down.
b. Chicago's ridiculous over-reliance on Matt Forte early.
c. Bears fans giving up on their team early. Two or three times in the second quarter, down 14-0, it was as if the Bears were practicing in the park on the corner. No noise. Crowd totally out of it.
d. The invisibility of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, until it was almost too late.
e. The NFL asking Toyota to change a commercial showing a helmet-to-helmet hit ... that praised Toyota for advancing technology to limit concussions.
f. How is Antonio Cromartie complaining about that blatant hold on Mike Wallace in the second half? He should have been called for three holds on the play.
g. Too much to ask Jason Taylor to make a play in one of the biggest games of his career?
h. Just hoping ESPN and USA Today will stop repeating that I reported something between Tebow being "on the outs'' in Denver and the Broncos wanting to trade him. I said neither. What I said on NBC was club VP John Elway told me Tebow wasn't a good NFL quarterback right now, that if Josh McDaniels went to a team with a quarterback need, that he could urge that team to try to deal for Tebow, and that no such trade could happen until a new CBA was struck. Got it? Now that McDaniels didn't go to Minnesota and will coach Sam Bradford in St. Louis, maybe now we can let this thing rest.
4. I think the line I wished I'd written this week comes from Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe: "Lots of candidates to play the lead in 'The Rex Ryan Story,' but I'm leaning toward John Goodman.''
5. I think when I look back on my career, I'm not sure I will be able to say I was present for games on consecutive weekends that meant as much to the local populaces as Ravens-Steelers in Pittsburgh and Packers-Bears in Chicago, for the NFC Championship. Last week I told you about the insurance claims adjuster in Pittsburgh who prayed to a black-and-white photo of a cigar-chomping Art Rooney on his iPhone when the Steelers were down 21-7. And this week, Pittsburgh Phil prayed to the man again, and when the game was over, and the Steelers were going to another Super Bowl, he IMed the photo with this caption: "He is what did it.'' See, that's Pittsburgh.
6. I think Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is right when he says of the coming labor war in the NFL: "The owners and players are both literally and figuratively big boys and do not need Congress to referee every dispute for them." That's not going to stop either side from seeking relief in Washington as the dispute between players and owners is just getting revved up, though.
7. I think the hire of Jim Washburn to coach the Eagles defensive line is a smart one. Give you an example why: In his years coaching the Tennessee line, he'd always get lightly regarded players (Jacob Ford, Jason Jones) or veteran rejects (Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jason Babin) to produce in the pass-rush game. One of his secrets was charting every sack in the NFL each year to determine what kind of move was used (spin, bull-rush, stunt/twist) to get to the quarterback, and where exactly the sack took place.
So let's say Washburn's study determined that the average sacks of the teams Tennessee was going to play the next year occurred 5.5 yards behind the left guard. Washburn would then coach the following offseason to target the area 5.5 yards behind the left guard as the spot during drills his linemen would aim for. He took pass-rush science to a new level.
I thought the 2008 season was especially strong for Washburn. His Titans didn't have an end or outside 'backer with any pedigree (other than Vanden Bosch, who was hurt much of the year) and yet the team totaled 44 sacks, 10 more than the voracious Rex Ryan-led Baltimore D, and more than any other team in the AFC but Pittsburgh. Andy Reid's made a good hire there. You watch Trent Cole, who already is a terrific pass-rusher, challenge for the sack title now.
8. I think I'd be very surprised if Los Angeles didn't have a team, a franchise currently playing elsewhere, in downtown L.A. on opening day 2015.
9. I think those new conference championship trophies are really ugly.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Saw The King's Speech. Terrific. Wonderful. Great lessons. Emotional for me; more about that in a minute. Highly recommended, and I'd also advise parents that, though this is rated R, it's rated R because of cursing (which, as you'll see when you watch the movie, is pretty important to the story) and should not preclude you from taking a mature 16-year-old to see it, because it has something important to teach us all.
In case you don't know the story, it's about Albert, the Duke of York, a heir to the throne in England in the '30s who stutters terribly, and how he works to try to conquer the problem, and how so many things -- pride, badgering father King George IV and brother, nerves --conspire to hold him down for so long. Brilliantly acted by Colin Firth and his speech coach, Geoffrey Rush.
The movie hit home, hard, to me because I stuttered badly between about second and eighth grade. I don't know how it started or what caused it to end. But it became the scourge of my life. I can't tell you how many days I dreaded going to school, for fear of being called on in class or being made fun of on the playground. I had a fifth-grade teacher who was very good, but also very demanding, and I can still hear him yelling, "Speak up, King!'' Reminded me of King George IV in the movie, yelling at Albert to just say it! If I had a buck for every time a speech therapist said to me, "Relax, just relax,'' I'd be well off.
I think the key to coming out of it -- maybe -- was my mother's emphasis on reading, and me being so confident reading above grade level that when asked to read aloud I could do it without fear. I rarely stuttered reading out loud. And somehow, then it stopped, gradually; I still stammered a little bit all the way into college, but nothing very noticeable.
What Colin Firth does so well in the movie is show the painful effort of trying to speak, along with the clucking mouth sounds, which brought me back to being a kid and having the same problems with getting the simplest words out.
b. One more nugget, from Firth, interviewed by David Mermelstein of the Wall Street Journal, about the role he played: "My profession can so often be completely frivolous, which is one of its virtues. But whenever I play someone who suffers, I feel that there's a danger that I'm an impostor. So it's a relief that people who stammer haven't felt misrepresented. The reason why people tell stories and read stories and see films is to feel less alone. And if there's a story that takes everyone through something like this, it's a way to say to others, 'Now you live through it and see how it feels.' And if my profession gets that wrong, we've lost that opportunity. So it's a great relief not to have dropped the ball.''
You didn't drop it, man. You carried it well. All the way to an Oscar, I hope.
c. Still haven't seen True Grit. Plan to get to that this week, time permitting. Finishing a project for the magazine, then comes movie time.
d. Noticed on my Peanut Toffee Buzz Clif Bar that it contains green tea and roasted soybeans. Now I feel much better about what I ate all weekend, with that as my nutritional balance.
e. Good to get the old gang back together in Chicago: Mike Silver, Jeffri Chadiha, me. Where's Josh Elliott?
f. And a tip of the journalist's hat to Jim Corbett of USA Today for his piece on Aaron Rodgers Thursday, and for pointing out something I never knew -- that, since sixth grade, Rodgers has visualized all the throws he's going to make in a game as part of his mental preparation for it. Then, his theory goes, he's not surprised when the play happens in a game, because he feels like he's already seen the play once or more.
g. Coffeenerdness: That Starbucks trenta, the 31-ounce cold-drink size, looks like the Big Gulp. Seems a bit serious. I mean, an iced green tea or whatever is in there is going to keep you up for two days.
h. Beernerdness: I'm living in Boston now, and this has been the kind of snowy-slushy winter (with, ugggghhhh, two months to go in it) that makes you say, "Why exactly are we not living in Tucson right now?'' But it's given me an excuse to get to know Harpoon beer better. And the allspice/hint-of-clove Winter Warmer dark beer can't be beat. Might be hard for you to find, but if you can, it's worth a swig. Slowly.
i. You go, Kim Clijsters. That's a great TV moment, Clijsters calling the Australian Open court reporter on his text message that Clijsters "looks pregnant.'' Might be one of the great sideline-reporter moments in TV history.
j. Friend of mine is working to aid a charity, Asia's Hope, attempting to save orphans from exploitation in Cambodia, and is raffling off chances to win a donated 2010 Camaro SS to help the cause at http://www.charityraffle.org/, if you can help. Thanks.
k. Two terrific nuggets from FOX's Ken Rosenthal on baseball, in the wake of the Vernon Wells trade from Toronto to the Angels: "The Angels will pay a combined $52.4 million to three center fielders next season -- Wells, Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews Jr., who no longer is with the club. And, if the team commits to Peter Bourjos in center, it is possible that none of them will be in center field!''
I don't even know who that Bourjos is, but it would have been an amazing note without it.
Number two: The Rays have 10 of the top 79 picks in what's supposed to be a deep draft next June. Tampa's going to be good for a very long time, and I don't care who the Rays have just lost.
l. Manny and Johnny Damon with the Rays? Interesting, but probably not very important.
m. Is it a rule at ESPN that Ed Werder must work in subfreezing weather?
n. RIP, Jack LaLanne. Thought you would live forever. You lived a life of fitness we should all aspire to.
o. At the risk of inviting you to see a self-immolation, I'll be interviewed by Mary Carillo on HBO's Real Sports show Tuesday night at 10 Eastern. But the real treat in the piece, if it makes the cut, will be Bailey the golden retriever chasing a tennis ball on a frozen field near our Boston home. That is one good dog.