NFL’S “FANTASTIC FOUR” READY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND
“Every game’s a new game,” says NFL Network analyst STEVE MARIUCCI about the unpredictability of the NFL playoffs. “That’s what’s great about the National Football League.” And in the Divisional Playoffs, that proved true as two No. 6 seeds – the Green Bay Packers in the NFC and the New York Jets in the AFC – advanced to the Championship Games.
For the second time in the past three postseasons (2008), the Championship Games do not feature a No. 1 seed. Prior to that, there was at least one top-seeded team in the Championship Games in 28 consecutive seasons, dating back to 1980.
In the AFC, the No. 6 Jets knocked off the top-seeded Patriots in New England 28-21. New York quarterback MARK SANCHEZ passed for three touchdowns and improved his postseason record to 4-1, all in road games. In only his second NFL season, Sanchez has already tied the all-time league record for the most road wins in the playoffs by a starting quarterback. “He just keeps getting better and better,” Jets head coach REX RYAN says about his young quarterback. “He’s only been in the league for two years, and like I said last year, he’s not going to be looked at as the weakness of the team, but as the strength.”
The Jets will travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, who erased a 21-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Baltimore Ravens 31-24. Entering the Divisional round, teams leading by exactly 14 points at halftime had won 94 percent of NFL playoff games. “Being down 21-7 and coming back against a great team,” says Pittsburgh wide receiver HINES WARD, “it just showed how resilient these guys are and that we stayed together and never gave up.”
The NFC Championship Game will pit two teams who know each other well. The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will meet for the 182nd time, the most meetings between two clubs in NFL history. The teams split the season series 1-1.
Green Bay advanced by winning in Atlanta and eliminating the Falcons, the top seed in the NFC. Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS completed 31 of 36 passes (86.1 percent) for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 136.8 passer rating in Green Bay’s 48-21 victory. Rodgers is the first player in NFL history to pass for at least three touchdowns in each of his first three postseason starts and his 129.4 career playoff passer rating is the best mark all-time (minimum 100 attempts).
“Aaron played absolutely phenomenal,” says Pro Bowl wide receiver GREG JENNINGS, who had eight catches for 101 yards. “It was a treat to play with him during that performance.”
Standing in Green Bay’s way is a familiar foe, the NFC North champion Chicago Bears. The Bears defeated the Seattle Seahawks 35-24 at Soldier Field in the Divisional Playoffs. Quarterback JAY CUTLER, making his NFL postseason debut, accounted for four touchdowns and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer OTTO GRAHAM as the only players in NFL history with at least two touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns in a playoff game.
“It’s been a fun ride,” says Cutler. “But it’s not over yet.”
A closer look at the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-6) at CHICAGO BEARS (12-5) (Sunday, FOX, 3:00 PM ET)
“It doesn’t get any better than the NFC Championship coming down to the Packers on our turf,” says Chicago head coach LOVIE SMITH, who will try and claim the George Halas trophy for the second time in the past five seasons. “It’s the Packers and Bears to finish it up.”
The teams will meet for the 182nd time, the most in NFL history, but just the second postseason meeting. The previous playoff matchup was on December 14, 1941 when GEORGE HALAS’ Bears defeated CURLY LAMBEAU’s Packers 33-13 at Wrigley Field to claim the Western Division.
“They know who we are,” says Packers Pro Bowl wide receiver GREG JENNINGS. “They know how we operate. And we know who they are. We know how they operate. Obviously we’ve played them twice already. Two close games that could have gone either way. And here we are again, when it really counts this time.”
The two teams split the season series with each club winning at home. Both games were decided by one score.
“We’re a championship-caliber football team,” says Green Bay head coach MIKE MC CARTHY. “We’ve had 16 quarters on our mind. We’ve completed eight of them. We have an opportunity to play four more this week. We feel very good about who we are, the way we’ve played, our brand of football in all three areas, and that’s what we’re sticking to.”
In the Divisional round, both teams had impressive quarterback play. The Packers’ AARON RODGERS threw for three touchdowns and ran for another and the Bears’ JAY CUTLER had two TD passes and two rushing scores.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks who have won their first playoff games this year and are now ready to explode on the National Football League scene,” says NFL Network analyst STEVE MARIUCCI about Rodgers and Cutler.
The stage is set for a memorable NFC title game between two of the league’s oldest rivals.
“It’s a big deal,” says Bears Pro Bowl linebacker BRIAN URLACHER. “We have a lot of history with them. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. It’s a big challenge and we’re excited.”
NEW YORK JETS (13-5) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-4) (Sunday, CBS, 6:30 PM ET)
After the Jets defeated the Steelers 22-17 in Week 15, New York head coach REX RYAN told Pittsburgh’s MIKE TOMLIN they would meet again in the postseason. As the final two teams standing in the AFC, Ryan’s words ring true.
The Jets are flying high after knocking off the No. 1 seeded Patriots in New England last week to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. Quarterback MARK SANCHEZ, in just his second year, has already won four playoff road games, tied with LEN DAWSON, JAKE DELHOMME, JOE FLACCO and ROGER STAUBACH for the most playoff road wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history.
“These playoff wins are not easy to come by,” says Sanchez, who has defeated Pro Bowl quarterbacks PEYTON MANNING and TOM BRADY in this year’s postseason. “I’m proud of the fact that I got drafted by a great team and I’ve had the opportunity to play in these big games.
“We know how to play on the road, so that’s a huge help for us. We remember that bad taste after losing to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game last season, so we don’t want that to happen again. We’re up against a tough opponent. They’ll have a great game plan. Their defense is tough. It’ll be a great matchup and we’re excited.”
The Steelers are making their 15th Championship Game appearance, the most since 1970. With a victory, Pittsburgh will tie Dallas for the most Super Bowl appearances with eight. The Steelers are attempting to win their third Super Bowl title in the past six years, all behind BEN ROETHLISBERGER, who would become the fifth player in NFL history to win at least three Super Bowls as the starting quarterback, joining TERRY BRADSHAW (four), JOE MONTANA (four), TROY AIKMAN (three) and TOM BRADY (three).
For both teams, the mission is the same: Win and advance to the Super Bowl.
“We’re very excited to be going back to the AFC Championship Game, but it’s all for naught if we can’t take care of it,” says Pittsburgh Pro Bowl defensive end BRETT KEISEL.
“Our goal is still ahead of us and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Jets linebacker BART SCOTT. “Pittsburgh is a tremendous team, with Super Bowl titles and a quarterback who has won two of them. It is going to take everything we have, but I think we will be up to the challenge.”
“If you can’t get motivated to win an AFC Championship,” says Ryan, “then you shouldn’t be in the building.”