Championship Snaps (cont.)
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.