This could be the year of the six seeds.
A new playoff format (six teams per conference, 12 in all) was instituted by the league in 1990. In the first 20 years of the system, only one six seed made the Super Bowl -- Pittsburgh in 2005. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that season. Now, the NFL's final four has two six seeds, the Jets and Packers. Judging by their dominant wins over one seeds over the weekend, could this be the year the sixes shock the world?
What makes Green Bay's performance in Atlanta more impressive is that the Falcons were rested, coming off a bye, enjoying the fruits of being the top seed in the NFC. Green Bay played the late game in Philly last Sunday, traveled home, then had a short week to prepare for a Saturday game against a fast team with a secondary growing in star power and confidence.
So what does Aaron Rodgers do? Completes 86 percent of his throws for 366 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw from the pocket, threw on the run, threw across his body, threw under duress (but not much), threw deep and threw short. Five incompletions. 48 points. No Green Bay quarterback has had a better playoff game. The franchise is 90 years old and -- this just in -- it's had some decent quarterbacks.
"You never think you're going to come into an environment like this, in a dome this loud and on the road, and do something like we did,'' wide receiver Donald Driver told me postgame. "But we have five receivers who are dangerous, and for Aaron, when he's got a lot of places to go with the ball, he's going to be extremely productive.''
I find this amazing: Rodgers threw 28 passes Saturday to his top four wideouts on the team -- Greg Jennings, Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. He completed 26, for 331 yards. Each of the four produced at least 75 receiving yards. That is incredible balance.
I asked Driver if he's been surprised how seamlessly Rodgers has adjusted to his role since taking the job in 2008. No matter how much training a kid has to prepare for the moment, no one expected him to be this great so fast. His arm, his accuracy, his movement in the pocket, his ability to throw to either shoulder to a receiver in stride downfield ... There aren't many like Rodgers playing today, obviously.
"I saw Aaron, when he first came into the league, play so well in practice,'' Driver said. "He played so well against our first unit on defense. I just always thought all he needed was a shot. He got it. I'm not surprised at all.''
While we're on the subject of incredible, how about Driver? He's 35. At 6-feet and about 192 pounds, he's never shied from contact, yet never has had a serious injury. He's got a body like Gumby. He simply won't slow down, even with a knee that's been giving him trouble late in the season. Six passes from Rodgers on Saturday, six receptions. I remember him once showing me his hands, maybe four years ago, and they were gnarled in spots from years of catching fastballs from Brett Favre. I thought, there's no way he'll last much longer, at his size and with those hands. But somebody on the Bears had better cover him Sunday. He's still a threat, as the Falcons found out Saturday night.
Charles Tillman watched a good movie Saturday night. He didn't need to see a horror flick.
Before shutting down Seattle wideout Mike Williams for 50 minutes Sunday in the Bears' divisional playoff win, Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman sat in his hotel Saturday night and watched Red, the Morgan Freeman/Bruce Willis movie. He figured he'd have time later to watch tape of the team Chicago would face for the NFC title if the Bears were so fortunate. No need cluttering his head that night with different football thoughts than the ones he had to focus on against Seattle.
"When I found out what Green Bay did, I thought that was a heck of a job, putting up 48 on Atlanta down in that dome,'' Tillman said. "That's a really good offense. The media's going to hype up this game, but the way I approach it is it's a game against a division opponent. You can't make the game bigger than it is.''
Packers-Bears for the title, though. Pretty irresistible. Two big-armed quarterbacks, two defenses playing well. When they met in Week 17, Chicago held Green Bay scoreless for 42 minutes. "Our D-line played really well that day,'' Tillman said, "and all the stars aligned.'' Chicago lost 10-3. Just think if the Bears had won that day -- Green Bay wouldn't have made the playoffs, and the Pack wouldn't be pillaging through the playoffs.
"What's the most important thing about playing Rodgers?'' I asked Tillman.
"Not letting his receivers get over the top, get past you,'' he said. "Rodgers is just too accurate.''
The Steelers are flawed, but isn't every team?
"Had 'em all the way,'' Steelers president emeritus Dan Rooney said, walking through the locker room after the 31-24 win over the Ravens. It was easy to chortle after such an emotional win, one that put the Steelers in the championship game of the AFC for the fifth time in 10 years. That's good. What's not so good is how much Ben Roethlisberger got hit Saturday evening -- Terrell Suggs sacked him twice and forced the fumble that the Ravens returned for a touchdown -- and how shaky his offensive line is. I can just see Rex Ryan this morning, watching video of the Baltimore defense and watching its five sacks of Roethlisberger and four more significant hits. We can do that too, he'll say, and he'll be right.
I hadn't seen the Steelers, nor been around them, since training camp. What interested me most was the depth of contributors. The top two were Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison, as it often is.
Third on the list: Safety Ryan Clark. With Troy Polamalu staying off the line of scrimmage all night, missing two tackles and generally being invisible, Clark forced two third-quarter turnovers that led to touchdowns. He played his best game as a Steeler.
Fourth: Ziggy Hood. The Steeler run defense was supposed to collapse without the best 3-4 defensive end run player in football, Aaron Smith. But Hood, the 2009 first-round pick out of Missouri, continued to show how quickly he has taken to the run-stuffing portion of his job. He was third on the team in tackles (5) and added a sack of Joe Flacco.
Fifth: Antonio Brown, the sixth-round rookie from Central Michigan who converted a third-and-19 with a 58-yard bomb from Roethlisberger. Brown had to get past the Ravens secondary, and incredibly, he did. Can't believe Baltimore would let anyone get behind the last line of defense, because the Ravens are so smart. That's a major gaffe, but one Brown took advantage of.
Sixth: Center Maurkice Pouncey. The center of a problem area, but certainly not the problem. Pouncey was terrific Saturday, ranging all over the field. The play's never over 'til it's over. That has to be his mantra, because he was blocking in the secondary and near the sidelines on several extended plays.
"Coach Tomlin put names on the board of all the guys playing big roles for us now who weren't around for our last Super Bowl [two years ago against Arizona],'' said Clark. "Antonio Brown, Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Mendenhall. He said he knew what guys like Troy Polamalu and James Farrior would do. But the difference was going to be what those young guys would do. Like tonight -- you know what Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are going to do for Baltimore. But what are their young guys going to do? I believe tonight we won that battle.''
They'll have to have a few of those guys win battles Sunday in the AFC title game for the Steelers, 6-1 in their Super Bowl history, to go for number seven.
Three quick coaching points.
Denver. John Fox was a natural in an organization of football neophytes. As a nine-year head-coaching vet, he earned points in his interview with Bronco brass for describing Chuck Noll as his coaching mentor. Fox was Noll's final secondary coach, working for the four-time Super Bowl winner from 1989 to '91. Why was that good? Because Brian Xanders is a young, unproven GM. John Elway is even more unproven as director of football operations. Not only did Fox lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl six years ago, but also he knew his audience. And his audience knew a veteran hand was needed to help give the front office the experience it lacks. Smart.
Carolina. Smartest thing Ron Rivera did to get the job? Bring up how he'd prepare his team in the event of a job action. Or, I should say, in the event of a likely job action. "What I stressed,'' Rivera told me, "is that the teams that stayed together when job actions happen are usually the teams that have great success. Look at the Redskins in 1982 and 1987. There were strikes both years, and they won the Super Bowl both years, and one of the things they always pointed to was how close they were as a team.
So I presented a proposal in the event of a lockout -- how I saw us adjusting in the event of one. I want our players to be together as much as they can so when we come back, I hope we'll be a closer group.'' That'll be tough, particularly with Rivera being a first-time head coach unable to hold any team meetings or practice during a lockout -- scheduled to begin March 4 unless there's a resolution to the conflict between players and owners. But the idea was a smart one for Rivera to raise. It shows he's thinking ahead in what's going to be a very difficult year potentially.
Cleveland. Pat Shurmur will run what he calls a "traditional West Coast offense,'' which I think is good news for Colt McCoy. Shurmur told me he's got three quarterbacks he likes -- adding Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace -- which he has to say. But I'd be surprised if McCoy doesn't win the job. What's not to fit in the West Coast scheme? He was a 70-percent passer at Texas, very smart, competitive, and he'll work hard to learn it.
"I was very impressed with Colt when I studied him last year,'' Shurmur said. "I predicted he'd be a tremendous worker in whatever system he got drafted into. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.''
This is going to be a weird year, but the worker bees, particularly in a new offense, will do best.
The Last Word.
I hadn't heard much from Jon Runyan, the longtime Eagles tackle, since his election to Congress out of New Jersey's third district in November. He rode the Republican wave into office and wants to do something significant about what he considers runaway spending by the government.
Now he finds himself worried about something else in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Security. And not so much his own -- but his constituents'.
"I was walking back from our memorial service in Washington for the victims of the shootings,'' Runyan told me over the weekend. "I was with [Republican congressman from Indiana] Mike Pence, and he said something that resonated with me. He talked about how the scary part is, as congressmen, we signed up for this. Those killed in Arizona, they didn't. And at an event like that, you can take precautions, but you can't insure against everything. That's what bothers me -- the people we need to see are our constituents, and we don't want them to be scared away from coming out to see us. In our society, we are the closest most people will get to the federal government. It's vital that we reach out to them, and they be able to talk with us. That's the job. If that's affected by this, it'll really be sad.''
Runyan said he's walked into crowds that "were totally hostile and intimidating. We can take precautions -- like I have with local law enforcement and the New Jersey department of homeland security -- but the people who are there to meet us, what can they do?"
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