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.