After 20 weeks of NFL football, the stage for Super Bowl XLV has been set. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, will meet at Cowboys Stadium in two weeks for the right to hold up the Vince Lombardi Trophy. What did each team do to get to this point? Here’s a recap of yesterday’s Conference Championship action.
Green Bay Packers – 21, Chicago Bears – 14
Billed as a renewal of one of the oldest rivalries in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers made the trip to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears. The match-up pitted two of the league’s best young quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, against each other with the prospect of making that first trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, the game didn’t end with both of those men competing against each other, which may have been the deciding factor in who took home the George Halas Trophy.
The opening minutes of the game were dominated by the Packers. Led by Rodgers, Green Bay used a seven-play, 84-yard drive to score on the game’s opening possession. Rodgers was a perfect 4-4 passing on the drive and sealed it with a one-yard touchdown run on a naked bootleg to the left. On the ensuing Chicago possession, Cutler and the Bears struggled to manufacture much offense, resulting in a punt from Brad Maynard. This would be a running theme for the remainder of the half.
Coming out of the locker room at halftime, the Bears faced a 14-0 deficit and were aware of the fact that something needed to change. However, they couldn’t have expected the type of change that occurred. After suffering a knee injury in the first half, Cutler attempted to lead a drive to open the third quarter, but once again failed to produce. This led to him sitting out the rest of the game, leaving the Bears’ Super Bowl hopes in the hands of backup quarterback Todd Collins.
Though it seemed impossible, Collins played worse than Cutler did in the first half. The 16-year veteran completed none of his four pass attempts, which led to him being benched in favor of third-stringer and three-year pro Caleb Hanie. While Cutler and Collins struggled, the Bears’ defense did a great job of keeping the team within a two-score striking distance. Chicago’s hopes to make a trip to Dallas rested on the shoulders of the relatively inexperienced quarterback.
Hanie wasn’t perfect, but he seemed a lot more ready to play than the two quarterbacks in front of him on the depth chart. In Chicago’s first possession with Hanie at the helm, the Bears found the endzone for the first time that day. The score made it a 14-7 game, with plenty of time left to play. The Bears’ defense would follow with two more stands, giving Hanie opportunities to put more points on the board.
With a little over six minutes to play, Hanie did just that. Unfortunately the points went on the board for the Packers after nose tackle B.J. Raji intercepted a pass inside the 15-yard line for a touchdown. Hanie would make another rally attempt, throwing a touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to once again pull Chicago within a score, but would ultimately fall short by throwing another pick in the final minute of the game. Rodgers and the Packers would kneel out the remaining time to punch their first ticket to the Super Bowl since 1998.
New York Jets – 19, Pittsburgh Steelers – 24
It was another ‘Tale of Two Halves” in the Steel City where the red-hot Jets challenged the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC Championship. After disposing of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the Jets sought out to make it a trifecta by sending home Steelers hurler Ben Roethlisberger. On the line for “Big Ben” was a chance to become the fifth quarterback in NFL history to win three or more Super Bowl rings.
Pittsburgh started the game firing on all cylinders, putting the Jets in a deep hole that they’d spend the rest of the game trying to climb out of. On the game’s first possession, the Steelers used a 15-play, nine-minute drive to score the game’s first touchdown on a one-yard Rashard Mendenhall rush.
The Steelers’ dominance continued in the second quarter, where Pittsburgh added a Shaun Suisham field goal and Roethlisberger touchdown run to extend their lead to 17-0. On the following possession, Mark Sanchez fumbled after being sacked by Ike Taylor. Cornerback William Gay recovered the loose ball and took it to the house to give Pittsburgh a 24-0 lead. The Jets were able to muster up a late-half field goal to put three points on the board, but the game appeared to be firmly in the grasp of the Steelers.
During halftime, Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan told his team that the game was still winnable if they could execute in the second half. The pep talk inspired the team, and they emerged from the locker room playing like an entirely different team. Like Pittsburgh did to start the game, the Jets found the endzone on their first possession of the third quarter when Sanchez found wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown pass. Nick Folk’s extra point put New York within two scores.
New York’s defense would continue to stop Pittsburgh from adding to their lead. The next two Steeler possessions resulted in an interception and punt respectively. However, the Jets weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunities created by their defense. The corresponding Jet possessions ended in a punt and goal-line stand on the one-yard line for the Steelers. Pittsburgh looked well on their way to another AFC Championship.
However, the New York prayers were answered by the football gods when Roethlisberger fumbled the snap on the ensuing possession. Jets defensive end Mike DeVito tackled the quarterback in the endzone to net a safety for the Jets and possession of the ball. New York followed the safety with another touchdown drive, Jerricho Cotchery finding himself on the receiving end of a four-yard pass from Mark Sanchez. The touchdown put the Jets down just five points with a little under three minutes to play.
In most situations, NFL coaches would run the ball four straight times to milk the clock, then punt to the other team and force them to score another touchdown. Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin took a more aggressive approach, putting the game in the hands of Roethlisberger. With third and six on the New York 40, Roethlisberger threw a 14-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown to seal the game. The Jets’ valiant comeback effort was stopped short, and the Steelers are on the way to their third Super Bowl in six years.
images via Yahoo