This past Sunday, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings missed what would have been the first Pro Bowl game of his budding career. However, considering the circumstances, Jennings was probably as happy as one could be to miss out on that kind of opportunity.
Players who are selected for the Pro Bowl, but are also set to play in the Super Bowl, are removed for precautionary reasons. That’s exactly where Jennings is heading. This Sunday, he and the Packers will line up opposite of the Pittsburgh Steelers for an opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Dallas, Texas. His dreams coming true with a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl season, Greg is still humbled by times when things didn’t go his way.
Three years ago, Jennings experienced the low point of his career as a pro. The Packers hosted the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants and Jennings figured to be a big factor after catching 53 balls for 12 touchdowns during the regular season and finding the endzone twice against the Seahawks in the Divisional Round. Instead, it turned out to be a nightmare outing for Jennings. He caught just 1 pass for 14 yards and the Packers squandered the opportunity to make a trip to the Super Bowl after the Giants bested them by three points in overtime.
With that performance entrenched in his memory, Greg made sure the outcome was different when the Packers returned to the NFC Championship against the division rival Chicago Bears this year. A week after Jennings set a season high for receptions in a game against the Atlanta Falcons, he followed up with what may have been his best performance of the season.
Jennings’ impact was made clear for the start of the game. On 1st and 10, quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back and found Jennings for a 22-yard strike. In one play, Greg topped his 2007 NFC Championship performance. That’d be far from the last time his number was called in the game though.
On the second play, Rodgers locates #85 again, this time for a 26-yarder. In less than a minute, Jennings had two receptions for 48 yards and the complete attention of the Bears defense. With the Chicago D focused on Jennings, Rodgers’ other targets found themselves open, leading to a touchdown on the game’s opening drive and giving Green Bay all the momentum they would need for the day.
In the game, Jennings hauled in 5 receptions for 20-or-more yards (20, 21, 22, 22 and 26), which was half as many as Chicago had given up all season. His 8 overall receptions tied his season high, which was established in the previous playoff game. Most importantly, Greg’s catches helped Green Bay win the battle of field position, and ultimately, the NFC Championship. The wide receiver from Kalamazoo, Michigan is heading to Super Bowl XLV.
Jennings’ third career 100-yard game in the postseason also ties him with Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman for the most in Packers franchise history. Still, what keeps him motivated is remembering how he felt after the 2008 NFC Championship.
“I remember three years ago just sitting in my locker with my pads on and just having a bitter, just a sick feeling,” Jennings told reporters after the game. “So I can sympathize with [the Bears], what they’re going through over there in that locker room. But at the same time, I’m in here with my family and we’re excited about our opportunity.”
After a one-year hiatus in Miami, the NFL returned to Aloha Stadium in Hawaii for the 2011 Pro Bowl. The stars were out in full force (minus participants of Super Bowl XLV) for a game that featured little competitiveness and a lot of scoring. Forcing six turnovers, including five interceptions, the NFL tied a Pro Bowl record with 55 points as they held on for a 55-41 win.
First half interceptions thrown by Phillip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Matt Cassel helped the NFC build a lopsided 42-0 lead in the second quarter. One of the NFC’s touchdowns was caught by tight end Tony Gonzalez, who moved into first place all-time with his sixth overall. Big names like Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald and Steven Jackson also found paydirt. Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles ran for an 8-yard touchdown before the half to get the AFC on the board.
The second half was a little more kind to the AFC, who outscored the NFC 34-13. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne got things started, catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from Phillip Rivers. Jacksonville Jaguars fullback Montell Owens scored twice for the AFC, one coming via a fumble return and the other on a seven-yard reception. Perhaps the game’s most memorable moment came when Browns center Alex Mack scored a touchdown on a 67-yard double lateral play.
The MVP of the game was Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who made big defensive plays early in the game to help give the NFC a comfortable lead. He picked off a Phillip Rivers pass intended for Brandon Lloyd in the first quarter and returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Hall added a forced fumble and six tackles on the day.
Check out what DeAngelo and some of his Pro Bowl comrades wore for the star-studded game.
With a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line, it appeared that two teams were prepared to get the job done, while the other two seemed to lack the enthusiasm necessary to advance. In their respective Conference Championship games on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers used fast starts to jump out to early leads. Neither team was particularly as dominant in the second half, but the fact that they came out of the locker room ready to play from the jump proved to be the difference in the games.
Now, two of the most storied franchises in NFL history have a date with destiny on February 6th. Super Bowl XLV takes place at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Texas, and you better believe both teams will be ready to play the biggest game of their lives.
Here’s a look at the footwear and apparel worn on the field for the NFL Conference Championship games.
Aaron Rodgers passes in the Nike Air LT Superbad.
Jay Cutler looks to air it out in the upcoming Nike Zoom Alpha Talon.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher returns an interception in the Nike Air Zoom Merciless.
Chester Taylor runs for a touchdown in the Reebok NFL Molded Burner Speed.
Chicago’s D.J. Moore tries to tackle Aaron Rodgers in the Under Armour Blur Low.
Back-up quarterback Caleb Hanie tried to play hero for Chicago, also wearing Nike’s Air Zoom Alpha Talon.
Big B.J. Raji celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown in the Nike Zoom Hyperfly.
The Green Bay Packers huddle for a team prayer in the Reebok NFL Conference Champs Locker Room T-Shirt.
Mark Sanchez warms up for the game in a Jets colorway of Nike’s Air LT Superbad.
Ben Roethlisberger looks ready to go in his Nike Air Marauder Player Exclusive.
Rashard Mendenhall dodges a tackle in the Nike Super Speed.
Tight end Heath Miller makes a diving catch in an exclusive colorway of the Reebok NFL U-Form 4Speed.
Hines Ward looks to the sideline in this Nike Throwback TD Player Exclusive.
Santonio Holmes catches a long touchdown pass in the Reebok Molded NFL Burner Speed.
Mike Wallace and Darrelle Revis battle for the ball wearing opposing colorways of the Nike Zoom Vapor Carbon Fly.
James Farrior celebrates a big defensive play in the Nike Air Zoom Merciless.
Rashard Mendenhall holds up the Lamar Hunt trophy in the Reebok NFL Conference Champs Locker Room T-Shirt.
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.
This year’s NFL Playoffs may symbolize a changing of the quarterback guard league-wide. Gone are familiar names like Brady, Manning and Brees, while quarterbacks like Rodgers, Cutler and Sanchez are coming into their own. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger holds the ultimate experience advantage over the remaining playoff quarterbacks, having already won two Super Bowl rings. Can the 28-year old Roethlisberger get the job done for the ‘old men’ this Sunday? Regular season rematches are on schedule for this weekend’s NFL Conference Championships.
New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
When the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the New York Jets in Week 15 of the NFL season, we all felt that the game served as a possible AFC Championship preview. Now, we can only hope their actual championship collision is as good as the first game. A Jason Taylor sack for a safety proved to be the difference in the in the initial meeting, which was won by the Jets 22-17. After huge wins in Indianapolis and Foxborough, the Jets are riding high and have no fear marching into Pittsburgh with a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line.
We’ve often questioned Mark Sanchez’s credentials as a Super Bowl caliber quarterback, but after besting Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back games in their stadiums, there’s no reason to think he can’t top Ben Roethlisberger for the second time this season. Sanchez hasn’t been off-the-charts statistically, but he’s limiting his mistakes and playing with a lot of poise when the game is on the line. He was asked to make big plays late in the games against the Colts and Patriots and found a way to deliver.
One of the most talked about items in the first meeting between the Jets and Steelers was the absence of safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the game with a sore Achilles tendon. While no excuses are to be made, Polamalu is one of the biggest game-changers in the entire NFL. Troy’s intangibles change the entire dynamic of an already good Steelers defense. While Sanchez played extremely well in Week 15, Pittsburgh will have the benefit of throwing out some looks he hasn’t seen.
Another thing to take into account about the first game was the fact the Steelers offense arguably outplayed the Jets offense, but was burned by special teams letdowns. Particularly on the game’s opening kickoff when Brad Smith returned a Shaun Suisham kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. After missing last week’s game with an injury, Smith is confirmed to be back on kickoff return duty for the AFC Championship. You have to believe Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin will have something to say about that.
The AFC Championship will be decided this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
In a twist of irony, it was the Packers’ Week 17 victory over the Chicago Bears that clinched a playoff berth for the team. Fast-forward three weeks later and the two teams will meet again for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This game features two young up-and-coming quarterbacks arguably playing the best football of their respective careers and two aggressive defenses that are surging at the right time.
Containing Aaron Rodgers is no easy task, but the Bears’ defense has had plenty of preparation. Not only did they hold Rodgers to 1 touchdown pass in a must-win situation back in Week 17, but they found a way to put the pressure on Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and sack him 4 times in their Week 12 game. Rodgers is probably the most dangerous quarterback on the run behind Vick, and if Green Bay’s run attack continues to be questionable, keeping Rodgers in the pocket could severely limit the Packers’ offense.
Saying that, stopping Rodgers is a lot easier said than done. After not having previously won a playoff game in his professional career, Rodgers has led the Packers into hostile environments in Philadelphia and Atlanta and posted 3-touchdown performances in both outings. Though the Chicago defense has played well, their pass coverage has been fairly average all year, and Rodgers could exploit those openings if he has time to do so.
Taking snaps on the other side is Jay Cutler, who came up big in his first playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. After being on the receiving end of harsh criticism for much of his young career, Cutler has played extremely well since the second half of the season and was virtually mistake free in his playoff debut. He’ll need some help from running back Matt Forte to spread the Green Bay defense. After a year full of ups and downs, the Packers have done an outstanding job limiting the run in the playoffs against two pretty good teams.
The Packers take on the Chicago Bears this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. EST