Packers, Bears are good -- and lucky
NFC finalists conquered all obstacles to get this far; they also got some breaks
As close as the Packers and Bears are to Super Bowl XLV, they were just as close to being done.
Think about it: If the Giants had held on to a 31-10 lead against the Eagles on Dec. 19, and the Eagles had won one of their last two home games against the Vikings and Cowboys that would have taken on added importance with a loss against New York, then Green Bay would not be in Chicago for Sunday's NFC Championship Game. It would be home. Done. Eliminated from the playoffs before they even began.
So as good as the Packers have been -- and right now, Green Bay might just be the Super Bowl favorite -- they probably would not be where they are today had the Giants not suffered a monumental meltdown.
Chicago can be considered equally fortunate. If Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is awarded a 25-yard touchdown catch on opening day against the Bears that replays showed he came down with but referees ruled he didn't, then Detroit wins the opener, Green Bay probably winds up as the NFC's No. 2 seed, the Giants wind up as the conference's No. 6 seed, and Chicago is home. Done. Eliminated from the playoffs before they even began.
So as good as the Bears have been -- and they played well enough to earn the NFC's No. 2 seed and host Sunday's NFC title game -- they probably would not be where they are today had referees not ruled in Chicago's favor on a controversial call on opening day.
Chicago and Green Bay overcame all obstacles in their way. They deserve to be where they are, 60 minutes from Arlington, Texas, and Super Bowl XLV. But their road to the conference championship game proves certain football truths.
The difference between great and good teams is not as dramatic as some would suspect. Seasons turn on games and, more specifically, single plays. And more important, as tough as these playoff teams are, their status is fragile. At best.
The Packers are alive thanks to the Giants and Eagles as much as themselves. The Bears will play host to the NFC Championship when being home Sunday could have taken on an entirely different meaning.
Now the Packers and Bears play for history when both know they already could have been history.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Adding up the seeds: Never before has the NFL experienced a postseason quite like this one. Under the current playoff format implemented in 1990, the NFL never has had a Super Bowl in which the seeds of teams added up to a higher number than seven, which happened when the No. 6-seeded Steelers beat the top-seeded Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Now, each conference championship game -- Green Bay at Chicago and New York at Pittsburgh -- features the No. 2 seed versus the No. 6. If either of the No. 6 seeds wins Sunday, the Packers or Jets, the NFL is guaranteed the highest Super Bowl total in terms of seeds in its current playoff format. The league has been close to this scenario before. In 2008 playoffs, the No. 6-seeded Ravens lost at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game and the No. 6-seeded Eagles lost at Arizona in the NFC Championship Game. But it never has had a No. 6 and a No. 2, and it never has had two No. 6s.
2. QBs playing keep-away: Someone is going to throw an interception in Sunday's championship round who didn't throw one in the last round. None of the four winning quarterbacks from last weekend's divisional playoff games -- Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Chicago's Jay Cutler and New York's Mark Sanchez -- threw an interception. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it marked only the second time in NFL postseason history that all four winning quarterbacks did not throw an interception in a single weekend. The first came in the 2000 divisional round, when Oakland's Rich Gannon, Baltimore's Trent Dilfer, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and the Giants' Kerry Collins also didn't throw an interception. The quarterbacks who keep alive their interception-less streaks Sunday put themselves in a prime position to advance.3. The Hester Factor: Throughout the season, Green Bay's biggest weakness has been special teams. With 15 players on injured reserve, the Packers have struggled to line up consistent, capable players on their coverage units. The Packers have improved the past month, but they still are vulnerable -- especially against the Bears and Devin Hester, whose 17.1-yard punt return average during the regular season was the highest in NFL history. Green Bay even aided Hester's numbers this season. In September, Hester produced a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. If Green Bay is going to win Sunday, Hester cannot do what he has against the Packers and other teams this season. He must be held down.[+] EnlargeDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireDevin Hester brings a big-play dimension that has burned the Packers before.
4. Cutler rates high: The Bears' Cutler is questioned for some of the throws he makes. But over the past seven games, few quarterbacks have been hotter. Cutler's average passer rating over the past seven games is 94.5 -- and that's with a 43.5 rating in the regular-season finale at Green Bay and a 32.9 rating in the snow against New England. In each of the other five games during that seven-game stretch, during which he has thrown 13 touchdown passes and six interceptions, Cutler had a passer rating of at least 104.2. The Packers have kept Cutler in check this season and might again Sunday. But few players as scrutinized as Cutler this season have been this good.
5. Rodgers simply the best? During last Saturday night's divisional playoff game in Atlanta, Fox analyst Troy Aikman said Rodgers now is the best quarterback in football. And it's hard to argue. Rodgers is accurate with his arm, elusive with his feet and overwhelming with his talents. He has achieved what few in football history have. He is the first player to pass for three-plus touchdowns in each of his first three postseason starts. Rodgers now has a 10-to-1 postseason touchdowns-to-interception ratio -- all on the road. He has led the Packers to two of the three highest-scoring performances by a road team in NFL postseason history -- 45 points during an overtime loss last postseason at Arizona and 48 more points last week at Atlanta. In his three postseason starts, the Packers have averaged 38 points. But what might be most impressive is that, with a win Sunday in Chicago, Rodgers will have three road wins this postseason -- as many postseason road games as Brett Favre won in his entire NFL career.
6. A good eye for CB talent: At various times, Packers fans and even a former legendary Green Bay quarterback have grown weary with general manager Ted Thompson's deliberate decisions. But it is hard to argue his results. Nearly five years ago, Thompson and staff signed undrafted free-agent cornerback Tramon Williams. Last offseason, Thompson and staff signed undrafted free-agent cornerback Sam Shields. Those two players helped make it possible, and understandable, for Green Bay to release former Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris this season. Williams and Shields have been so good that it's no longer surprising to see opposing quarterbacks choosing to throw at Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson instead. They do this simply because this postseason, Williams has been the league's most valuable defensive player.
7. Steelers uncover young WR gems: Just as Green Bay has uncovered young standout cornerbacks, Pittsburgh has done the same with wide receivers. Two drafts ago, the Steelers used a third-round pick on Mississippi wide receiver Mike Wallace. Last April, the Steelers used another third-round pick on SMU wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and a sixth-round pick on Antonio Brown. So what happens? In the Ravens-Steelers divisional playoff game, Baltimore's veteran high-profile wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh combined for four catches for 36 yards, while Sanders and Brown combined for seven catches for 129 yards. It's amazing that Pittsburgh, which whiffed on second-round pick Limas Sweed and traded former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a fifth-round pick, is still set for seasons to come at wide receiver.[+] EnlargeJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger lost to the Jets earlier this season, but he's lost only two playoff games in 11 tries.
8. Ben just wins: As good as New England's Tom Brady and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning have been, no active NFL quarterback with a minimum of 10 postseason starts has a better winning percentage than Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger. In fact, the only quarterback who ever posted a better postseason winning percentage is Green Bay's Bart Starr, who went 9-1 (.900). Roethlisberger's 9-2 postseason record (.818) places him behind Starr and ahead of Jim Plunkett's 8-2 postseason record (.800) and Brady's 14-5 (.737) mark. Roethlisberger has played on teams with great defenses, undoubtedly. But at Steelers training camp two summers ago, the summer after they beat Arizona in the Super Bowl, what stood out was the way Pittsburgh coaches raved about Roethlisberger. Almost to a man, they said they never would have been able to accomplish what they did without Roethlisberger. Now the Jets face a challenge different from the one they had against Brady and Manning. "How do you prepare to tackle a guy as big as a polar bear?" asked Jets defensive end Trevor Pryce.
9. Sanchez proves old coach wrong: Pete Carroll once suggested that his former USC quarterback was not ready for the NFL. Yet no one has proved to be more ready. In only his second NFL season, with a 4-1 postseason road record, Sanchez already has tied the all-time league record that Len Dawson, Jake Delhomme, Joe Flacco and Roger Staubach share for most postseason road wins. One more win Sunday at Pittsburgh would make Sanchez the NFL's all-time winningest postseason road quarterback. And check this out: Might mean nothing, might mean something, but as some Jets fans pointed out this week, former Jets quarterback Joe Namath won Super Bowl III on Jan. 12; Namath's jersey number was 12. This season's Super Bowl will be played on the Feb. 6; Sanchez's jersey number is 6.
10. Gonzalez comes up empty: For all the happiness 212 players have experienced reaching Sunday's conference championship games, one experienced heartbreak. Again. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has played 14 NFL seasons and four postseason games yet hasn't won an NFL playoff game. He lost three playoff games as a Chief, one as a Falcon, and he is one of the finest NFL players ever not to win in the postseason. Like Gonzalez, Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann also has played 14 NFL seasons without winning in the postseason, losing his three playoff games. Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna has played 13 NFL seasons and lost in his only two postseason appearances. No player in NFL history has lost more playoff games without a win than former Saints linebacker Pat Swilling, who was on the wrong side of the score in each of his six playoff games. But no active player has deserved a single postseason win, just one, any more than Gonzalez.
The Schef's specialties
• Games of the week: Packers at Bears, Jets at Steelers: As Jets linebacker Bart Scott said, "can't wait!"
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
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