NFL playoffs: Give me a 2, give me a 6
Picture this: a pair of No. 6 seeds in the Super Bowl.
The New York Jets and Green Bay Packers sure like that scenario, and it’s impossible to ignore them after this weekend’s divisional playoff games.
The Jets (13-5), who have never won more games in their half-century of existence, went into New England and handed the league’s top regular-season team a 28-21 defeat Sunday. They now have knocked off Peyton Manning’s Colts and Tom Brady’s Patriots in successive weeks.
Their reward is a date with the second-seeded Steelers (13-4) in Pittsburgh next Sunday night, New York’s second straight trip to the AFC championship game. The Steelers won their blood feud matchup with Baltimore 31-24 on Saturday.
“We’re not afraid of anybody,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said after Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns against New England. “Maybe people take it the wrong way. We don’t badmouth an opponent, but we don’t fear anybody.”
Nor, apparently, do the Packers (12-6). They routed the NFC’s top seed, the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21 on Saturday night, and will head to Chicago for the conference title game against their historic rivals. The Bears (12-5) whipped Seattle 35-24 to set up the 182nd meeting in the NFL’s longest series, but the first for an NFC championship.
“We’re both familiar with each other, so nothing’s going to be new,” said Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more Sunday in his first postseason appearance. “We have our hands full.”
At Pittsburgh, 6:30 p.m. EST
It’s a rematch of a wild Dec. 19 game won by the Jets 22-17 at Heinz Field.
Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu missed that and he’s a huge playmaker. He might be needed more than ever because the Jets are more balanced that at any time under Ryan. And they have won four of their five playoff road games under the bombastic coach, the latest their stunner at Foxborough, where the Jets fell 45-3 on Dec. 6.
“We knew we’d have to beat those kind of opponents, got to get a team that can beat New England, beat Indianapolis at their places, and beat Pittsburgh, hopefully,” Ryan said.
New York has been efficient on the ground, but no one rushes very well against the Steelers. Baltimore managed only 35 yards rushing on Saturday.
So the game could wind up in the hands and on the arms of the quarterbacks. Sanchez, a second-year pro who is 4-1 in the postseason, just might match up well with Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls and showed against the Ravens how clutch he can be.
“Big Ben, he’s next on our list,” said Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, who caught a TD pass against New England.
Still, the Jets never had won in Pittsburgh before that December game, and the Steelers are well-versed in AFC title matchups, making their fifth trip since 2001.
“You like to play teams that you lose to,” Roethlisberger said.
At Chicago, 3 p.m. EST
Chicago and Green Bay have been going at it for 90 years, but, amazingly enough, this will be only the second time they’ve faced each other in a playoff.
Back in 1941, just days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and a quarter-century before there was a Super Bowl, the George Halas-coached Bears beat the Packers 33-14 at Wrigley Field for the Western Division title. The playoff was needed after both went 10-1 during the regular season.
Chicago went on to beat the New York Giants for one of its nine NFL titles. But the Bears haven’t won it all since shuffling to the Super Bowl championship after the 1985 season with Mike Singletary, Walter Payton & Co.
Green Bay has won a record 12 NFL titles, most recently after the 1996 season with Brett Favre at quarterback.
The teams each won at home this season, with the Packers clinching a wild-card spot with a 10-3 victory in the regular-season finale.
“With Green Bay, the hype is going be there with the rivalry the way it is, the magnitude,” Cutler said. “We’re going to have to do the same thing. We can’t blow this out of proportion, it’s still a football game. They are going to line up 11 guys, we’re going to line up 11 guys. Whoever executes the most is going to win.
“It doesn’t get any better than this. To be in the NFC championship, the situation we’re in being at home and to bring Green Bay into (Soldier Field) on top of that, it just adds to it.”
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been sensational recently, particularly against Atlanta on Saturday night, when he had only five incomplete passes, threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns, and didn’t toss an interception.
“Yeah, this probably was my best performance, I think (given) the stage that we were on, the importance of this game,” Rodgers said. “So yeah, it was a good night.”
To have another one and get the Packers to their first Super Bowl since the 1997 season, Rodgers must deal with a Chicago defense that was dominant when the outcome was in doubt against Seattle. He also might have to outduel Cutler.
“I texted him after the game (Saturday night). I told him, ‘Good game,’” Cutler said Sunday. “Obviously I will probably have a few text messages from him. We will have friendly banter.”
By Barry Wilner
Copyright The Associated Press