Six months ago, a lot of people expected the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers to be playing for a spot in Super Bowl 45. Six weeks ago? Not so much. Both teams looked dead in the water. And at the same time, the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers were just, plain overlooked.
While the Jets were in the midst of losing three of four in December and the Packers dropped three of their final six to back into the playoffs, the Bears were considered the NFC's aberration by most of us. An accident of favorable scheduling and a few fluky victories. While the Steelers, like everyone else in the AFC, found themselves lost in the shadow cast by Bill Belichick's evil empire in New England.
But here we are. Championship weekend, and the preseason favorites a lot of folks had written off (the Jets and Packers) are exactly where we thought they'd be back in August, while the Bears have made it farther than anyone could have imagined, and the Steelers have entrenched themselves as the real evil empire of the AFC. Or at least, that's what's in play at Heinz Field this weekend.
Speaking of Heinz field, everyone seems to concede that the Steelers have one of the best fanbases in the league. And in a way, that's true. They've certainly got more fans than most any team in the NFL. Every city in America has a Steelers bar that's disturbingly active. Considering they're one of the most successful franchises in NFL history, it's not surprising.
As Andy Hutchins pointed out on Twitter yesterday, the Steelers could go 5-11 for the next 23 years, and only then to would they fall to .500. So of course they've got millions of fair-weather fans sprinkled across the country. And then there's the people of Pittsburgh.
Are you familiar with the phrase "Yinz"? If not, just think of Boston fans, and how they pluralize "you." As in, "YOUS THINK YOU CAN STAWWP TAWWM BRADY? HAH! WE'LL SEE ON SUNDAY, BUD."
Among the people of Pittsburgh, though, "yous" becomes "yinz" for some reason. As in, "Yinz idiots who doubt the Steelers are just JEALOUS. Stop complaining about the refs, Ravens fans!" It's a badge of pride among the people of Pittsburgh, which is nice. But whenever I hear yinz, it just reminds me that the Steelers fans in Pittsburgh that everyone loves are basically just a less literate version of Patriots fans.
"ALL YINZ FOOTBALL FANS SHOULD PAY SOME RESPECT TO THE MOST SUCCESSFUL FRANCHISE IN NFL HISTORY. TOM BRADY AND PEYTON MANNING CAN HAVE THEIR FANCY STATS, BUT ALL BIG BEN DOES IS WIN FOOTBALL GAMES."
...Oh, come on now. That's not all Big Ben does! With that, let's preview Championship Sunday.
PACKERS AT BEARS, 3:00 P.M.
A few different times this year, I've said that the NFL has turned into the NCAA Tournament. We think of the NFL as the most logical sport around, but somewhere along the line, this stuff became pretty much impossible to predict. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to keep in mind as we go forward. And nobody embodies the new era better than the Packers.
In August, they were officially the Team To Watch in the NFC. Then the season got started, injuries hit them hard, we realized they couldn't (or wouldn't) run the ball, and as they hit the late-season swoon we mentioned above, most people figured it just wasn't Green Bay's year. Now we look up, and the Packers have the best player left in the playoffs (Aaron Rodgers), and after everything that's happened this year, Green Bay's right back to where they started--favorites in the NFC.
Isn't that exactly what happens in the NCAA Tournament every year? How many times does a team like Michigan State start in the top 5, survive an up-and-down year, and then make the Final Four as a four-seed? Then again, those teams rarely win it all.
And as much as people have doubted the Chicago Bears resurgence this year, you have to remember a few things here. First, the Bears have played the Packers better than any team in the NFL this year. Even in Week 17, when Chicago had every reason in the world to mail it in, Green Bay could only muster an ugly, surprisingly close 10-3 victory. And that was at home!
In Chicago, Green Bay will be playing on arguably the worst field in the NFL, in terrible weather, against a much better defense than the Atlanta team they torched last weekend. All things being equal, the Packers are the better team. But all things are NOT equal. Chicago's playing at home, and regardless of pure talent and who's favored, the Bears match up well with Green Bay.
Then there's Jay Cutler. We're not used to seeing Jay Cutler, the dependable and occasionally explosive young quarterback. We're used to Jay Cutler, the inconsistent malcontent that's occasionally explosive, but just as prone to complete implosion. Where is THAT guy? Because watching the Bears last week, there was really only one throw (the goal line interception that Seattle dropped) that looked like the old Cutler. Otherwise, he was sort of great, wasn't he?
If Cutler can play like he did last week, the Bears win. Simple as that. Which brings me to my final point... EVERYONE thinks the Packers are going to win. And when everyone's going one way in the NFL, it's usually the wrong way to go. Nobody wants to bet against Aaron Rodgers, nobody believes in the Bears, and we all think that Green Bay's far and away the most imposing team in the NFC. And they are. Except when they're playing the Bears... The Pick: Bears 23 Packers 10
JETS AT STEELERS, 6:30 P.M.
You can say what you want about Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Really, go ahead. Say it. It rhymes with "GRAPE"), but it doesn't get any better than this throw against the Ravens on Sunday.
That's the thing about Roethlisberger. He lulls you to sleep with ugly dump-off passes, and then next thing you know, he makes a throw like that to win a game, and you have to admit--like it or not, he's one of the two or three best quarterbacks of this generation.
But if there's one thing scarier in the NFL Playoffs than a great quarterback that comes through in the clutch, it's a team with momentum. If that's all the Jets had going for them, that'd be one thing. Except... ***CLICHE ALERT*** New York didn't get here by accident.
Darrelle Revis is playing better than any cornerback we've seen in years, and really, the entire Jets secondary was as dominant last week as any player in the league. Couple that with the best pass rush in the league, and you start to see the Jets as less of "a Cinderella team full of zany quotes!", and more of a dominant, confident team that began the year as Super Bowl favorite, and might have the best weapon of any team left in the NFL playoffs.
They beat Pittsburgh a month ago, and when you think about the matchups, it's hard to see why they can't do it again. The Steelers offensive line has been banged up all year, and there couldn't be a worse team for them to play than the Jets and the insane beast that is Rex Ryan's pass rush. The Steelers receivers have been surprisingly great this year, but are they really going to cause problems against a Jets secondary that's just shut down the passing games of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning?
The Steelers defense is no joke, either, but if it's between Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes making plays vs. Pittsburgh's D, and Mike Wallace somehow breaking free against Darrelle Revis, I'm taking the Jets. It's a feel-good upset pick on the surface, but look closer at the matchups, and it makes more sense than you think. AND REX RYAN WILL TAKE A BATH IN THE TEARS OF ALL YINZ OBNOXIOUS STEELERS FANS. The Pick: Jets 24, Steelers 13