Take your pick—Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers—but in two weeks, we're talking about two franchises that embody the NFL better than any team on the planet, battling for supremacy on the biggest stage possible in Super Bowl XLV.
Before we got there, the Chicago Bears and New York Jets came this close to giving us two of the greatest comebacks in playoff history, but in the end, two of the NFL's most historic franchises are on a collision course that ends in Arlington, Texas. And it should make for a classic Super Bowl.
But God. We nearly watched the Bears engineer a comeback straight out of a fairytale, and a few hours later, it was the New York Jets' turn to attempt a miracle. Had a few things gone differently, it could have been the most memorable championship weekend in history.
Neither underdog could quite pull it off, though, which is why Green Bay and Pittsburgh felt a little anti-climatic at the time. The Packers and Steelers didn't so much dominate their way to the Super Bowl as they survived. They didn't really capture our imagination so much as they killed our dreams we had of a storybook ending.
But rather than focus on what we almost got, take a step back and appreciate what we're left with in Super Bowl 45. With Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, you have two of the five best quarterbacks in football. Hines Ward and Mike Wallace? How 'bout Donald Driver and Greg Jennings? Between the playmakers and the guys getting them the ball, at any given moment, the Steelers and Packers are capable of breaking a game wide open. And then there are the defenses.
The defensive lines, the linebackers, the secondary—at every level, Pittsburgh and Green Bay grade out with flying colors. In the secondary, it's Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Linebackers? Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, James Harrison, and James Farrior. And then you have the defensive lines, with guys like B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins, Brett Keisel, and Casey Hampton. And here's where we pause to admire one of the greatest beards in NFL history:
And if we're going to glorify one side... Here's Raji jiggling his way to the endzone on the other:
FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN AND EVEN A FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN DANCE.
Sure, over the next 24-48 hours, plenty of folks will postpone the Super Bowl analysis to dwell on the Jets and Bears and the comebacks that never came to pass. And that's fine. I did. I picked both underdogs to win on Friday, and spent most of Sunday night lamenting what might have been. Caleb Hanie nearly became the most unlikely savior in Chicago Bears history, and watching him guide the Bears back into contention while the Bears D shut down Aaron Rodgers for the entire second half, you got the feeling we might be witnessing something really, really special. But imagine if the Bears did win.
We would have been stuck with two weeks of pretending that the Bears offense is better than average, listening to Brian Urlacher ramble about toughness, and speculating about Jay Cutler's health, and whether he or Hanie should start in the Super Bowl. The answer to that question? NEITHER. As compelling as the comeback was, the Bears were overachieving just by being in the NFC title game, let alone making it close down the stretch. Credit Chicago for making things interesting, but we should all be grateful they didn't actually win.
As for the Steelers-Jets battle in Pittsburgh, it's a little bit of a different story. The Jets were just as good as the Steelers, they just came out flat, then spent most of the first half getting flattened by Rashard Mendenhall. And after a week of deference in the Steelers' direction, the Jets looked so deflated in the first half, it made you wonder--maybe they should have spent the week talking trash again? Maybe that's the only way the Jets can hit on all cylinders.
In any case, it wasn't until the second half that the AFC title game felt like a fair fight, and for Mark Sanchez and the Jets, there was too much to overcome, and it was too late. Barely. That second half, we saw what a lot had expected from the start. Pittsburgh couldn't do anything against the Jets defense, and little by little, the Jets offense chipped away at the Steelers defense. 'Course, had the Jets not spotted Pittsburgh 24 points to begin with, the methodical approach might have been more successful.
Instead, Pittsburgh's offense needed only one clutch play in the second half--a 14-yard play-action pass to Heath Miller that effectively killed New York's chances in the final minutes--and they had the game won. But the Jets deserve a ton of credit, starting at quarterback. Despite getting beaten to hell by the Steelers in the first two quarters, Mark Sanchez looked like a franchise quarterback after halftime, and where the first two quarters had Pittsburgh-haters pining for the Patriots, in the end, the New York left little doubt that they belonged. It just wasn't quite enough.
So, no: Pittsburgh and Green Bay didn't really dominate. At least not for four quarters. But they survived. And how else do teams make the Super Bowl these days? In a league governed by parity, Al Pacino's inches speech rings truer than ever. "...one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it."
If Mark Sanchez's arm is ruled as going forward at the end of the first half, the Steelers game-winning touchdown never happens. If Aaron Rodgers doesn't trip Brian Ulracher on that interception return, Chicago gets the big play on defense they needed all day. But Rodgers made the play, the refs ruled the Sanchez play a fumble. And as the dust settles, don't be wistful over the inches that cost us instant classics.
Be grateful for a classic Super Bowl. Instead of two storybook finishes in the semifinals, we get a storybook Super Bowl. And it's an ending with more drama than any Bears or Jets fairytale would have offered. The two best teams in the league. Aaron Rodgers vs. Ben Roethlisberger, a pair of kickass defenses, some of the proudest traditions in the NFL, and two teams that earned the right to be there and survived stiff challenges from all sides. In the end, it's impossible to argue either team won by a fluke or got lucky. They're the best.
It's what we imagine for the Super Bowl every year, but it almost never actually happens. But after Sunday, we're this close to the dream being realized. Just two more weeks...