Defense Wins Championships
Athlon's Rob Doster offers his insight from Championship Sunday in the NFL.
By: Braden Gall | 1/24/11, 12:05 PM EST
Raji made the play of the game on Sunday.
The winning quarterbacks combined for four interceptions and no touchdown passes; the two winning offenses combined for zero second-half points; and both teams needed a defensive touchdown to provide the winning margin. Ladies and gentlemen, your conference champions.
It wasn’t exactly pretty, but the Packers and Steelers rode titanic defensive efforts into a date with one another in an All-American, apple pie Super Bowl (in the home stadium of America’s team, to boot). The Packers held off a rally led by third-string Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie to win 21–14 in Soldier Field, while the Steelers held serve at home in a tenser-than-expected 24–19 win over the Jets — the third time since the merger that both conference championship games were decided by seven points or fewer.
It didn’t exactly follow the pregame blueprint. Red-hot Packer Aaron Rodgers came out firing but quickly cooled (possibly due partially to a concussion), going 1-of-7 with a sack and an interception on third down. Steeler playoff stalwart Ben Roethlisberger joined Rodgers in throwing two interceptions, and posted a passer rating of 35.5.
Fortunately for both, their defenses came up huge at the right moments to bail them out.
The Steelers built a 24–0 first-half lead partly on the strength of William Gay’s 19-yard touchdown return of Mark Sanchez’s fumble off an Ike Taylor blitz. But the game’s key sequence came in the fourth quarter. With the Jets trailing 24–10, they marched to the Steelers 1-yard line, where they ran into a stone wall (or a Steel Curtain, if you prefer). On fourth down, the Steelers stuffed LaDainian Tomlinson, and even though the Jets promptly forced a safety, the hole was too deep. The Jets had to have a touchdown in that goal-line sequence, and the Steelers wouldn’t allow it.
The Packers similarly built a lead and held on for dear life, oddly enough against spunky third-stringer Caleb Hanie, who led the Bears to two second-half touchdowns and had the team on the Pack’s end of the field when an interception ended the final threat. But the decisive play came from nosetackle B.J. Raji, who took advantage of a rarely called defensive formation, dropping into coverage, stepping in front of a Hanie pass and taking it to the end zone for a 21–7 lead with 6:04 left.
A pick-six from a nosetackle. It was that kind of day. And it could be that kind of Super Bowl.
Cutler didn't play in the second half.
The Deepest Cut
It’s impossible to feel another man’s pain, to know exactly what he’s going through, but it’s awfully easy to observe what went on yesterday with Jay Cutler and feel emotions like disappointment, bewilderment, even disgust. Whether Cutler removed himself from the game or deferred to the decision of his coaches and/or doctors, it was clear that he had no desire to be out there during the most important game of his career. The response in the Twitterverse was swift and devastating from his peers in the league. A sample, from Darnell Dockett: “If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!”
Brian Urlacher defended his quarterback in strong terms after the game, but there’s widespread suspicion this morning that Urlacher may have been right last season, when he reportedly called his big-ticket quarterback a name I can’t repeat on a family website. Suffice it to say that the MRI report had better reveal a serious injury, or Cutler’s reputation in the City of Big Shoulders will be shot.
• The Packers became only the fourth team to reach a Super Bowl by winning three road games, joining the 1985 Patriots, 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants.
• One from the quarterbacks-get-too-much-credit department: Ben Roethlisberger has won his three worst statistical games in the postseason. He posted a 22.6 passer rating in the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks and a 57.8 rating in a divisional win over the Jets in 2004 to go with yesterday’s 35.5.
• Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley needed only six postseason games to reach 10 sacks, the quickest to 10 playoff sacks in history.
Most Popular Articles
Contests & Promotions
Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing!
Enter the Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing game. Just head over to athlon.myfantasyracing.com and register for your chance to win a chance to watch a 2014 race from the grandstands. You'll also have a chance to win other amazing prizes such as an autographed Kyle Busch helmet.