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NFL Conference Championships: Packers, Steelers hang on

The Packers and Steelers sprint to early leads, then hang on to beat the Bears and Jets. Dumb play calling; Cutler accused of quitting; why I don't like Ben Roethlisberger; an amazing streak continues; Brett Favre must be hating life; and hot player of the week.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

How I saw NFL Championship Sunday:

The early Super Bowl line has the Green Bay Packers a 2- to 3-point favorite over the Pittsburgh Steelers; how weird that a sixth seed reaches the Super Bowl, let alone being the favorite.

jordynelson
Hot player of the week: Jordy Nelson

I got both conference title games close to dead on: I said Packers by seven over the Bears and Steelers by seven over the Jets, and it was Packers by seven (21-14) and the Steelers by five (24-19). My early Super Bowl read: Packers 28, Steelers 24. I think the Green Bay passing game will be too much to handle, especially on a fast turf like Cowboys Stadium. I expect this to be the most-watched TV show in American history, surpassing last year's Super Bowl.

Topsy-turvy: The two title games were bizarre. Both first halves stunk and looked like Green Bay and Pittsburgh blowouts. The third quarters were semi-interesting as neither team could put the game away and both fourth quarters were thrilling. Who would have thought I would be watching someone named Caleb Hanie throw passes in a conference championship game?

Bear down: Jay Cutler is getting a ton of heat for leaving the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. I was one who watched him stand on the sidelines and thought he had quit (on the NFL Network, Deion Sanders said Cutler "tapped out"). It's unusual to see a guy allegedly in no shape to play standing nonchalantly on the sidelines.

Yet, on reflection, we simply don't know how badly he was injured, so snap judgments need to be resisted. The Bear organization rallied behind him, saying doctors told Cutler he could not return. However, Cutler has already been convicted in the court of public opinion and he will have to live down the sense that he quit on his team. The fact that he stunk before getting hurt won't help ease the perception.

Downshifting: Aaron Rodgers was marvelous staking the Packers to a 14-0 lead, then he seemed to lose it. His goal line interception to Brian Urlacher in the third quarter was dreadful and he was lucky he tackled the Bears linebacker and saved a touchdown. After that he played very tentatively, as if he was not sure were the defenders were on a given play. Rodgers is at his best making quick throws on slants that are almost impossible to cover. He was bailed out by his defense, which scored Green Bay's only points of the second half.

Bonehead: The Bears' offensive coordinator Mike Martz can always be counted on for at least one dumb play call a game (last week's Matt Forte halfback pass for an interception was vintage Martz). He reared his crazy head again on third-and-3 with the Bears driving late for the game-tying touchdown. Martz called an end run to Earl Bennett, a lanky wide receiver, who promptly lost a yard. The play was dead from the start and left the Bears to try a longer fourth down play with the inexperienced Hanie that turned out to be the game-ending interception.

Streak alive: Green Bay's win means there have been 10 different franchises to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl since 2001. The only ones who have not made it are Dallas, Washington, San Francisco, Minnesota, Atlanta and Detroit. Pretty amazing not to have one franchise repeat any time in 10 seasons and shows why it's much easier for an NFC team to make a Super Bowl run.

In the same 10-year stretch, the AFC has been represented by four teams: New England (four times), Pittsburgh (three times), Indianapolis (twice) and Oakland (once). Since Oakland won the AFC in 2002, it's been Patriots, Steelers or Colts every other time. In the NFC, the peasants can rise up, but royalty reigns in the AFC.

Run down: I thought the Jets in the first half looked like a team that left it all on the field the week before in beating the Patriots. They got down 24-0 before scoring the last 19 points.

The Jets came alive after halftime and could have tied it up if not for two key sequences: Kyle Wilson dropping an easy interception in Steelers' territory down 24-10 early in the third quarter. And not scoring despite an eight-minute drive to start the fourth quarter. The play calling near the goal line on that long drive was awful and too cute by half (two tough passes instead of runs from the 2-yard line?), and their lack of urgency allowed way too much time to run between plays. It reminded me of the Patriots doing the same thing a week earlier, with the same result.

Not a Big Ben fan: The Steelers, like the Packers in the early game, did not score an offensive point in the second half. It was typical Ben Roethlisberger - play like crap for large chunks (he threw two picks and should have had three), then bail your team out with some scramble-scramble-scramble run or throw for a first down. He excels at that, and won with a quarterback rating of 35.5 (he won his first Super Bowl with the lowest rating ever for a winning QB).

He's lucky he plays on a team that can run the ball and has a stifling defense. The Jets gave up 16 points to the Colts and 21 to the Patriots and won because their opponents' defenses weren't up to the task. The Steelers scored 17 on offense and won because of a defense that held the Jets to a field goal in the first half and scored a defensive TD, then made a great goal line stand in the fourth quarter.

If Peyton Manning or Tom Brady had that defense, they'd be in the Super Bowl this season. Then again, if Manning or Brady had a QB rating of 35.5, their teams would have lost by 30. Yet expect two weeks of hearing what a "gutty winner" Big Ben is, blah, blah, blah. Yes, he's a terrific quarterback, but it must be nice to not have to feel you have to score on virtually every possession and carry your team, just make a few plays each game; football is the ultimate team game and the Steelers show that year in and year out.

Pointless: The Steelers and Packers were 1-2 in fewest points allowed, and this is the first time, Don Banks of SI.com says, that the top two scoring defenses are in the Super Bowl since 1982.

Dying inside: Brett Favre must be hating life right now with his old team, the Packers, on the verge of a Super Bowl title in the third season with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Favre made the Super Bowl twice, but none at all in his last 10 years in Green Bay. And his last two passes in NFC Championship games (Green Bay 2007 and Minnesota 2009) were killer interceptions. He whined like a diva after he "retired" from the Packers in 2008, then weaseled his way back to the NFL while trying to portray Packers management as the bad guy. His legacy has been tarnished by his drama queen act and the bizarre sexting he did with a Jets female employee. He's fast become an afterthought in Green Bay, a place where he once was a deity.

Hot player of the week: It was so damn cold at both games that the players looked more frost-bitten than hot. But Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (photo above) looks good in any weather.