In an era of dizzying X-and-O game plans, climate-controlled stadiums and pyrotechnic halftime shows, what could be better than this?
Packers vs. Steelers. Two franchises that conjure images of bruised bodies and blue toes. Two franchises that are like running, banging, grunting history books, one born in 1919, the other in 1933.
One franchise is owned by the Rooney family, the other by 111,968 stockholders. Together, they’ve combined for 18 league championships, 44 Hall of Famers and two fan bases that unofficially hold all records for beer consumption.
Cue the grainy film and the voice of John Facenda. Green Bay and Pittsburgh will play in the Super Bowl in two weeks. The only unfortunate thing is it will take place in Dallas at Jerry Jones’ $1.3 billion Football Stadium and Go-Go Club, which has a retractable roof and a thermostat and a blur of martini bars.
Some frozen field in North Dakota, wood bleachers and a line of kegs would be more appropriate.
The Packers defeated the Chicago Bears 21-14 for the NFC championship. The Steelers, after a late-game mini-meltdown, held on to beat the New York Jets 24-19 for the AFC title. Although these are two of the most successful franchises in NFL history, it will be the first time they’ll meet for the league championship.
You may not think of this Green Bay team as a “Green Bay” team. The Packers are led by a strong-armed quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who went to Cal-Berkeley.
But they were led Sunday by their defense. Green Bay’s two biggest plays of the day: Rodgers’ tackle of Chicago’s Brian Urlacher at midfield following a third-quarter interception, which probably saved a touchdown; a fourth-quarter interception by the nose tackle B.J. Raji, whose 337-pounds of thundering blubber shook the earth with a fourth-quarter interception and 18-yard return for a touchdown that made it 21-7.
One year after the first Super Bowl between two dome stadium teams — New Orleans vs. Indianapolis – this year’s finale will be played between two outdoor teams that have dealt with the elements. Outdoor teams from cold-weather cities generally have overcome more adversity than indoor teams.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants an outdoor stadium. Who knows – maybe rain and chill would toughen his team up for future Januarys. Couldn’t hurt. Imagine if the Falcons last week were even as tough as Chicago was Sunday.
The Bears trailed Green Bay 14-0 early in the second quarter and looked on the verge of being blown out. But their defense held the Packers’ offense scoreless the rest of the game – six punts, two interceptions – and mounted an improbable rally behind Caleb Hanie, an undrafted, third-string quarterback out of Colorado State. Hanie came into the game after Jay Cutler injured his knee and backup Todd Collins flopped. He wasn’t always accurate but he showed what we already knew – the NFL postseason is less about finesse than it is survival. He led two Chicago touchdown drives but threw a pick-six to Raji, which turned out to be the difference.
If Falcons’ fans are looking for a small measure of solace, there’s this: The last three times they have been in the playoffs, they’ve lost to teams that reached the Super Bowl: Green Bay last week, Arizona in the conference semifinals in 2008 and Philadelphia in the NFC title game in 2004.
Rodgers’ dominance at the outset looked similar to last week’s 48-21 game in the Georgia Dome. On Green Bay’s opening drive, he completed all four of his passes for 76 yards and finished it off with a one-yard touchdown run. But he went only 13 for 26 for 168 yards with two interceptions the rest of the game. The Packers intercepted Hanie and Cutler three times and held Chicago to one third-down conversion. They won with defense.
Offense got the Packers to the playoffs. But defense got them to the Super Bowl. Defense always has been the engine that drives the Steelers.
It should be perfect old-school theater.
By Jeff Schultz