Conference Championship Sunday

A few thoughts on yesterday’s football games and a look ahead to Super Bowl XLV.  John Clayton in analyzing the game gave Roethlisberger an advantage because Super Bowl balls tend to have more paint on them, making them slicker, and Ben has been in the rodeo twice before.  I promise to not get quite that precise!

The major topic of the past 28 or so hours has been Jay Cutler’s premature departure from yesterday’s NFC Championship Game with a lot of current and former players taking to Twitter and other modern media to throw him under the bus for quitting on his team.  Personally I think 90% of that is rubbish.  I realize we live in an era of instant analysis, but this analysis was without many facts to go on.  And what are we learning 24 hours later?  We are learning that Cutler and the training staff decided he could test the knee the opening drive of the 2nd half and that it failed the test.  We are learning today that the injury was an MCL Grade II tear.  I’m not a professional quarterback but I can imagine that a lack of stability in the knee would make the mechanics of throwing more problematic.  Based on that, it was the coaching and medical staffs, not Cutler, that made the decision to send in a substitute.  A lot of people have invoked Phillip Rivers playing the AFC Championship Game with a bad knee.  That performance was the week after the injury, after a surgery was performed on it, and the injury did cause him to miss the final quarter of the game the previous week.  Cutler was hurt during this game and will presumably go under the knife in the next few days.  With no upcoming games of vital importance we won’t know how soon he could’ve come back.  So lets not rush to judge too much.

One thing I will say about Cutler yesterday that did bother me was his non-involvement in the game after he left the field.  Why didn’t he have a headset on listening to the offensive coaches?  Why wasn’t he helping his replacement, especially when the decision was made to go with the seldom-used 3rd stringer?  He needs to make himself an offensive assistant, help the new guy look over the Polaroids and think through what he was seeing out there.  But I honestly think he didn’t play because he couldn’t.

As for the actual game the Packers missed any number of opportunities to make this game a laugher, but the Bears were usually too timid or too incompetent to take advantage of it.  I really was not a fan of Lovie Smith’s tactical decisions.  Twice the Bears punted from inside the 35 yard line, once from the 31!  Except for some specific end of game situations you simply DO NOT punt from your opponent’s 31 yard line.  If you don’t like the field goal of that length in that weather, you go for the 1st down.  A punt gains a mere 11 yards.  For all of that, the Bears might’ve pulled it out if not for the interception that prevented points at the end of the 1st half, and Hanie not seeing Raji drop back into coverage in the early 4th quarter.  Bottom line the game was great defense.

The Jets are historically and currently a slow starting team; yesterday was the 10th straight Jets postseason game where their opponent scored first.  Conversely, the Steelers have done well all season on their opening drive of the game.  What was surprising was how effective Pittsburgh was at running the ball in the 1st half.  People I talk to will know how much it drives me crazy to hear fans and experts talk about the need to get back to “Steeler football” meaning ground and pound.  The offensive line isn’t very good but we have a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback; why waste time running the ball?  Yesterday it was no waste of time.  Mendenhall was inspired and Ben got some important plays with his feet also.  The Steelers had 4 first half possessions not counting a kneel down the last few seconds; 2 touchdowns, 1 field goal, and 1 turnover on downs from inside the Jets 40 gray area.  Not bad at all.  As it turns out, though, the decisive play was probably the strip sack scoop score late in the first half.

The 2nd half was all New York.  Took the opening kickoff down for a score and didn’t let the Steelers score the entire half.  Obviously the drive that stalled at the goal line in the middle of the 4th quarter gets a lot of scrutiny.  First of all I’ve heard some like famous Jets fan Mike Greenburg question the pace of that drive, the consumption of time.  I frankly don’t understand why.  If that drive hits the end zone the Jets are within 7 points with half the 4th quarter remaining.  Absolutely no reason to be panicky about the clock.  One can certainly question the play calling in the goal to go sequence.  Even there, the 2nd down pass was catchable and the 3rd down pass was knocked down by good defense.  The 4th down call was rather bland for that good of a run defense, but the other plays made sense.

What I loved about the Steelers at the end of the game is they listened to Herm Edwards and played to win the game.  I texted a friend during the media timeout before the drive that they needed to throw the ball.  On 2nd down a pass to Heath Miller for a 1st down which forced the Jets to use their 2nd timeout to stop the clock with about 2:40 remaining.  Run the ball to eat the last timeout, then run the ball down to the 2 minute warning left 3rd & 6.  If Tomlin and Arians run the ball into the middle of the line and punt the Jets to 80 yards or more to go with roughly 65 seconds left, no timeouts, no one would question that.  Even if the Jets get the winning touchdown no one questions how that drive was finished.  I thought before the play that the roll out pass was the perfect play.  By passing for it, to paraphrase John Madden (he said this about going for the touchdown in overtime of the “Ghost to the Post” playoff game in Baltimore) you give yourself two chances to win.  Either you convert the 1st down and kill the clock or you punt and win with defense.  Running the ball again and punting, like kicking the field goal on 3rd down in overtime, gives yourself just one chance to win.  By rolling out, Ben was in position, if no one was open, to try to run for the 1st down.  If that wasn’t open either he can eat the ball to keep the clock running and punt.  Yes an incomplete pass stops the clock, but you are still giving your defense 80+ yards to play with, just with 1:45, and not 1:05, of game left.  As we know the pass worked the pride of Central Michigan made the big late game catch two weeks in a row, and the Steelers iced the game.

So now the Steelers will try to ascend the Stairway to 7 (not my bad pun) in Dallas against the Green Bay Packers.  Coach McCarthy is a Pittsburgh guy.  Ben’s March will be revisited ad nauseum.  Will Pouncey be able to play (he says yes, the book on high ankle sprains says no)?  To me this game comes down to Aaron Rodgers against the Steelers defense.  My working assumption is the Steelers will score some points on offense, but they won’t score at will; they’ll end up with something in the 20-24 range.  The Steelers defense is vulnerable to great passing quarterbacks.  The potential is there for Rodgers to do what he did against the Falcons, in which case the Steelers are probably screwed.  But if Lebeau’s men can craft a way to contain Rodgers then they have a good chance of winning.  With Christina Aguilera (national anthem) and The Black Eyed Peas (halftime) being the music, and the commercials having been a downward slide of late, we’ll be counting on the actual football to entertain.  Well, I always primarily look forward to the actual football, but that is just me.  Also, I’m sure Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will say something so damned corporate it drives me nuts, but at least we won’t have James Brown talking to the e-Trade baby like we did Sunday.

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