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The NFL’s Final Four: A Look At The Championship Teams

“Can’t wait!!”

And with those timeless words by Jets LB Bart Scott at the end of his post-game interview with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, the anticipation for NFL’s Conference Championship Sunday had begun. With an unpredictable final four in place, there are storylines abound for next weekend’s penultimate games. Here’s a rundown of each team, and how they got here:

With a talented signal-caller in QB Jay Cutler, the Bears hope to get to the Super Bowl for the third time in franchise history.

Chicago Bears: Despite relatively flying under the radar for most of the 2010 season, the Bears have shown they can play with the best in the league. With their already-vaunted defense in place, it was their offense that faced many questions. Under QB Jay Cutler, acquired from Denver in 2009, the Bears offense sputtered during the ’09 season – his worst game coming in a five-INT showing against a progressing San Francisco 49ers team. In response, the Bears brought in offensive guru Mike Martz in the offseason.

The result wasn’t necessarily seen in the statistics – they finished 20th or worse in all major statistical offensive categories in 2010 – they no longer had to look at their offense as a liability. Cutler, meanwhile, was coming into his own, throwing 3,274 passing yards, 23 TDs and 16 INTs. Martz, known for his reliance on the passing game, relented to the Bears’ strong ground attack midseason, helping Chicago rattle off a 7-2 record in their last nine games. Not to mention all-world WR/KR/PR Devin Hester and his contributions – while catching 39 balls for 456 yards and 4 TDs as a receiver, he again made his mark in the return game. Combined, he had 43 kick and punt returns for 956 yards and 3 TDs, with most regular season kickoffs and punts geared away from Hester.

Chicago’s famed defensive front, led by future Hall of Fame LB Brian Urlacher, also showed they hadn’t lost a step. They ranked 4th in points allowed per game (17.9), 9th in total yards allowed per game (314.3) and 2nd in rushing yards allowed per game (90.1). Their overall success propelled them to an 11-5 record, an NFC North title – their first since 2006 – and a first-round bye. Despite continued criticisms of Cutler, he proceeded to cut down the heavy underdog Seattle Seahawks in last week’s Divisional playoff in Chicago. Cutler finished with 274 passing yards, 2 TDs through the air, and one on the ground, in a 38-24 romp. Now they go into the NFC Championship with their first realistic shot at the Lombardi Trophy since Super Bowl XLI.

With Pro Bowl QB Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers are, for the first time in the post-Brett Favre era, one game away from the Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers: Deemed the hottest team in the NFL right now, the Green Bay Packers have been on a torrid playoff run, ironically, thanks to the team they will play for the NFC title.

The Packers were considered a favorite to win the NFC North going into the 2010 season. However, in order to do that, they would need to do a better job protecting third-year starter Aaron Rodgers. Heir to Green Bay legend Brett Favre, Rodgers came into his own in 2009, considered one of the most talented QBs in the league, despite his numerous sacks. The Packers addressed this problem by drafting Iowa T Bryan Bulaga. While this didn’t seem to help toward the end of the season – he was concussed in Week 14 against the Lions, and held out of the next week’s start – Green Bay’s pass-heavy offense didn’t seem to miss a beat: Rodgers finished with 3,922 passing yards, 28 passing TDs and 11 INTs. Led by Rodgers, and WRs Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones, Green Bay’s offensive attack ultimately ranked 10th overall in points per game (24.2), 9th in total yards per game (358.1) and 5th in passing yards per game (257.8).

While the Packers offense received the most attention, their understated defense helped win games. Ranked second in points allowed per game (15.0) and fifth in total yards allowed (309.1) and passing yards allowed (194.2) per game, Green Bay’s defense was led by all-pro DB Charles Woodson and LB A.J. Hawk, who led the team in tackles (111). Second-year LB Clay Matthews, meanwhile, led the team in sacks (13.5), combining with fellow second-year NT B.J. Raji for 20 sacks.

Green Bay snuck into the playoffs as the sixth seed, thanks to a late-season victory over the Bears, and proceeded to defeat MVP favorite Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, 23-16. Rodgers outdueled Vick, throwing for 3 TDs, and, despite their understated rushing offense, RB James Starks stole the day, rushing for 123 yards on 23 carries. They then went to the Georgia Dome to take on QB Matt Ryan and the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. While the Falcons were armed with the league’s fifth-ranked scoring offense (25.9 points per game), and the fifth-ranked scoring defense (18.0 points allowed per game), they couldn’t corral Rodgers, who accounted for four total TDs in a 48-21 beatdown in Atlanta. Now they play the Chicago Bears, in the NFL’s oldest and most storied rivalry, for the NFC championship, and a berth in the Super Bowl.

With a defense led by S Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a favorite to reach the Super Bowl from the AFC.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Forever seen as the consummate franchise in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have proven that their staunch defense, and steady offense, will always contend for a Super Bowl title. With a Super Bowl already under his belt (XLIII), head coach Mike Tomlin finds himself at the cusp of greatness, two games from holding up multiple Lombardi Trophies.

The Steelers, while staunch in their defensive prowess and steady in relative success, had been somewhat overlooked in 2010. It was no wonder, considering they missed the playoffs in 2009, and QB Ben Roethlisberger was in the midst of a sexual assault case, stemming from March 2010 in Milledgeville, Georgia; consequently, he was suspended per the NFL’s player conduct policy for the first four games of the season. Despite cycling between backup QBs Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch for the duration of Big Ben’s suspension, the Steelers continued to run like a well-oiled machine. They went 3-1 in their first four games, and Roethlisberger picked up where they left off.

Ultimately, it was Pittsburgh’s gifted defense that held them atop the AFC North. They lived up to their reputation as one of the most feared defensive units in the league, ranking first in points (14.5) and rush yards (62.8) per game, while ranking second in total yards per game (276.8). Led by defensive monsters James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, combining for 20.5 sacks, and accented by all-world SS Troy Polamalu, the Steelers worked their way to a 12-4 record, and the AFC North title. They subsequently earned a bye week, and their third meeting with division rival Baltimore in the playoffs. While the Ravens jumped out to a commanding 21-7 lead by halftime, the Steelers recovered and tied the game by the end of the third quarter. Still tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh used a huge pass play from Roethlisberger to underused WR Antonio Brown to cap off a touchdown with less than a minute to go, winning out 31-24. They now face a New York Jets team that beat them on Heinz Field a little more than a month ago. With Roethlisberger at the helm and a stout defense, the Steelers are primed for a record seventh Super Bowl title.

Taking from their head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets’ bravado has led them to the AFC Title game for the second staight year.

New York Jets: Known more for their off-the-field antics, their head coach, and overall bravado, the New York Jets find themselves in the same place they were the year before: in the AFC Championship game. While the media has focused more on head coach Rex Ryan’s foot fetish, the Jets have kept moving forward with almost reckless abandon. Their collective belligerent and combative attitude has fueled the Jets in their quest for their first Super Bowl since 1969. While their “F.U.” mentality has rubbed some the wrong way, it should be noted that they are far from “all talk”.

After all, their play on the field has spoken for itself – after an opening day loss to the Baltimore Ravens, 10-9, they made an impression on the New England Patriots in Week 2, picking off QB Tom Brady twice. 2nd-year QB Mark Sanchez outplayed Brady, throwing for 220 yards and 3 TDs. They rode the win into a 5-game winning streak, only to sputter on offense against the Green Bay Packers, 0-9. Inexplicably, the Jets accrued four of their five losses due to a lack of offense – scoring 9, 0, 3 and 6 points, respectively – the only exception coming against Chicago at Soldier Field, losing 34-38.

New York posed the type of “pick your poison” offense, from the air and on the ground, that most teams would dream of. Despite his advanced age, newly-acquired RB LaDainian Tomlinson served as a perfectly capable main back alongside Shonn Greene, accounting for 1,282 total yards and 6 TDs. Combined, LT and Greene had the 4th-ranked rushing offense in the league, at 148.4 yards per game. The Jets also boasted a receiving core anchored by former Steeler, and offseason acquisition, WR Santonio Holmes, as well as WR Braylon Edwards and TE Dustin Keller.

Meanwhile, New York boasted one of the best defensive units in the league, ranking sixth in points (19.0) and passing yards per game (200.6), while ranking third in total yards (291.5) and rushing yards (90.9) per game. While their defensive line’s sack statistics were few and far between, they shut down offenses with, arguably, the strongest secondary in the league. Led by franchise CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, the Jets were better able to focus on shutting down opposing running games. LB Bart Scott, meanwhile, served as both a defensive presence in the linebacker core, and the team’s vocal ambassador.

Much like the Steelers, the combination of a strong defense and a solid offense had led them to Indianapolis for the playoffs, to, in the words of Rex Ryan, “slay the dragon” that was Peyton Manning and the Colts, who ousted them from the playoffs the year before. Despite their history against Indianapolis, a Nick Folk FG gave them a last second victory at the RCA Dome, 17-16. This ultimately set up an epic matchup with their hated rivals, the 14-2 New England Patriots. As the best team in the AFC in the regular season, it was highly unlikely the Patriots would lose to the upstart Jets at Gillette Stadium. That was based on the fact that, in their last meeting at Gillette, New England demolished the Jets on both sides of the ball and humiliating them, 45-3. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they didn’t expect the Jets defense to step up to the challenge of getting after their nigh-untouchable QB for four quarters. The Jets dominated on both sides of the ball, and, despite giving up 299 yards to Brady, it was Sanchez who won the day, with three TD passes. A 16-yard TD run by Shonn Greene and an onside recovery by Antonio Cromartie ended up being the game-sealing plays, as the Jets advanced in a monumental upset, 28-21.

And so, it remains – with all of the storylines between the four teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy, who will be left standing after Championship Sunday? Unlike Bart Scott, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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