Keeping Score

Meet Your NFL Final Four: Boiling Emotions, Bitter Rivals, and the Next Joe Montana?

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Well, that couldn’t have worked out any better for the NFL.

After a compelling divisional round of the NFL playoffs that featured a few upsets, a transcendent performance and one of the more intense post-season games in recent memory, four teams remain: the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets in the AFC, plus the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC.

In other words, the NFL’s final four includes teams from the league’s two largest markets, New York and Chicago, plus two flagship franchises, the Steelers and Packers, who enjoy a national following.

(More at NewsFeed: The Top 10 Super Bowl Moments)

Heading into championship week, Green Bay is the chic pick for the Super Bowl, simply because the team’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is playing like Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas combined. On Saturday night, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes, for 366 yards and three touchdowns, during Green Bay’s 48-21 rout of the Atlanta Falcons, who were the top seed in the NFC.

Throughout the evening, Rodgers shuffled and spun out of Atlanta’s pass rush, and hit receivers while on the move. The confidence of Rodgers, 27, is unnatural.

It’s one thing for Rodgers to tear apart a soft Atlanta defense within the comfort of the Georgia Dome, and quite another to repeat his act in Chicago, with the Lake Michigan wind biting his face. The Bears gets to host the NFC Championship game because they took care of the Seattle Seahawks, that pesky playoff team with the losing 7-9 record, 35-24 (if anything dampened the weekend, it was the concussions suffered by Seattle players John Carlson and Marcus Trufant, both of whom were carried off the field on stretchers). Incredibly, the last, and only, time Chicago and Green Bay, division rivals who have been playing each other since 1921, met in the playoffs was Dec. 14, 1941, a week after Pearl Harbor. The Bears won that game, at Wrigley Field, 33-14.

(More at NewsFeed: A Photo History of Every Great Super Bowl Stadium)

In the AFC, the Jets backed up their bravado by beating the top-seeded New England Patriots, 28-21. Perhaps Tom Brady should have skipped that Broadway show two Saturdays ago and started studying the Jets, whose defensive schemes left him confused and visibly frustrated. Brady spent more time yelling at himself Sunday than he had the previous ten years. New York’s bluster, however, is starting wear a bit thin: the players looked like third graders spreading their arms out and “flying” around the field while celebrating the win. Look at us, we’re Jets, with wings! Not so clever.

The Steelers will try to silence the Jets and their motormouth coach, Rex Ryan. Somehow, Pittsburgh avoided an all-out brawl with the Baltimore Ravens, whom the Steelers defeated 31-24 on Saturday; after every play, guys had to stop themselves from going after one another. New York’s aggressive defensive style is similar to that of Baltimore, where Ryan was once the coordinator. Emotions will be boiling in Pittsburgh.

During the 2010 season, the NFL set a host of ratings records, and now the league will showcase a dream championship weekend.  At this point, the only thing that could stop the league’s momentum is some kind of messy labor dispute that would alienate the sport’s crazed fans. But the teams are making so much money, and the players are getting their fair share in a country where nearly 10% of their fans are unemployed, that a work stoppage would never happen. Right?


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