Four remaining teams have top-10 defenses
Two storied franchises and the NFL's best rivalry. A loud-mouth coach who makes for great theater backed by a team equally unafraid to express an opinion. And the NFL's best team over the past 10 years -- and the owner of the most Super Bowl trophies.
Yes, there's a little bit of everything in the semifinal round of the NFL playoffs.
There's also a lot of one thing: defense.
And just in case anyone has forgotten the oldest clich? of defense winning titles, they'll be reminded, oh, a thousand times over the next couple weeks. Whatever teams emerge from the NFC and AFC Championship games will be led by their defense.
Just look at this: Pittsburgh (second), the New York Jets (third), Green Bay (fifth) and Chicago (ninth) all have top-10 defenses. More importantly, all have top-six defenses when it comes to points allowed per game. The Bears have the NFL's 30th-ranked offense, yet are hosting the NFC Championship game. Why? A top-10 defense that's also fourth in points allowed. Jets coach Rex Ryan yaps often, but in two years he's backed it up with 24 wins to only 13 losses. Why? Defense.
But don't equate defense with boring. Not with these teams. Not when three of them have quarterbacks capable of huge plays at any point, and not when the fourth quarterback, the Jets' Mark Sanchez, has proven his mettle with four road playoff wins in two seasons.
Here's why: In the fourth quarter of postseason wins at Indianapolis and New England this season, Sanchez has completed a combined eight of 10 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. Perhaps he struggles early in the game, but a strong running attack and an elite defense buys him time. Then he comes through.
"He's played his best football in the most critical situations," New York running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That's what you want from your quarterback."
But what if Pittsburgh -- on a quest for a seventh Super Bowl victory -- stops New York's rushing attack, as it did in a December loss? Can Sanchez carry the offense until either the defense or run game takes over? But, perhaps, a bigger question surrounds the Steelers. Their offensive line is hurting; can they handle the overload blitzes the Jets love? The key for Pittsburgh is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's ability to avoid the rush and make big plays on the move -- something he could not do enough of in a 22-17 loss to New York in December.
But it's hard to beat the Chicago-Green Bay matchup in the NFC final. They've played 181 times since 1921 but have not met in the postseason since 1941. Imagine the Redskins facing the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl -- times 10.
Both have big-armed quarterbacks playing well. But the Packers' Aaron Rodgers might be playing better than anyone, with a 134.5 passer rating in two postseason playoff wins. But in his last 11 games, Chicago's Jay Cutler has thrown 20 touchdown passes to nine interceptions. Chicago is 8-3 in that stretch.
Yes, there's glamour in both of these games. Heck, each team has one primary wideout averaging at least 16.6 yards per catch.
But in the end, all four of these teams will lean heavily on their true identity: defense.