|Charles Krupa / Associated Press|
|The mood in Pittsburgh was joyous after the Steelers held off the Jets for their eighth trip to the Super Bowl.|
On the day where Myron Cope, the legendary broadcaster and creator of the Terrible Towel, would have turned 82, the stadium looked one like a giant jersey with all the black and gold.
Still, when it comes to producing on the field, you have to wonder why most new owners do not spend time with the Rooney family studying their football business model, because clearly it works in every era.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert does a great job of finding talent that fits the Steelers' scheme and philosophy. The emphasis is on the draft and not spending big money in free agency. The same can be said for the Steelers' Super Bowl counterpart. Packers GM Ted Thompson also does an incredible job of drafting -- each starter on offense was acquired in that fashion -- players that can start as well as find players on the street that eventually become stars like Cullen Jenkins and Tramon Williams.
Both teams have excellent evaluators and work hard each day to procure talent. With very little fanfare or seeking the spotlight, both Colbert and Thompson are the league's best, which allows their teams to overcome numerous injuries to reach the Super Bowl because of depth.
The Packers and Steelers had to overcome a series of season-ending injuries that might have killed their chances to succeed had they not been so deep and tough minded. Rick Gosselin, the great football writer for the Dallas Morning News, keeps track of injuries for each team and how many games a starting player misses. For example, Willie Colon, the starting right tackle for the Steelers, missed all sixteen games so that total goes into the Steelers' count. At the conclusion of the season, Gosselin, with the help of each club to ensure his numbers are completely accurate, tallies the total number of games missed by starters. The Packers finished with 91 games to lead the league, followed by the Colts (72) and Steelers (51). Those are amazing numbers to overcome and still reach the Super Bowl. The accomplishment speaks to each coaching staff and player personnel department.
Bears lack backup plan
There has been a lot of talk about whether or not Cutler should have tried to play on, but the telling tale was that every member of the Bears came to his defense. When a player gets injured, especially a tough-minded player, he deserves the right to be evaluated before anyone rushes to judgment. Cutler can take hits -- in fact I thought he suffered a concussion earlier in the game after visibly being shaken up. From talking to the members of the organization, Cutler does not lack toughness or shy away from competition. How could he ever have been so successful at Vanderbilt if he was afraid of competition? It is unfair what is being done to Cutler by people who really do not know the real extent of his knee injury.
That being said, Todd Collins was a disaster as the backup earlier in the season (four picks against Carolina), which the Bears chose to ignore, and nothing changed Sunday. Why the Bears thought this would get better is beyond comprehension, but clearly Collins showed in the regular season he did not belong on an NFL roster.
Still, the Bears showed mental toughness to keep fighting and actually had a chance to tie the game late with third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie. He probably did not get one repetition in practice all week, but played as well as could be expected under the circumstances. There is a natural instinct for any team to slightly relax after they knocking out the opposing quarterback and allow the backup -- if he has any talent -- to have some modest success. Hanie was accurate and seemed to have an understanding of the concepts in the passing game. He gave the Bears a chance, something Collins was unable to do.
No matter who was under center, the Bears' offensive line was going to be a problem against the Packers. Once the Bears could not control field position, having to play on a long field, their inability to control the line of scrimmage, particularly on third down (they converted just one attempt all day), kept the offense from getting into a rhythm.
From my experience working with teams, the problems that are presented during the season always seem to resurface at the most inopportune time. The Bears improved on the offensive line, but under intense pressure, they were not able to execute on third down.
Pack must find killer instinct
The Packers can play dominant football and I have wondered how they lost six games. Sunday was an example of how. They seem to have lulls in the game and allow their opponent to hang around. For as talented and competitive as the Packers are as a team, they don't seem to have the killer instinct to put good teams away. It almost cost them against Philadelphia and then again in Chicago. They better learn how to finish before taking on the Steelers.
Part of the reason the Packers failed to pull away was their struggles on third down. They converted just two of 11 attempts, but were able to pick up big chunks of yards passing. Green Bay had the ball for 63 offensive plays. Coming in, I thought the Packers would need to be over 60 to win.
Bears need to expand horizons
The Packers looked flawless on offense at times, running the ball well against the seven-man front, then winning the one-on-one battles on the outside with their talented receivers. The Bears, for all their pride in the Cover 2 system, still need to diversify the defensive scheme and expand packages to allow players to play their best against any team.
The key to winning in the postseason is being able to play strong outside your area of strength. Even though the Bears' defense only allowed 14 points, they gave up too many big plays. When they need to play some man-to-man coverage, their talent level on the corners did not allow them to win. Next year, the Bears will face a more challenging schedule and more talented passing games. They need to branch away from their scheme and get more man-to-man coverage players.
Big Ben saves the day ... again
It was a tale of two halves. The Steelers dominated the first 30 minutes with an old-school running game. When watching the replays, the Steelers' offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. The Jets, who have lacked a big-time front seven player all season (where was Jason Taylor, Bart Scott or Calvin Pace?), were late off blocks. Running back Rashard Mendenhall was great. His running style is a low-body lean with great power. At times, I thought Barry Foster was back on the field for the Steelers.
However, in the second half, Mark Sanchez became a legitimate big-time player. He was tough, determined and not overwhelmed by the situation. He led his team back and had Mike Tomlin not decided, as he told me, to "put the game in big No. 7s hands," the Jets might have rallied to win. Not one Steelers defender I talked to wanted to go back on the field and face the Jets' offense. Tomlin was smart and knew he needed to end the game at that moment.
Ben Roethlisberger was once again the difference. By allowing him to move around in the pocket and escape the pressure, Big Ben killed the Jets, especially on third. His ability to make a play out of nothing is tremendous. As Phil Simms said to me after the game, Roethlisberger's stats lie. He clearly was the difference in the game.
The Jets beat Peyton Manning at his place, Tom Brady at his place but were unable to secure the triple by beating Roethlisberger. The Jets must get a home game and a bye next year, because with all the great quarterbacks in the AFC it's darn near impossible to win three in a row.
Highlight of the weekend
Both games were great, but I think the finest moment was watching Steelers owner Dan Rooney walk around the locker room shaking hands with every player and staff member. Not rushing through the moment, but savoring going back to another Super Bowl. Mr. Rooney is part of the fabric of this great league, and watching him express his sincere gratitude to every player reminded me why I love football so much. It was a moment I will never forget.
With two legendary franchises, rich in tradition, with fans that travel and adore their team, we should have a great Super Bowl. It will be fun breaking this down for the next two weeks.
Conference championship stars
Ben Roethlisberger: His statistics might not be impressive, but his play was just amazing. With the exception of one throw, Roethlisberger played the game that gave his team the best chance to win. His mobility in the pocket was the difference. As often is the case, teams playing the Steelers allow Roethlisberger to move around, which then creates plays in their offense. On the final two throws of the game, Roethlisberger was looking to move before the play even started. The first pass was a pre-determined bootleg, which allowed him to move to his right. But the second one was vintage Roethlisberger. Once taking the snap, he immediately looked for an escape route to his right and made a great throw on the move. His passer rating was 35.5, but the numbers do not tell the whole story.
Sam Shields: One of the fastest players on the Packers, Shields showed his wide receiver-like hands to make two critical interceptions. The first one after the Packers turned the ball over near the end of the half and the other on a critical fourth down which clinched the win. Shields had a sensational season for the Packers as their nickel back. His hands are like a wideout and his balance, toughness and competitiveness are that of a defensive back. His play has made the secondary even better and has every other team in the league asking how they missed out on his talent.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.