Packers, Steelers advance to title games
The Green Bay Packers took care of the top seed in the NFC, and the Pittsburgh Steelers sent home their archrivals from the AFC North in entirely different manners Saturday.
Sixth-seeded Green Bay routed the Falcons 48-21 in Atlanta as Aaron Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and ran for one. The Packers, who won at Philadelphia last weekend, will play for the NFC title next Sunday at either Chicago or Seattle. The Packers lost in the conference championship game three years ago to the Giants.
"That's what you dream about," Rodgers said. "We have to go on the road again ... this just feels so good right now, to be able to put up an offensive performance like that, it's just incredible."
The 48 points were the most for the Packers in a postseason game. Plus, Tramon Williams had two interceptions, returning the second 70 yards on the final play of the first half, and Green Bay never punted. Other than a 102-yard kickoff return by Eric Weems in the first half, the Packers (12-6) shut down Atlanta (13-4) when the outcome was in doubt.
For the fifth time in 10 years, the Steelers are headed to the AFC championship game. They have a second-half meltdown by the Baltimore Ravens, and some clutch passes by Ben Roethlisberger, to thank for a 31-24 victory in a sloppy but compelling playoff matchup.
Trailing 21-7 at halftime, the Steelers (13-4) began playing takeaway, and the Ravens were very compliant. Pittsburgh recovered two fumbles and picked off a pass in the second half, and the Ravens had several drops, including one in the end zone by Anquan Boldin that would have given Baltimore a late lead.
Instead, Billy Cundiff's 24-yard field goal tied it, then Roethlisberger hit rookie Antonio Brown for 58 yards on third-and-19, leading to Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard run for the winning points with 1:33 remaining.
"I saw the young fella just take off, so I'm just going to throw it up for you," Roethlisberger said.
Pittsburgh has been in the AFC title game in 2001, '04, '05 and '08, and won the Super Bowl the last two times it got this far.
On Sunday, NFC West winner Seattle is at NFC North champion Chicago, then AFC East rivals New England, the league leader with a 14-2 record, and the sixth-seeded New York Jets meet in Foxborough, Mass.
Both the Jets and Patriots beat the Steelers this season at Heinz Field.
Packers 48, Falcons 21
After Weems' kickoff runback made it 14-7, the Packers scored 35 straight points. Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and led four drives that covered at least 80 yards.
"It was one of those nights, guys made some big plays, I felt like I was in the zone, felt I escaped a few times," Rodgers said.
Defensively, the Packers had four sacks and held Atlanta to 41 yards rushing. Green Bay avenged a midseason loss at the Georgia Dome, too.
Steelers 31, Ravens 24
Baltimore grabbed its first-half lead on Ray Rice's 14-yard run; Cory Redding's 13-yard fumble return on a bizarre play in which nearly every other player stood around with the ball on the ground; and Joe Flacco's 4-yard pass to Todd Heap.
Then it all went sour, and the Ravens gained just 28 yards in the second half; they lost 4 yards in the third period
"We knew we had to play great; we knew if we didn't play great we were going to lose this game," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Ryan Clark forced Rice's first fumble of the season on a reception, and LaMarr Woodley recovered at the Baltimore 23. Heath Miller's 9-yard TD reception capped that short drive.
When Flacco overthrew Heap, Clark returned the interception 17 yards to the Ravens 25. Three plays later, Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward for an 8-yard touchdown to tie it.
"Hines has been doing this for like 30 years," Roethlisberger said.
Baltimore (13-5) won in the regular season at Pittsburgh, but Roethlisberger was serving the final game of his four-game suspension. The Ravens won at Kansas City in the wild-card round after the Steelers won the AFC North on a tiebreaker.
"We had a good year this year, but it's just disappointing when you feel you have a team that could have moved on," Flacco said.
Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5)
After shockingly disposing of defending Super Bowl champ New Orleans, and becoming the first team with a losing record to win a postseason game, the Seahawks journey to one of the rare road spots they were successful in 2010. They won 23-20 at Soldier Field on Oct. 17, sacking Jay Cutler six times and not allowing the Bears to convert a third down in 12 attempts.
Since that game, Chicago has won seven of 10 and Seattle has dropped six of 10.
The Bears have prospered greatly because of their defense, which ranks second against the run and forces opponents into uncomfortable passing situations.
"We've done some good things," defensive end Israel Idonije said. "The best part about it is we still have left some plays on the field. There's still room for us to really take a big step in these playoffs and show another level of play."
The Seahawks have reached that level the last two weeks, beating St. Louis in a showdown for the NFC West, then outscoring New Orleans 41-36 in one of the NFL's biggest playoff upsets.
"The fact that the expectations have been very low for us in these games, I can understand that based on our early performance during the season," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Otgaher than that, we realize there aren't many people that give us a chance to win these games. But that's not the battle cry. The battle cry is to get prepared to play really good football and see if we can throw a game out there that gives us a chance to beat a great opponent."
New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2)
If we can put aside all the trash talk and feuding between these AFC East opponents, this matchup might come down to if the Jets can manufacture a pass rush on Tom Brady. If not, he could tear them apart the way he did in a 45-3 rout on Dec. 6.
Brady has had nearly as good a season as when the Patriots went 16-0 during the 2007 season and he was league MVP. He led the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes (36) and fewest interceptions (4). His NFL-record streak of passes without an interception is at 335 and counting.
"It's going to be a very different game in many respects," Brady said. "Certainly the stakes are much higher than they were the last time. How well we are able to play under pressure — each can execute, certainly, at a very high level against great competition and that's going to be part of the reason why there is going to be millions of people tuned in for the game on Sunday."
That and all the verbal animosity should grow the audience.
"People can say and do what they want," Jets linebacker Jason Taylor said. "I don't think it has much bearing as to what happens on the field."
We'll see on Sunday.