For the first time in my 30-plus years on the NFL beat, I find myself looking around corners for Don King to show up. Is there another promoter in sports history who could create the hype that is sure to surround this year's AFC and NFC title games?
Actually there is one. I guess we can just let Rex Ryan handle the Jets and Steelers all by himself. Not even King could have put on the show Rex and his boys did leading up to the New England game, and it's a reasonably safe bet he's got more in store for Pittsburgh. After all, you know what they say. As disturbed as I was personally by all the jaw-jacking that went on leading up to the Jets' divisional playoff win over the Patriots, it ain't bragging when you back it up.
You have to wonder what the "Men of Steel" are thinking right now as they look back to Week 15 to their 22-17 loss to the Jets in what was Ryan's Boys' second-best game of the season. Following the 45-3 beatdown the Jets just revenged in Foxborough, they laid an egg at home vs. the Dolphins, pulled their huge upset of the Steelers and then went and messed the bed in Chicago. Had Pittsburgh taken care of its business against the Jets last time, Ryan's team might have fallen completely apart.
For Pittsburgh's part, I give it a ton of credit for overcoming its 21-7 deficit against the Ravens at home on Saturday, but I can't escape the feeling it was as much about what Baltimore did wrong as what Pittsburgh did right. Throw out the regular-season stats, and I think what you'll find is the Jets are playing better defense right now than Baltimore, and the Ravens had Pittsburgh's number until they went in the tank.
That said, the Steelers have "Big Ben" and that Super Bowl pedigree, and the Jets have neither. It shapes up as a great rematch, and the only question is: Can it possibly match the intensity the NFC title game is sure to generate?
The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers make up the oldest rivalry in the history of the National Football League. Dating back to 1921, these two clubs have met 180 times in the regular season, with the Bears winning 91, the Packers 83, and six games ending in ties. According to the "NFL Record & Fact Book," the Bears have scored 3,060 points in those 180 games and the Packers 2,948. They are separated by slightly more than six-tenths of a point per game. And there is so much more.
Green Bay has won more NFL championships than any other team in history with 12. The Bears are second with nine. Chicago has more Hall of Famers, 29, than any other team in history. The Packers are third with 26.
In light of all that history, it's a bit surprising this will only be the second time these two have met in the playoffs, the only other meeting a 33-14 Chicago win in 1941 to break a division tie and advance to the NFL title game, which was the equivalent of the Super Bowl in those days. The Bears went on to win the title over the Giants 37-9, defending the crown they'd won the year before in their legendary 73-0 shellacking of Washington.
George Halas and Vince Lombardi are arguably the two most legendary names in NFL history, it's about a 3½-hour drive from Lambeau Field to Soldier Field, and there are more Packers fans in Chicago than everywhere else in the world combined — and there just may be more Bears fans in Wisconsin than there are Jaguars fans in Florida.
That the clubs have already split two meetings this year and that Lovie Smith went all out in the final week of the season with absolutely nothing to gain in a failed attempt to knock the Packers out of the playoffs should tell us just about everything we need to know about this one. Adding to the intrigue is that the Chicago weather folks were predicting a chance of nearly zero-degree temperatures and wind chills that could make it one of the colder games ever played.
There are a couple of epic battles on the horizon, and while none of us knows what happens after this season, one fact is clear: Heading into its conference title games, the NFL's glow has never been brighter.
This column first appeared in Pro Football Weekly's annual awards issue (dated Jan. 23), which is on sale now. The issue features All-NFL, All-Conference and All-Rookie teams, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year — all selected by PFW editors and contributors along with members of the Professional Football Writers of America — as well as a Golden Toe Award selected by PFW editors only. The print edition also contains a preview of the draft outlook for the first four teams to make selections in April, as well as previews of the two conference championship games. The print edition is available at retail outlets around the country and also online at PFWstore.com, where you can purchase a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.