The conference finals were like a pair of racers waiting for the green light … revving sounds, tense grips on the wheel, all that smoke — then blowing out their engines in the initial laps.
In the NFC, it was 14-0 Packers early, and in the other bracket it was 24-0 Steelers early, and the victors spent the rest of the day passing time and slamming the heel to any last-minute revolts that their opponents tried to organize.
People have spent a lot of time reviewing the minutia of Packer-Bear tape, trying to figure out exactly where Jay Cutler damaged his knee, the jolt that caused him to sit out the majority of the second half of the keynote battle of his young career.
Cutler never looked right in the game, even from the opening series. He was a head-down quarterback. A dazed, nearly forlorn look about him. He missed some long open throws that could've ended as scores, and he threw some short ducky ones that dove straight at the feet, and the whole Chicago air game was a flat-looking thing from the start. He wasn't giving it the full gun, the full mechanics and stepping into his throws, and I wonder if Cutler was somewhat injured coming into the game, a kickoff decision, going at it as long as he could until it became clear he couldn't move the team. Who knows?
But the criticism of Cutler that erupted afterward was senseless, those calling him soft and sneering at his toughness and dedication. I mean, suddenly the world is full of pre-med students with intimate knowledge of the knee, blabbing into their stethoscopes, the twitters and tweets of the sh-house walls. It became vicious.
The worst attack I heard was on my taxi ride back from the airport. The radio was dialed to Chicago's ESPN affiliate, and some chap was really going on about Cutler, questioning everything about him — his cojones, his will to win, his commitment — all the tough athletic talk. I thought it was a caller, a ripper, a guy who lost a heavy bet or something, giving us his half-baked analysis on a hangover. It went on and on. The hosts tried to back him down. This was no caller. It was a guest. Trent Dilfer.
Dr. Dilfer. Sixth pick of the 1994 draft. Specialist in medial collateral ligaments, pain thresholds and a career passer rating of 70.2. Led teams into battle from his wheelchair. Men rallied at the sight of his dingy casts and eye patches and gallant limps. Pro football's true Charlemagne!
The player our bold analyst should have gone after for lying down in the game was Julius Peppers, the big-money Chicago right defensive end. Another la-di-da day for Peppers, waltzing around with Packers OLT Chad Clifton, one quick surge toward the quarterback, then relax. The Bears' offense needed a couple of short fields to win the game, a couple of breaks, and they were supposed to come from Peppers — pocket disruption, harassing Aaron Rodgers, hacking away at him, maybe a strip-sack deep in Packers territory. Something from the defense to flip the game in Chicago's direction.
There was none of that. The one big shot Peppers got on Rodgers came on a blocking screwup, Peppers coming in clean then giving it right back with a 15-yard flag — blow to the head. The rest were pretend rushes, exercise drills. After the Packers put things away, Peppers strolled off the field, grinning and chatting with one of the bundled-up Green Bay assistants. Peppers looked happy. A $91 million smile.
In Pittsburgh, the lasting memory is of RB Rashard Mendenhall, the "wow!" ferocity of his carries, the foundation on which the Steelers launched their offensive battle plan, i.e., starving the Jets of the football. 27 handoffs to him gained 121 yards, Mendenhall disappearing into the nets of his captors, then erupting away for more yards and rousing up an already wild crowd. Nearly 35 minutes of Steelers possession. It's demoralizing stuff for a defense, a weary, on-the-road defense like New York's.
The media writers and sound-bite crews are sure going to miss these Jets. They make their life easier. They say things and it's a quick headline and reporters and columnists can avoid the type of gear-to-gear football writing they're supposed to be providing. Even the New York Times, in its AFC title game story, couldn't resist a send-off. In the first paragraph we got "talkative" and "boastful" and "big talk" and "loudest." They just can't let it go.
Which makes this an especially difficult Super Bowl for the media to cover. Packers, Steelers … neither team runs its mouth. The coaches are stone faces. Mike Tomlin warmed up at his postgame mic and answered questions about how he did it with such a foreign legion offensive line, the parts and pieces inserted from all over the map. He answered for his entire team, in an old Chuck Noll type of way.
"We have a lot of components around here that make navigating the waters possible," he said. "… The standard is winning. It's not always attractive."
Neither title game was. Next up — Super Bowl XLV. The standard is set.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.