One game remains on the NFL schedule, and that’s Super Bowl XLV, which will be contested between Green Bay and Pittsburgh at Cowboys Stadium on February 6.
The Packers were invited after beating Chicago 21-14, in the NFC championship game at Soldier Field, while the Steelers punched their ticket by holding off New York 24-19, at Heinz Field in the AFC title clash last Sunday.
Recently, these matches have been one-sided, but not this time because Bears’ third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie tossed a scoring pass in the fourth quarter, and Jets’ signal-caller Mark Sanchez unloaded two second-half touchdowns after being down 24-3 at the half.
Green Bay rode the strong arm and nimble feet of quarterback Aaron Rodgers (17 of 30 for 244 yards with two interceptions).
Rodgers (39 yards on seven rushes) gave the Packers a 7-0 lead on a one-yard run with 10:50 left in the first quarter, climaxing a seven-play, 84-yard drive.
“This is a dream come true for me,’’ said Rodgers, who led his team to 356 total net yards. “I wanted to play in the NFL, and now I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.”
For much of the regular season, the Packers, who have claimed three Super Bowls, were without a solid ground attack. This isn’t the case since discovering rookie running back James Starks, who finished with 74 yards on 22 carries, and made it 14-0 when he scored on a four-yard gallop with 11:13 remaining in the second quarter. This was Starks’ first professional score, and ended a 44-yard, five-play march.
Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler (six of 14 for 80 yards) has been inconsistent. He injured his knee in the opening half, and departed after one series in the third quarter.
Cutler was replaced by Todd Collins, who left in favor of Hanie (13 of 20 for 153 yards).
Chicago running back Chester Taylor capped a 67-yard, eight-play drive with a one-yard blast early in the fourth quarter, slicing Green Bay’s lead to 14-7.
Hanie was intercepted by B.J. Raji deep in Chicago territory. Raji returned the pick 18 yards for a score with 6:04 showing, but the Bears (301 total yards) returned the favor when Hanie hit Earl Bennett with a 35-yard pass 81 seconds later to make it 21-14.
The outcome was sealed when Hanie, on fourth and four, was intercepted by Sam Shields, who picked off Cutler in the opening half.
Pittsburgh is seeking its seventh Super Bowl victory, played with vigor in the first half, and sprinted to a 7-0 lead as running back Rashard Mendenhall (121 yards on 27 carries) scored from one-yard out with 5:54 showing in the first quarter.
The tempo was set on this 15-play, 66-yard drive as Pittsburgh’s balanced attack (166 yards on the ground) was something New York hadn’t faced against Indianapolis and New England.
“I told my guys I was proud of them,’’ said New York Head Coach Rex Ryan. “We played only one half. We’ll get here again, and we’re going to win this thing.”
Shaun Suisham’s 20-yard field goal made it 10-0 midway through the second quarter, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (10 of 19 for 133 yards and two interceptions) added a two-yard bootleg to make it 17-0 with two minutes left before the half.
It became 24-0 when William Gay picked up a fumble after Sanchez (20 of 33 for 233 yards) was sacked by Ike Taylor. Gay ran it in from 19 yards out as 1:13 remained.
Sanchez’s 45-yard pass to Santonio Holmes early in the third quarter made it 24-10, and his four-yard toss to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:06 left made it a five-point bulge.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.