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ITS DOWN TO 4 IN THE NFL

ITS DOWN TO 4 IN THE NFL

BY JAKE SALTZMAN

Boston Sports Desk Correspondent

 DOWN TO FOUR, CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS ARE UPON US

For many of us, football season ended in horrific fashion Sunday evening when NY Jets running back Shonn Greene sealed his team’s upset victory over the Patriots in Foxboro with a late fourth quarter touchdown run. Just because the favorites are out of contention however, doesn’t mean football stops until April’s entry draft. With only two win- or-go-home rivalry games and the Super Bowl left on the schedule, for others, football season is just beginning.

             At Soldier Field in Chicago, the poise of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was more than enough to end the Seattle Seahawks miracle postseason run, as the Bears trumped the Hawks 35-24. Cutler threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns on the day, and relied heavily on a pair of tight ends, Greg Olsen and the seldom-utilized Kellen Davis. Olsen led all receivers with 113 yards and a touchdown, while Davis, whose only regular season catch went for a touchdown, snagged a season-high two passes for 42 yards and a score. Matt Forte contributed nicely on the ground as well, adding 80 yards on 25 carries. It was the Seattle run-game however that played a bigger role in the contest, as just one week after running seemingly at will against the mighty New Orleans Saints, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington combined for a pitiful 20 yards against the Bears. I suppose the Chicago pass rush deserves some credit for Seattle’s ground-dormancy, even despite the fact that Julius Peppers finished with only two tackles, and aside from two Tommie Harris sacks, the Bears struggled to get to Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who ended his season on a high note, throwing for three touchdowns and 258 yards through the air. For the Seahawks, if nothing else, it appears Hasselbeck still has something left to give after the completion of this, his 12th season in the league. With the re-emergences of Mike Williams at wide receiver and Michael Robinson at the up-back position, the Seattle offense could prove to be a force for years to come. Until the Seahawks can figure things out on defense however, much like the Bears have via the return of linebacker Brian Urlacher, Pete Carroll’s squad will be a very beatable one come playoff time.

             The NFC’s other divisional round game took place inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, where just one week removed from an impressive road victory in Philadelphia, the Green Bay Packers made it to within one game of the Super Bowl, beating the Falcons mercilessly, 48-21. Aaron Rodgers was literally unstoppable for the Green Bay offense, completing all but five of his 36 passes for three touchdowns and a whopping 366 yards, a “stark” contrast to his game last week in Philadelphia, where the ground game earned the “W” for the NFC’s sixth seed. James Starks did manage 66 yards on 25 carries, but was heavily outdone by the Green Bay receiving corps. In addition to the group’s three TDs, of the seven Packers to catch a pass, four amassed 75 yards receiving, including Greg Jennings, who was the game’s lone receiver to gain 100 yards from scrimmage. While Jennings, unlike his oppositional counterpart Roddy White failed to catch a touchdown, Jennings proved without doubt to be the game’s most dynamic offensive player. Defensively for the Packers, in addition to holding arguably the game’s best receiver (White) to a mere 57 receiving yards, the D-line smothered Michael Turner all game long, holding the superstar to under 50 yards on just ten carries. While Turner did score a touchdown in the loss, had it not been for second year man Gartrell Johnson’s ability to spell Turner adequately in the Atlanta backfield, there would have been absolutely nothing worthy of praise from the Atlanta backfield. Furthermore, because that has been such a rare occurrence at any point throughout the season, you should feel good about the Packers next week, on the road taking on speedster Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears.

             In a barn-burner of an AFC North postseason showdown, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed the clock beautifully, scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown with just over a minute remaining, and thus earned a spot in the conference championship with a win over the Baltimore Ravens, 31-24. The Steelers scored 24 of 27 combined total second half points on the afternoon, and received a much-needed boost from running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall scored two touchdowns including the game-winner, and despite gaining only 46 yards on the ground and losing a fumble, was still an offensive force for the victors. Pittsburgh’s other two touchdowns came via Ben Roethlisberger strikes: one to tight end Heath Miller for nine yards, and one to receiver Hines Ward for eight yards. Defensively for the Steelers, a pair of veterans led the way, as ninth-year safety Ryan Clark recorded an interception and a forced fumble, while linebacker James Harrison contributed a monster effort with three quarterback sacks. Though the Raven defense managed to sack Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger six times on the game, (three by Terrell Suggs) in what very well could have turned into a defensive battle, Dick LeBeau’s hardnosed Steeler defense succeeded in leading the charge yet again. The most impressive aspect of the Steelers’ victory however involves the defense’s ability to contain Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and the rest of Baltimore’s aerial attack. Flacco finished the game with only 125 yards, an interception, and various bruising, while All-Pro receiver Anquan Boldin was also forced to endure a miserable game, and was held to just one catch for less than a yard. While the Steelers showed an ability to win with their pass defense in their week 16 match-up with the Carolina Panthers, by stopping the powerful Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, the Steelers once again deserve recognition as one of the very best in the NFL.

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