Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Unexpected Final Four For The 2011 NFL Playoffs

We are inching ever so close to Super Bowl 2011 and just trying to figure out who will play for the Vince Lombardi trophy is puzzling. The NFC and AFC Championship games will feature four teams who many had no belief would make it this far, let alone the playoffs.

Who could have ever seen this coming?

The NFC side will showcase the sixth seed Green Bay Packers, who stormed through Phildelphia and Atlanta, against their division rival and second seeded Chicago Bears, who dismantled Seattle with ease after a first round bye. The boastful New York Jets, who shocked both Indianapolis and New England in their house, will battle the enduring Pittsburgh Steelers, a team fresh off a hard fought victory over the Baltimore Ravens, for the AFC title game.

This is definitely a season where betting on the underdog could churn a hefty pay out. It is stunning to see a playoff picture with notable absences in the playoffs over the past few years (those usuals include New England, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Philadelphia). Even more surprising is how they were all shocked by teams most gave no chance to win.

How could these franchises be just one step away from the professional football title game when they were never in the discussion to reach this far at any point this season?

Let’s look at the 2010 journey for these four squads.

Chicago Bears

Prior to the start of the season: The Bears are like the old, historical pirates that people hear stories about: lost at sea with no compass to direct them, yet somehow they find their destination. It was only five years ago that this team made it to the Super Bowl, only to lose at the hands of Peyton Manning and his Colts. Since then, they have had only one winning season and no playoff appearances. It looked like it would be another season of watching from home with the Vikings loading up again and Green Bay looking ready to take the next step.

During the season: That outlook on the season was very much a skewed according to the Bears. With Cutler’s improvement and a defense that looked like the one from five years ago, the Bears appeared back to their winning ways. They started out hot, winning their first three and taking top billing over the NFC Central, but sputtered a bit as they entered their bye week losing three of four. They would recover to rip off five straight wins and they would lock up the division, as well as the second seed of the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers

Prior to the start of the season: For the cheese heads, it was all about taking down their rivals Minnesota Vikings and their former messiah Brett Favre after they watched him march the Vikes to the 2009 NFC Championship game. Aaron Rodgers finally got a taste of the playoffs in 2009, and he revived faith in an organization that he could begin a new chapter in the Packers history book.

During the season: The franchise and its fans rode that same hope as the Packers would go on to a 6-3 record to start the season. As the year progressed, it was obvious that the Vikings ship was sunk and the only barrier that stood between Green Bay and the division title were the Bears. They would remain neck and neck with Chicago after their bye week, but a Rodgers concussion quickly halted their chance to take over the division. They would win the last game of the season, luckily securing them the final spot in the playoffs.

Pittsburg Steelers

Prior to the season: After winning another title during the 2009 season, the Steelers looked ready to return back to the promise land. With QB Ben Roethlisberger still under center, and defensive beasts Troy Polamalu and James Harrison making big plays, it seemed inevitable. The Ravens would erase those happens after taking the last spot of the playoffs away from them. Then, prior to the start of this season, Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the season and it looked like 2010 had a high probability of replicating the 2009 season.

During the season: Lucky for the Steelers, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch were able to keep the team afloat with three wins in the four games Roethlisberger was suspended for. After their bye week and Roethlisberger’s activation, the team continued floating higher and higher in the standings. They would go on to win nine of their last twelve games of the season and only trailed behind the Patriots for the best record in the AFC.

New York Jets

Prior to the season: If anyone selected the Jets as one of the participants in the AFC title game in 2009, then give yourself a round of applause. What the achieved that season was miraculous, despite the bellowing from their rambunctious leader Rex Ryan that this team was a Super Bowl contender. That success led to their own reality show, in which those same prophecies that Ryan had been loudly protesting became the moniker of the show. Despite the hype, most felt that his bantering was nothing more than hot air and that the team would not be able to duplicate their overachieving success from 2009.

During the season: Those J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets! would show off early that coach Ryan’s boldness was felt throughout his players. They would start the season 5-1 and looked to finally prove the naysayers wrong in that they were an elite team. Then, after winning four of their next five after their bye week, the Jets would stumble by losing back-to-back games and concerns were raised that QB Mark Sanchez may be starting to choke. They would go on to win two of their last three, eventually capturing the final playoff spot.

It’ll be interesting to see how the final two stages of the season play out and what scenarios will be brought up for the Super Bowl. Both conference championship games will be exciting when they are played out and will produce a participant for the NFL title that no one expected.

Unforeseen endings will most likely be the theme heading into the final game, just as it has been for the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs.

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