NFL final four playoff rankings
Can you ever remember a championship Sunday so evenly matched? You can make the case for the Bears, Packers, Jets or Steelers to go to the Super Bowl and win it.
Let the debate begin. We rank the final four teams in every category, SCHEIN 9 style.
Packers – I made the case for Aaron Rodgers last week as the second-best quarterback left in the tournament. An epic display, going 31-for-36, throwing for three touchdowns and 366 yards against the suddenly overmatched Falcons just proves my point. And with Tom Brady now out, Rodgers is the best of the best.
Steelers – It was a vintage Ben Roethlisberger performance; toughness and execution in the clutch. The Pittsburgh quarterback overcame six sacks to hit Antonio Brown on a 3rd-and-19 late in the game. Ben is unorthodox, but he is a winner.
Bears – Jay Cutler has been a different player since the bye week, since the offensive line started providing legit pass protection. The Bears needed to jump out on Seattle early and remind the Seahawks they were a sub .500 team. Cutler provided the fireworks.
Jets – I have to put Sanchez here out of fairness. But the kid is a remarkable 4-1 in the playoffs. Try that one on again. Mark Sanchez is 4-1 in the playoffs in just two years in the NFL!! Sanchez, after a slow start, was sensational on the road against a Bill Belichick-coached team on Sunday. All season long, Sanchez has had a knack for the moment, a knack for winning.
2. Running backs
Bears – Surprised? Check the stats and watch the games in the second half of the season. No team was more successful than the Bears running the ball since Mike Martz changed his approach. Jay Cutler told me on Monday that Matt Forte is the best running back in the league if you combine running skills, hands and pass protection. While that’s up for debate, Forte has been superb in all areas. Forte rushed for 1,069 yards on a strong 4.5 yards per carry. For perspective, think how awful the Bears offensive line was in the beginning of the season. He also caught a whopping 51 passes from Cutler this year for 567 yards.
Jets – LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene have proved to be a sturdy combination with a perfect combination of skill sets for the Jets.
Steelers – Rashard Mendenhall can put up the numbers. But I just don’t fully trust him when it comes to ball security.
Packers – Green Bay finally has balance, or at least the threat of balance, on offense with James Starks. But the Packers are clearly the worst running team left in the tournament. As Aaron Rodgers told us a few weeks ago, they use the short passing attack in lieu of the run.
3. Wide Receivers
Packers – I consider this the single toughest category to grade. You can make the case for Green Bay, New York and Pittsburgh getting the top spot. I’m choosing the Packers based upon depth and talent. Greg Jennings is a great, reliable star, finishing with 12 TD catches and 1,265 yards in the regular season. Donald Driver’s talent and skill go beyond the stat sheet. His route-running is precise. While James Jones can have a case of the yips on occasion (see the Philly playoff game), he is deep threat who is good for the acrobatic catch (see the Atlanta playoff game). Jordy Nelson is ultra-reliable, proving it once again on Saturday night with eight catches against the Falcons.
Jets – Browns fans might not believe it but Braylon Edwards has been tough, clutch and sure-handed all through the regular season and postseason. Santonio Holmes has been clutch for a long time. And Jerricho Cotchery is a strong No. 3 target, excelling at getting yards after the catch.
Steelers – It makes me a bit queasy to list Pittsburgh third. I think Hines Ward is a Hall of Famer with his hands, toughness, blocking ability and flair for the big play on third down and in the red zone. Mike Wallace had a breathtaking year for the Steelers. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown (as the Ravens learned the hard way) have the ability to burn you deep.
Bears – Now, Chicago’s receivers are clearly fourth. But I think they are underrated and they fit Mike Martz’s scheme perfectly. Earl Bennett is Cutler’s security blanket. Devin Hester gets better as a receiver every time out, and with the emphasis on running the ball and defenses now respecting it, Cutler is finding the speedster down field for big plays.
4. Offensive Line
Jets – Brandon Moore was an elite guard this year. Nick Mangold is the best center in football. D’Brickashaw Ferguson is an athletic rock at left tackle. And Wayne Hunter has filled in very capably for Damien Woody at right tackle.
Packers – Too high? Or just an indictment of the teams they are being compared to? For the sake of fairness, look at how the Packers offensive line has played against the Giants, Bears, Eagles and Falcons over the last four weeks.
Bears – Offensive line coach Mike Tice could be the unsung hero of the Bears with his outstanding work coaching up Chicago’s protectors. The group is far from elite.
Steelers – Even head coach Mike Tomlin has lamented about the bad luck his line has had with injuries this year. The lack of depth, talent, and poor play reared its ugly head on Saturday against Baltimore. Young center Maurkice Pouncey is a stud.
5. Defensive Line
Bears – Wasn’t easy determining who was the top dog in this category, but the tie goes to Julius Peppers.
Packers – I voted B.J. Raji first team all-pro this year. He is an absolute monster up front in the middle of Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense.
Steelers – Casey Hampton is still a handful. The club does miss Aaron Smith, despite Ziggy Hood turning a corner.
Jets – It’s a very solid, workmanlike group. Mike DeVito is the best defensive end you’ve never heard of.
Steelers – James Harrison is a play-making stud who takes over games. LaMarr Woodley is the perfect partner in crime. And James Farrior’s excellence is somehow still underrated. He is the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bears – It’s not easy putting a unit that features Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs second on any list. The pair has been flat-out dominant.
Packers – Clay Matthews is a match-up nightmare for the opposition.
Jets – It’s not often that a star in New York flies under the radar. But that’s the case with David Harris, the lone Jet who lets his play do the talking. Bart Scott will run through a wall for Rex Ryan.
7. Defensive Backs
Packers – Tramon Williams had two picks in the first half against Atlanta to change the game. The “pick 6” at the end of the half closed the book on the Falcons. And Williams’ playoff heroics, including the game-saving interception of Michael Vick in the playoff opener, are not a fluke. He was excellent all season long. Charles Woodson still makes plays, whether it is an interception, forced fumble or a blitz off the edge.
Jets – Darrelle Revis is the best pure corner in the NFL. Antonio Cromartie backed up his words against the Patriots. Safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool have played their best ball of the year in the playoffs.
Steelers – Troy Polamalu is a beast. But is he 100 percent? He sure didn’t look like it on Saturday. Ryan Clark created two turnovers in the third quarter to change the game against Baltimore. The Pittsburgh corners are very, very vulnerable.
Bears – Tim Jennings has improved. Chris Harris has been solid all year. But this is not a superb group.
8. Special Teams
Bears – Devin Hester is Devin Hester. He spooks teams. Nobody has better starting field position than Chicago.
Jets – Sure, Nick Folk scares you, but a healthy Brad Smith is a strong returner. And playoff sub Antonio Cromartie has done a fine job. Steve Weatherford was awful against the Pats but brilliant last time out in Pittsburgh. Mike Westhoff is a great special teams coach.
Packers – The last time Green Bay and Chicago met, the punting was excellent. But there always seems to be an issue with Green Bay’s special teams, including Saturday night, when they allowed a 102-yard return to Eric Weems.
Steelers – They are improved from a year ago, but still not totally trustworthy.
Steelers – Mike Tomlin is excellent and has a Super Bowl ring to prove it. Dick LeBeau is the best defensive coordinator in the NFL.
Packers – On Saturday night, Troy Aikman said Mike McCarthy was his coach of the year for navigating the Packers through injury and adversity this season. In addition to being a great head coach, McCarthy is an excellent play caller. Dom Capers is one of the best in the business at coaching defense.
Jets – He might not be your cup of tea, but Rex Ryan is 4-1 in the playoffs in his first two years as an NFL head coach! And all four wins have come on the road. This is a sensational accomplishment. Not to mention Ryan is 3-2 against Bill Belichick. Ryan and Mike Pettine do a great job with the Jets defense. Brian Schottenheimer has been in a groove calling plays.
Bears – This really isn’t fair with Lovie Smith’s great coaching job and Mike Martz remembering to run the ball.