PITTSBURGH (AP) — Next step, the Super Bowl.
The NFL’s final four has a strong connection to the big game, from the first champion (Packers) to the winner of perhaps the most significant game (Jets). And from possibly the best Super Bowl team (1985 Bears) to the most dominant franchise of the era (Steelers).
Any matchup in Dallas next month will feature plenty of history.
So much so that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has emphasized wanting to put up a photo of these Packers on the wall next to the other championship teams — including the first two Super Bowl winners (1966 and ‘67 seasons), and the 1996 squad.
“We’ve never lost sight of it because it’s always right behind me every day when I speak to the team,” McCarthy said of his Packers, who face 90-year rival Chicago at Soldier Field on Sunday for the NFC title. “I pointed to that again ... we’re halfway there. We talked about 16 quarters as a football team. We’ve completed eight of them. And we need to capture these four in Chicago, and it puts us closer to getting that picture on the wall.
“It’s a goal that’s still in front of us and it was a goal when we started and it’s still a goal today.”
That the Packers (12-6) face the Bears (12-5) for the 182nd timed with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line adds another historic chapter to the longest series in pro football. Should the Bears win, they would earn their third trip to the big game, one fewer than Green Bay, which is 3-1 in Super Bowls. Chicago is 1-1, having lost to the 2006 Colts.
No one is comparing these Bears to the ‘85 version that shuffled its way through and over nearly everyone, then pummeled the Patriots 46-10 for the crown. That team is considered by many the best of all the 44 Super Bowl winners.
Should Chicago even approach that level Sunday, it probably will be packing for Big D.
“I think everyone in the locker room knows the magnitude of this game, knows what we’re going up against,” quarterback Jay Cutler said, “but at the same time we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to be loose, we’re going to play our game. And we can’t worry about what is going to happen afterward if we win, we lose, we just have to go out there and play.
“It’s a huge game for Chicago and Green Bay. Just the number of times we’ve played each other, how familiar the two cities and the two teams are with each other, it’s almost like a little mini-Super Bowl. But I know Chicago will be really disappointed if we don’t win this game.”
The Steelers have only a 7-7 record in AFC title games. But they are 6-1 in Super Bowls, one more championship than San Francisco and Dallas own. The Steel Curtain carried them to four NFL crowns in the 1970s, and the 2005 and 2008 Steelers won it all.
It’s a formidable resume Pittsburgh (13-4) carries into the conference championship matchup with New York (13-5).
“There’s a history here you want to live up to, a high level of success,” linebacker James Farrior said.
The highest level, a place the Jets reached only once. Of course, their 1969 victory over the Colts validated the existence of the AFL, made Joe Namath a superstar, and pretty much established the Super Bowl as something, well, super.
New York has been close four times since: its 1982, 1998 and 2009 teams lost in the AFC championship game. Now, another chance.
“It’s great. We expected to be here,” loquacious, ultraconfident coach Rex Ryan said. “I don’t know if we expected to travel the road we did. That was pretty tough, but we’re just the men for the job. We have a locker room of mighty men and we knew what the goal was. We never lost sight of the goal. We always focused on the goal, and here it is.”
Like the Packers, the Jets are a No. 6 seed. Unlike Green Bay, which is favored in the NFC title game, the Jets are underdogs.
“The great thing is there have been a ton of doubters, which you know going along the way that there are going to be doubters,” Ryan said. “I keep going back to that Ray Robinson quote about when everybody else doubts you, you have to believe in yourself. That is what this team has. This is what this team does. We’ve always believed in ourselves. We’ve always believed we would get to this point and beyond. We’re going to find out Sunday.”