Spain’s victory at the World Cup was the sporting pinnacle of a year packed with big stories on and off the pitch.
|Rodgers put in an outstanding display as the Packers asserted their Super Bowl credentials in Atlanta [GALLO/GETTY]|
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers delivered a masterful performance to lead the Packers to a 48-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons and one win away from a place in the Super Bowl.
The Packers showed why they have long been seen as one of the favourites for this season’s Super Bowl as they demolished Atlanta, the NFC’s top-seeded team, with a brilliant display in a one-sided divisional playoff.
They will now meet the winner of Sunday’s other NFC game between the Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks in next week’s conference championship for a place in Super Bowl XLV.
Also on Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers took advantage of a second-half meltdown by the Baltimore Ravens to defeat their bitter divisional rivals 31-24 and reach the AFC title game next week against either the New England Patriots or the New York Jets.
In Atlanta the Packers’ Rodgers threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns and also ran in a touchdown himself from seven yards out.
“I felt like I was in the zone. It was a fun night,” Rodgers said in a televised interview.
“This just feels so good right now, to be able to put up that kind of performance in offense, it’s incredible.”
Rodgers also completed 31 of 36 passes but his statistics alone do not do justice to what was an outstanding display from the 27-year-old Californian.
A 12 yard touchdown run from Michael Turner gave the home crowd at the Georgia Dome just the start they had demanded with their loud reception for their team.
But Rodgers responded at the start of the second quarter when he finished off a well-managed 13 play, 81 yard drive by zipping a six yard pass short left to Jordy Nelson who dived into the corner of the end-zone.
The decibel level rose though in the roofed arena when Eric Weems returned the kick-off 102 yards, sprinting with glorious ease for a Falcons touchdown – the longest kick-off return in NFL playoff history.
That proved to be the last moment to savour for the home fans as Packers replied with 35 unanswered points from five converted touchdowns after trailling 14-7.
In Pittsburgh Rashard Mendenhall scored the game winner on a two-yard run with 1:33 left, the gritty running back powering up the middle
while taking several Ravens with him into the end zone.
“Anytime you can beat them it feels pretty good,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
“But to do it with the last drive we had is always special.”
Pittsburgh outscored the Ravens 24-3 in the second half to reach the AFC title game for the second time in three years.
In their last appearance, the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl for the sixth time.
The Steelers trailed 21-7 but took advantage of three third-quarter turnovers by the Ravens to take a 24-21 lead in the final period on a 35-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham.
The big play in the Steelers’ game-winning drive was a 58-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown on a third and 19 from the Pittsburgh 38.
Brown’s catch down the right sideline gave the Steelers a first and goal from the four and on a third and two Mendenhall scored to send the fans at frigid Heinz Field into a frenzy.