GREEN Bay Packers entered the NFL play-offs as sixth and bottom seeds in the National Football Conference.
Yesterday, though, they were the bookies' early favourites to defeat Pittsburgh Steelers on February 6 and claim their first Super Bowl in 13 years.
The Packers' 21-14 win over their bitter rivals Chicago Bears in Sunday's NFC championship game wasn't a thing of beauty.
It was sealed when gargantuan 24st 7lb tackle BJ Raji ploughed to an 18-yard touchdown after an interception -- while the most important contribution by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers may well have been not a touchdown throw, but a tackle to nullify one of his own mistakes.
But it was just enough to see Green Bay past a Bears threat that fizzled just 47 seconds from the end, when Chicago's third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie threw an interception to end a drive that could have produced the tying score, sending the game into overtime.
The win means that Green Bay have won three consecutive play-off games away from home, defeating the NFC's top three regular-season teams in the process: third-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round, top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, and now Chicago, the second seeds.
If Sunday's game belonged to anyone, it was Raji, known as the 'the Freezer' in a take on William 'the Refrigerator' Perry, the Bears' legendary defensive lineman of two decades ago (who, at his peak, weighed in at an even mightier 25 stone).
As nose tackle, Raji's normal job is to tie up offensive linemen. "You never dream about having a touchdown as nose tackle, it's one of those things that ain't in my head," he said. "I was like, he really threw this? All I had to do was catch it, I knew I was going to the end zone if I could catch it."
The game could have turned much earlier when, with the Packers leading 14-0, Rodgers threw an interception to Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. But the quarterback chased down and managed to tackle Urlacher, saving a potential touchdown that would have put Chicago right back in contention.
"I don't get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the day," Rodgers drily noted.
The AFC championship game was an equally gritty affair.
Though Pittsburgh Steelers jumped out to a 24-0 lead over New York Jets before half-time, the Jets did all the scoring thereafter, including two touchdown passes from second-season quarterback Mark Sanchez.
But a win is a win, and the Steelers' 24-19 victory takes them to a familiar place -- centre stage at the greatest single occasion in US sport, for the third time in six seasons. A win would give them an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl.
"It's not always pretty, but somehow we always find a way to get it done," said Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' quarterback. "That's us, that's the Pittsburgh Steelers." (© Independent News Service)