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Patriots' flaws get exposed

Which is the best team in the NFL?

Everyone thought it was the New England Patriots, but they'll be watching the rest of the playoffs at home after their flaws were exposed in a 28-21 loss to the New York Jets. The Atlanta Falcons were supposedly the team to beat in the NFC, but their 13-3 record proved fraudulent after getting trounced at home, 48-21, by the Green Bay Packers.

As a result, the NFL's Final Four does not include the top two playoffs seeds, but features the last two teams to make it into the postseason.

No. 2 seeds Pittsburgh and Chicago survived and advanced via vastly different outcomes. The Steelers needed a second-half comeback, and a Baltimore collapse, to edge the Ravens, 31-24. The Bears were never challenged in routing the Seattle Seahawks, 35-24.

With New England and Atlanta disposed of, Pittsburgh and Chicago get to host the AFC and NFC championship games Sunday. But if you think the Jets and Packers can't win on the road for a third straight week, you haven't been paying attention.

The race to Super Bowl has been wide open from the start of the season, and both of Sunday's game could go either way.

>Coming of age

When you line up the players on the rosters of the Jets and Patriots, it's no contest. The Jets have more talent.

And talent was the difference in the Jets' victory. The Patriots getting this far with the likes of Danny Woodhead was a cute story, but championships aren't won with overachievers.

The Jets are more talented at almost every position and it showed. Almost every star player they have -- running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott, defensive end Shaun Ellis, wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, among others -- made a significant impact.

One star who should be singled out is quarterback Mark Sanchez. Popular opinion was the second-year player would be the biggest obstacle to the Jets' championship hopes.

But all he has done is outduel Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in succession to put his team back into the AFC title game for the second straight season. Sanchez is now 4-1 as a playoff starter with all four wins coming on the road, an NFL record.

Sanchez is far from perfect. Some of his decisions make you scratch your head. But then he'll make throws like the touchdown to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone that makes you realize why the Jets drafted him sixth overall.

The Jets have a terrific defense, a resurgent running game and talented receivers. Now they have a rapidly maturing quarterback. Maybe Sanchez isn't a liability after all.

>Packer juggernaut

You'd be hard-pressed to find a team playing better than the Packers, and you won't find a quarterback playing better than Aaron Rodgers.

His performance against the Falcons (31 of 36 for 366 yards, three passing TDs and one rushing, 136.8 rating) was one of the best in NFL playoff history. He directed five consecutive touchdown drives, including four of 80 yards or more. He now has 10 touchdown passes in three career playoff games, an NFL record.

Not only is Rodgers on fire, Niagara Falls native and former UB star James Starks has given the Packers a serviceable running game. And their defense is ferocious with nose tackle B.J. Raji stuffing the run, outside linebacker Clay Matthews harassing quarterbacks and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams blanketing receivers.

The Bears could have eliminated the Packers by winning the regular-season finale. Come Sunday, they might wish they had taken out Green Bay when they had the chance.

>Steelers' win gift-wrapped

Not to take anything away from Pittsburgh's come-from-behind win, but the Ravens lost the game more than the Steelers won it. The Ravens self-destructed with a succession of turnovers and dropped passes that allowed the Steelers to overcome a 21-7 halftime deficit.

Two questions will haunt Baltimore this offseason: How does Pittsburgh rookie receiver Antonio Brown get behind the defense for a 58-yard catch on third-and-19 and the game tied at 24-all with 93 seconds left and how does Ravens receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who complained all year about not getting enough balls his way, drop a very catchable pass that would have converted a fourth-and-18 on the Ravens' final possession?

The Steelers got plenty of help from the Ravens, but also an assist from referee Jeff Triplette, whose questionable holding penalty wiped out a Lardarius Webb punt return touchdown that would have given the Ravens the lead late in the game.

The Steelers deserved to win for fighting back, but the Ravens got knocked out because they let their guard down.

>Cutler carves up Seahawks

The Bears never know what they are going to get from quarterback Jay Cutler. Some days he's a guy who makes great plays with his remarkably strong arm, but other times his evil twin shows up and he's transformed into an erratic gunslinger who throws the ball to opponents as much as his receivers.

But the Bears got the good Cutler on Sunday. In his first-ever playoff appearance, Cutler threw for 274 yards while passing and rushing for two touchdowns apiece against Seattle. He joined Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only quarterbacks to run and throw for multiple touchdowns in a playoff game.

Cutler played with poise and confidence as he hurt the Seahawks with his arm and legs. He almost gave a few throws away if Seahawks defenders had better hands, but for the most past, he avoided the mind-numbing mistakes that have marked his career.

The Bears' defense will be under pressure to cool off Rodgers on Sunday, but how Cutler plays might be a bigger key to Chicago's chances.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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