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Rivals with a lot of history

It is fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers will meet in Super Bowl XLV.

These are two of the NFL's most storied franchises with the highest postseason winning percentages (the Packers are 28-16, .636 and the Steelers are 33-19, .635) in league history. They have combined for nine Super Bowl championships, with Pittsburgh winning a record six. Green Bay won nine NFL titles before the Super Bowl era began in 1966.

The Steelers beat the New York Jets, 24-19, in the AFC Championship Game to earn their eighth Super Bowl appearance, tying the Dallas Cowboys for the most ever.

The Packers are returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 14 years and making their fifth trip overall after holding off the Chicago Bears, 21-14, in the NFC title game. The Packers are the first sixth seed from the NFC to reach the Super Bowl. The Steelers won Super Bowl XL as a sixth seed.

The storylines are intriguing.

You have two of the best defenses in the NFL. Both are ranked in the top five in yards allowed, and the Steelers own one of the greatest run defenses in league history. Pittsburgh and Green Bay scored defensive touchdowns Sunday -- points that proved to be the difference.

You have the two quarterbacks, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. They are dynamic players who make things happen with the arm and legs.

Roethlisberger, whose season began with a four-game suspension, can become the fifth quarterback to win three Super Bowls. Rodgers will escape Brett Favre's shadow forever by bringing home another Lombardi Trophy.

For a local angle, you have Niagara Falls native James Starks, a rookie running back from UB that has given the pass-happy Packers offensive balance. The Steelers have a pretty good back themselves in Rashard Mendenhall.

The Steelers and Packers are solid teams, but hardly invincible. Both built big early leads on Sunday and had to hang on for dear life at the end.

But the Super Bowl isn't always won by the best team. It's often won by the team playing the best. It's hard to argue that the two teams that will meet February 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas are playing better than anyone right now.

Before we look forward, let's look back at the AFC and NFC championships:

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Cutler under fire

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leaving the game in the third quarter with a knee injury has dominated the post-NFC title game talk. Coach Lovie Smith announced Monday that Cutler suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament.

Cutler told reporters he wanted to come back, but the team medical staff vetoed the idea. Perhaps he was too hurt to come back into the game, but the perception is he quit on his team. He has been roundly criticized by fans and media. Even current and former NFL players ripped him.

It's hard to believe a guy who endured 57 sacks this season and plays pro ball with Type 1 diabetes is soft. Cutler's teammates defended him against those who questioned his toughness, but it's hard to shake public opinion.

People remember Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Jack Youngblood playing in a Super Bowl on a broken leg, Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith playing through a separated shoulder and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL in the AFC title game.

Fair or not, it will be hard for Cutler to erase this stain from his reputation.

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Surprise stars

We've come to expect big plays from Packers players like Rodgers, receiver Greg Jennings, cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews. But the biggest plays came from guys who don't get much attention.

Nose tackle B.J. Raji returned an interception 18 yards for what turned out to be the winning touchdown with 6 minutes left. Cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted rookie, had a sack and two interceptions, including one in the final seconds to preserve the win. Meanwhile, Tim Masthay's great punting -- and excellent coverage -- minimized the impact of Chicago's great return ace Devin Hester.

Without Raji, Shields and Masthay, the Packers might not be Super Bowl bound.

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Mendenhall rumbles

The Jets came in thinking about stopping Roethlisberger. They should have been worried about Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers' running back gashed the normally stout Jets defense for 95 of his 122 yards and added a touchdown to help stake Pittsburgh to a 24-3 halftime lead. The Steelers finished with 166 rushing yards, the most the Jets allowed this year.

The Jets should have seen it coming. Mendenhall burned them for 99 of the Steelers' 147 yards on December 19.

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Questionable move

Bears coach Lovie Smith took some heat for his decision to insert former Bill Todd Collins at quarterback ahead of third-stringer Caleb Hanie. Collins lasted only six plays and almost threw two interceptions before getting benched. Hanie came in with 57 seconds left in the third quarter and engineered a pair of touchdown drives that got the Bears back in the game. So Smith basically wasted two offensive possessions by using the ineffective Collins.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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