By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of the most unpredictable NFL seasons in years is no closer to providing a clear favorite after another extraordinary round of playoffs saw the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons both eliminated.
One week after last season's two Super Bowl finalists bowed out of contention, the number one seeded teams from each of the conferences were knocked out by the two lowest-ranked wild cards in the playoffs.
The Patriots, the popular pick to win the Super Bowl after finishing as the top team in the AFC, were beaten 28-21 at home by the New York Jets, while the Falcons, the top seed in the NFC, were thrashed 48-21 at home by the Green Bay Packers.
The Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both seeded second, will now host next weekend's conference championships with the two winners advancing to meet in the Super Bowl at Dallas on February 6.
The Bears and Steelers were both impressive in their wins but have their work cut out after a playoff series where the home-field advantage has counted for little.
The Patriots had not lost a home game all season and were overwhelming favorites to extend their winning streak against the Jets after beating them 45-3 last month.
But they were outplayed by a team that only snuck into the divisional playoffs after a last-gasp 17-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts last weekend.
The Jets, inspired by their trash-talking coach Rex Ryan, won the major battles on both offence and defense. They succeeded in shutting down New England quarterback Tom Brady, sacking him five times, while scoring four touchdowns of their own.
"I knew if we applied ourselves and played the way we were capable of playing, we would win," Ryan said.
It was a weekend to savor for quarterbacks with Aaron Rodgers delivering a masterful performance for the Packers, who have hit their peak at the perfect time.
Rodgers threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed for a score. He completed 31 of 36 passes to give coach Mike McCarthy real cause for optimism.
"We are a championship caliber football team," he said.
Jay Cutler made a spectacular playoff debut by throwing for two touchdowns and running for two others as the Bears ended Seattle's unlikely charge.
The Seahawks won their division despite a 7-9 record during the regular season.
After upsetting the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the opening round, they collapsed against the Bears, who led 28-0 early in the second half before easing off the throttle.
Their game against the Packers promises to be a classic encounter between two neighbors with a long and bitter rivalry.
"We don't like them and they don't like us," offered Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
The Ravens led 21-7 at halftime but three costly turnovers in the third quarter allowed the Steelers to gain control of the game.
"We got behind but the guys didn't blink," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "It was signature Steeler football."
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)