Packers were toughest when things got rough

Posted Feb. 07, 2011 @ 2:07 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

ARLINGTON, Texas — You find the true test of a team's character when things are not going according to plan, when its blood is reddening the water and the sharks are hightailing it over to see what's for dinner.

The Packers built a lead that appeared to be unassailable by Super Bowl standards — up 21-3 — as no team had come back from a deficit larger than 10 points in any of the previous 44 big games.

And that's when the Packers had to find out what they were made of.

It's only fitting that a team that has been shredded all season by injuries and had to go on a three-road-game gauntlet just to get here would have to make one major gut check against a partisan Steelers crowd to capture the title.

The fact that they also suffered through some uncharacteristic drops in the passing game, including a sure TD by James Jones, some atypically poor run defense and a phantom facemask call only made the situation more cruel — but eventually worth every second of the angst.

"That is just like our season," said Rodgers, the MVP of Super Bowl XLV in a 31-25 Packers win. "A lot of adversity. Guys stepped up, you know? Sam (Shields) was down. Charles (Woodson) was done. Donald (Driver) was done.

"Jordy Nelson, huge game. Jarrett Bush, interception. That's the story of our season. A lot of high-character guys who have stepped up, played huge roles for us, and now we're sitting here as Super Bowl champs."

The Super Bowl became a war of attrition in the first half. First, the Steelers lost CB Bryant McFadden and ORT Flozell Adams, but both returned to the game. Then the Packers were stricken by the injury bug with some real ferocity: Driver left with an ankle injury. CBs Shields (shoulder) and Woodson (collarbone) and S Nick Collins (receiving an IV for dehydration) all left, though Shields and Collins would fight through.

But stop and think: no Driver, no Woodson. Super Bowl. How long did these guys wait to get to this point? How much had this young team leaned on these two pillars all season long?

A 21-3 lead felt pretty good, but 21-10 was downright slim in comparison when the Steelers rallied with a seven-play, 77-yard drive right at the end of the half.

Losing two of their key defensive backs put the Packers into an untenable situation with CBs Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush playing key roles. Although Bush made a diving interception, he was burned a few times along the way. The Packers finally figured out what he did best — blitz — and put him into the slot-pressure package that Woodson typically handles.

But that wasn't until well into the second half. The Packers appeared well on their way toward crumbling when Rashard Mendenhall took it in from eight yards out early in the third quarter. It was the kind of tackle-breaking, soul-crushing run that would bury a lot of teams, 18-point lead or not.

"For some reason we didn't defend the run very well," Packers OLB A.J. Hawk said. "But we had a game plan and wanted to stick with it."

The teams traded touchdowns in the first half of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers' Mike Wallace and the Packers' Greg Jennings trading TD haymakers. The Steelers, though, inched to within a field goal with a beauty of a college play for the two-point conversion, the kind of momentum play that can sting that late in a tiresome, emotional Super Bowl game.

But in a game with all of these tidal shifts, eddies and plot twists, the play that might have ended it was called "Tampa X Puma." A false start on 3rd-and-5 on the previous play pushed it back five yards. There were just over six minutes left, Packers up three at their own 25-yard line. Miss on the pass or suffer a drop — there had been at least six at this point of the game — and the Steelers have the ball with great field position and all kinds of time to either tie the score or take the lead.

Nelson, who would go on to catch nine passes for 140 yards, had been the main target most of the night, as the Packers chose to pick on McFadden and William Gay.

The Packers' best receiver, Jennings, lined up in the slot on the key play. He takes it from here: "We kind of caught them in a two-man situation where they are playing man (coverage) underneath and two safeties up high. I was able to get a clean release on (Steelers CB) Ike Taylor, and Aaron threw an outstanding ball."

The play went 31 yards. Instead of the Steelers getting it back, the ball now was in their territory with Rodgers on fire. The Steelers' defense looked a bit shell-shocked following the play. They allowed James Starks to run for 14 yards, the longest run they allowed in the playoffs, after he had been mostly bottled up all night.

"That ball down the middle of the field to Jennings late in the contest," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said, "that was big-time."

"I was just disappointed we didn't finish with seven (points). We talked about it with seven minutes left when we got the ball," Rodgers said. " 'Hey, let's take it down and score and we're the champs.' "

Jennings agreed that the conversion — even if they didn't get seven points — was huge.

"It was huge on that third down to make that much progress," he said.

But hang on. For the Packers, it was bad-movie time again. Think about the situation: Up six, 2:07 to go, Ben Roethlisberger about to get the ball back. Go back to last year, when these teams met in Pittsburgh. It was almost cosmic similarity: Packers up six, 2:06 to go. Heck, even if you didn't remember that game — and Hawk said he wasn't thinking about the déjà vu — all you need to know is Roethlisberger's pedigree in these situations.

"We've seen so many times Ben come from behind and beat teams with a last-minute drive," Hawk said. "He's one of the best. If you give him one drive ... that's why he has two rings."

And he was about to steal the Packers' first — at least the first with this group. Save for cult-hero RB John Kuhn, none of the Packers had tasted Super Bowl victory before, and Kuhn did it as a bystander ... with the Steelers, no less. Although Green Bay was leading, there was that possibility of the ultimate letdown.

History said Roethlisberger scores in that situation. But another, revisionist history was brewing. That chapter showed that this Packers team thrived in the fiercest of conditions, the harshest of obstacles. The team that can go on the road to Atlanta and Chicago and emerge victorious also could stand up to Roethlisberger, one of the game's best closers, and stand tall.

Two completions started the Steelers' drive, but Roethlisberger was out of magic. The Packers took it with their defense, the one that was losing members faster than Egypt's ruling party. Three straight incompletions, and it was over.

Through it all, the Packers won a Super Bowl because they endured.

"We had some bumps in the road in the third quarter, but our guys are resilient and tough," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "We've done it all year. To do it on the biggest stage, at the most important time, just speaks volumes of our football team."