Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Hike up Mount 'Super Bowl XLV'

Clay Mathews with MVP Aaron Rodgers and his much deserved Title Belt

"We’re just getting started."
                          -Mike McCarthy, (Jan 9th 2010) after the Eagles game in the Wild Card round

At that time, it felt like just another passing comment, that slipped past most people. Little did we know that he was leading this team through one of the most improbable, yet dominating Championship runs in the history of the sport.

Improbable because, the Packers had a barrage of injuries all season long, including a few big ones in the Super Bowl. In just the regular season, they had 16 players in Injured Reserve (meaning they were lost for the rest of the year); seven of them were starters. That's almost one-third of the teams starters lost during the regular season. Overcoming this type of adversity is borderline impossible. (Ask the Colts.)

Dominating because, they never trailed a game all year long; that's 18 games, by more than seven points. I repeat "NEVER TRAILED IN ANY GAME BY MORE THAN SEVEN POINTS". Let that thought sink into your head for a second. Now, if that does not impress you, I'm not sure what will.

Phew, I'm still trying to process the Packers win in Super Bowl XLV. Wait, did they just win the Super Bowl? Yes, THE GREEN BAY PACKERS JUST WON THE SUPER BOWL. Surreal.

Apart from the glory and sense of accomplishment that comes with the Super Bowl XLV win, it is the path this team took that will be cherished by fans the most.

The Journey begins

I already wrote about the journey this special Packers team had to take to get to the NFC Championship Game here.

In short, a strong start to the season was cut short by a slew of injuries, which included starters that were the center piece of the offensive schemes, including RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermicheal Finley. Even Aaron Rodgers missed a game and a half after he suffered his second concussion of the season. They went through a bumpy mid-season road with a few losses to sub-par teams like the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins and the Detroit Lions.

The Packers ended the season with a 10-6 record. On the face of it, hardly an indicator of a dominant team. The Packers also needed some help from other teams to make the playoffs. I'm sure they have already sent bottles of champagne to thank the following: First, the New York Giants for blowing a 21 point lead with eight minutes left in the game against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 15 (a special mention to DeSean Jackson for returning a punt for the winning TD and Matt Dodge to kick it right to him instead of out of bounds). Second, Dave Rayner and the Detroit Lions who beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a come from behind win also in week 15.

But for these two outcomes, the Giants and/or the Buccaneers would have finished the season with a 11-5 record, knocking the Packers out of playoff contention.

Tough Road up Mountain 'SB-XLV'

Another less talked about game, which well might have been the turning point for the Packers was their week 15 game against the New England Patriots. The Packers did not have Rodgers for this game, who was out due to a concussion he suffered the previous game. The Packers were double digit underdogs this game against the team with the best record in the entire league. All people, including Packer fans, expected a blow out win for the Patriots this game with Matt Flynn being the QB for the Packers, who did not even have a steady running game to fall back on all season. Turns out, the Packers did not only avoid a blow out, but hung in there with a lead until the last 2:24 minutes, when the Patriots took the lead for the final time. Matt Flynn still had a chance with the ball snapped at the Patriots 20 on the last play of the game, needing a TD to win the game.

This close game against the best team in the league (at that point), without Aaron Rodgers playing, gave the team confidence in themselves. It prepared them to look forward to the tough daunting road ahead. The needed to win the last two regular season games against the Giants and then the Bears to make the playoffs. Lose either one and they were out.

Since that point, this is what they did the next seven weeks. They beat the Giants in Week 16 in a 45-17 blowout. Then they took care of business against the Chicago Bears in an ugly, yet clutch 10-3 week 17 win to clinch the sixth seed in the playoffs.

Then they go on the road to Philadelphia, and kick off their playoff run with an impressive 22-17 win over Mike Vick and the No.3 seed Eagles in the Wild Card Round. Then they took their talents (hey, the Packers have earned the right to use that phrase...they are World Champs) to Atlanta and dismantled the No.1 seed Falcons 48-21, again on the road. This put them in the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. (Here's my experience at that game). The Packers didn't disappoint there, coming out of Chicago with lot more than just a 21-14 win and honor in this defense dominated game. They had just punched their tickets to Super Bowl XLV

Six wins in six elimination games over seven weeks? This is a streak of historic proportions. That is not considering the fact that only one No.6 seed has ever been to the Super Bowl before. That's how unique this run by the Packers is.

The Big Game

The Packers and the Steelers were meeting for the first time in a Super Bowl. Not only do both franchises have storied histories of their own, but in 2010-11 are built almost the same way. Starting from the philosophy of building the team through the draft; to making the 3-4 defensive scheme the mainstay of their defenses. The only glaring difference: the Packers had someone called Aaron Rodgers and a potent passing attack lead by No.12.

Nick Collins returning his INT to the house
Ironically, the game (Super Bowl XLV) was a picture of the Packers 2010-11 season as a whole. They would start off fast. Then the injury bug hits them leaving them in shambles. They somehow cling on to to a thread of life and weather the storm, only to come back and finish strong.

On Sunday, the Packers took a quick 7-0 lead with Rodgers hitting Jordy Nelson for a 29-yard TD. In less than 30 seconds, Nick Collins intercepted a Big Ben pass and took it all the way to the house to make it a 14-0 game. At this point, it looked like the Packers should be able to cruise to victory.

Only problem, by halftime, Charles Woodson, who is not only an integral part of the defense, but also the emotional leader of the team was out with a broken collarbone. Veteran Donald Driver, who is the heart and soul of the Wide Receiving core was out with a high ankle sprain. Sam Shield, the rookie who was instrumental in the NFC Championship game win had a shoulder injury. Nick Collins, dehydrated, left early, before half time to get some IV. Howard Green and Charlie Peprah too suffered severe injuries but kept playing. Obviously all these injuries, especially the ones on the Packers Defense, helped the Steelers pull within 21-17 in the 3rd quarter.

Also in the 3rd quarter, apart from the injury bug, the Packers receivers seem to have caught the "dropping the balls thrown right at you" bug too. There were about seven dropped balls, several of which would have got the Packers important first downs; a couple had TD potential in them too. In spite of all this adversity, Aaron Rodgers kept dealing darts, sometimes right back to receivers that just dropped a sitter.

Clay Mathews forces a fumble by Steelers RB Mendenhall
And then the play of the game (at least to me) happened. the Steelers within 4 points were at the Packers 33. The first play of the fourth quarter, Clay Mathews tackles the ball carrier Rashard Mendenhall, in the process forcing a fumble, recovered by Desmond Bishop. Packer Ball. Rodgers makes most off this opportunity to score a TD, making it 11 point game again (28-17).

Although it was a valiant effort by what was left of the Green Bay defense, there was no way they were going to hold off the Steelers an entire quarter without scoring. The Steelers made it 28-25 with a TD and a successful two-point conversion with a little less than eight minutes left in the game.

The onus was now on Rodgers and the Packers offense to help keep the Packers defense (which was in shambles) off the field with a long drive. That was exactly what they did. the Packers held on to the ball till almost the two minute warning and managed to kick a Field Goal at the end of it (would have been a TD had Jordy Nelson held onto another of those balls thrown to him, sigh!). The score now was 31-25 Packers. The well rested Packers Defense had to get just one stop....just ONE stop.

The Steelers were backed up at their own 13 yard line. the first play was a 15 yard completion. A chill ran down my spine. We have seen Big Ben lead the Steelers on many situations, often ending in game-winning scores; including the one against the very same Packers Week 15 of the previous season. But thanks to some jittery, lack of composure by the Steelers offense (very uncharacteristic of them), the Packers managed to put the Steelers in a 4th-and-5 spot at their own 33-yard line. The next play, Big Ben almost completes the pass to Mike Wallace, just when Tramon Williams manages to knock it out of the hands of the receiver. That was it! Couple of Aaron Rodgers kneel downs and the Packers are World Champs!

That's right. WORLD CHAMPS!

The headline on the Milwaukee Journal sentinel reads: "World Champs"
A fitting culmination to an eventful season with many many ups and downs; dealings with adversity; moments of self doubt; moments that instilled confidence; no lack of inspirational drama.

As many of the Packers said post-game: The Lombardi Trophy comes back home to Title Town, where it belongs. Rightfully so.

My Final Picks Record (which seems so inconsequential right now):
Playoff Record:
Outright Win Record: 8-3
v/s the Spread Record: 7-4
Regular Season Record:
Outright Win Record: 161-95
v/s the Spread Record: 123-118-8

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