Part 1: http://www.packerforum.com/f37/6-ye...-relevant-again-part-1-favre-years-26275.html
Part 2: http://www.packerforum.com/f37/6-years-after-4-12-part-2-heroes-vs-villains-26337.html
I didn’t plan on writing this, but after reading through the other 2 articles I felt like it was incomplete without the proper finale. So, here we go with the totally unplanned third part to this saga. The capper to the story of how this team came all the way back from the depths. I hope you enjoy it. –Jess
When I last left off, the Packers had destroyed the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Playoffs and were now preparing to go into Chicago for the NFC Championship game.
Between all the Brett Favre/Vikings drama of the 2010 season and the resurgence of the Packers, it’s easy to forget that your 2010-11 NFC North Champions were the Chicago Bears. A team that had an awful preseason, with a coach that’s perennially on the hot seat and a quarterback who shows flashes of brilliance to go with flashes of questionable decisions, had very quietly won enough games to win their division. In fact, they had the division locked up so quickly that their last game largely didn’t matter (except to their opponent, the Packers, who needed it to get into the tournament). After thoroughly destroying the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional round, the Bears now had their biggest rival to deal with for a trip to the Super Bowl. Despite being at home, despite being the division champions, the Bears came into this NFC Championship game as the underdogs. Frankly, they (as a lot of teams do), liked it that way.
And so the day came. The day when the two oldest rivals in the National Football League would meet to decide their conference’s champion. A black-and-blue throwback to decide who would go to Dallas and play in Super Bowl XLV. And true to form, it was a classic physical ballgame.
A seemingly common theme throughout these playoffs, the Packers would strike first and open up a lead. The first drive would be an absolute clinic by the Packers offense. Rodgers looked sharp, he made all the throws, and it culminated in an absolutely beautiful playcall from Mike McCarthy. All year McCarthy had made a habit of handing the ball to John Kuhn in short yardage situations. So, on 2nd and Goal from the 1 yard line, out trotted the Packers mountain of a halfback, and Wisconsin folk hero, John Kuhn. And in a bit of a surprise, out trotted massive defensive tackle BJ Raji to play the role of lead blocker, also. But neither of them would get the ball. Rodgers would fake the give to Kuhn and roll to his left, everyone on the Bears had bitten on the run fake and the left side of the field was wide open for Rodgers to coast into the end zone for an easy touchdown. Packers 7, Bears 0, and after that clinic of a drive it seemed like the rout might be on again.
3 possessions later, the score was the same. The Bears had failed to do much of anything with the football, and the Packers had done the same. But the Packers would finally get another drive going. Not quite the clinic that the opening drive was, but just as productive. It would culminate in the first NFL touchdown for rookie James Starks on a run from 4 yards out.
Packers 14, Bears 0. And we’d stay there for awhile.
With about 50 seconds left in the first half Green Bay had the ball at around midfield. Rodgers threw a short route to Donald Driver, but the throw was uncharacteristically way of target. It hit off of Driver’s foot, and in a freak play bounce up and the Bears intercepted it. Suddenly a 14-0 lead could be cut in half given the Bears good field position. And Cutler, recognizing that, went for it.
Sam Shields was a draft day afterthought. He went all 7 rounds without being drafted and would sign with the Packers as an undrafted free agent after the process. Mainly a wide receiver at the University of Miami, he was a project. Shields, in the eyes of many, was mainly brought in because he had exceptional speed and seemed a natural fit for the return game. Many dropped preseason kickoffs later, he’d have to make the team as a cornerback. And he managed to do that. With Al Harris out for awhile and later released, the Packers would desperately need someone to step up and fill the nickel cornerback role. Brandon Underwood was a candidate, Jarrett Bush was a candidate, but neither would effectively fill that role. Shields, however, shined when he got his chance. He blossomed into an elite cover corner and at this point could probably start on a lot of NFL teams.
So here we were, 40 seconds on the clock and the Bears looking for a big momentum swinging touchdown. Cutler took the snap, dropped back, and then reared back and fired deep. His receiver out there was Johnny Knox, who might be one of the fastest players in the NFL. Sam Shields, however, was with him step-for-step. Knox was never open and Cutler tried to force it to him, Shields leapt up and intercepted it. Crisis averted, momentum intact, Packers lead by 14 at halftime.
Halftime came and went and Chicago got the ball first. After a three-and-out Cutler would walk off the field to the sidelines… and he wouldn’t return. As it turns out, Cutler had a torn MCL. Immediately, though, before that was known, Cutler had ignited a firestorm of controversy by looking disinterested but otherwise healthy on the sidelines. Analysts and even fellow NFL players would criticize his toughness. Regardless of that, it was Todd Collins turn to try to play hero and lead his Bears to the Super Bowl.
And a few possessions later Collins would be removed from the game for ineffectiveness. In came little known third string quarterback Caleb Hanie. From third stringer to the biggest game of his life, and Hanie made the most of it.
Meanwhile, midway through the third quarter the Packers were finally driving again and looking to put this one on ice. Already up 14 they were at the Bears’ 6 yard line and going in for what would probably be the touchdown that sent them to Dallas. But Brian Urlacher would have none of it. Rodgers dropped back out of the shotgun and fired a ball that hit Urlacher right in the chest. He made the interception, and had seemingly a clear path to the end zone himself. It was going to be 14-7 now. The Bears would have all the momentum. But after his mistake, Aaron Rodgers made up for it instantly. All Urlacher had to do was get around Rodgers and he’s gone. #12 was the only man that could possibly stop him. Yet somehow, some way, Aaron Rodgers managed to take down the Bears middle linebacker at their own 45 yard line with an ankle tackle. It’s not going to be remembered like some of the higher profile plays that are yet to come in this game, but Rodgers might’ve saved the game right there, because the Bears wouldn’t do anything with the ball on offense yet again and it would remain 14-0 in favor of the Packers.
We went to the 4th quarter with that same score. But the Bears weren’t going down without a fight. They opened the 4th with the ball and immediately began pounding it with Matt Forte. But he wouldn’t be the man to make the play on this drive. With 12:30 left in the game, Caleb Hanie, fresh off nearly three quarters of watching, made a beautiful throw to Johnny Knox on a crossing route and Knox ran it down inside the Packers one yard line. The very next play Chester Taylor ran the ball in, and the Bears comeback had began in earnest. Now they were down just a touchdown and this new quarterback that nobody had ever heard of had given his team new life.
And again, we’d go through another scoring drought. It would remain 14-7 Packers for another 6 minutes. After a change of possession Chicago had it deep in their own territory, but they had a chance to tie. It was 3rd and 5 from the 15 when suddenly everything changed.
On this day Caleb Hanie was brilliant, but he made one mistake. Hanie dropped back to throw, and BJ Raji, that mountain of a man that I mentioned earlier as the lead blocker on the Rodgers touchdown run, dropped out of his defensive line position and dropped back into a zone. Hanie never saw him, which is a miracle in itself. He threw the ball right at The Freezer, as he’s now known, and Raji made the interception. But he wasn’t done there. Raji ran the ball back the 15 yards (showboating for the last 5, which very nearly resulted in a Leon Lett type of embarrassment) and got himself a pick six. Just like that the Packers defense had made it 21-7 with 6 minutes left. The plane to Dallas was beginning to warm up, but Hanie would atone.
The very next drive Hanie would respond in a big way, leading a masterful drive right down the field and with about 5 minutes left (just 1 minute after the Raji touchdown) he hit Earl Bennett for a 35 yard answer (aided by a terrible angle on the tackle attempt by Nick Collins), and just like that Hanie got back the touchdown he gave up. Packers 21, Bears 14. But would Hanie have enough time to get the next one he needed that would tie it?
Green Bay responded by going 3 and out. With 3 and a half minutes left, here was Caleb Hanie, who probably never thought in his wildest dreams he’d be playing in this game, with the ball and a chance to tie up the NFC Championship late. Hanie led his team all the way down to the Packers 27 yard line. They were that close to tying this game. It was 3rd and 3. Huge play in the game, maybe the biggest one, was about to unfold. Hanie calls for it and…. hands it to a crossing Earl Bennett on an end around? On 3rd and 3? With the NFC Championship on the line? That’s what happened, and the Packers stuffed it.
So here it was. 4th down, 4 yards to go. Bears need to pick it up or the Packers are heading the the Super Bowl in Dallas. Hanie, so much the story of this game so far and so much of the reason the Bears were even in this position, drops back and fires down the middle of the field. It was immediately obvious that Hanie forced it into double coverage. Sam Shields again, that undrafted free agent from Miami, stepped in front and made one of the biggest interceptions in Green Bay Packers history, and that was the ballgame. Millions of Packers fans around the globe erupted in cheers, and probably some tears as well. Rodgers took a victory knee and the party was on in Green Bay. The Packers had dispatched their oldest rival and won the NFC Championship. For the first time since Super Bowl XXXII 13 years ago, the Green Bay Packers were going to the Super Bowl to play for the Lombardi Trophy.
And as great as this felt, the veterans on the team knew they weren’t done. Charles Woodson would give a fantastic postgame speech in the jubilant Packers locker room reminding them of that. His message? “One”. “One mind”, “one heartbeat”, “one purpose”, “one goal”, and “one more game”. “One”. And then he finished in rousing fashion “Hey, the President don’t wanna come watch us go to the Super Bowl? Then we’ll go see him!”
Unfortunately for the Packers (and their fans), the Super Bowl was 2 weeks away. The Pittsburgh Steelers would be the opponent, and to be honest, there wasn’t much that the media could go with for storylines leading up to the game. Aaron Rodgers’ ascent to the top from the shadow of Favre? Sure. Ben Roethlisberger overcoming the adversity of being suspended for the first ¼ of the year for off-field misconduct? That works too. But those had all been written to death. The media needed something new to write about, something fresh. And somehow a team photo would become the biggest story in Packerland in the run-up to the Super Bowl.
Twitter is a blessing and a curse for fans, and for players. Before Twitter there was always this wall between the players and the fans. They were so inaccessible. Twitter changed that. It completely removed that wall. Now players were free to chat back and forth directly with their fans, and muse on anything they wanted to freely. Which is good in theory. Quite a few Packers have taken to this, follow @AaronRodgers12 if you want completely random Deep Thoughts From Jack Handy or you just need a ruling on whether or not doing the championship belt celebration after a successful car wash is an appropriate use of that celebration. Injured stars Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley are also very active on Twitter, and when the Packers let it be known that for logistical reasons they weren’t going to be able to include players on injured reserve in the Super Bowl team phot, Barnett and Finley were understandably angry. But instead of taking their complaints to the coaches, or the team leaders, they chose to voice their displeasure in the very public medium of Twitter. This was the dark side of Twitter. The controversy making side. This kind of thing is the reason that teams kept players so inaccessible to the fans. The media, needing a story, latched onto this story very quickly.
Photogate, as it would come to be known, would become the big story of Super Bowl week. Barnett and Finley would apologize up and down, the Packers would rearrange some things so they could be in the photo, but it still became an oddly big distraction for a young team preparing for the Super Bowl. And a team with as little Super Bowl experience as the Packers had couldn’t afford distractions.
Finally, on Sunday February 6th, photos didn’t matter anymore. It was game time in Dallas. The Green Bay Packers taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers, two of the winningest teams in the NFL going head to head for the right to call themselves Super Bowl XLV Champion. The Steelers came in as the experienced team, they’d done this just a few years prior beating the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. Most of the Steelers had a couple of Super Bowl rings to their name. The Packers, on the other hand, came in with almost no Super Bowl experience. Charles Woodson went once with the Raiders (and lost badly), Ryan Pickett went once with the Rams, and that was it. Still, somehow, the Packers came in as the favorite. The Steelers relished that underdog role and used it for motivation all throughout the build-up to the game. But now the game was here, 60 minutes to decide a champion. Game on…
Pittsburgh would get the ball first, but prove ineffective with it and with 13:13 left in the first quarter the Packers offense made it’s Super Bowl debut.
Dropped balls had been a theme for the Packers this postseason. James Jones had a lot of timely drops, but on this day he wasn’t alone. With 11:20 left in the first quarter the Packers were poised to strike early. From their own 49 Rodgers took the snap and fired deep to his right. Jordy Nelson had a step on a couple of defenders, and the Packers were primed to strike first in this Super Bowl. Rodgers sailed it out there and it went right through Nelson’s arms, incomplete. This would not be the last drop by the Packers today, it wouldn’t be the only big drop, it was just the first of many. That drop would cost the Packers points, they’d have to punt on the next play.
After another Steelers three and out, the Packers got the ball back again with 8:17 left in the first quarter. After a nice sustained drive the Packers had the ball at Pittsburgh’s 29 yard line with 3:51 left in the first. Rodgers on 3rd and 1 would take the snap and here it was again. It was like déjà vu. Jordy Nelson running down the right sideline and he has a step. Rodgers didn’t lose any confidence in his receiver and floated it out there again. This time the throw was right on the money and Jordy made the catch for a 29 yard touchdown. The Packers had thrown the first punch in Super Bowl XLV and were leading 7-0.
On the ensuing kickoff the Packers would manage to take down Pittsburgh return man Andre Brown at the 14, and then on top of that there would be an illegal block penalty that would back the ball up to the 7 yard line, so the Packers had done well to pin Pittsburgh deep. And on the very next play, Ben Roethlisberger would try to get all that field position back…
Roethlisberger would drop back and float the ball deep down the left sideline for the speedster Mike Wallace, but on the throw it appeared that Packers defensive lineman Howard Green got a piece of Roethlisberger’s arm as it came out. The ball hung up a bit and came down well short of it’s intended target, but right into the arms of Packers safety Nick Collins. Collins made the interception at the 38 yard line, and then zig zagged his way to the Pittsburgh goal line where Collins would not be denied. He went airborne and dove across the goal line to get his team the touchdown and just like that the young Green Bay Packers had a 14-0 lead on the experienced Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh would answer with a pretty decent drive that saw Roethlisberger possibly hurt his knee (he was limping a bit) on one play, and then take off for a 3rd down gain of 15 on the very next play. The drive would end in a field goal, though, and it was still 14-3 Packers.
On the next drive, Donald Driver, who had waited so long and fought so hard for this chance to win it all, would make a routine catch, but then he’d get leg would bend awkwardly on the tackle. Driver was hurt, and the Packers legend, who wanted nothing more than to win this game, limped to the sidelines, limped into the locker room, and would not return to the game. A heartbroken Driver would have to sit on the sidelines and cheer his team on as they tried their best to get the ring that had eluded him for years.
With 4:30 left in the half, Roethlisberger and the Steelers had a chance to cut the lead to 14-10. They were at about midfield when Roethlisberger dropped back and dumped across the middle for Mike Wallace. Wallace, though, had two men on him and one of them was Jarrett Bush. Bush has been much maligned during his tenure with the Packers, but here on the biggest stage he makes the interception and stymies any momentum the Steelers thought they had.
And Aaron Rodgers would make them pay.
From the 21 yard line with 2:30 left in the half Rodgers dropped back and fired a bullet across the middle to Greg Jennings. Jennings somehow made the catch off of Ryan Clark’s hand and then held on after a thunderous shot from Troy Polamalu for the touchdown. There’s a number of superlatives you could attach to the Rodgers throw, and all of them apply. It was one of his best throws of the season, and it came at a big time. The Packers seized momentum back and took a 21-3 lead before half.
The Steelers needed a score before half, and they started taking shots. After the 2 minute warning, from their own 40 the Steelers took a shot to Mike Wallace who had Charles Woodson on him. Woodson was just a step behind and dove to break up the pass, which he did, but he came down awkwardly and broke his collarbone. Another veteran who this game meant so much to, another veteran who was looking for a long overdue first ring, and now another veteran who was going to have to play cheerleader from the sidelines.
Pittsburgh would get their touchdown on a throw to Hines Ward and it was 21-10 going into halftime.
Not much is known about what went on in the Packers locker room at halftime. There isn’t a video of it, there isn’t many details about it, but what is known is that Woodson yet again gave his team an impassioned speech to urge them to win this game. Woodson reportedly broke down in tears during the speech. For Woodson, after the years in Oakland and after signing in Green Bay because they were pretty much his only choice, he’d come so far and now he had to watch. But he was going to help in whatever way he could, and this speech was his way of helping and inspiring his team to finish this game.
On 3rd and 5 on the Packers first drive of the game, Rodgers fired a strike right to James Jones who’d gotten behind his man and was likely to outrun Troy Polamalu for a big touchdown. But, as he did against Philadelphia, he dropped it. Hit him right in the hands, then hit the ground. The Packers would have to punt, it would remain 21-10.
Pittsburgh would take the ball after that drive, and run it down the throat of the Packers and all the way into the end zone. A 21-3 lead had now dwindled to 21-17. As the Packers were learning, teams don’t normally quit when it’s all on the line.
And that, lucky for the Packers, would be the score for awhile. Shaun Suisham would badly miss a field goal at one point. Then the 4th quarter came.
Kevin Greene is an intense man. That might actually be an understatement, but the Packers linebacker coach has a serious passion for what he does. And he knows who his star is, and that’s Clay Matthews. Between the 3rd and 4th quarters, Greene, as Matthews was heading onto the field, would stop him and look Matthews in the eyes and say the following: “Rally the troops. It. Is. Time. It is time.” 9 words that will forever be remembered by every Packers fan because on the very next play after that pep talk with the Steelers driving Matthews would break into the Steelers backfield on a handoff to Rashard Mendenhall, hit him hard, and jar the ball loose. Desmond Bishop would recover the fumble and the Packers defense would shut down what was Pittsburgh’s best chance to take the lead yet.
On the ensuing drive, the Packers would move the football through the air. On a 2nd and 10 in route that would’ve picked up the first down, Rodgers laced one to Nelson who dropped it. The very next play, 3rd and 10, Nelson runs the same route, Rodgers does the same thing, and Nelson holds on. The catch and run goes for 38 yards, gets the Packers down to the Pittsburgh 2, and then 2 plays later it’s Greg Jennings. He’d told his coaches that Troy Polamalu was biting on the seam route, so they should call a corner route for Jennings because Polamalu would bite and leave Jennings wide open. McCarthy would do exactly that and Jennings would be wide open for the 8 yard score and just like that Green Bay was back up 28-17.
But Pittsburgh would respond. They’d go right down the field and with 7:35 left Mike Wallace would burn the NFC Championship hero Sam Shields and get wide open for an easy touchdown to make it 28-23. The Steelers would then run a college style triple option and easily score a 2 point conversion to make it 28-25. Worry was starting to creep into Packers fan’s minds everywhere, just a bit, but it was Aaron’s turn with the football now.
And Rodgers would drive his team down the field admirably. He’d make throw after throw and get his team all the way down to the 5 yard line but on 3rd and 5 he’d miss Jordy Nelson and the Packers would have to settle for a field goal. 31-25, Steelers ball, and they have some time.
I think all of us remember Super Bowl XLIII. Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Arizona Cardinals. A back and forth affair that saw the Cardinals take the lead very late on a long Larry Fitzgerald touchdown, only to have Roethlisberger come right down the field and cap a Super Bowl winning drive with an all-time great throw and catch to Santonio Holmes. Well, here was Big Ben again, down 6, 2 minutes left, Super Bowl on the line. Fans in Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and around the world held their breath. What would happen next?
On 1st and 10 from their own 13 Roethlisberger would hit Heath Miller for 15 yards and a first down. The next 1st and 10 saw Big Ben hit Hines Ward, gain of 5. 2nd and 5, Roethlisberger fires incomplete. Same story on 3rd down. And so here we are, it’s 4th down and 5. Roethlisberger drops back, he looks, he fires for Mike Wallace on his left 10 yards up field. Tramon Williams undercuts the route a bit and knocks it away. Wallace tries desperately to catch it on the rebound but the ball hits the ground. Turnover on downs.
Both on the sidelines and for Packers fans around the world, pure jubilation. 14 years after last winning a Super Bowl the Green Bay Packers were finally back on top and the Lombardi Trophy was finally coming home.
After the game, Roger Staubach presented the trophy to the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, and there, standing on a platform in the middle of Cowboys Stadium, confetti flying all around them, Mike McCarthy, Mark Murphy, and Ted Thompson stood triumphant waiting to accept that trophy. Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback that these 3 men had bet on to lead their team into the future soon joined them on that stage, because he was the Super Bowl MVP.
Clay Matthews would sneak up behind Rodgers during the ceremony and plant a giant gold championship belt on Rodgers’ shoulder. After a few years of using the belt as his touchdown celebration, Rodgers finally had one, and he finally had a championship.
Donald Driver and Charles Woodson, two veterans of the NFL, two guys with limited time left in both their careers, they fought so hard to make this happen, they gave everything they had in that Super Bowl, and even though they spent the last half of it watching, something tells me that those two guys wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.
6 years after this team hit it’s lowest point in 20 years, and through all the off and on-field drama that’s happened since then, the Green Bay Packers were finally back on top of the NFL. Return to Relevance: Complete.
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